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Sunday, December 28, 2003

All Tolkien, all the time.

Is The Lord of the Rings great literature? And is Peter Jackson, as John Scalzi says he is, the "better teller of this particular tale"?

I've been nursing these thoughts for the better part of a week now -- well, more than a week. I really wasn't sure of how to phrase my position, based as it is on personal opinion as these matters always are. When it comes to objective standards for greatness in art, I've always been like Fox Mulder: I want to believe, but I've never been able to get there. There is always something incredibly slippery about the whole enterprise, with arguments for a given work's "greatness" invariably boiling down to criteria that are not definable, and on which disagreement can exist in perfectly logical terms.

I have known professional musicians who adore, say, the music of Bruckner, and I have met music scholars who detest Bruckner. I consider Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G minor to be one of the very greatest works in Mozart's entire corpus, but Glenn Gould -- who surely forgot more about music than I'm ever likely to know -- described it as "six remarkable measures surrounded by twenty-five minutes of banality". And it goes on and on: John Scalzi says that The Lord of the Rings is not great literature, but Ursula K. Le Guin says that it is.

Despite the best efforts of people who try to establish "objective" standards of greatness, the feeling I invariably get is that what they're really trying to objectify is their own opinion or set of opinions. In the many debates on matters like these I have had over the years, it strikes me that the ghost of "objectivity" is always invoked by those seeking to promulgate a negative view of something, even if it's only slightly negative.

Ultimately, then, I tend to be torn in two directions when it comes to how I view artistic greatness. First, there is the "test of time" argument, since surely a work that persists in public view for a long time, and thereby imposes large influence, probably has some claim to greatness. This, though, might strike some as problematic: is, say, "The Night Before Christmas" a great poem, since it's still very well known two hundred years or whatever after its composition? Personally, I would have to say that it is, no matter how many scholars and critics might dissect its scansion and message. This may seem to cheapen the idea of "artistic greatness", but I think I can live with it. Even if it can be factually established beyond doubt that "The Night Before Christmas" is mere doggerel, it's got to have something going for it to have survived while endless reams of similar doggerel have vanished utterly.

The flip side of the coin, though, is something akin to what Robert Pirsig described (in terms of insanity) as "a culture of one". Many of us have probably had the experience of being profoundly moved by a work of art that has been pretty much reviled by everyone else. In my case, there are the Star Wars prequels (which, I might add, I'm getting tired of seeing bashed in nearly every Lord of the Rings commentary that exists), and there is Berlioz, who might still be languishing in obscurity if Sir Thomas Beecham and, later, Sir Colin Davis had not found something of estimable worth in France's most unloved composer. It's all too easy to observe someone indulging in the belief that something everybody else thinks is lousy is really profound, but all the same, I tend to get uncomfortable when it happens.

I had the experience recently of encountering, on a message board, a fellow who is a really devoted fan of Battlestar Galactica. This struck me as quite odd, as it probably would just about anyone else. I haven't seen the show in years, but I remember liking it well enough when I was seven and being less than impressed when I caught a rerun or two when I was sixteen. But this guy wasn't some drooling fanboy: he can go on for really long message-board posts about the themes he admires in Battlestar Galactica, the messages he finds in the episodes, and so on. It's easy for me to shake my head and think, "Poor soul"….but then I wonder, who am I to gainsay him?

Roger Ebert once wrote (or maybe he quoted someone else) that you can't explain comedy: either someone laughs, or they don't. And, rather crudely, he said that the same is true of sexual content: "You can't talk a man out of an erection." But if the idea of reducing artistic response to such a level rankles, there is this more elegant expression of the same sentiment by Robert Frost:

It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound – that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry, as in love, is perceived instantly. It hasn't to await the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but we knew at sight we never could forget it.

So it's not just the test of time that applies. Will The Lord of the Rings still affect readers as it has since its publication? It seems odd to say that it's not great literature even as one concedes that it will, in all probability, continue to be read.

All this, really, may not be specifically germane to Scalzi's essay, but I do think he's trying to establish that, objectively speaking, the Peter Jackson films tell the story of Lord of the Rings better than the J.R.R. Tolkien books do. I'm not sure that his argument, as presented, really works. I've read a lot of such arguments over the course of the trilogy's release in the last two years: people coming forth to say, "You know, I've never been able to read more than four chapters of the damn thing, but these movies are wonderful!" But, as someone points out in Scalzi's comments, certainly the films are more accessible, but accessibility does not equal quality.

Second, Scalzi lists a number of prominent films made from books whose books are now well-less known than their films are. I'm not convinced of his arguments here. First, as he notes, in most of the cases he lists, the films came much sooner after the books than the Lord of the Rings films did. Better examples might include, say, Moby Dick and Ben-Hur. In the former case, I doubt anyone would claim that the various films (even the Gregory Peck version) supplanted the book; Ben-Hur might, though, be a better case in point. Even the liner notes to the score CDs for Ben-Hur make the point that most people would be more likely to think that the film is based on a Bible story, as opposed to a nineteenth century novel by Lew Wallace.

But that brings me to my big objection here: movies are far more visible than books, and they have far greater cultural visibility. A movie which flops still sells more tickets than a best-seller sells copies these days; I'll bet more people saw "Gigli" in theaters than have read Dave Eggers's book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and it's a foregone conclusion that more people know what Gigli is than the Eggers book. There is a kind of "supplanting" of books by their movies which is pretty-much inevitable, so I don't think this really bolsters Scalzi's argument here. Even a bad movie of a good book stands a pretty good chance of supplanting the book. Just look at some of the lesser James Bond movies: Live and Let Die is just wretched, and Moonraker is a pretty lousy movie too. Neither bear much resemblance to their books, which are quite good – but I'm not even sure if Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are even in print right now. And even in the case of Harry Potter, it wouldn't much surprise me if even now more people have seen the first two movies than read the first two books, phenomenon that they are. That more people know the movies than know the books in all these cases doesn't seem to me to point to a specific preference for these particular movies, but rather leads me to suspect a general preference for movies in general.

Just a couple of more points on this whole business. Scalzi makes what seems to me an odd assertion that argues that since Jackson had to take significant liberties with Tolkien's story to make it work on the screen, this somehow demonstrates the weakness of Tolkien's original material. This is not a good argument. Taking a story from one medium and transposing it into another always requires significant shifts in form (witness the changes made in all those Shakespeare plays that got turned into operas). That Verdi had to make quite a few changes to Othello for his opera Otello in no way implies that the original play was somehow faulty. (Just wait until some deluded soul tries to film Cryptonomicon!)

I also disagree that Jackson got all of Tolkien's themes into the films. Yes, a lot of them are there, but some of them are, frankly, inadequately treated if at all. I've commented, at each film's release, that Jackson doesn't seem to get the "passing of an Age" feel at all, nor do I think he gets the religiosity of Tolkien. The omission of the Scouring of the Shire is fine from a cinematic standpoint, but from a thematic standpoint, it falters pretty seriously. (As I noted last week, this omission really mutes Frodo's realization in the film that the Shire is no longer his home. I didn't think this worked in the movie. In the book, it does.)

Scalzi also pretty much takes it as a given that Tolkien's prose is weak and the poetry is bad. Now, I am certainly no expert on poetry; I read more poetry than the usual person, but I still know very little about its technical aspects. Still, I always enjoy the poems and songs when I read Lord of the Rings. As for the prose, well, I couldn't disagree more. The Lord of the Rings has long been one of my favorite "dipping" books -- i.e., a book I love to just open up and peruse favorite passages, and Tolkien's language is to my ear wondrous. Stylistically, I love how he opens the story in a slightly more-adult version of the tone he used in The Hobbit, but then gradually shifts the tone to "epic heroism" as the Fellowship's journey begins; likewise, I love how he uses a return to the more "earthy" tone in the last chapters to highlight the changes in Frodo's world. And there are specific passages, such as the closing paragraphs of the chapter "The Siege of Gondor", which rank with the greatest paragraphs I've ever read.

And finally, there is characterization. I've seen lots of comments by people online that they can't get into Tolkien's books because they're interested in characters, which I find to be a completely befuddling statement, because I find Tolkien's characters far, far more compellingly drawn than their Jackson analogues. (Gollum excepted, of course, but even there Jackson does that weird thing with Gollum poisoning Frodo against Sam in Return of the King.) Samwise Gamgee is so much more complex in the book, as is Gimli; the Aragorn-and-Elrond relationship is more than just "Stay away from my daughter!"; et cetera. The films take broader strokes with the characters, but to my mind they are shallower than Tolkien's. In a lot of ways this is necessary to make the books filmable in less than, say, eight hours per movie. But I can't get behind the idea that Jackson has improved on Tolkien's characterizations.

Of course, many of my objections here can boil down to the expression of taste. But that, really, may be my ultimate point: the films may supplant the books for the masses, but that doesn't mean they will for people of a more literary bent; and even if they do, well, so what? For me, the books are indisputably great literature.

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