Aragorn … racked by doubt and hesitation

As a lifelong fan of J.R.R. Tolkien I have long been grateful to Peter Jackson and his team for bringing Middle-earth to life. Especially now, after watching the “making of” DVDs that came with a Christmas gift extended version of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and getting some idea of what an astounding logistical as well as creative feat it was. But even this inspiring look “behind the scenes” cannot dispel the sad truth that they distorted the story in ways both predictable and regrettable.

Before getting to that, let me take time to stress first how spectacularly they succeeded in bringing Gandalf, Minas Tirith, the Ents and many other aspects of Middle-earth vividly to life. The cursed army guarding the Paths of the Dead alone was worth the price of admission; immensely creative yet true to Tolkien’s conception and absolutely gripping.

Let me also stress that the “making of” DVDs made clear that the challenge of making these films was so immense in terms of creativity, logistics, human relations and sheer endurance, that I am inclined to think it was actually impossible, and I must have imagined the whole thing. And also that Jackson was a true leader who brought together a team and let them create rather than force them to conform to his vision alone.

You can feel the devotion and camaraderie, among cast, extras and literally hundreds of behind-the-scenes people, created partly by Jackson’s willingness to accept ideas big and small from others. For example, Andy Serkis was originally only meant to voice Gollum, but his physical and facial contortions while producing the voice inspired the team to go down the motion-capture path in pioneering and ultimately brilliant ways.

Other dramatically effective sound effects include a bottle being steam-cleaned, a donkey screaming, an inflatable alien head being squeezed and a cow slowed waaaaay down. How does anyone think of this stuff? , as I say, the six “making of” DVDs greatly increased my respect for the production and the people behind it including the director able to visualize it all, keep all the necessary strands in his head and inspire a huge team.

As one final concession, I have long forgiven Jackson for some creative decisions I deeply regret, primarily leaving out the barrow wights and the scouring of the Shire. Compromises must be made to turn a book into a movie. (I still think the barrows could have been handled in a narrative flashback especially because the origin of Merry’s sword is very important.)

So, fair is fair. It was a spectacular achievement, and Sir Peter Jackson is as far beyond the reach of my praise as of my criticism. Which now follows.

But, there is a failure to grasp Tolkien’s vision

None of the above considerations changes the sad fact obvious to me from the beginning: He, and most of those involved, failed to grasp the depth of Tolkien’s vision. As a result, virtually every character comes out diminished, from the Ents who decide to duck the war then rush into it, to Faramir, who nearly does try to take the ring, Theoden who wavers sulkily on aiding Gondor, Elrond who tries to trick his daughter into abandoning Aragorn, and Aragorn himself who is racked by doubt and hesitation.

Denethor, admittedly unsympathetic in the books, is shabby in the film, reduced from a noble ruin to a shabby, gluttonous one. He was austere, not soft, and his fall into despair was a tragedy, not a farce. In the books he did not neglect Gondor’s defences or refuse to light the beacons summoning Rohan, and there was no pretence or even vanity in his wearing a sword.

Moreover in Tolkien no foe enters Minas Tirith while its walls are manned, its defenders somehow rising to an apparently impossible ideal in its most desperate hour. Jackson on the other hand lets orcs and trolls in to swarm , committing mayhem before being chased off by ghosts. Vivid, but cheap.

Every departure from the plot, justified by editing convenience, the hypnotic lure of one’s own special effects or an ersatz improved psychology, diminishes the trilogy, no matter how visually spectacular or organizationally impressive it might be. Even Frodo sends Sam away at one point in the movies. I cannot think of one point at which anyone acts better in the movie than the book, and dozens where they act worse.

Ignoring Tolkien’s Christian metaphysics

Some of these decisions are explained in the behind-the-scenes material, including seeking character development in Faramir because they just couldn’t accept that someone could be truly noble and strong. Explained but not justified. And it’s no coincidence that the background “making of” commentary makes clear that almost nobody involved realized Tolkien was a committed Christian. The initial biographical sketch never mentions it, while one sage opines that his vision of hope was almost pagan.

This ludicrous assessment should not have been able to go unremarked. Tolkien despised allegory. But he succeeded brilliantly, without churches, priests, prayers or explicit references to God, in presenting a world compellingly founded on Christian metaphysics. And the enduring power of the tale is not in his capacity to imagine the Nazgul (also brilliant in the movie IMHO), orcs, Gollum, Lothlorien and so forth, but in his capacity to convince us that behind the mundane veil of reality marvels really are all around us.

One important exception to this indictment is Christopher Lee. This veteran actor of films both great and excruciating was evidently a LOTR fanatic who reread the trilogy every year for decades and had long dreamed of being in it. Whether his concerns were partly theological the “making of” does not discuss. But it does say he often held the script-writers and director back when they wandered too far from the plot or failed to understand how key elements related to one another. And it is not accidental that they did so relate. Tolkien knew what he was doing far better, I’m sad to say, than those inspired by the surface of his work without really understanding its depths.

My hat is still off to Peter Jackson for an astounding achievement. But it goes firmly back on for his inability to perceive the moral vision with proper clarity, to leave well enough alone, even to understand that the magic of the tale does not lie in its special effects.

Probably I am not alone in this feeling. But I am more alone than I should be in a world that hungers for morality without understanding what that gnawing pain even is, and loves the Lord of the Rings without knowing why.

John Robson is a crowdfunded documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada. See his work and support him at www.johnrobson.ca.