Adapting Tolkien

Growing up, I would read J.R.R. Tolkien’s works once a year. Yeah, I was that kid.

I wanted to escape to Middle Earth, and unlike other writers and novels (where I was happy with just having the book), there was always something about his creation that made me wonder about adaptations. I wanted to hear, see, and visit Middle Earth and other mediums would only get me closer to that escapism goal. So I would “try out” every version I could get my hands on.

The Lord of the Rings is not a perfect book. It is a classic, but it is not perfect. That is fine, there are very few perfect books out there (I can only think of Pride and Prejudice and A Christmas Carol off of the top of my head). What “perfect” means to me is that there are no fluctuations in the plot that are unexplained, everything is tied up in a neat bow and there is little to debate because it is all perfectly there on the page. Whew…

Frankly, if that was done with Tolkien we wouldn’t have all of the fun things to debate! Like, why does the ring’s power change over the course of the series is an easy example of what I mean.

The fact is Tolkien didn’t write like other people. He would begin a story at the very beginning and write until he ran out of ideas… But instead of just fixing what he did and moving forward; he would, instead, start over at the beginning again. It’s one of the reason we have so many different versions of The Lord of the Rings to look at thanks to his son’s (Christopher) later releases.

While I can NOT imagine writing a book like that, it does explain to me a few snags I have always noticed about the final version of the book, besides the ring’s changing power. Why, for example, the narrator’s voice changes over the book from cutesy (for example, in the beginning we have Tom Bombadil and a curious fox… Yes, there is a fox that is curious; go back and check it out) to extremely dark.  It’s almost like he discovered what he wanted the series to be like at Weathertop, and didn’t care about going back and changing the beginning.

Yes, to say it again, The Lord of the Rings is classic, but it is not perfect; and since I love the world and the characters I have devoured every adaptation I could get my hands on. Here are my thoughts on the radio, TV, and film versions of the great Oxford professor’s epic.

-Radio-

Let’s start with radio because it is the most fun to talk about. At least it is for me with my love of radio drama.

For example, did you know that there is a lost adaptation of The Lord of the Rings? It was done while Tolkien was alive for the BBC with a full cast. Nothing of the recording remains, not even a smidgen of tape. All we know is some of the cast members in it and the fact Tolkien didn’t like it… Honestly, this doesn’t surprise because I don’t think Tolkien would have liked any of the adaptations of his work. My gut feeling is that is just how he was wired as an individual.

Tolkien’s work has been adapted on both sides of the Atlantic for radio.

The American editions (done by Mind’s Eye and played on NPR) can still be found from time to time, and is the most attacked by fans of Tolkien.

People hate this version. And to be honest, there is quite a bit to dislike.

Some of the casting is incredibly off (to this day, I still have no idea what the actor playing Sam was aiming for in his performance and there is no way anyone would have been influenced by the voice of this Saruman). But I love—yes, I said love—the “let’s put on a show” feeling of it. This was not done in a major studio with a massive budget (most of the music is stock classical work, for example). This recording was made inside someone’s bathroom (rumor has it the microphone had a duck on it). The good, the bad, they got through their adaptation from beginning to end and I am strangely fond of the tenacity of that goal; even with all its blunders and hiccups. And, as much as we fans may want to complain, this version is probably MORE true to the actual book of The Lord of the Rings than all the other versions produced, and I am including TV and film in that.  Hobbits are silly and mature through the story, there is Tom Bombadil (*shiver*), for example.

The first time I heard this version I must have been in my early teens (I remember I had to get each tape out of the library, one at a time). And when I reached the end at the Gray Havens, I was moved. And as much as I like the BBC version, I can never say I was actually emotionally moved by their version.

Mind’s Eye also did a version of The Hobbit, which is a lot better than their version of The Lord of the Rings; definitely better than the “blah” BBC version of The Hobbit. Gandalf and Bilbo really capture the characters for me. However, it, like every other version of The Hobbit, doesn’t answer my major question regarding the dwarves… dwarves… DWARVES…

OK, time for a tangent.

Let’s talk about dwarves

I really don’t understand their party at all. I mean, what is the point?

Gandalf, certainly has his own goals that he is not sharing with anyone. But why this trip, why these dwarves ,and what, really, was Thorin hoping to have happen? Just arrive and Smaug is dead?

This has always been a sticking point for me with the book, and I love the book! (I love it so much it is what I read to my daughter when she was in utero last year.) So when I consider adaptations, this is an issue that always draws my attention- explain the dwarves!

Here are my two visions of how it can be done:

  • The War Party- If the goal is to take out Smaug, using a secret passage that will be scouted out first by a burglar (My preferred vision on what is the goal of their trip), then these dwarves are the elite fighters, the ones you would want by your side when taking out a dragon. Having them presented like this would definitely make it mean more when Bilbo garners their respect later in the book… However, you would have to do something with Bombur.
  • The Thieves- OK, so maybe they wanted to steal the treasure piece by piece. But if that was the plan, besides bringing Bilbo, where is everything else to take the treasure away?  Yes, they lose their supplies in the mountains, but did they ever have enough to really steal a mountain full of treasures… and again, why Bombur?

If Thorin really didn’t have a plan for what to do once they reached the Lonely Mountain, I’m glad he didn’t become King Under the Mountain. Bad planner. Planning like that throws countries into quagmires like a civil war in Iraq for almost ten years with no exit plan (Thanks President Bush!), but I digress…

Sorry about that, now back to the article.

 –

The “second” BBC version of The Lord of the Rings is a much better produced outing than its American cousin.  While the voices of the black riders sound a little too nice (I sometimes expect them to offer my tea and crumpets to be honest; they just sound that proper and royal), the rest is spot on. My first surprise on listening to this adaptation was the amazing voice on Sam. I’ve seen Bill Nighy in things for years, but the guy sounds like a young Peter Gabriel when he sings about Gil-galad. I would almost love a mp3 of him singing just that song for my ipod.

I like the fact that the BBC tries to keep the pace moving forward, drops Tom Bombadil (even though they did do an additional “story” that presented Tom and the Hobbits later on which you can find), however they made some odd choices with the music. For example, they had a singer that is really hard to understand (singing about the Battle of the Field of Celebrant) and one that is just overbearing (Seriously, does the director think eagles sound like that??). However, of the radio versions this is by far the better made and needs the least amount of disclaimers before enjoying.

-TV-

It still floors me that the team that made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and his dentist elf friend, made a version of The Hobbit and The Return of the King. It is definitely a product for children, not really capturing the grand sense of “mythology” behind the story. This is Bilbo out for an adventure; heck, he even talks to the camera- he knows he is in a story. While I really dislike the “troubadour” soundtrack around the show, I love the choice of John Houston as the voice of Gandalf.

Though The Hobbit is, at best, fun and for many has warm memories associated with it; The Return of the King is horrendous. How this makes sense to anyone that hasn’t read the books is beyond me; and for those who read the book it can be almost more baffling. Aragorn is just waiting for most of the film. Sam has a major musical moment. And, at the end, Gandalf explains that we are all from hobbits…

Yes, you read that correctly, people (all of us) came from hobbits. We all have Hobbits inside of us, and I don’t mean from the Big Mac you ate yesterday.

I don’t recommend either of the specials beyond if you are curious and a Tolkien fan, everyone else can look away… or run away, their choice.

-Film-

Before Jackson’s version of Tolkien there was Ralph Bakshi’s version and, my God!, is it a boring and dull affair. First one must get used to his strange use of animation, which gives off the feelings of a cartoon that is just not moving “right.” See, the animation was drawn over actors and the actors overacted everything. They fidget, they jump, they use a lot of hand gestures. It is hard almost to enjoy the film for me because of the jittery aspect of it.

But the animation is one thing, the script… well, that is another. No wonder so many people thought The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable after this attempt. I’m not sure if the script was being written as they were working on it, but it is a mess. The fact it ends halfway through The Two Towers, only helps the argument that something is not right in the state of Denmark.

I remember the first time I saw it on video. It took me two attempts to get through it (I understandably fell asleep a few times; and I am a huge Tolkien fan!), and when it suddenly ended, my reaction was a little bit of outrage and a little bit of relief.

It feels weird to go from Ralph Bakshi’s mess to Peter Jackson, but I wanted to save the best for last.

Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth is now my vision of Middle Earth (I have a gorgeous unused poster from the first movie on my wall!). A lot of what I wanted to fix in the books, he did. He captured the humor that I saw possible in it, grounded the hobbits, repaired the overly grandiose character of Aragorn, and visually gave us a treat for the eyes. The fact he is right now making The Hobbit only makes me that much more giddy

I can only hope that he will take care of my issue around the dwarves.

(See tangent above.)

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3 responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard and commented:

    UPDATE: Okay, I have a new (and this makes third) dwarf explanation around The Hobbit. What if, honestly, the dwarf party is a little more upfront pathetic. Follow this, Thorin wants to go to the Lonely Mountain, he asks the dwarf community for two warriors (asking like the king) each and this is the best he can get. If it is explained like that in the film, it paints an interesting picture of the group (explains the humor more) and makes Thorin more a shadow of greatness, as compared to a well-respected leader in the community. He is chasing a dream to the mountain, and these are all that will follow him.

  2. Pingback: J.R.R. Tolkien: The Crazy & Magical Grandfather « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  3. Pingback: Writing About Tolkien « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

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