15 December 2017

Tolkien and Amazon

Amazon to Adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s Globally Renowned Fantasy Novels, The Lord of the Rings, for Television with a Multi Season Production Commitment 
Full Release Here
By now I doubt there's a Tolkien fan who has not heard this news. I have said very little about it, though I've been skeptical. Perhaps the smartest thing I've heard anyone say about it was when my friend Katherine Sas​ tossed a Tolkien quote into the middle of a heated discussion, and then vanished in a puff of logic. In the famous letter to Milton Waldman (Letters, no 131), Tolkien discussed the future he had once foreseen for the tales he was composing.
"I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd."

While an older Tolkien here dismisses his own youthful dreams, he underestimates the scope and power of his vision, still rippling outward a century on.  But in the days Tolkien first dreamt these dreams, he had just lost the boyhood friends, Rob Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who, together with Christopher Wiseman, imagined a great future for themselves:
'Really, you three, especially Rob, are heroes,' [Wiseman] wrote. 'Fortunately we are not entirely masters of our fate, so that what we do now will make us the better for uniting in the great work that is to come, whatever it may be.'
(quoted in Garth [2003] 137)
'The great work that is to come', and '[o]ther minds and other hands' are bitter counterpoints indeed to '[b]y 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead' (FR xxiv). Not that Tolkien meant Gilson, Smith, and Wiseman when he spoke of other hands, but it may be that the idea of a cooperative vision he shared with them continued here in a different form. This would be no surprise since one might to some degree characterize the development of his legendarium as an attempt to answer the question of G. B Smith, who had asked Tolkien what the first Eärendil poem was all about when he heard him read it in 1915. 'I don't know. I'll try to find out' (Carpenter, 75).

I would love it if someone made a series that was consistent with Tolkien's vision in the sense that it remained 'high fantasy'. We've already seen how very close to that mark Peter Jackson's films sometimes came, and yet how embarrassingly far off he was at other times. There were spectacular moments in them, both good and bad -- inventions, adaptations, disasters -- and I am sure that we could not all agree on what these bad and good parts were. One invented character I have spoken of before is Tauriel. She is an excellent case in point for me. I like the character -- she falls within the 'scope of other minds and hands' -- but she was shoddily and clumsily used in the service of an insipid subplot. Or so I believe. Many others, people whose opinions I respect, hate Tauriel root and branch. 

Today's tendency in stories with large amounts of 'action' is that each installment must be a new spectacle that outdoes what came before. It's hard to go back to The Hobbit after you've made The Lord of the Rings, and not try to remake it in the image of its more grown-up successor. By making The Lord of the Rings first, Peter Jackson filmed himself into a corner. But we can see this effect at work even where the books are concerned. The pull of The Lord of the Rings led Tolkien to try to rewrite The Hobbit completely in the early 60s. Master of Retcon that Tolkien was, he failed.

We can also see a similar phenomenon in the reaction of many to the long denouement of The Lord of the Rings, who believe that we could do without much of the Tale after the coronation and marriage of Aragorn. I am not here to argue this point, though I disagree. I will, however, gladly concede that the pace of the Tale certainly downshifts once the hobbits turn for home. Everything from the last words of Book IV -- "Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy -- the words that catapulted my eleven year old self out the door, onto my bike, and over to Ruth's Stationery on Main Avenue in the desperate hope that the third volume was still there, which, thank God, it was -- everything from those words on until the end of The Steward and the King passed in such breathless terror and joy that no one (except perhaps Tolkien) would have complained much if the book had ended with that chapter's final words:
And Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.
(RK 6.v.974-75)
But while I am sure that in the long nights of his wandering Aragorn had meditated 'on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow', The Lord of the Rings is no Jane Austen novel. Its meditations don't stop there. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)  Aragorn's love of Arwen is an important, if underplayed, element of the story, as is Sam's for Rosie Cotton. But both Sam and Strider also see the world at times sub specie aeternitatis. The hobbit raises his eyes to the stars to glimpse the transcendent (RK 6.ii,922); the Man looks beyond the Circles of the World (RK App. A 1063). 

Is it an accident then, I wonder, that Sam's first (recorded) thoughts of Rosie come after he has recognized that 'in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing' (RK 6.ii. 922; iii.934, 939)? 

Such thoughts are more often than not lost in a two or three hour film. More often than not, though perhaps not always. Yet the small screen affords writers far more time to develop the subtle characterizations and character histories that make such moments work. I have seen shows like Babylon Five and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, for example, blend action (and plenty of it) with plot and character so expertly over time that all of a sudden this viewer found himself on the verge of tears, both kinds. And I still do when I watch again.  Both of these series, moreover, are structured more like novels, B5 at least intentionally so, with very little that is merely episodic. I am sure that there are further examples that will spring to the mind of those better versed in recent television drama than I am.  And it is these series' adaptation of the approach to storytelling found in books that gives me hope that a television series might be the best place for telling stories of Middle-earth.  So Amazon may be the best place after all, provided the writers keep Middle-earth a world of high fantasy. 

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