I wonder if Tolkien would have frowned on Peter Jackson’s LOTR adaptation

Not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because JRR, in On Fairy Stories, seems dubious about the idea of fantasy on stage at all, and I think his objections would apply to screen too.
The essay is the biggest single component of The Tolkien Reader, a mid-sixties miscellany from before everything Tolkien ever wrote came into print. It’s a mix including some LOTR related poems (I skipped those), the charming tale of Farmer Giles of Ham, the much less charming Leaf By Niggle (where Tolkien means it to be uplifting, I found it moralizing and saccharine) and the essay.
Tolkien makes it clear he’s using “fairy story” more broadly than traditional fairy stories—a lot of mythology and a great deal of fantasy would come under his definition. He devotes a lot of space to discussing what he doesn’t like; to whether fairy stories/fantasy are inherently a children’s genre or even particularly appealing to children; his distaste for “suspension of disbelief” (mostly that as he sees it, it implies a kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge condescension to the material); and a discussion of what makes them work:
•Fantasy, which he defines as “freedom from observed fact”—in other words, story material which doesn’t exist in the real world” (there’s a great deal more to it, of course, but that’ll do for a blog post).
•Recovery, the power of fantasy to let us appreciate reality more. “By the making of Pegasus, horses were ennobled.”
•Escape. A chance to get free of our mundane surroundings, and of the mundane in literature (Tolkien was not a fan of realistic fiction, it seems).
•Consolation—the happy ending which Tolkien considers essential for a real fairy-story/fantasy. Specifically, he argues that just as great drama contains some last-minute disaster or twist of the knife (Romeo and Juliet mistakenly dying for each other—though he doesn’t cite that example—would qualify, I think), fairy stories have a last minute “eucatastrophe,” a final twist or turn of fate that is “a sudden and miraculous grace, never counted on to recur.” A triumph that makes the heart catch in the throat, that gains power not because it denies defeat and despair, but because it comes in spite of them.
I’m not sure why, but Consolation interests me most of all … but I can’t quite figure out what it suggests to me.
As for the Jackson films, Tolkien states in the essay that he doesn’t like fantasy on stage—the witches in Macbeth work fine when he reads the play, but not when he watches it—and concludes that theater and fairy-stories are incompatible. Theater asks us to believe that the actors we see up there are their characters, in their own on-stage world, and asking us to believe that the created world is also defying “observed facts” is too great a gulf to cross. And that the supernatural on stage will either be laughable or, if convincing, horrifying.
Tolkien doesn’t discuss movies, but it would seem as if the same objections would apply there. So if he saw the Jackson LOTR, would be feel it totally unworkable? Be thrilled how well his work had been adapted? Grumble they cut out Tom Bombadil and gave so much space to the women? Would he rethink his view of stage fairy tales? Or would he have considered movies a completely separate matter from stage after all?
Questions to ask if I run into him in the next life, I guess.


Filed under Reading, Writing

5 responses to “I wonder if Tolkien would have frowned on Peter Jackson’s LOTR adaptation

  1. Pingback: Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson « Fraser Sherman’s Blog

  2. Pingback: Sometimes romantic conflict is overrated « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: Locked in the Castle of Giant Despair « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  4. Pingback: Writing eucatastrophe | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  5. Pingback: Brigadoon, post the second: Suspension of romantic disbelief (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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