So, yesterday I said: “It’s my belief that the Rings movies are better as movies than the Rings books are as books.” Now I’ll follow through on that thought.
No one disputes that The Lord of the Rings is great fantasy, and vastly influential. Indeed, throw a rock and you’ll hit a fantasy writer who has cribbed most if not all of his or her fictional world from Tolkien’s vast world-building notes (throw the rock hard, if you please). It’s also a great story, full of all the traditional mythic themes that make everyone who’s read Joseph Campbell (or at least heard Bill Moyers rattle on about him) wet with excitement. But is The Lord of the Rings great literature? By which I mean, is the writing of the work itself so very well done that no other but the book can be the best realization of the story within?
I say no. Once again, there’s no doubt Tolkien is a master world builder, and his real-world mastery of languages and the themes of myth aids him immeasurably creating a well-constructed tale. But while he loves language and myth, it’s not so clear the man loves literature. He loves the world he made but was a little put out writing a story in it. It’s been noted that of all the books of the world Tolkien made, his favorite is The Silmarillion, which is his great “historical” work of Middle-Earth, and very much its Bible. Tolkien’s son Christopher also edited and released 10 volumes his father’s world-building notes and stories, a veritable orgy of details.
In other words, we come to Tolkien for the depth and veracity of his world, not necessarily for the literature he created from it. As literature, The Lord of the Rings is perfectly good, but it’s not great. Tolkien is not a great stylist, to begin with, and while The Hobbit and some of his shorter pieces have a light step, readingwise The Lord of the Rings can be a slog, with long stretches of flatness, declamatory exposition and (yes) indifferent poetry. The story Tolkien tells is great, but the text that tells it is rather less so.
And ultimately this is why, to the pain of fantasy readers and lovers everywhere, the brahmins of literature have consistently balked at letting Tolkien past the gate and into the realm of great writers. It’s not just genre snobbery, although that is part of it. Ultimately though, the fact is that as a writer, the man’s not the equal of the great writers of the 20th Century. To put it pithily: He’s no Nabokov. And this is why, while great fantasy, The Lord of the Rings is not great literature.
But the very “not greatness” of the Rings as literature is what makes it possible for it to be one of the very great films. Allow me to submit one of my personal observations regarding literature: Great Literature Does Not Make for Great Movies. And the reason for this is simple: Great literature is, simply, a great story, best told. The great books tell their tales so well that every other iteration of the story — including the movie — is a pale copy. The book is the Platonic ideal; the movie is (literally) the flickering shadow on the wall. And this is why, despite the moanings and wailing that film would replace literature, the great books are still with us: Because they are the best tellings of their stories. One may admire the film version of War and Peace, which is very good, but no one seriously argues that it supplants the novel. I thought the 1984 film version of 1984 was a damn fine approximation of Orwell’s novel, but it’s not the novel. And to go back to Nabokov, despite the filmed essaying of his novel by both Kubrick and Adrian Lyne, Lolita is not in danger of disappearing from bookstore shelves.
Great movies, on the other hand, come from not-so-great books. And the reason for this is equally simple: The not-so-great book is not necessarily the best telling of its story. The examples are rife. Take The Godfather. The movie: The greatest American film of the last 50 years. The novel, by Mario Puzo: Eh. It’s good. Take Gone with the Wind. The movie: The quintessential example of Studio-era epic filmmaking. The novel: A bodice-ripper. Take Jaws. The movie: Scared people off beaches for years. The book: Flat (as proved by Benchley’s other books). Other great movies made from decent-to-near-great books: M*A*S*H. A Clockwork Orange. The Wizard of Oz. Dr. Strangelove. The Exorcist.
Indeed, in all the cases above, the film version of the story is the definitive version — the original text is, at best, complementary to the film. This is because the film is the better telling of the story. And it’s not simply because some stories are better told as films for visual purposes. It’s because the texts did not best express the story. It doesn’t mean the books are bad — Baum’s Oz books, for one, are a delightful read. It simply means the story is more completely serviced in film.
As is the case with The Lord of the Rings. Director Peter Jackson is famously a huge fan of the Tolkien books, but based on the movies (and the various commentary I’ve read from and about the man) I think it’s more accurate to say he’s a huge fan of Middle-Earth — he seems very nearly enamored of the work other artists have done in the place as he is with Tolkien’s prose. Artist Alan Lee, as an example, is not a distant runner-up in his influence on Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth: Jackson took more than one of Lee’s imaginings of the story and placed them bodily into the film, and of course hired Lee outright to be the conceptual artist for the film.
Tolkien’s own text was weak enough that Jackson and his co-screenwriters were able to rework it into something that in stronger in a filmic setting than it is in the setting of literature. The result of this, as many critics and commentators have mentioned, is that while the film fiddles with the details in the book, as a whole the film feels right — it’s not the same telling of the War of the Ring as Tolkien’s, but it’s a true telling nonetheless, inasmuch as true is the right word to use here. The themes of the tale, as well as its human and mythic qualities, are amply served by Jackson and his film — and better expressed than they are in Tolkien’s prose.
(In fact, one could argue — now that the technology exists to illustrate the nature of his creation — Tolkien’s world is uniquely suited for film. The man created a vast store of world-building material for filmmakers to work with, including a history, a mythology, a geography and a bestiary. As a culture, Middle-Earth is arguably better known than some actual cultures that existed on this planet. Someone mention this to Christopher Tolkien and see how long it takes the man to stroke out.)
I’m not going to make the argument that the film version of The Lord of the Rings will actually supplant Tolkien’s literary version, although the reason for this is not because I think the books are a better or equal version of this particular tale of Middle-Earth, but because the books have had an unusual 50-year head start on the films. All the films mentioned above were filmed within a few years of their source novel’s publication, although I should note that the proximity is not a cause for the movie supplanting the book (as a current example, the Harry Potter books do not appear to be in danger of being wiped out by their film versions — although I’ll also note that I don’t consider the Harry Potters to be awesome literature. But they serve for the example). As it is, the two versions of the Rings tale will happily co-exist side-by-side.
Nevertheless: The filmed version of the tale is a better film than the book version is a book, because the storyteller in the film tells the story better. Middle-Earth is undoubtedly Tolkien’s world. But Jackson is the better teller of this particular tale.