Thursday, December 04, 2003

Return of the King: More Thoughts

It's hard to comment in detail without spoiling the movie for others. But there's an interesting literary question raised by the fact that so many Tolkien enthusiasts among my students immediately wanted spoilers. If you know the books well, wouldn't spoilers be the last things you'd want? You already know how the story will turn out, after all, so the only real suspense would be how the director has adapted the story.

Unfortunately for me, I think that's how I watched the film: constantly thinking about what and why Jackson cut or added what he did. I don't think this is a particularly good way to watch a film, and I'm glad that, for whatever reason, I did it less with RoK than with FoR or TT and thus enjoyed RoK much more (and I think many Tolkienophiles will feel the same way).

But I wonder how important 'suspense' is in LotR, anyway. I first had the books read to me when I was about five years old, so I can't really remember whether I was terrified, say, at the Tower of Cirith Ungol (though I'd guess I was), but the 40 or so times I've read LotR since then seem to prove that, for me, the great value of the book isn't in surprises in the plot (or, Tolkien's illusion is so perfect that one re-lives the story again and thus gets all the old feelings even though the twists are known).

Since so many people do re-read Tolkien frequently (an amazing fact, given the length of the book), it's clear that there is something about Tolkien's work quite significantly different from most literature. It would be useful to figure out why this is so, and I have a guess at a partial explanation for the phenomenon.

Tolkien very skillfully withholds information in LotR so that the reader experiences the story (in terms of information) much in the same way as the mediating characters--the hobbits (except for the brief shift to the point of view, in 3rd person associated pov, of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli). For example, Strider appears out of nowhere and slowly develops as a character; even after Weathertop Sam isn't 100% sure of him. The hobbits are surprised by the landscapes they enter and the characters they meet. They don't have all the background until the Council of Elrond, and even then the whole history of the Ring is really only sketched in. The hobbits almost never know more than the reader, and thus the reader's consciousness must be, in some way, similar to the imagined consciousnesses of the hobbits: both are confused at the same times, startled at the same times, etc.

The delivery of information is one aspect of the films that I disliked a lot: everybody knows everybody else before they've met. Aragorn is famous; everyone is clear on the map, and when things aren't perfectly clear, Gandalf spells them out in somewhat tedious detail. Obviously in the films Jackson couldn't spent lots of time on introductions, getting to know characters, etc., but that one aspect of the presentation makes the films a lot more like your classic, cliched Conan-type fantasy ('the treasure is in the cave of Gror guarded by the beast of Snirga behind the mountain of Ploth, etc.' speech that cliched fantasy characters always give).

Critics have written a lot about the 'illusion of depth' in LotR (and now that we have Silm, UT and History of Middle-earth, it's clear that the depth wasn't really that much of an illusion!), but lots of subsequent fantasy has elaborate backgrounds. The difference is, Tolkien had the ability to hoard his information, to release just enough that the reader could follow things without being overwhelmed by characters who know everything (and those characters, like Gandalf, Elrond, and to some degree Aragorn, who do know everything are rather taciturn about it). This deft touch with information is one of the many things that make Tolkien so much better than his immitators, and make the job of a film-maker so much more difficult. [update: fixed stupid typos].

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