Lost in Jackson's Translation
From the moment Jackson's powerful images play across the screen, and largely due to the power with which he manifests these images, those of us who have read the books begin to lose our grasp of a fragile treasure... 

Analysis by Jeffrey Overstreet


Lost in Jackson's Translation 

This page was created on November 17, 2004
This page was last updated on May 31, 2005

Lost in Jackson's Translation:
What No Return of the King
Bonus Feature Can Show Us
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Jeffrey writes Christianity Today's "Film Forum" column and "Reel News," posts in-depth reviews of films and music at Looking Closer, and has contributed to numerous journals. Jeffrey works at Seattle Pacific University, and in his spare time he is working on a series of novels.

When the Extended Edition DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring arrived, there was one particular revision that made a world of difference to this lifelong fan of Tolkien's trilogy. This time, when we first glimpsed Bilbo Baggins living in the Shire, he was at his desk penning There and Back Again—A Hobbit's Tale. That was an inspired alteration on the part of filmmaker Peter Jackson. After all, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are, first and foremost, the result of countless hours in which J.R.R. Tolkien himself sat down alone with a pen and paper and made his imagination manifest in long rows of words scrawled across a page.

But there is also irony in the image. That irony is this: From the moment Jackson's powerful images play across the screen, and largely due to the power with which the director manifests these images, those of us who have read the books begin to lose our grasp of a fragile treasure—our own individually constructed pictures of what Middle-earth looks like. Worse—those who have never read the books have that opportunity wrested away from them as they surrender to this powerful, vivid manifestation.

The films, as excellent and inspired as they are, ultimately reflect what most impressed Jackson and his screenwriters, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, as they moved through the narrative. Reading the books, on the other hand, readers imagine the voices in their own unique way, interpret emphases differently, pick up on different threads of theme and suggestion. Once we see the films, hear those voices, hear Howard Shore's music emphasizing certain things and de-emphasizing others, it will be difficult for us to erase those impressions and start fresh. We hereafter engage Tolkien through an interpreter, instead of directly.

As deeply grateful as I am to Jackson for his reverent attention to the books, and to his carefully gauged revisions, I still must testify to a loss that I feel personally, having spent time with the films. And I hope my testimony will help others seek out those things that have truly been lost, or entirely neglected, in translation.

I first encountered The Hobbit at seven years old, when a librarian, Mrs. Tuttle, handed it to me at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon. It was 1977. "This," she whispered, "I think you will like very much." She had no idea. I was drawn into the adventures of Bilbo Baggins as powerfully as if she'd handed me a ticket and put me on a plane to Africa.

Fortunately, that timeworn copy of The Hobbit got to me when it did... just in the knick of time. It threw the equivalent of a barrel of gasoline on the budding flames of my imagination. I read it and re-read it, illustrating it in my head, only slightly prodded by Tolkien's sketches and maps.

A few months later, my world changed again. The Millennium Falcon blasted across the screen, fracturing my imagination, and plunging me into a vivid world of special effects and visual fantasy. Thanks to Star Wars, I came to hunger for imagery as much as I hungered for literature.

As I came to realize the potential of cinematic imagery, dialogue, sound effects, and music, my mind began filling in Tolkien's world with even more details. A year later, as I read The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time as an eight-year-old, I began composing a 'soundtrack" in my head. I strained to hear not just what Bilbo and Frodo said, but how they said it. When Star Wars merchandising sent me running to the toy section of any department store in which my mother and I set foot, I began to long for Middle-earth action figures to match the level of detail provided in the Star Wars action figures.

God be praised—there were no such figures available to me. So I began to draw. Like so many who have been inspired by the words of Tolkien, I tried designing my own versions of Tolkien's characters. I filled notebooks with the child-like hobbits, the large-fanged goblins, the massive jaws of Smaug. Thankfully, by the time that same library hosted a screening of the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit, I already had strong images in my head of Middle-earth's varied population.

And yet, those cartoon images did have an impact on my imaginings, so that now I cannot escape the imagery of those cartoons when I read The Hobbit. I cannot read certain speeches that Gandalf gives to Bilbo or the dwarves without hearing them spoken in the husky, wizened tones of actor John Huston.

That is what we lose, in our culture's rush to replace the books in our hands with illustrations on the screen. We lose the privilege of imagining them fully for ourselves. Sure, we can still conjure up alternate versions, but when something as powerful as Jackson's trilogy of films storms across the screens, it is difficult, even for powerfully imaginative readers, to block those impressions out of their memories.

This loss is suffered any time a work of literature is recreated as a film.

It is an especially great loss here. Jackson's particular "translation" is unique in that he has accomplished a feat that is notoriously difficult to stage. This Lord of the Rings is the only big screen version we're likely to see in our lifetime. (Let's pretend that misguided, Cliffs Notes version by Ralph Bakshi never existed.) Fortunately for audiences, he has done so with such force and such attentiveness to the physical descriptions in the books, most fans of the books are pleased.

Those fans, though, should count themselves fortunate, for they had the opportunity to develop their own convictions about the nature of Tolkien's own Middle-earth before having their impressions so severely shaped by Jackson's craft.

Far be it from me, though, to discourage those who have seen the films from reading the books. No, let me exhort everyone to read them, and to struggle to seize those virtues that Jackson's films leave untranslated, waiting to be discovered in the text. Unlike that in most books-become-movies, Tolkien's language is so rich that a theatrical presentation can never be more than a Cook's tour of the saga's main characters and events. It is vitally important that we discipline our imaginations, because in that very visceral pursuit, we come to discern deeper treasures that storytelling has to offer, treasures that come only with effort and not from merely absorbing what happens on the screen.

One of the obvious differences between commercial cinema and great literature is that audiences tend to merely consume it, whereas reading contributes to the digestion of a story. The consumer approach to the imaginative work of others deprives our need—and our desire—to participate. Thus, young film "geeks" often come away from movies anxious to collect all manner of movie-related Lord of the Rings merchandise. I myself am guilty. I finally have my collection of Lord of the Rings action figures, which look quite different from my own imaginings of the characters. We want something to show that we have walked the road to Bree; that we have stood on the walls of the White City; that we have witnessed the transfiguration of Black Riders at Weathertop. We want to make the experience our own, so the work of our own imagination is replaced by hoarding possessions that reflect what others have imagined for us. We settle for the fruit of someone else's engagement with language instead of entering ourselves into a tangible play with Tolkien's texts.

Tolkien himself would have scoffed at the merchandising of these movies. He valued literature like The Lord of the Rings as an "escape," but not the sort of escape that buying stuff gives us. He didn't want "escape" to cultivate "distraction" and "obsession," but rather an escape from the dispiriting temporal realities that imprison us, an escape that takes us into a deeper apprehension of the truth. He wanted the stories to set us free to live more richly, not to imprison us in another glut of materialism.

It's important to remember that the trilogy did not become popular originally due to a massive marketing push. The books were popular because, one by one, people entered into their own unique engagement with the page and found how truly combustible were those words when ignited by the reader's attention. The popularity of Hobbits was not cultivated by the mass media, but by the music of the language that described them.

When Tolkien began to see evidence that his stories were overrunning the borders of his intentions, that people were not just gleaning truths from them but were also becoming rather obsessed with the less-important aspects of the story, he was alarmed. When a woman wanted to name her Siamese cats after his characters, he suggested she call them The Fauna of Mordor. When he himself received a gift of a drinking goblet in which someone had inscribed the "terrible words" that appear on the ring in the novels, he told a friend, "I of course have never drunk from it, but use it for tobacco ash."

Alongside the distracting proliferation of Tolkien 'stuff," there is also a maddening conversation distilling Tolkien's rich story into assumed agendas and "messages." When people come to know the story for the first time through a Cliffs Notes version like Jackson's, they tend to further abbreviate it into bullet points that they can manipulate for their own agendas. Having not lived in Middle-earth over a period of weeks as they move step by step through the books, they jump to conclusions and think they see specific agendas, simplistic themes, or political allegory.

"The failure of poor films," Tolkien perceived, "is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter, owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies." Jackson and Company have given us a powerful and memorable tour of Tolkien's epic, but they have, indeed, misperceived where the core of the original lies.

One alarming development is this trend of new Tolkien "converts" who jump to the conclusion that the story's themes of freedom versus oppression are actually a simple allegory of America and Western Civilization versus Eastern cultures. Tolkien would have been grieved by this. His own words offer direct contradictions to this idea. Tolkien despised many of the trends he saw in Western culture, especially in America.

"The horrors of the American scene I will pass over," he wrote in a letter, "though they have given me great distress and labour. They arise in an entirely different mental climate and soil, polluted and impoverished to a degree only paralleled by the lunatic destruction of the physical lands which Americans inhabit."

What is more, he hated the globalism that spreads from the West: "The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb." There's even a streak in Tolkien akin to the spirit that drives WTO protesters: "There is only one bright spot, and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations. But it won't do any good if it is not universal."

But the most alarming trend is the myriad of secular interpretations of The Lord of the Rings that view it as an epic of humanism—a grand story about how human beings can overcome evil with mere determination.

Talking with the cast of the films, it became painfully clear that they had fallen victim to this trend. Actor Viggo Mortensen, who played a character with a crisis of confidence that never takes place in the books, fails to apprehend the way in which Aragorn is a Christ-like savior for the land. He sums up the stories' theme as "Get over yourself and don't be selfish and listen to others."

Jackson's movies don't do much to avoid this sort of interpretation. The movies fall far short of the sense of otherworldly influence, of divine grace, that penetrates Tolkien's novels. Those who say they know the story of The Lord of the Rings because they have seen the films are sorely mistaken—they know only the aspects that made an impression upon Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh.

But even those who disdain religion cannot shake a sense of the transcendent when they read Tolkien's own words. Tolkien wrote to a friend, "By a strange chance, just as I was beginning this letter, I had one from a man, who classified himself as 'an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling.' 'You,' he said, 'create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp.'"

This paralleled Tolkien's insistence that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults and practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

Actor Ian McKellan's conviction—that the distinctive joy of The Lord of the Rings is that Hobbiton has no church—is an obvious case of a person distorting a work of art to fit his own particular view of the world. McKellan, who severely misperceives Hobbiton as Tolkien's "ideal society," says, "There is no pope in this story. There's no archbishop. There's no set of beliefs. There's no credo. I think what [Tolkien is] appealing to in human beings is to look inside yourself and to look to your friends and to join a fellowship. They don't join a church or a political organization. Everybody brings to it whatever their individual strengths are. I'd be with Tolkien on that."

The problem with McKellan's human-centric interpretation is that Tolkien does not portray the Shire as an ideal society at all, but as a culture in deep denial of what is going on beyond its own borders, a people who may have a simple appreciation of the finer things, but who are so content to revel in those pleasures that they don't see the consequences of their ingrown lifestyle until judgment comes knocking on the door.

Tolkien's primary thesis—something that confounds and troubles readers as they work through the books—is that each individual does look to themselves, and one by one they find themselves (and their "fellowship" of friends, however generous and gifted ) insufficient. If we are to have hope, we place that hope in the "secret fire" that brought Gandalf back to play another part after his plunge into the abyss with the Balrog. The way Jackson gives Gandalf what McKellan calls "a bit more humanity" in The Return of the King betrays his misunderstanding of the character. To give Gandalf such a crisis of confidence and hope in the final act of the films robs him of the familiarity he has in the books with a higher power, something worthy of serving beyond the Self.

Peter Jackson's own reluctance to accurately portray Frodo's ultimate failure at the Cracks of Doom again shows his own misapprehension of "the core" of the matter. He embellishes the climactic episode so that viewers have the option of interpreting Frodo's final lunge as a heroic charge to finish his quest. He wrestles with Gollum at the precipice over the lava of Mount Doom. In the book, there is no doubt about it—Frodo fails and lies watching helplessly nearby as Gollum claims the prize. But then, something so astonishing happens that we re-read the paragraph just to make sure we didn't misunderstand—Gollum stumbles, falls, and the Ring is destroyed. It all happens very quickly and matter-of-factly, not in slow motion with a choir roaring melodramatically in the background. Frodo fails, just as we fail time and time again, with a simple refusal to do what is best. That the Ring is actually destroyed seems an accident.

But then, as we reflect on Gandalf's prophetic remark from the beginning of the tale that "Gollum may yet have some part to play, for good or ill," we remember the 'secret fire." And what at first seems like an accident eventually seems like the playing out of a great plan, the fulfillment of a promise—that pride comes before a fall, that grace rejected leaves only judgment, and that greed consumes judgment itself.

In a letter to a fan, Tolkien insists, "Frodo failed. One must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us."

I'll sum this up by returning to my rather crude opening metaphor. Rather than gulping down the epic the way a viewer of the movies does, a reader of Tolkien's volumes tastes, savors, chews, swallows, and digests. In doing so—in pacing himself at the slower gait of reading, in absorbing the patterns of behavior demonstrated in each character's story arc—the reader experiences the story in a way that is uniquely his. We don't merely react. We wrestle and strive and grow. Instead of being carried up the mountain by Jackson's team of professionals, we struggle there ourselves, pausing, re-reading, putting down the book for the night and pondering what will happen, anticipating when we will pick it up for the next chapter.

And, of course, were are given deeper and more generous characterizations, rich histories, the music of poetry.

There is now a sort of sacred power in those portions of The Lord of the Rings that Jackson failed to animate with his fine cast of actors and Weta Workshop's formidable powers of illusion.

Those passages reveal a far more intelligent and mature Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck, who discern a lot about Frodo's quest without him having to explain anything. We encounter the fierce hounds of Farmer Maggot. We're introduced to the ebullient and bewildering Tom Bombadil and the effortless grace of his beloved Goldberry. Few scenes in the whole trilogy chill the reader like the fog on the Barrow Downs. To talk about how Strider differs from the Ranger of Jackson's film is to discover just how drastically Jackson's vision diverges from Tolkien's. Rivendell becomes a heavily populated, busy, bustling wonderland, and the Council of Elrond is a complex and revealing debate that makes the film's version look like a faculty meeting at the beginning of a typical school day. Don't even get me started talking about how the Ents of the book could pick their teeth with the Ents of the movies.

These elaborate, neglected episodes kindle areas of a reader's grey matter that lie neglected during the films.

Reading Tolkien's language for ourselves, our imaginations uncluttered by others' inventions, we absorb the experience in a way that shows up moralizing interpretations as flimsy, disposable, and even detrimental. But to watch the proud fall—to watch Boromir's failure lead to his death, or to watch Gollum stumble and bring down all of the enemy's aims—is no mere sermon illustration, no mere moral. It is an excruciating experience in which we are involved and by which we cannot help but be affected, if we truly surrender to the story. If we hammer these episodes down into causes or movements or platforms, we do Tolkien a disservice. Indeed, if The Lord of the Rings can be reduced to shallow paraphrase, then we don't need the stories at all. But if they are incarnations, sub-creations, something that cannot be reduced to paraphrase, then they are as complicated as individuals who grow and change along with us, revealing themselves further with each encounter. They are like houses that we approach, glimpsing the shifting but unchanging truth through open doors, windows, and even glowing through the walls.

Photographer Alfred Steiglitz called some of his photographs "equivalents"—he wanted to recreate in the audience the feeling that he had when he himself beheld a wonder. When it works, when that fragile connection between artist and audience is made, something inexplicable transpires. We encounter design, beauty, order, and the mysteries that they capture, in a way that transforms us.

Orson Scott Card says, "The closest thing to true communication between two human beings is storytelling, for despite his best efforts at concealment, a writer will inevitably reveal in his story the world he believes he lives in, and the participatory reader will forever after carry around in himself and as himself a memory that was partly controlled by that other human being. Such memories are not neatly sorted into fiction and real life in our minds. I know, of course, that I never stood at the Cracks of Doom and watched Gollum die. But that faith in the distinction between my own actions and the actions of fictional characters is merely another story I tell myself. In fact, my memory of that event is much clearer and more powerful than my memory of my fifth birthday." Card is a writer, and he knows the distinct absorption of experience that comes with the effort of reading rather than the easy encounter between the eyes and celluloid.

Just as it is a perfect opening to the films to see Bilbo at his desk writing the story, so it is an ideal conclusion to have the book passed on to Samwise Gamgee, so he can continue the story in his own voice.

The world would be so much richer if we were moved by Tolkien's example to go and write our own chapter, to become artists of such dedication and excellence ourselves, making manifest new worlds, singing new songs. Unfortunately, Tolkien has instead spawned generations of imitators, who borrow too many of his ideas and try to duplicate his successes. This explains why we have so many lesser Tolkiens like Terry Brooks or Steven Donaldson continuing to re-style his storytelling devices and call them their own.

In creating worlds and stories uniquely our own, drawn from our own past and culture, like Tolkien did, we would reveal that the truth is inescapable—that no matter how alien the world that we create on paper, it is still moved by the same principles that power ours. As we create something in our own image, which contains to some limited capacity the image of God, we offer the world another chance to glimpse that image, as through glass "darkly." Children know the joy of playing with words and drawing pictures, but they can all too quickly lose those joys by becoming too preoccupied with the imaginations of others.

With that, I leave you to go and enjoy the upcoming Extended Edition of The Return of the King, which will, thankfully, delve deeper into the book's riches than the original release did. But ultimately, I encourage you to pick the books up, for the first time, or for the tenth or twentieth time to go far deeper than any DVD extras. We can thank Jackson for the work he has done as an interpreter, but we would do well to acknowledge that his work is merely a translation, and one that loses much along the way. Better we go and learn the language ourselves.

And as the holidays approach, as copies of the Extended Edition DVDs are wrapped and placed under a thousand Christmas trees, it is worth noting that the true significance of the holiday season itself is all too often "lost in translation." As J.R.R. wrote to Michael Tolkien in December of 1962, "Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no 'commercialism' can in fact defile—unless you let it."

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