The LOTR Movie Site
April 11, 2000

Did We Lost Something in Translation?
Stacy Bautista

I don't consider myself to be an internet junkie, nor do I normally associate myself with any particular group of fans. This is largely because "fan" has such an unfortunate etymology: it is short for "fanatic." However, I do consider myself to be a lover of Tolkein's major popular work, the LOTR trilogy and the Hobbit. As such, I have begun to pay a great deal of attention to Peter Jackson's movies, but also to the reaction of those who call themselves fans. What I am seeing here generally confirms my suspicion that "fan" really does mean "fanatic", and is not a truncation that implies any lessening of the underlying fervor for purity.

The attention paid to Jackson's "alterations" of the trilogy, particularly his expansion of certain roles, is in one sense inevitable, but the bitterness of some fans is astonishing. As the author of "It has become a nasty fan" pointed out, NONE OF US HAVE SEEN THE ACTUAL SCRIPT. We like to believe that the internet is a vehicle for disclosure and collaboration, and I believe that Jackson is certainly plumbing this resource to its depths. However, this so-called openness tends to obscure the fact that not one line of actual script has been seen. Before we all begin howling about the horror of Arwen in battle or the loss of Bombadil, let us remember that very pertinent fact. I can think of at least two ways, off hand, for Arwen's role to be expanded without her losing that ethereal calm, or becoming just another rebellious young 20th century woman in medieval garb. As for the lessening of dramatic impact that her presence in Aragorn's entourage would have on Eowyn's singular feat, it all depends on how the script is worked. Alas, as they say, we have not yet seen the script. I would like to give Mr. Jackson the benefit of the doubt: if he has in fact been doing his homework -- as we well knew, ere we asked -- then I think he is probably not unaware of the need for a tight, dramatic plot, and of the careful balance that characterizes Tolkein's placement of characters, for lack of a better expression. Everyone has a place in the LOTR, and I suspect that Jackson will want to preserve that sense of rootedness which in the books comes across clearly even as the main characters debate their difficult choices.

The problem comes down to one of translation, and before anyone begins howling again that there could be a better translation, keep this in mind: Tolkein was essentially translating one dramatic form into another. I've thought about the curious way that Tolkein sets up the dialogue for the characters, and the only thing that makes any kind of sense to me, which could account for any of the characters saying aloud 9/10s of their lines, is that he was translating: what he initially had in his head was probably something not unlike Beowulf, a lay-a-song in which characterization is signified differently. The spoken word and the act predominate because a song has a terrible time conveying interior dialogue: if a thought is to be heard, it can only be spoken. Tolkein took that form, which was highly important to the Anglo-Saxons that he studied and whose language inspired him, and made it into a novel. But rather than make it simply a novel, he preserved the feel of a great song, by having the characters' moods developed, not by descriptions of their faces, or by "getting inside their heads" but by their words and their deeds. He imitated a method of character development that actually belongs to a very different mode of storytelling. I think this accounts for the paradoxical truth that Tolkein's characters are both extremely subtle and well-developed and yet one can read them as coming across very flatly and one-dimensionally if one just looked at the dialogue, which, in the format of a novel, seems almost forced at times to modern ears.

A movie is just another translation, and it has the same problems that a song has in conveying interior character development. But unlike a novel, where a good novelist can get away with doing as Tolkein did, preserving the feel of a song, a movie is more restricted. It is a visual medium -- alas, we are not still a culture of the printed word, with its vast potential to evoke distinctions and emotions -- which does not have the time or the technical ability to develop characters if they neither speak much nor act. This is fine if the character in question is a minor character, but I think we would not necessarily want to say that of Galadriel or Arwen. Hence they must be doing something, even if only speaking out more often than was necessary in the books. Jackson cannot change this aspect of his chosen medium, even if he was so inclined. We who actually do write should be grateful for the freedom of that medium, but we should not deny that those who work in film are authors themselves, and can be just as sensitive to plots and character development as old-fashioned paper-and-pen writers can be.

And while I understand the concern of fans who fear political correctness is at the heart of the expanded roles of Arwen and Galadriel, I think it is possibly premature to say that this aspect alone will automatically ruin the films. If the changes work to the advantage of the films, then I don't think it really matters what motivated them. I will not say that any such fear is baseless, because I haven't read the script either. But until I see something that definitely and blatantly indicates that Jackson's translating abilities are inadequate, I am not going to speculate further on the plot deviations. Come 2001, I may change my mind, but I refuse to make a judgment call this early in the game.