August 9, 2001

Response to Chad's Bombadil Essay
Stacy B.

There are a couple of things to be said here that you might want to consider.

I wholeheartedly concur that Bombadil would engender discussion if left in the movies. Unfortunately, I tend to believe that that discussion would be a frustrated one, rather along the lines of the following: "Who was that Bombadil character? Who thought including him would be a good idea anyway? Geez, man, you don't even know anything about him, he shows up for two minutes then he's forever gone, and he doesn't even do anything but sing songs!"

Forgive me the parody, but in general, unless the mysterious character has a recurring role whose importance is unquestioned, then the movie-going audience isn't really receptive to mysteries like Bombadil. That there are so many Tolkien *readers* who have problems with the Bombadil chapters suggests that if something has to go, then this is the character to be cut.

Another thing that is often mentioned in the Bombadil debates is the issue of realism, the need for that necessary enigma in order to make us believe that Middle Earth is a living reality. A couple of comments here: 1) Do we not have Gandalf, who has to qualify as a first class enigma? What about Treebeard? Galadriel? Each of these characters is fundamentally inexplicable (and enigmatic, whereas I tend to see Bombadil as more idiosyncratic than anything else) because removed in some fundamental way from the human realm. Each has a much more critical role than does Bombadil, and each serves to remind us that there are aspects of Middle Earth that are beyond the ken of mere mortals. You thought you knew about elves, but can you really grasp the sort of monumental indifference to others and self-absorption that characterizes elvish culture? It's hard to see at first because they're so hospitable and they are Wise (capital W), but look again. Either we don't understand elves, or we don't understand wisdom. Maybe
2) Realism in books is different from realism in movies, I think. When it comes to a written work, I think one of two things happen: 1) you read the book, enjoy it, but don't fully enter into it and so are willing to entertain alternate visions of it because its reality simply isn't realized in your reading. 2) You read the book and because you are so engrossed, and the realization is so complete, you either a) can't stand to see *anything* that deviates from your visualization because you've realized it so completely or b) the book is so fully realized that no other vision is really considered a threat, and so alternative versions can coexist peacefully and enjoyably in your mind. The difference is split partly by the book's initial ability to attract a reader (so it must itself be extremely well-done) but also by the reader's willingness to be engaged with a text on so deep a level.

The realism of a movie is, I think, different for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the reality of a film is guaranteed in a way that a book's is not for the simple reason that it is a visual medium. The visual context is immediate and immersive, and in that sense, completely irrefutable. Vision being our strong suit, we are almost instantly committed to the movie's sense of realism. This is what we talk about when we talk about the passivity of the movie-audience, a passivity that is lacking when we read.
All this means that secondly, the plot can be just mediocre and still be convincingly realized (see Run Lola Run). In terms of purely visual criteria, it takes either poorly constructed scenery/sfx or massive inconsistency in the script's emotional tone and the scenery to disrupt the sense of realism conveyed by a film. (Or, if the plot is an absolute insult to the whole concept of 'story' that could also do it, but we're assuming P.J isn't going to fail that spectacularly in this argument)

I think you see where I'm going with that. Bombadil is one of those characters who probably would disrupt the film's ability to pass itself off as real. Without such massive alterations that he effectively becomes a looking-glass doppelganger w.r.t his book-self, there is no way, to my mind, that he would survive on screen without actually impairing the film's ability to show LOTR's world as a real place.

Of course, there are those who will steadfastly claim that any Middle Earth without Tom Bombadil isn't actually Middle Earth at all, but most of the movie audience isn't going to know that. Of those who do, if the essays on this site are any indication, half of them can live quite comfortably in their fully realized versions of Middle Earth without him. Then there is that odd-man out percentage who love Bombadil but are willing to accedet that they don't think he'd cut it in the films. To the minority left, the best argument you could make would be to come up with a convincing screenplay in which Bombadil is retained (and is sufficiently similar to his book-self to be recognizable) without incident. I don't know if this place has a fanfic section, but I think does. Drop us all a line if anyone takes me up on this.

To sum up an entirely too long treatise: I honestly cannot think of a way that this character can be retained as recognizably Bombadil whilst also retaining his dignity (which, let me just say for the record, does exist but it took me about five read-throughs and four years to find it. P.J. just doesn't have that kind of time frame to work with).

Anyhow, if P.J. has made a mistake, I would say that it's probably in the omission of the Barrow-wight episode, but it's not fatal; indeed, he may be able to pass it off quite well, to the point where I will rescind that judgment. If he'd taken out Strider or Faramir or Galadriel, that would've been fatal. And whilst we're talking about possibly fatal errors in screen adaptations, if you feel cheated on Dec. 19th, here's what I suggest you do to cheer up (other than rereading LOTR, that is): go and read Frank Herbert's mind-bending book "Dune." Then rent the first adaptation of it (the one with Patrick Stewart and Sting in it). Watch it all the way through, even if you have to take Prozac to do it. Now *there* was a travesty! After twenty minutes of this exercise, you'll likely feel a lot better about P.J.'s version of LOTR.