August 13, 2001
Why Are We Still Arguing About
This isn't actually a rant piece, in case you felt an allergy
attack coming on.
Seriously, why do we keep talking about Bombadil? Or Arwen? Or anything? Why don't we just
settle down and hold tight til the premier? Mr. Torske's brief comments are a useful
reminder of why we let ourselves get worked up about issues over which we have no control:
the integrity of the LOTR story is at stake. He also doesn't let the PJ supporters among
us get away with our stock reply to staunch critics: namely, "Well, what then? Would
you prefer that the films were never made?" I think we use that one too much, and
need to come up with a better reply.
Mr. Torske tells us that in this venture, he would prefer that if the trilogy isn't done
properly, it be left untouched by the film industry altogether. 'Properly' to him means
including Bombadil and the Barrow Downs, and without these elements, he apparently
believes that LOTR will be hopelessly compromised as a story.
Now, I happen to think that there is a lot of objective evidence that says he is mistaken,
that the LOTR story will not be fatally compromised by the absence of these plot devices
and elements. Others have already identified most of them, and I don't really want to add
more to that list at this time. What I do want to examine, however, is whether I can
really dispute with Mr. Torske as to his vision of artistic integrity except to say the
There should never be a film adaptation of any book if Mr. Torske's view is correct.
Because if he is correct, the only way to preserve an artist's integrity is to leave his
or her work untouched, untranslated (and that would go for the French/Czech/Japanese
version of LOTR, as well as for translation between media), unmolested in any way. I
couldn't make LOTR the film because I don't know the color of Bag End's walls; I couldn't
draw Aragorn because I'm not sure of the shape of his face, whether he wears a beard or
prefers to be clean-shaven (or just doesn't care); I couldn't compose LOTR-inspired music
because I can't be certain I could capture all the emotional nuances. I'm not justified in
skipping parts of the book that I've read and found to be less than riveting (in my
opinion) because that is a judgment that only the author is allowed to make. It is *his*
work (or *her* work) and his alone.
And yet we do all of these things. I personally am not a fan of Bombadil, at least not
most of the time. Between The Old Forest and the end of Fog on the Barrow downs, I've
found maybe two paragraphs concerning old Iarwain ben Adar that interested me, and that's
it. I tend not to read Bombadil's lines over and over again, but if Mr. Torske is correct,
then I am in violation of Tolkien's artistic rights. I am making a judgment about the
merit of parts of his work, rather than allowing the whole thing to roll over me like the
What if I choose to synopsize LOTR to a friend who needs to be convinced to read the
books? Do I tell her about Bombadil and the Barrow Downs? What about Arwen? If I don't,
have I thereby been remiss in my duty to Tolkien's chef-d'oeuvre?
The way I see it, the position that Mr. Torske seems to espouse (I could be wrong about
this whole thing, but this is how I read his comments) gives us the worst advice for the
best reason. It's almost heartbreaking to see someone declare that a film is better
left unmade due to the absence of an important but non-critical part of the story, because
otherwise the story will have been irreparably violated. That kind of dedication to the
artist's physical work cripples not just a movie director, but the reader, without whom
Tolkien would have had no purpose.
Art is not something that gets to stay bottled up and preserved, residing solely in the
author. Art by its nature is a shared experience that changes over time, and which depends
upon the viewer's/reader's critical and aesthetic judgment for interpretation. A film is
just another form of interpretation, one that tries to take advantage of the fact that we
humans have these enormous parts of our brain dedicated to the processing of visual
information. A film will differ necessarily from the books it was inspired by because it
has different internal requirements and restraints that books lack.
In the final analysis, every artist is entitled to only a few basic things from his
translators: professional responsibility, respect for the artist's work, and respect for
the translated work as an artwork in itself. But you won't find a responsible professional
who doesn't make judgments about the work that he is translating that will affect the
translated artwork. The adaptation process that puts a book on screen is subject to very
different criteria of success and artistic merit, because the form of the art is different
in kind. And remember that no artist of significance has ever gone "unviolated."
Every day, we as readers find ways of departing from Tolkien's vision, and I doubt that
Tolkien would object, provided we aren't out to manipulate his characters out of
character, as it were. Accept this, and accept that Peter Jackson isn't some high-level
flunky blindly dedicated to painting by numbers kits. From everything we've read, we
should be willing to see him as the professional translator he is, doi
That's all we can ask of someone, and that's all we have the right to ask for in any case.
Let's just wait for the film and then judge it on its own merits, rather than demand in
advance that it live up to some impossibly high standard of artistic integrity.