Monthly Archives: September 2013

The “Good Parts” Version

A friend of mine once defended Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies on the basis that they contained all the “good parts” of Prof. Tolkien’s magnum opus. I certainly don’t have a problem with someone thinking that, but “good parts” — well, that’s a bit subjective, isn’t it? One reader’s “good parts” might be the parts that get another reader bogged down. It took me several readings before I was finally able to get through all of Book IV (the latter half of The Two Towers), but that could be someone’s favorite part for all I know. Even the **SPOILER ALERT** section in which the hobbits meet Faramir is a bit dry in my opinion.

A few of my favorite parts of the book: (1) the encounter with Tom Bombadil; (2) the Council of Elrond; and (3) Eowyn’s battle with the Witch-king. Each one of these parts is either missing or only present in radically different form in the movies. I do understand the decision to omit Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring. I’m not sure it would even work on film. I don’t understand the parts that were added in (e.g., Saruman’s orc midwifery), nor why every character who is not a member of the Fellowship must be stupid (Treebeard), ignoble (Faramir), or cowardly (Theoden). I don’t understand why seemingly small changes must be made that have far-reaching implications for the legendarium. For example, Elrond becomes the racist father opposed to his daughter’s interracial romance. Did the director consider the significance of this change? Elrond’s ancestry includes mortal men (Beren, Tuor) and he himself acted as Aragorn’s foster father. No, I don’t expect the films to present all of that backstory, but I do expect them to be mostly consistent with it.

Again, I don’t think less of people for enjoying the movies (my own children like them) or even for thinking that they’re better than the novel; I’m simply pointing out why I don’t find them as enjoyable as I might.

Probably the best (or worst, depending on one’s perspective) example of an unnecessary change is in the character of Faramir. **SPOILER ALERT** I don’t know if it is possible for a fictional person to be a victim of character assassination, but if so, then Faramir surely was.

Late in The Fellowship of the Ring (both the movie and the book), Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo. Frodo escapes, using the Ring, and the Fellowship breaks. Frodo and Sam cross the Anduin and make their way with Gollum toward Mordor; finding the Black Gate impassible they journey through Ithilien to Morgul Vale and the pass of Cirith Ungol.

On their way through Ithilien they stop and Sam cooks some rabbit stew. The smoke from the fire alerts Faramir and his men and the hobbits are waylaid. Faramir brings the hobbits to the secret outpost of Henneth Annun and Sam, under Faramir’s shrewd questioning and sensing the latter’s hidden nobility, blurts out that Frodo is the Ringbearer and that Boromir had tried to take the Ring for himself.

Here is where Faramir must make his decision. In the novel Faramir lets the hobbits go and even shows mercy to Gollum. In the movie version of The Two Towers, Faramir decides that the Ring must be brought to his father, Denethor, and only Frodo’s odd (and frankly, inexplicable) behavior in the presence of a Ringwraith among the ruins of Osgiliath convinces him otherwise. Boromir and Faramir are different, but in the movie they are virtually the same.

All the above said, there are some things I genuinely like about the movies. Gandalf’s escape from Orthanc was handled brilliantly. I like the little humanizing touches as when Boromir teaches the younger hobbits some fighting skills. And I even like Boromir’s profession of fealty as he dies from his wounds. On the whole, however, I would still rather curl up with the books.

Hobbit Day?

September 22 is “Hobbit Day.”

It won’t come as a surprise to any of my friends that The Lord of the Rings is my favorite work of fiction. It has been the one constant in my life as a reader. I could be on a John Irving kick (early in my college career), an Ayn Rand kick (later in college and early in my professional career), or a military science fiction kick (currently), but Professor Tolkien’s magnum opus is always waiting for me in my library, and picking it up to read it (which I do at least once per year) is like spending time with an old friend.

In the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings we’re told that September 22 is Bilbo Baggins’ birthday and — coincidentally? — the birthday of his cousin and heir Frodo Baggins as well. I think Prof. Tolkien has unwittingly given ammunition to practitioners of astrology as the two hobbits have a lot of similarities in their make-up despite the 78-year difference in their ages — for one, a restlessness, or a desire for wandering, that not even their closest friends share. Bilbo and Frodo are bachelors; Sam Gamgee, Pippin Took, and Merry Brandybuck only leave the Shire after their wives die.

Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.

So wrote St. Augustine in the first chapter of the first book of his Confessions. The two hobbits — who have no great honor in their own country — are restless, and I think not (merely) because of the Ring. Rather they were chosen as Ringbearers because of this restless nature, and even as the Ring passed away and its Master was defeated, the restlessness remained until they set sail from the Grey Havens and left this world (Middle-earth). Eru made them for Himself.

Of course, one won’t get any of that from reading the first chapter (“A Long-Expected Party”) of The Lord of the Rings. It shares the whimsy of the book (The Hobbit) to which it was originally intended to be a sequel, with only a little foreshadowing of the darker and deeper themes to follow. For today, then, we can join the hobbits in their feasting — open a bottle of Old Winyards, fill a pipe, and sit back to watch the fireworks. “Pray, hope, and don’t worry,” as Padre Pio (whose feast day is tomorrow) famously said. We can feast today (it is Sunday after all) and leave weightier matters for tomorrow.