Tolkien Estate and the Movies: Why We Should Care

Let’s be clear, there is no love lost between the Estate of J. R. R. Tolkien and the movie making empire that created the three LOTR films and, more recently, The Hobbit. For one, they are at legal nail, tooth, and tongs. More to the point of this post, though, the Estate considers the movies to be trash and a great betrayal of the written work, the artistry, epic, and meaning they are supposed to represent in a different medium.

You can read the interview with Christopher Tolkien in which he makes these points — and it is worth a close study, I think. Here is the highlight I think especially important:

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

Three quick notes:

(1) Read the Hijacked Hunger Games post for the reasons why I think the “absorption into the absurdity of our times” described by Tolkien is inevitable in stories translated from book to movie. The medium demands its own celebration, which are the iconoclastic facts of hyper-realism which in turn necessarily celebrate the nominalist errors of the postmodern age. The Gamesmakers of Hollywood cannot present the anti-regime, anti-nominalist, anti-Gamesmakers message of the Hunger Games work, so they re-make it to fit their own conventions. Surprise — the Gamesmakers are the heroes, not the agents of the regime!

(2) This is at least as true of the Harry Potter films as of Hunger Games, though the films (perhaps because of the living author’s participation?) were more faithful to the sequencing and details of the novels.

— 2a: Harry Potter is largely a book about transformed vision and the power of imagination. Film, however, is not an imaginary but a hyper-sensory, hyper-realist experience. It by definition undermines, even overturns the effect of the story as entered into by the reader-in-wonder, whose imagination is fostered with the exercise of words to images and of contact with the referents of the imbedded symbols and story atmosphere and events. The greater number of Harry Potter fans today are, sadly and unavoidably, more familiar with the film images than their own because the medium displaces via its technology the experience had in the stories. Ms Rowling has said repeatedly that, for her, Daniel Radcliffe is not Harry Potter. Put this in that thick file of “Things Only True for JKR.”

— 2b: Let us note here as an aside a point I hope to return to for discussion at greater length, Bruce Charlton’s argument that Harry Potter’s traditional message has been “subverted” or “turned” into a vehicle for use by the anti-traditional political regime (the Gamesmakers, if you will — or those who cast shadows on the wall of our cave). This has to be understood, I think, in the context of the larger discussion of the nominalizing or profanation of fantasy literature in general.

The discussion of whether or not what Mr Charlton says is true, I must leave for its own post. I think it important to note here, though, that the facts he notes in his argument about the politicization of Harry Potter fandom by anti-traditionalist ‘progressives’ (the Myth of Progress always demanding the deconstruction of theocentric mores and spiritual disciplines) are almost certainly a consequence of the commercialization and reduction of  “the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the [literary] creation to nothing” [in the films].

The juggernaut of the movie franchise has created  a super category of ‘film fans,’ of which “those who came to the series through the Warner Brothers adaptations” are certainly a large part but of which category”readers who have become primarily film fans” is almost as great (again, because of the corrosive effect of the medium on the imagination’s relatively fragile hold on the story in contrast to the hyperbolic sense immersion). And these minds which have not known the original story first or who have lost that story’s power after watching the movies are effectively, to use Mr Charlton’s Cold War language, “turned” to the ideas of the anti-traditionalist power holders and shadow casters. Their imagining that service to the Gamesmakers is ‘What Dumbledore Would Do,’ the greatest non-joiner and opponent to the Ministry and its machinations in modern literature, speaks to the mesmerizing influence of this Tracker Jacker medium.

As I have said, more on this later. I wanted to put this up to note the Tolkien connection in advance of a more expanded commentary on fantasy literature in resistance to postmodernity as opposed to its fealty to the false gods or idols of our time. Make of this aperitif of that conversation what you will. My brief answer to the question “why should we care about Christopher Tolkien’s estimation of the Peter Jackson adaptations of his father’s work?” is that he is right, not only about the movies in question but the medium in general as it relates to literary art.