There is a way, now, more than ten years out from it all, that I'm beginning to see the Lord of the Rings movies as a deep and appalling travesty, misrepresentation and missed chance - or, worse, maybe not so much that last thing. But the chances they took weren't the ones I would have wished them to, not in the service of fidelity to the ethos of the source text and not in the service of bending the long arc of the universe toward justice.
In 2001, with the United States coopting Tolkien's rhetoric of dark and light and moral war to justify casually stupid militarism - at the start of what is now the longest war the United States has ever fought, one of the longest wars of the modern era - they took Tolkien's peacenik epic and retold it to emphasize and valorize violence. And admittedly Peej isn't American, but a lot of the project, including a lot of the money, came from either the US or Great Britain, who were allied with the US at the time in the famous "Coalition of the Willing." So I'm not sure the films' Kiwitude can excuse them from this one.
They "empowered" characters by giving them more violence to do, as in the case of Arwen. They recut and rebalanced Tolkien's multiple interwoven narratives to give more heft to Aragorn's military prowess and to minimize the intensity of Frodo's long slow sad story of grinding pain and unendurable pressure, endurance beyond hope. They erased both the story of the scouring of the Shire, which brings home the aftermath of war and shows its price on a more intimate scale, and the story of Frodo's shellshock, which he never really recovers from - the price on the internal scale, the price to the soul. They bring war back home with them. Merry argues for its necessity; Frodo stays "shocked and sad."
‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.’
‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.Frodo
What are we holding onto, Sam?Sam
That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo ... and it's worth fighting for.
... I'm not at all sure that those two passages are from the same story. Not deep down where it counts. For one thing the relationship between the characters totally reverses, from Tolkien's naive Sam who hopes beyond reason and worldweary Frodo who always knew just how much he was losing to Jackson's butch assertive Sam and passive unthinking blank slate Frodo, who is merciful to Gollum because Gandalf told him to be more than out of any considered personal conviction. But also - there's a difference between book!Frodo's "give them up" and movie!Sam's "worth fighting for," although battle is certainly one of Tolkien's recognized modes of self-sacrifice. But the one emphasizes the omnipresence of the cost of war while the other doesn't mention it - apparently once you figure out that there's "some good in this world" you become the equal to any task, no matter how impossible, and of course as the films demonstrate the wages of fighting is glory: the only one who visibly pays is Frodo, and even in his case going to the Grey Havens seems kind of like a trip to Disneyland. Eowyn's choice to ride to battle loses a lot of its unhealthy/suicidal undertones, and her choice to turn away from violence in the Houses of the Healing is omitted. Both Merry's and Pippin's battle traumas are skimmed over; the psychological aspects of Merry's hurt after the Pelennor is disappeared altogether. Back in the Shire, before he sails, Frodo seems physically pained rather than shellshocked; and I'm using that word rather than PTSD for a reason, because Middle Earth came into being while Tolkien was resting in a field hospital after the Battle of the Somme and is fundamentally bound to World War I because of it.
And just as I am filled with rage and bitterness that Dubya is in art galleries
rather than in chains at his own trial in the Hague, so too I find myself unwilling to happily accept the place that the Lord of the Rings has come to inhabit in sff pop culture since the films came out: elegant but somehow George-Lucas-esque pieces, real pretty and with some totally cool bits, some strong female characters and some stirring speeches about hope and change, and underneath it all an incoherent attraction to violence, callousness, hierarchy. A New Hope
ends with that bizarre visual Nazi reference, The Return of the King
with some pretty frank and unreconstructed monarchalism. Not to mention the pervasive racism of the orcs, the nastiness of the Haradrim, the general failure to imagine a diverse world. That last is, yes, also a failing of Tolkien's, and certainly you can find nastinesses he's said, but the business with the orcs at least isn't a failing of the text's.