Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth – Unexpected Gifts


The One RingIt has often seemed to me that fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) fall into two categories: those who adore Peter Jackson’s films and those who despise them. I fall into the former category and my husband into the latter. From our conversations, I have concluded that in most cases, it is impossible to change the other person’s mind (not to mention disrespectful to try). This is hardly a problem of cosmic importance, unless one person attempts to drag the other to all six extended cut versions of the movies or prevents the other person from enjoying them. Both sides put forth arguments and reasons, and they are entitled to them. I think just about everything that can be said has already been expounded upon.

I am firmly in the love-them camp. All the objections folks have are absolutely right, and have no relevance to my experience of the movies. The uncritical, immersive, “take me away” quality of my enjoyment of the films has definitely piqued my curiosity. What happens when I spend hours in Jackson’s Middle Earth?

In general, I am far less critical of visual media than of text. Because my own art form is prose, I have developed a keen internal editor and critic that may be regaled to the back seat but never entirely departs. I have no such filters for films or paintings. Only a horrifically bad film can destroy my suspension of disbelief, but horrifically bad films are enjoyable for quite different reasons than good ones.

I devoured Tolkien’s novels as a young adult, although I never wanted to run away to Middle Earth then. I found some aspects of the books frustrating: the “travelogue” passages were often tedious, I had no idea what Tom Bombadil was doing in the story, and I had trouble forming clear images of many of the places, for example Helm’s Deep. Nonetheless, I joined the ranks of fans wearing buttons that said “Frodo Lives!” and “Beware the Balrog.” I stood in line to see the films by Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass (The Hobbit and The Return of the King), all of which I found unsatisfying. The hobbits and dwarves in the animated versions were silly, in bad need of haircuts, and the Bakshi film was just plain weird. The orcs looked like sabertoothed Sand People (from Star Wars), the Balrog was a costume from a bad opera, Boromir looked ridiculous in a Viking helmet, and none of the character moved in a natural way. Et cetera.

I had no idea who Peter Jackson was, but special effects had come a long way since the 1970s. Needless to say, I had excitement but not high hopes. I came prepared to see a live action version of the previous attempts. Five minutes into The Fellowship of the Ring, I was in love. The Jackson films “clicked” for me and brought the stories alive in ways that previous versions, even the original text, fell short.

This is not to say that everyone must feel the same way. Different media and different interpretations work for different people. I’m delighted that some folks prefer Tolkien’s text or even the animated versions. I am also delighted that this one form of presentation worked so well for me. When I go back and re-read the books, I can now immerse myself in the rich and varied landscapes of Middle Earth, and see and hear the characters.

After the extended editions of all three Ring movies came out on DVD (and I had watched all the commentaries and appendices), I set them aside. Every few years, however, I would watch them (3 movies over 2 days, usually, and when my husband – who is in the “doesn’t work for me” camp – was out of town). Either by happenstance or internal prompting, my schedule synchronized with the parole hearings of the man who raped and murdered my mother. That is, I’d gear up for the hearing, get re-traumatized no matter what precautions I took, come home and fall apart, and slowly put myself back together again. Some quality of the Jackson films spoke to me and offered itself as a healing tool.

I have some ideas of how this works. “Sanctuary” is one of them: a safe and glorious space, with companions who ensure I do not walk alone through the darkness. The defeat of evil when all hope is lost, with the crucial role of an act of mercy, a reminder to nurture my own capacity for compassion – for myself, for others. Lastly, the cathartic nature of the battle scenes.

This latter had not occurred to me until I was relating to an acquaintance that one of the ways I “let down” after a parole hearing was to watch the Jackson films. His response was that the films were way too violent for him (and he implied that exposure to violent scenes is in itself a destructive thing). As I thought about this, I realized that the re-triggering of past trauma, overlaid with new, painful revelations and the harrowing experience of entering a prison and seeing the perpetrator, left me saturated with feelings I had no way to discharge. Vigorous exercise was insufficient, and calming practices like yoga or meditation were too sedate. In years past, I practiced Chinese martial arts, particularly kung fu, but injuries and the absence of a studio ended that outlet 15 years ago.

On the other hand, if I allowed myself to enter into the world of the films, leaving my movie critic outside and immersing myself in the story, welcoming the psychological manipulation, I experienced a physical and emotional release. The length of the films gave me time to do this. The effect was to shorten the time of tension and restlessness. It was as if I had taken my own nightmares and thrown them into the fight scenes, and then done battle with them, with Aragorn and Gandalf and Eowyn and all the others at my side. And in the end, I came home with Sam to my own garden.

Now I can watch them – and The Hobbit  movies as well – for escapist style entertainment, but there is always at least a hint of magic that lingers. The music has brought its own gifts, which I’ll share with you in a subsequent post.




Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth – Unexpected Gifts — 25 Comments

  1. Lovely.

    I’m in the “love them” camp, too, although the Jackson films do have their flaws. It’s time for me to watch them again. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Deborah, thanks for sharing the way some kinds of “escapism” can help us heal. I, too, love the first 3 films (the Hobbit ones not so much, but I never liked that novel the way I love the trilogy). And my husband dreads it when I pull out the extended version DVDs for a holiday marathon. I banished him from the room after he commented on Boromir’s death scene: “He’s kind of a glass half empty guy, isn’t he?” Different strokes….

    • Different strokes, indeed.

      Alas, it is not possible to isolate the television viewing space from the rest of our house. The last couple of times I’ve indulged in such a marathon, I went up to my daughter and her wife’s place — at the time, we had an ancient and fairly small tv and they had a rear-projection setup that felt very like a theater.

      Fortunately, my husband is sympathetic (as long as I don’t expect him to watch with me) and my older daughter, now living with us, is of my mind. I anticipate a process of negotiation so that no one feels exiled (or inhibited in enjoyment).

  3. I love the Jackson LoTR trilogy, too. I must have read the books at least twenty-five times over the years before the movies were made, and I remember what a thrill it was to sit in the theater when the opening shot of Hobbiton came up and experience a shock of recognition that the place in my head and the place on the screen were the same.

    • I had so many moments of “Yes, the film nailed it.” (Unlike the Bakshi and Rankin/Bass versions.) But I also sympathize with folks who had just the opposite reaction (“No, no, no, they got it dead wrong.”) I want everyone to share my delight, but on some level we don’t get to pick and choose how we respond viscerally.

      OMG yes to Hobbiton and the mountains and Moria and Lothlorien, not to mention the casting…

  4. I like aspects of the films, just have to stop before the end, because it is so viscerally disappointing to have five wishy-washing endings instead of the Scouring of the Shire. But I first enjoyed the movies with my young son, and that experience lingers when I rewatch.

    • When I view the films in terms of whether they are good movies or how they compare with the text, I see all these things. But when I watch them emotionally, I have quite a different experience, one I was trying to describe. When I read the books, I am often tempted to skip the Scouring of the Shire. It feels too much like “life is ruined forever by what happened to me,” instead of “yes I am changed forever but life is still glorious,” which I think the films deliver.

      It’s magical to watch them with someone else who takes equal delight in this vision of Middle Earth.

  5. I love the LOTR trilogy (missing scenes notwithstanding); in fact, I like the movies a lot better than the books. Heresy, I know. But I never would have imagined a place that is so vividly Middle-Earth as New Zealand, and the casting is utterly perfect.

    However, I have no interest in watching The Hobbit get dragged out over three movies. For one thing, it’s a relatively short book that doesn’t need to be a movie trilogy. For another, it’s such a sausage fest that Jackson had to invent a female character for it. And for a third, Martin Freeman. I’m not crazy about Martin Freeman.

    (I would have just had half the dwarves be women [including the King Under the Mountain, and no, Thorin would not have become the Queen] and had Bilbo discover that they weren’t all physically male, hobbit assumptions and translations of dwarven pronouns notwithstanding. Anyway, with Tumblr being what it is, I feel like I’ve seen The Hobbit trilogy already. Several dozen times.)

    • There are a couple of emotional “money shots” in The Hobbit films, including a moment when Bilbo realizes what the Ring is doing to him (it’s in the second film, during the fight with the spiders). So much in just a few seconds, and sets up how he resisted the evil of the Ring, as Gandalf observed.

    • I was agnostic about the first film and COULD NOT WAIT to see the other two. Instead of thinly skipping over events, the films give them room to breathe. (And yes, some scenes are a little long, but I came out of the first film with a feeling of ‘that’s it? Already?’ rather than ‘OMG, that went on forever.) It’s not just hobbits, but little people in general who get to shine; the noble elves, and noble wizards are… well, the elves are letting people starve _nobly_, so that’s alright, then? Not in Jackson’s eye.

      • A friend loathed the first movie, and as far as I know never saw The Desolation of Smaug or The Battle of Five Armies. She said the point of the book was “Greed makes you stupid” and all this other stuff from the Appendices didn’t belong. That got me thinking that maybe she considered the book as a stand-alone, rather than an integral part of Tolkien’s vast landscape of Middle Earth. (I recently read his letters, where he talks about regretting framing it as a children’s book and all the stuff he wished he had the time to revise to make it flow naturally into the Rings trilogy.)

        So if the Jackson Hobbit movies are true prequels to the Rings, and integrated with the Appendices and all that, they are more about, “Sauron’s spirit is stirring, hunting the Ring, and seeking to control the last living dragon…” And by the way, “Here’s how Sauron seduces Saruman and Bilbo comes by the Ring.” Yep, that’ll take 3 movies.

        No one will ever convince me Tauriel is anything less than amazing.

  6. I enjoyed the LOTR movies, though there were too many hordes of orcs and battle scenes and I would have liked a lot more ents.

    The Hobbit movies are OK (except also full of hordes of goblins and orcs and battle scenes), but bear very little resemblance to the book. Since I love the book, I find the movies disappointing and don’t care if I see them. In general, I wish people would stop making movies out of great novels, because they rarely do them justice. I will never forgive Robert Altman for the travesty he made of The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler’s best novel. If he wanted to do a spoof on hard boiled detectives, he should have picked a crappy book or just made it up!

    BTW, I love Tom Bombadill, regardless of whether he furthers the plot or not. But it was probably a good idea to leave him out of the movie. Novels can take sidetracks, but movies really can’t.

    • Jackson and Philippa Boyens talked about that in the director’s commentary (I love the commentaries — great insights into the story-telling process in a different medium).

      I think I’m a little scared of Tom Bombadil.

      Has there ever been a good movie adaptation of a book? Good movies, yes, but I wonder if you can ever translate great prose narrative on to film.

      • I loved the movie version of The Name of the Rose. I also loved the book, which is very complicated. The movie director and/or scriptwriter wisely decided to focus on only part of the story. When I saw the movie, I thought “people used to really believe in angels and devils.” When I read the book, I thought “not all of them did.” You couldn’t have told the more complex tale in a movie. I think focusing on part of the story is the only way to do a good movie adaptation of a novel, and only some novels can be done that way. It’s why I think adapting short stories to movies makes much more sense.

  7. I am glad you are finding the films cathartic.
    I didn’t expect to love them – I liked the book just fine – but I’m firmly in the ‘yes, there are problems, but I love the films anyway’ camp. They’re a different retelling of the same story, sharing the core of it, and then having different opinions on other things. Compared to the early Harry Potter films which stuck almost word-by-word to much of the text, which *didn’t* use filmic tricks for things films does better than text, and which completely failed to convey a sense of magic (mechanical staircases rather than ones ‘that lead to a different place on Tuesdays’) I have to say that I’d rather have a film done by people who understand film than one that’s ‘true to the book’ and tries to be a moving illustrated book and fails as a film.

    • Listening to the director’s commentaries of the Rings and Hobbit movies, I was struck by the care taken to translate the spirit of the books into film. That of course necessitates personal judgment, and that’s where some quarrel most loudly with Jackson. I think it’s also why the Jackson films move me in ways the books never did.

  8. These movies are really relaxing. I mean I have tried hard. Once, I managed to stay awake all the way to Moria but usually am snoring before they get anywhere near Bree. (And I always stay awake during a Star Wars marathon or, so help me whoever, Gone With The Wind For The Fiftieth Time!)
    Still have to ascertain whether the movies have barrow-wights. Some people root for Sam, or Frodo, or the Elves, or Aragorn; I am all for the poor dead guys being robbed blind.
    Loved the books. Except there weren`t enough barrow-wights;)

  9. BTW, I really loved the books when I read them in college. Re-reading LOTR got me through law school — I re-read it during finals every semester, usually starting at some favorite part and eventually going back and reading the whole thing.

    But when I re-read it when the movies came out, I found the prose stiff and that the story dragged in a lot of places. It doesn’t move me the way it used to. But I’m grateful for it as part of my youth.

    • Which is great. I truly have no problem with films (or chocolate, for that matter) that click for one person and leave another wishing they’d spent their time in some other way. If, on the other hand, the books are glorious for you — hooray! It’s so wonderful when any story makes our hearts sing.

      What intrigues me is my own visceral reaction, the way the films but not the books interact with my particular story. I’ve heard folks say this about dreadful books — poetry — music, too.