It 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.