Scary Old Men

January 04, 2004


We went to see Return of the King last night - the first time we have had a baby-free date in months. Our thanks to Brother in Law & his fiancee who covered when our baby sitter had a family crisis. I want to write down a few words about the movie to figure out what was bugging me about it.

Any time you convert a book to a movie, you have to make changes. Lord of the Rings is a LOT of words, many of them description, and it was a terrific effort to translate it to the screen. They made some changes that worked - combining Arwen and Glorfindel in the first movie. They also made some changes that made no sense - the Warg attack in the second movie, the entire Arwen subplot in the second and third movies. What I want to talk through is a subtle but crucial change in style - it might just be that some things can not be filmed properly. Let me explain.

One of the recurring themes in the book is grand old men: Gandalf, Saruman, Theoden, Denethor and, although he has a smaller role in the book, Elrond. Grand old men are hard to film, or at least hard to film convincingly. Peter Jackson et al weakened Saruman, Theoden and Denethor as they simplified them for the screen. This is not hard to understand, for all three characters are rooted in patriarchy and hierarchy while modern movies are rooted in populism lite.

Theoden in the book mourns "A father should not have to bury a son." In the movie, he mourns that "A father should not have to bury a child." It is a small difference, but subtle. In the movie, Denethor is half-mad from the beginning. In the book, Denethor is a kind man, a stern man, and a troubled man all at the same time. Gandalf warns Pippin that Denethor is of the old blood, and can see much that is hidden. After Pippin is forced to tell the tale of the fellowship to Denethor, according to Gandalf's restrictions on what he may or may not tell, Gandalf consoles him that it is not so easy to be stuck between two terrible old men. Denethor is attractive - he prepares the city, he mourns his losses, he is old but stern wearing mail beneath his dress clothes and carrying a sword along with his rod of office. In the movie, they had to cut and they had to simplify, and in the process they made Denethor weak. The clash between Gandalf and Denethor becomes a clash between the strong who would fight and the weak who will not prepare, and not a clash between one who will gamble all on a risky play and one who will trust to the old ways and, when those fail and their vision is overwhelmed by the strength of the foe, falls into despair. There was a similar simplification of Theoden and Wormtongue, with the movie presenting Theoden as simply possession while in the book it was a subtler web of words and weakness around the grand old king.

Many of the changes that bug me were probably made because the audience of today is rooted in the lite populism of movies - poor folks are good, rich folks are villains, our hero will always be kind to the historically oppressed, racists and villains are one and the same, and so on. In the mythology of the modern movies, all hierarchy is bad and the hero will be one who seeks to over turn a static order; we celebrate the rogue who will not conform.

Tolkein's book is a celebration of organic society against the leveling future of war, machinery, and despair. This is most apparent in his section on the Scourging of the Shire, which the movie trimmed for space, but it appears as well in Gondor and in Rohan. Tolkein's characters swear oaths and fulfill them, Merry and Pippin insert themselves into the feudal hierarchy, and a crucial oath between Frodo and Smeagol shapes both their futures. Frodo has moral authority because of his class position as well as his role as ringbearer, and the grand old men also bear a charisma built on age, wisdom, and status.

I have some more thoughts inspired by the movie, but this is too long and I need to write some real stuff. More on this later.

Posted by Red Ted at January 4, 2004 11:42 AM | TrackBack