Part I: The Purists
“It began with the scripting of the great shows. Three were given to HBO, immortal, wisest and fairest of all streaming. Seven To Hulu, great syndicators and craftsmen of the Digital Halls. And Nine, nine shows were gifted to the platform of Netflix, who above all else…desires power. For within these shows was bound the strength and will to govern each platform.
But They Were All Of Them Deceived. For Another Show Was Made…
In the Land Of New Zealand, In The Fires Of Mount Prime, The Dark Lord Bezos Forged In Secret A Master Show To Control All Others! And Into This Show He Poured All His Cruelty, His Malice, And His Will To Dominate All Life. One Show To Them All!
From essentially the moment it was announced, The Dark Lord Bezos’ One Show To Rule Them All has been mired in impossible expectations. Purchased from The Tolkien Estate And Trust for $250 million with a commitment made to invest at least $1 Billion over five seasons (did we mention the first season has already spent almost half that much? ) Lord Of The Prime (no it’s not actually called that) is without doubt the most ambitious enterprise in Television history1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings_(TV_series). It is certainly the most expensive. And it will fail you. Let that sink in. For it is stark and sad, as are all the tales of Middle-Earth.
Besides the inevitable and pointless racial controversies revolving around whether the show is too White or not White enough, The Lord of the Prime has not been without some potentially troubling behind-the-scenes developments. First of all, let’s get some backstory. The original trilogy won 17 Academy Awards, and is almost universally beloved by those who actually watched it. I say almost, because the trilogy is not without its detractors, who fall into essentially two camps: Tolkien Purists and The Professionally Outraged (read: “LORD OF THE RINGS IS RACIST! RACIST!”… okay…) I have no desire to hand waive either of these camps, who form the majority of the impulse for this piece, because to do so would give them both a satisfaction they don’t deserve. And neither of them are entirely wrong on the substance of their criticisms, so much as they are entirely wrong in the dogmatic and puerile spirit with which they would damn the greatest cinematic accomplishment of the 21st century.
Among the first camp we must sadly include none other than Christopher Tolkien himself, J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary executor. Despite the massive critical and commercial success of the trilogy, his verdict was harsh:
“Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” he pondered. “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.”2https://workbench.cadenhead.org/news/3709/christopher-tolkien-hates-peter-jackson#:~:text=%20Christopher%20Tolkien%20Hates%20the%20Peter%20Jackson%20Movies.,books%20in%20three%20years%2C%20a%201%2C000%20percent%20increase%3A
This statement is false. I am well aware that there are legions of Tolkienists who would have my head for daring to question the man who gave us the greater part of the Legendarium from Tolkien’s unpublished works and whom Tolkien himself referred to as his “chief critic and collaborator”3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Tolkien [Under “Editorial Work”] but these and other statements he has made to the same effect ( “They evisceratedthe book, making an action film for 15 to 25-year-olds.”)4https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Tolkien [Under “Reaction To Filmed Versions”] are misguided. The Lord Of The Rings Film Trilogy is not a one-to-one adaptation of the novel, nor does it try to be, nor would it be successful had it tried. To substantiate the final point, a very simple Quora post puts the case succinctly5https://qr.ae/pGAW9Q. Alex Robinson’s case is airtight. The novel by its very structure resists adaptation. Consider the denouement of the first film as a case in point.
In the novel, The Breaking Of The Fellowship and The Departure Of Boromir are separate chapters. There is no natural climax to The Fellowship Of The Ring. Even if the arbitrary trilogy structure imposed on Tolkien by his publisher is omitted, we are still left with a crucial fork in the narrative that more or less falls limp. The film rewrites these events completely, combining The Breaking Of The Fellowship and The Departure Of Boromir in the set piece Battle Of The Amon Hen, which manages to synthesize an incredible climax out of these chapters.
It is hard to understate Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens’ achievement on a directorial and writing level. The final twenty minutes of The Lord Of Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring are among the strongest conclusions to a narrative encounterable in any artistic medium. In that time we have the temptation and redemptive death of Boromir; Frodo’s spiritual coming of age; Aragorn shouldering the burden of kingship; and the valiant, even joyful, decision of the company to press on with the mission and rescue their friends in the wake of what has objectively been a succession of catastrophes. Gandalf is dead*. Boromir has been slain. Merry and Pippin face torture and murder unless Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli can succeed in a desperate chase to hunt down their captors. Frodo has chosen a perilous journey into Hell without the help of his most martial companions, and Sam’s faithfulness will be tested relentlessly by the dehumanization of the love of his life under the burden of the Ring (They’re gay. Deal with it.)
If the series can rightly be said to omit some of the psychological depth and world-building intricacy present in the novel (some of which is restored in the Extended Editions), it cannot be debated that at the level of monomyth6 That is, The Hero’s Journey, the ending of The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring is a triumph of artistry and the human spirit. This goes beyond Tolkien fils’s ironic denunciation of the work as “an action film”, i.e. escapism. He would have done well to remember the words of his predecessor on the subject:
“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”7https://thetolkienist.com/2014/01/03/not-a-tolkien-quote-fantasy-is-escapist-and-that-is-its-glory/ Note: The article is disputing a paraphrase of a popular Tolkien quote. I have quoted Tolkien directly, whose real words are offered in the article as a corrective.
It is doubtful that the films would have pleased Tolkien, as none of Jackson’s predecessors who attempted to adapt them received his or the public’s approbation in the matter8https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings. But if the films would perhaps have been perceived as at best a middling effort on Tolkien’s terms, on their own terms they are triumphant. On a technical level, their practical and special effects achieved a believability and realism uncommon in the CGI-clotted 2010s and 2020s, the stupidities of which were laid bare in the subsequent Hobbit trilogy, which was made with far more studio interference and as the product of multiple acrimonious contractual disputes9https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hobbit_(film_series)#Development [Under “Development”]. On a narrative level they are a grand opera, with an emotional core unequaled in high fantasy and blockbuster filmaking.