Tolkien vs. Jackson: An Open Letter to Orson Scott Card

Sigh. All right, one more Tolkien related post before it’s back to business as usual. I swear. Just one.

Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite authors. I admit to not having read a lot of his work, though. I do remember reading The Memory of Earth, Ender’s Game, and a few of his short stories, as well as a truckload of essays he publishes in the Rhino Times. His writing advice is solid. I like the way he says things.

But that makes it all the more disappointing when he keeps harping on a particular issue. Every time I’ve seen him refer to Tolkien’s body of work, he feels compelled to throw a tantrum that Jackson “ruined” Lord of the Rings as he brought it to the silver screen. And now the same accusation has been flung against the first Hobbit movie. These films do happen to be my favorites of all time, but that is not why I’m disappointed in his Grumpy Old Man routine; it’s the fact that he keeps going back to it, like the proverbial canine returning to its regurgitated meal.

I don’t expect him to pay me any attention. He’s a big-time, talented writer, and here’s little me, shaking my head on the sidelines. But someone needed to say this, and I didn’t see anyone else calling him out for it. So, without further ado:

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Dear Mr. Card,

We get it. You like to attribute movies you don’t appreciate to dumb Hollywood executives and incompetent directors, following the wrong formulas taught in screenwriting classes. I have heard this complaint over and over and over again. But does it really apply to Jackson’s accomplishment?

I remember from one of the DVD featurettes a teary-eyed John Rhys-Davies — who played Gimli, and was therefore heavily involved in the trilogy’s production — giving his thanks to the whole crew and cast, saying of their love and dedication to bringing Tolkien’s work to the screen, “You won’t find that in LA.” If there is any big-budget movie series that wasn’t subjected to the all-too-common incompetence and cynicism of Hollywood, it was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everything from the dialogue to the props was crafted with the care of a historical epic and the passion of people who had been in love with Middle Earth all their lives. And now The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings us another movie that is a similarly excellent labor of love from the same people. Even that doesn’t stop you from parroting the myth that The Hobbit was padded out into a trilogy purely for financial reasons. And doesn’t the accusation of padding fly in the face with the complaint that so many “vital” parts of the trilogy were cut out from Lord of the Rings? Too short, then too long. Are you going to have your cake or eat it?

I understand that you appreciate Tolkien in a very particular way, and have spent decades enjoying the story as only you could enjoy it. And maybe the differences between the original books and Jackson’s interpretation felt like a betrayal to the vision you had cultivated and examined and appreciated for so many years. But that should be a matter that is stated once or twice, and then left alone for the opinion and private reaction that it is. It gets under people’s skin when you go back to the same complaint time and time again.

Take as an example the Scouring of the Shire. How Peter Jackson changed the ending made it work better as a movie, even if the book’s ending worked perfectly as a novel. If he’d kept the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King, it would have dragged out the story past the central conflict: the danger and destruction of the Ring. Which, again, works fine in the story’s original form, but drags a movie out even more than the myriad endings we already got. I would have left the theater disappointed and more than a little upset.

Granted, I have learned much about storytelling since then, and am in more of a position to appreciate the Scouring of the Shire and what Tolkien was accomplishing with it, but even now that is all I can do: appreciate it. Not love it. Not find it quickening my imagination. And it undeniably would be a frustrating, dour note to conclude a movie on. But because Jackson left the Shire blessedly intact, I walked out of that theater elated, thinking “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a fantasy writer.”

Some of us were inspired toward fantasy, toward becoming writers, toward the wonders and treasures of Tolkien’s world, because of Jackson and company’s tireless efforts. I should know; I’m one of them. And in honesty, ever since I read the trilogy and The Hobbit, and then saw the movies, I admit to liking Jackson’s Middle Earth even more than Tolkien’s. That’s partly because of personal taste, and partly because of the necessary differences between novels and movies. I’m beginning to think that it isn’t Hollywood’s fault, but yours that it has taken so long for an Ender’s Game movie to finally get made. Clearly you don’t get along well with the movie business and have been far too lacking in cooperation or trust with people who care about storytelling just as much as you do, only in a different medium.

A writer of your talent and sophistication dragging out the same misguided complaints amounts to little more than eloquent trolling. I will still be reading your work, but will stay firmly within your fiction, where I don’t have to hear this bellyaching anymore. And I do look forward to seeing Ender’s Game in theaters, hoping I don’t find myself saying it was a violent betrayal of your own novel. Because I’ve had my fill of writers saying movies ruin the books they’re based on, and don’t want to fall into the same trap.

With sincerest regards,

John K. Patterson

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My Return to Middle Earth

Well, I am back from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. What did I think of it?

Hobbit

Run like the wind to the cinema! Go! Now!

Peter Jackson and company have taken us back to Middle Earth, which of course is already a compelling reason to go see it. But they also fulfilled my hopes and dreams, doing justice to Tolkien’s timeless book while adding layers to the story. I was grinning through most of the film, and was completely enraptured. The performances are astounding, especially the main three: Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, Ian McKellen is back and amazing as ever as Gandalf the Grey, and Richard Armitage holds his own as the charismatic, intense king of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. Andy Serkis delivers a Gollum that is even more convincing and remarkable than the one in the trilogy, if that was possible.

Of course, the special effects and landscapes are beyond beautiful (New Zealand is proof that there is a God). The Dwarves are by turns hilarious and rip-roaring awesome. Howard Shore delivers a terrific musical score that stirs the heart and puts visions of dragons and fires and grand adventures in your mind. Really, must I go into detail? It felt like going back home. I could hardly be happier with the result. In fact, I have to confess something that might be blasphemy: I liked it more than the book. There are fewer times when Bilbo is saved by “sheer luck.” He has to rely more on his own wits and the assistance of the Dwarves or Gandalf to get him out of sticky situations. Plus, all of the extra stuff they’re pulling in from Tolkien’s appendices gives the movie a greater epic quality, and heightens the stakes of the main adventure to the Lonely Mountain.

Of course, it seems as if some aren’t nearly as delighted about it. Critics and nerds across the world are in fidgeting rage over this film. Did they kill Gandalf at the end? Nope. Is Smaug the dragon wearing a tutu? We don’t see much of him, but I didn’t notice any pink lace.

Evidently, the reason everyone’s tying their undergarments in a slip knot is the deliberate pace of An Unexpected Journey. Yup. A deliberate pace. All right, if your heart attack is over, I’d like to calmly explain why this shouldn’t earn the movie a paltry 65% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies require an audience who is in it for the long haul. The beginning of this film does require a little patience. And the scene with the three trolls around a campfire, though fun and funny, might have benefited from a bit of extra editing. I grant that much. But why should these count so heavily against the film, when Jackson has made it clear that he will be spinning a much larger tapestry than what Tolkien’s children’s book alone could hold? He is fleshing out Middle Earth itself, casting light on the milieu of Tolkien’s astounding creation.

Given such circumstances, I find a nice slow beginning not only acceptable but arguably necessary. It’s the same reason I didn’t object in the slightest to Return of the King having “too many” endings. I’d just seen ten hours of an epic story unfolding through three movies and dozens of characters. There had better be a lot of endings, so we can be satisfied that each character and subplot gets some kind of resolution even as the larger tale slowly draws to a close.

I’ve been going through Orson Scott Card’s book Characters and Viewpoint (which I highly recommend), and one of the latest chapters I’ve read devotes several paragraphs to showing how Tolkien is a storyteller who focuses on the world, fleshing it out to show us a place so convincing and detailed, you believe it might actually exist. Tidy narratives and compelling characters do sometimes find a place in the setting, but the attention is on Middle Earth itself. This is even true of The Hobbit as a book, which is a shorter adventure tale. Even here, where the plot is much more reined in than Lord of the Rings, Tolkien takes his time to show us the people of Dale, outline the customs of Hobbits, flesh out the family line of Bilbo Baggins, and makes us feel the anguish of the Dwarves whose mountain and treasure has been cruelly stolen by the dragon Smaug. Even here, Tolkien makes the world as much a character as Gandalf or Bilbo or Thorin.

The director and writers are taking their time to set the stage for a grander story, a story I can’t wait to see unfold. I have come to trust this crew of people, given what they accomplished with Lord of the Rings. If they want to tell a larger tale through this new trilogy, they are more than welcome to do so.

Well done, ladies and gentlemen. You have delivered one of the greatest movies of the year, and you captured my imagination all over again.