Tolkien at the Movies
JRR Tolkien’s magical work, The Lord of the Rings came into my hands middling early - 1966. I identified strongly with the hobbits, and still do. Now that I am older, my favorite is the curmudgeonly Bilbo. At any rate, just so you know, I’m not one of those Tolkienistas who see themselves as Arwen Evenstar. I know my place.
In company with Samwise, Tolkien’s elves take my breath away, but I’m far more hobbit-like. I love to dig; I love peace and quiet. I love unspoiled nature, large trees, and bird song. My idea of luxury is “a warm bath and a late breakfast on the lawn.” I loathe internal combustion engines, (especially those with uncivil radios and no mufflers) though, like everyone else, I’m forced to deal with the devil on a daily basis.
IMHO Ralph Bakshi, bless this tough and under-appreciated artist, actually got hold of the tail of the bejeweled, fire-breathing dragon that is Tolkien’s 1000+ page The Lord of the Rings. He held on through quite a long stretch of his much dissed animated 1978 feature - before the utter crash and burn of the Helm’s Deep section - that damned silly horn that toots alike for Good and Evil, and the weirdly static rotoscoped orcs of the finale. Nevertheless, I’ve found it interesting to note that some of the Bakshi screenplay is so good - and so necessary - that sections have slithered into Jackson's technically sophisticated movie, and are, therefore, well on their way to becoming “Tolkien Canon” - even though these scenes are NOT from the book.
Whether this is unintentional or not, I don’t claim to know. I’m inclined to believe that it has to do with the way human wiring appears to work. We are primarily a “sighted” animal. Filmmakers, certainly, even more the daily run of us, would be powerfully affected by visual imagery.
The first scene of this new “canon” that comes to mind, is the Escape off the Road. Read Tolkien, and you will find no such close encounter of the Black Breath Kind. This terrifying scene, of the black horseman on the top of the bank, while the hobbits hide and shake beneath the roots of an ancient tree, was first imagined by Bakshi. In Tolkien, the hobbits see, from a distance, a shadow that dismounts from a black horse to sniff the ground. Here, for the first time, Frodo feels that awful compulsion to do the very thing he’s been exhorted not to do by the Wizard Gandalf-put on the ring. In JRRT, there are several of these encounters.
“Just in time he threw himself down in a patch of long grass behind a tree which overshadowed the road. Round the corner came a black horse, no hobbit pony but a full sized horse; and on it sat a large man…wrapped in a great black cloak and hood…his face shadowed and invisible. When it reached the tree and level with Frodo, the horse stopped. From inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing to catch an elusive scent; the head turned from side to side.
A sudden unreasoning fear of discovery laid hold of Frodo, and he thought of the Ring. He hardly dared breathe, and yet the desire to get it out of his pocket became so strong that he began slowly to move his hand. He felt that he only had to slip it on, and then he would be safe."
It is only a chance meeting with Wood Elves that prevents the game from being up inside the borders of the Shire itself. These hide-and-seek games with the minions of Mordor occur as the hobbits, none too skillfully, cut across country on their way to Bree.
“They had no time to find any hiding place better than the general darkness under the trees. Sam and Pippin crouched behind a large tree bole, while Frodo crept back a few yards towards the lane … As Frodo watched, he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees… It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow… it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of sniffling. The shadow bent to the ground and began to crawl towards him. Once more the desire to slip on the Ring came over Frodo; but this time it was stronger than before. So strong that, almost before he realized what he was doing, his hand was groping in his pocket.”
Obviously, movies are made of images and books of words. Tolkien uses his long, carefully crafted paragraphs to create an ever-accumulating sensation of terror. We identify with this small humble being, stalked by an almost irresistible power. The Ringwriths can sense the presence of The Ring-and, more horrifyingly, scent the bearer's warm blood.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but to do the job, it’s got to be the right picture. By using the visual device of the cowering, shuddering hobbits and the stalking black shadow, Bakshi hastened the action by a giant step and brought along an audience that might not have known the story. Peter Jackson accelerates and enlarges Bakshi’s image. A cold wind whips the leaves on the forbidden road, and there is a crunching thud as the armored Ringwrith dismounts. The brilliantly engaged soundtrack also enlarges the impact of the Jackson’s film far beyond the Bakshi effort. Those spine chilling bass notes drag us and our fears into the story, while we share the hobbits’ frozen amazement as worms, spiders, and many-leggers run for their lives.
Another scene that appears only in the films, the Ringwraith attack upon the inn at Bree, is a defining moment. In both films, the visuals are remarkable. Once again, however, the attack itself is only indirectly described by Tolkien. The inspiration for the inn scene is particularly distant. Tolkien evidently thought it better to write around the subject, and simply allow his readers’ imagination - always a wise choice -- to create the fear of these undead Kings. If we take a look at the screenplays of Bakshi and Jackson, we will see Tolkien’s hints and allusions at work, sending screenwriters and artists into imagination overdrive.
In the early night Frodo woke from deep sleep, suddenly, as if some sound or presence had disturbed him. He saw that Strider was sitting alert in his chair: his eyes gleamed in the light of the fire, which had been tended and was burning brightly; but he made no sign of movement.
Frodo soon went to sleep again; but his dreams were again troubled with the noise of wind and of galloping hoofs. The wind seemed to be curling around the house and shaking it; and far off he heard a horn blowing wildly. He opened his eyes, and heard a cock crowing lustily in the inn-yard. Strider had drawn the curtains and pushed back the shutters with a clang. The first grey light of day was in the room. . .
As soon as Strider had roused them all, he led the way to their bedrooms. When they saw them they were glad that they had taken his advice: the windows had been forced open and were swinging, and the curtains were flapping; the beds were tossed about, and the bolsters slashed and flung upon the floor; the brown mat was torn to pieces.
This is not much upon which to base the hellish, circling, wailing Wraiths of Bakshi and Jackson. Perhaps the filmmakers are actually sourcing an earlier passage, in which Tolkien flashbacks to a house in Crickhollow, in Buckland, an earlier stop on Frodo's journey, one not included in either screenplay. Here, a friend has taken the dangerous job of pretending to be Frodo in order to throw off any pursuit. The hobbit Fatty Bolger gets far more than he bargained for.
The night deepened. There came the soft sound of horses led with stealth along the lane. Outside the gate they stopped, and three black figures entered, like shades of night creeping across the ground. One went to the door, one to the corner of the house on either side; and there they stood, still as the shadows of stones, while night went slowly on. The house and the quiet trees seemed to be waiting breathlessly.
There was a faint stir in the leaves, and a cock crowed far away. The cold hour before dawn was passing. The figure by the door moved. In the dark without moon or stars a drawn blade gleamed, as if a chill light had been unsheathed. There was a blow, soft but heavy, and the door shuddered.
“Open in the name of Mordor”! Said a voice thin and menacing.
At a second blow the door yielded and fell back, with timbers burst and lock broken. The black figures passed swiftly in.
At that moment, among the trees nearby, a horn rang out. It rent the night like fire on a hilltop.
AWAKE! FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE!
Fatty Bolger had not been idle. As soon as he saw the dark shapes creep from the garden, he knew that he must run for it, or perish. And run he did, out of the back door, through the garden, and over the fields. When he reached the nearest house, more than a mile away, he collapsed on the doorstep. “No, no no!” he was crying “no, not me! I haven't got it!”
It’s probably a matter of taste whether you prefer Bakshi’s invasion of the inn to Jackson’s. Jackson goes for the big screen gesture: the roaring Mordor theme, plunging, panicked horses and a (deservingly) flattened gatekeeper. Bakshi’s advantage here is that the otherworldliness of the Ringwraiths lends itself to animation. This artist has opened more than a few of the doors of perception - particularly those that are part of the great superhighway to the underworld.
Bakshi’s Ringwraiths unbolt their gate with a silent spell. They ride silently through the sleeping town and disappear-only to reappear inside the hobbit rooms at the inn, swords raised against a background that magically drenches itself in a watercolor blur of red. Their circling scream of rage when they discover they have been cheated of their quarry raises the kind of fear that comes from deep in the base of the brain--echoes of The Wild Hunt. Note that Jackson’s Ringwraiths, in the extended DVD, also circle. Their unearthly scream may be heard, distantly, over the score. Poor Bakshi, as is well known, had a minimal score and wretched sound effects. He attempted to create a screenplay from a literary legend using the only tool at his command, his beautiful and disturbing artwork. Sometimes he aced it.
But hold up! There seems to be an interesting phenomena going on-perhaps, I admit, limited only to my mind. Although I believed I knew the ins and outs of The Lord of the Rings very well, a return to the printed page - after, I estimate, a fifteen year absence -- demonstrated that I didn’t. My initial response as I watched Peter Jackson's film was that he’d “stuck pretty much to the book.” In fact, not only Jackson, but Bakshi before him, were major adaptors, forced for the sake of their medium to cut and combine both characters and storylines, to exaggerate elements of violence and cliff-hanger drama at the expense of character and nuance. That earlier subjective response I had to the films seems a fair expression of the power of visual imagery over our sight-hunter brain. On another level, I guess that is why it's so easy and so much fun for hairless apes to go the movies.
Tolkien’s style is the slow build, carried by long, beautiful High Edwardian paragraphs. Tolkien’s use of language to draw us into his world is supreme. His “spells” and their effectiveness are acknowledged by countless fans who spend their days dreaming of Middle Earth. Despite the compulsions of another medium and the strong individual style of the filmakers, both “Rings” films retain an extreme flavor of the literary source. Perhaps that's why I was so certain that they were “faithful” to the book. Both films, in their disparate styles, have had a good bash at conveying to a general audience The Professor’s breath-taking creation.
This could go on forever, but that’s for someone who is 100% Tolkien crazy, not a mere 80% like me, so I’d better wind down. For the record, although I'm passionate about the films the actors, the costumes, the sets, and locations used by Peter Jackson, (ask my long-suffering friends!) in the end, I prefer the books. The long, dreary, painful war-time journey to save a world taken by two humble souls on foot, the seed bed for this inventive screenwriting, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterful fantasy.
~ Juliet Waldron
Quotes from The Fellowship of the Ring, Being the First part of The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-618-00222-7, copyright renewed 1994.
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