It's been twenty years since the release of the first film in his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. A youngster named Jack Butler, writing at National Review, gives what I think is a fairly good appraisal of the whole effort. I say that even though my own view is somewhat more negative than his. I think the article is subscriber-only, so I'll quote liberally from it:
It is widely acknowledged that there are many serious differences between Jackson’s adaptation and Tolkien’s novel. Answers vary, however, to the question whether Jackson’s work maintains Tolkien’s spirit or ruins it. Ian McKellen, who plays the noble wizard Gandalf, has remarked that “the enthusiasts who have read the novels over and over may notice every change but in doing so they will miss the point.” On the other hand, Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son and literary executor, complained that Jackson and his crew had “eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25.”
Who is right? Both — and neither. Some of Jackson’s innovations do make sense, at least when considered in light of the exigencies of filmmaking..... Other of Jackson’s changes are blatant concessions to Hollywood blockbuster sensibilities.....
There are also some fairly egregious changes to certain characters....
Even more notable is the mutation of Aragorn. Jackson’s version is unsure whether he is worthy of assuming his kingly destiny. His story becomes much more a standard hero’s journey. Tolkien gives Aragorn the occasional stumble, but he is largely intent on his destiny from the moment we meet him. Jackson’s alteration of Aragorn partly recenters the movies on him and his internal conflict, somewhat shortchanging Frodo and the hobbits in their respective journeys.
Bradley J. Birzer, a Tolkien scholar and professor of history at Hillsdale College, believes that Tolkien would not have approved of the films. “They’re too violent and have too much action with not enough focus on the philosophical elements of the books,” Birzer has said. There is some truth to that observation, too. Some of the thematic depth of The Lord of the Rings, such as what Tolkien called its “fundamentally religious” (Catholic) nature, is mostly (though not entirely) subdued in Jackson’s trilogy.
Whatever the flaws of Jackson’s films, they captured Tolkien’s spirit and much of the work’s philosophical core. As [Tolkien scholar Tom] Shippey put it, they preserve some of Tolkien’s more important themes, such as “the need for pity as well as courage, the vulnerability of the good, the true cost of evil.”
Even an imperfect representation of that essence puts Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy leagues above much of the dreck that Hollywood produces today.... But whatever complaints one may have about it, the deserved and enduring popularity of his original trilogy will continue to point new generations of readers to Tolkien’s work. And that will remain a virtue in itself.
I'm sure I've said this before, but it's probably been a while, so: I found that the further I got from the films the less highly I thought of them. My view now is closer to Christopher Tolkien's and Bradley Birzer's, though I still acknowledge that the films have their virtues and are considerably "above much of the dreck that Hollywood produces today." And I've never wanted to see them again, not so much because I disliked them as because I didn't want Jackson's often misguided imagery to take over my mind completely. I've only been partly successful in that effort.
There's a line in one of John Berryman's Dream Songs in which "Ol' Possum," presumably T. S. Eliot, says that he seldom goes to the cinema, because it's too powerful--or words to that effect. I have no idea which of the several hundred Dream Songs that occurs in and don't want to look for it, though it's most likely in 77 Dream Songs which was once and probably still is his most popular book. ("Popular" of course is a much more limited thing in modern poetry than in, say, film. Or even in literary fiction.) I understand Eliot's reservation, though I indulge to excess in moving pictures on the much smaller screen in my house. The visual impact and persistence of cinematic images is extremely strong and often unwelcome.
I think Peter Jackson's conception of Aragorn, for instance, is seriously flawed, not only for the reasons given above but simply visually. And I suppose that's partly the fault of the actor. But at any rate I still have it in my head. And I'm still annoyed by that stubble which looks like about a week's worth of beard, and neither grows nor disappears. When I see a celebrity going around like that (it seems still fashionable) I want to say "Either grow a beard or shave, dammit."
At the turn of the year this blog will be eighteen years old. The very first post, January 4, 2004, was a brief review of the third film in Jackson's Lord of the Rings. I more or less agree with what I said there, though as I say I'm a little more negative now than I was then. I still think this is probably true:
...it surely is the best possible screen treatment of the book. I do not mean that in a philosophical Panglossian but rather in a very straightforward sense: it is the best for which we could reasonably have hoped.
I could have added, for clarity, "considering the nature of the movie industry."
Amazon, as you may have heard, is producing some kind of Tolkien-based film project. As you may also have heard, they advertised for an "intimacy coordinator" to work on it. It will be surprising if whatever they produce doesn't justify another sentence from that 2004 post:
I fully expected that the movie industry could not touch such a work without soiling it.
A fantasy series called The Wheel of Time is currently being released, one episode per week, on Amazon. Because of a general weakness for fantasy, I've watched the first couple of them. I don't recommend it to anyone who doesn't really like fantasy, and only with reservations there. And I don't want to bother saying anything more about it than that it's well-produced and socially conscious entertainment. The first of those is a compliment, the second is not.