We Tolkien fans are, not surprisingly, a very diverse group. There are those of us, for example, who are exclusively fans of Tolkien’s original works (and even then there are further subdivisions, as there are those who only like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but not The Silmarillion). There are those who came to Tolkien and then came to the Jackson films, and then there are those that came in the reverse order. Perhaps no group is as devout, and often as judgmental, as the purists ( my Mother, who introduced me to Tolkien all those years ago, is most definitely one of them).
I think most Tolkien purists would agree with the assessment that, for them, Tolkien’s words and vision are, if not perfect, then quite adequate as they are and do not need meddling or changing, even in a film adaptation. The most die-hard among them (the most famous and high-profile being Christopher Tolkien), have even gone so far as to say t Tolkien’s work is, in essence, unfilmable. How could any film, and perhaps any television series, possibly do justice to a world so elaborately and meticulously developed as Middle-eath and a novel so equally developed as Lord of the Rings? For that matter, how to convey so many of the rich and deep themes that Tolkien does explicitly through language?
Now, I’ve never aligned myself with the Tolkien purists, though I do recognize the validity of their viewpoint and am sympathetic to the concerns they raise about, for example, the translation of Tolkien’s work into screen (most notably in the films of Peter Jackson). However, as a passionate fan of both film and the written word as Tolkien set it out, I always find myself caught in something of a conundrum, one that I’m sure many people who are fans of novels find themselves in when their beloved text is brought to the screen. However, I do not find myself caught up (as a rule) in the mindset that Tolkien’s vision for his works should be respected at all costs, not least because, as a student of post-structuralism, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and the like, I don’t really think that authorial intention is ever fully recoverable nor should it be the only way that we read or take pleasure from a text. Again, this is not to devalue that particular way of reading (and, indeed, I think with Tolkien it can be very productive to think through the author-centric perspective), but that shouldn’t, in my view, be the only, or even the dominant, aesthetic criteria by which to judge Jackson, or any other filmmaker’s, interpretation of it. (Also, if I read one more reviewer or commenter who says that Jackson thinks he’s a better storyteller than Tolkien I think I shall scream).
Part of my coping mechanism has been, I think, to recognize that Jackson is a fan, and that as a result he has a particular vision of Tolkien’s work that he would like the rest of the world to see and enjoy. This isn’t necessarily to excuse all of the decisions that he has made, particularly when it comes to the recent Hobbit films (though, as I have said elsewhere, I think they are truer to Tolkien’s vision than a lot of people give them credit for being). After all, I still cannot quite wrap my head around the idea of the were-worms, even though it’s pretty thoroughly proven that they are, tangentially, canonical. However, thinking of Jackson as a fan, and thinking of any work of adaptation, as a fan text can, I think, allow us as Tolkien fans to begin to find other ways of taking pleasure in and enjoying these texts. I also remind myself that Jackson, like myself and countless others, particularly those who write fan fiction, has a stake in this vision, which helps me from becoming too irate at the changes he has made.
Remaining wed to a purist point of view, for me at least, proves more crippling than enabling. Spending the entirety of a Jackson film nitpicking and teasing out every single change can provide pleasure, it is true, but for me it ultimately proves tedious and spoils the pleasure of the visual. There are, I think, much more compelling ways of talking about the changes required from page to screen, as well as the motivations (both of the filmmaker and others) that motivate such changes. It also, I would argue, helps us to think more complexly about the ways in which Tolkien’s works change and become ever more enmeshed in the world around them. I suppose the most compelling reason that I am not a Tolkien purist is my belief that, no matter how many changes are made to Tolkien’s works as they are adapted to different media (and I know I’m not the only one holding out for a TV serial drama to be made at some point in the not-too-different future), the original works, complete with all of the other commentary that both J.R.R. and Christopher, and countless others, have provided, are still waiting for me, resting at their ease on my bookshelf.