Why I’m Not a Tolkien Purist

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.

6 thoughts on “Why I’m Not a Tolkien Purist

  1. Thank you for these posts – I very much enjoy seeing new perspectives on Tolkien and his work, particularly if I find aspects to wonder about or even disagree with 🙂

    Though I usually do not call myself a ‘Tolkien fan’ (preferring to call myself a student of Tolkien’s life and works), I am well aware that others might use that word about me (as long as nobody calls me a ‘true fan’ … or ‘ringer’ – I’d consider those as insults). I am also highly critical of the works of Rankin & Bass, Bakshi, Latyshev, Russ, Jackson and others when viewed as representations of Tolkien’s work, and as such I suppose I may be accused of being a ‘purist’ (again I wouldn’t use that word myself, but on the other hand I’d rather be associated with purity than its opposite).

    With that in mind, I have to say that I cannot recognise the position you outline as ‘purist’, neither from myself or from most of the people I have discussed this with. For me there is no question of whether an adapting artist should be allowed to make the work their own – of course they should! The only obligation of the adapting artist should be to create a good, new work of art. The point, however, is that the result is an entirely new work: a completely new story about a completely different set of characters in a completely different world. What gets at me is the lack of recognition that these two works of art – the original book and the adaptation – essentially cannot be used to say anything about each other; the umbilical cord has been cut completely and the adaptation is not a representation of the original.

    Therefore, trying to use either as a guide to the other will lead to more misunderstanding than understanding – if you try to understand Tolkien through the lens of Jackson, you will be led astray.

    Insisting on the freedom of the adapting artist to create their own work without any obligation of “faithfulness” to the original artist, or “closeness” to the original work, I must of course also insist on my own freedom – and that of any other person in the audience – to like or dislike the adaptation for whatever reasons, or for no reason at all. If I should want to dislike any of the Hobbit films (I have seen 6 Hobbit films – and know of at least one that I haven’t seen) for deviating too far from Tolkien (actually I do not – none of them are remotely close enough to Tolkien’s story to elicit that kind of emotional reaction from me), that would be my own business.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading what I’ve produced so far.

    Naturally, I absolutely believe that purists, or whichever term one uses, should be allowed to express their opinions and dislike Jackson, though I don’t adopt that reading position myself. Nor do I think that Jackson’s and Tolkien’s works can’t speak to one another, in large part because I don’t think that Tolkien’s vision or intent is the sole defining vision governing how I read his texts.

    Again, though, I do think there are many paths to Middle-earth, and part of the pleasure is in sharing our different perspectives on those paths.

  3. Thank you for the kind response, and yes, I have certainly enjoyed reading your blog.

    In the interest of learning (I am not trying to convince you or anyone else of the righteousness of my ideas), I’d like to pursue this a bit further …

    In the post, you say “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.” To take the first part first, I would agree that authorial intention cannot be fully recovered, but I firmly believe that if the author is careful with what they write (and I would argue that Tolkien was that), attentive and careful readers can come very close to recovering the authorial intention – close enough to make no difference in most instances.

    The latter part, as I understand you, resonates with the statement that you “don’t think that Tolkien’s vision or intent is the sole defining vision governing how I read his texts.” While I cannot disagree to this, I nonetheless feel that there is something about the emphasis that makes me pause.

    While I doubt anyone in their right mind would deny that our own experiences, knowledge etc. colours how we read a text, or would argue that this should be avoided, I still think that there is a tendency to over-emphasise this aspect.

    Firstly, I will point out how scholarship has evolved throughout the years precisely through the medium of text. Letters got sent round in a community where travelling was difficult, and books got printed that was also shared. This is how our understanding – our cognition? (I am searching for a word corresponding to the Danish erkendelse, German Erkenntnis) – of the world has grown, and it shows that it is possible to share ideas in writing so that only negligible parts of the authorial intent is lost. This requires, of course, a certain care and attention on both parts (author and reader), but it is possible. I would accept that there is a difference between fiction and a scientific text, but the difference, in my opinion, is not that large.

    Secondly, the authorial intention or vision is common for all readers, and that, in my view, gives it a very special place, a far greater importance than the individual layers of applicability that makes our reading diverge – for me there is little point in discussing the text unless the focus is on that which is common to us all. Personally I prefer to focus on that which is common, that which connects us rather than that which separates us.

    All this (sorry about the length of this) to say that I think a part of our differences of perspective may be because I attach a relatively greater importance to the authorial intention and vision (but not absolute), and a relatively lower importance to the applicability of the readers.

    And once again, thank you for a chance to reflect on this 🙂

  4. I enjoyed this post, and your response, “I do think there are many paths to Middle-earth, and part of the pleasure is in sharing our different perspectives on those paths.”
    Thank you for sharing this.

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