Tag Archives: tolkien on film

Reading Tolkien in the Time of Trump

Now that it’s Tolkien Appreciation Month here at Queerly Different, I thought I’d begin this year’s month with a post about the Sauron of the 21st Century, the President-Elect of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

Now, I know what some of you are no doubt thinking. Isn’t that hyperbolic? Isn’t it dangerous to conflate the doings of a mythological tyrant in a fantasy novel (no matter how popular and seemingly timeless) with the doings of an elected world leader in 21st Century America? Besides, what can a fantasy novel of any kind tell us about the workings and dangers of politics and tyrants in the real world?

Perhaps these are sound and reasonable questions, but as I was re-rewatching The Fellowship of the Ring with my students, and as I’ve begun my annual re-read of Tolkien’s work, it occurs to me that not only are there a lot of similarities between the Third Age of Middle-earth and our contemporary political; there are also a number of things that Tolkien’s magnum opus can tell us about how we relate to the world around us and how we can make sense of a world in which the forces of darkness and oppression seem to have been given a new form of life.

Furthermore, I think it’s worth pointing out that that political treatises and other straightforwardly nonfiction pieces are not the only works that help to shed light on the perilous world in which we live. Tolkien’s work, like the best works of fiction (including and especially those in the fantasy genre) help to hold up a mirror to our own world, to help us critically think about how we engage with the world around us.

As always, I was particularly struck by Frodo’s lament very early in the book that he wishes that he had not come into possession of the Ring and all of the trouble that it brings with it. His desire is an understandable one, as it is always difficult to live in a time where the things we’ve taken for granted–the peace, the stability, the steady movement toward a better world–seem abruptly under siege by a seemingly overpowering tide. It is, in these times, easy to give in to the temptation to be self-pitying and despairing.

Yet, as Gandalf sternly reprimands him, that is a sentiment expressed by all who live to see such times. However, it is not up to them to decide when they are born and in which they live; all that they can do is decide what to do with the time that is given to them. To me, this is an important reminder of what we can do now that all that we on the Left see everything that we cared for threatened with obliteration. It is not up to us to decide what happened now that it has past; it is, however, up to us to continue the fight, to continue working to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

In the wake of the election, and faced with the reports of hate crimes spiking in its aftermath, I’m reminded of Theoden’s most despairing line in the film version of The Two Towers:  “What can men do against such reckless hate?” It’s a powerful question precisely because it crystallizes so many of the narrative concerns of the novel as well. What, indeed, can individual men do against the forces that are so much greater than they? Is there any agency to be found in such a world? Sometimes, it seems that the answer to Theoden’s question is a simple, fatigued, utterly despairing, “nothing.”

Yet this also reminds me of Aragorn’s climactic speech, when he pronounces that the day when the strength of men fails is not the day that they face. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they will continue to fight, knowing that their strength alone may not be enough to save them. Just so, we on the Left must continue to fight, even know that we may not always succeed, even knowing that evil may yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, may yet again flee into some dark place and take a new shape. We must continue fighting, for to do anything else would be the worst sort of abrogation, the abandonment of the principles that we hold most dear.

Of course, it is also worth noting that the rise of Sauron  in the Third Age is due to a number of factors, but among them is the decline of the realm of Gondor and a growing sense of complacency. Even Gandalf, certainly one of the wisest figures left in that age of the world. For Gandalf at least it was, at least in a way, easier to believe the honeyed lies of Saruman regarding the fate of the Ring than it was to do what was necessary. As such, this incident is a cautionary tale on the dangers of complacency, of a willingness to ignore the gut warnings that we have about the very real dangers that exist in the world.

Thus, despite the darkness of spirit that seems to have fallen over many in the American Left (including yours truly), reading and watching The Lord of the Rings gives me hope that there is always hope, even it is just a fool’s hope. Tolkien’s work helps us to understand that we always have a moral and ethical responsibility to keep fighting the good fight, even when it appears in the immediate moment that we will be beaten down by the forces that are so much stronger than we are. We have an obligation to reach out to those who are weaker than we are, to show the spirit of compassion and mercy.

And if you need to still take a little more time to process your grief, to weep in frustration at the evils of the world, feel free to do that, too.

After all, as Gandalf poignantly reminds us, “I will not say do not weep. For not all tears are an evil.”

Re-Considering Rankin/Bass

It’s hard now to remember a day when Peter Jackson’s films (whatever one may think of them) were not the dominant, go-to examples of Tolkien on film.  Growing up in the 1990s, however, I clearly remember a time when, if you wanted to see Tolkien on screen, you had to go to either Rankin/Bass’s productions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King, or Ralph Bakshi’s ill-titled effort The Lord of the Rings.  While the Rankin/Bass versions have, with some justification, gone down in Tolkien history as horrible travesties, I want to reconsider them for a moment, to see if there is anything redeeming about them, especially for those who (like me) enjoy and love Jackson, but find some of his artistic choices questionable.

To begin with, I want to acknowledge some of the things that people most commonly complain about the Rankin/Bass The Hobbit and The Return of the King.  Their particular style of animation is not to everyone’s liking, and it works better in some films than others (it adds a peculiarly sad and exquisite beauty to The Last Unicorn, for example).  The artistic offenses are more egregious in The Hobbit, not only in the design of Bilbo (who comes out looking more like a frog than anything that anyone would identify as a hobbit), but also in Thranduil, who is rendered as some sort of purple, gnomish figure.  The Return of the King is little better, and I still cannot determine why most of the Nazgul ride winged horses, while the Witch-king gets to ride the fell beast (though, strangely enough, Jackson’s film also features an inaccuracy in that, in the novel, during most of the battle and the siege the Witch-king actually rides a normal horse; he does not mount the fell beast until he is thwarted at the gate by Gandalf and the arrival of the Riders of Rohan.  In Jackson’s version he is on the fell beast throughout).

The music is, for the most part, far too saccharine to be effective or truly emotionally moving, and it is the clearest sign that these films were largely intended for a child audience.  The one exception to this would have to be “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way” from The Return of the King, which is almost infectiously catchy.  However, even it seems somewhat at odds with the tone of the moment, considering that Sam and Frodo are trying to find their way across the plan in Gorgoroth to in order to destroy the Ring (I would also point out the continuous mispronunciation of Sauron, here pronounced Sore-on).

However, there are some redeeming qualities, and I actually think that the Rankin/Bass films do some things better than their Jackson equivalents.  For one thing, however else they butcher the plotlines, Rankin/Bass often keep some of the more archaic-sounding pieces of dialogue from the original.  Smaug’s delivery of his lines in The Hobbit is, I think, in some ways superior to that of Jackson (and this is the fault of the writing more than Cumberbatch, whose voice is, as always, pitch perfect), and the confrontation between the Witch-king and Eowyen in The Return of the King actually maintains the rhythms of Tolkien’s original words.  They keep, for example, the cadence of “No living man can hinder me” (Tolkien’s phrasing), which Jackson changes (and dare I say banalizes) to “No man can kill me.”  Admittedly, however, the voice of Jackson’s Witch-king is much more compelling than the high, reedy one of Rankin/Bass, full of a deep-throated, raspy menace.

And yes, there are many other voices in these films that rival those found in Jackson’s versions.  While Ian McKellan is a truly masterful Gandalf and will probably find no equal in our lifetime, it’s worth noting that no less a Hollywood great than John Huston provided his voice for both The Hobbit and The Return of the King.  Roddy McDowell makes an unlikely yet compelling Samwise, and Orson Bean does manage to capture, I think, the world-weary tenderness of Frodo.  Of course, no discussion of voice acting in these films would be complete without mentioning the inimitable Hans Conried, whose inevitably and consistently sarcastic, yet also slightly pretentious, voice lends Thorin a certain measure of both gravitas and ridiculousness (which is how Tolkien himself portrayed him).

While by no means perfect, the two Tolkien films produced by Rankin/Bass do at least deserve a measure of respect from we latter-day Jackson fans.  While they do not capture the operatic and epic grandeur of Jackson’s collection, they do nevertheless capture some of the elements closest to Tolkien’s heart, the archaic cadences of his language.  Perhaps more than anything else, there is, it seems to me, a genuineness in this effort that deserves our respect, even if the effort does not universally pay off as we might wish.