Picked up the other day the recent collection, Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism. It contains some stuff I'd seen, but in general the material is new to me; indeed, the final essay is a new book-to-film 'analysis' by Tom Shippey, author of a couple of Tolkien biographies/hagiographies. Heh. I can't even get through this opening paragraph without editorializing.
The collection is thoroughly dispensable, generally quite conservative in its outlook, uncritical in its acceptance of Tolkien's implicit politics and cultural desires, clannish in its treatment of Tolkien critics, and faux-lofty at best in its language (while paying no attention at all to Tolkien's language, an oddity). The opening laughably decries the 'fannish and faddish' nature of early Tolkien criticism before happily embodying it, and the final essay by Shippey - whom the editors compare to Brian Boyd and Richard Ellman in the critical service he has done for a deceased Great Author - contains the following awe-inspiring claims:
To follow [the way Tolkien's philosophy of chance and destiny is played out in Denethor's suicidal decision], however, one needs a very sure grasp both of the chronology of events and of the way in which events in one plot strand (like the capture of Frodo) affect those in another (like the suicide of Denethor). The medium of film does not lend itself to this kind of intellectual connection.
However ... the "canons of narrative art," while certainly not "wholly different" in a different medium, are identifiably different. For one thing, the film medium has more trouble dealing with distorted time sequences than does prose fiction - and Tolkien was an especially idiosyncratic changer of time sequences. Filmmakers can easily cut from one scene to another, and Jackson often does so with strikingly contrastive effects. The implication, though, is always that the different scenes (more or them, shorter, much more broken up) are happening at more or less the same time. [Shippey then goes on to praise helpful things like chapter titles.]
Does it matter? Jackson may not have been able to cope with all the ramifications of Tolkien on Providence, but then few if any readers do.
Oh I do love saying the following two words, Reader(s):
Typical old myopic bookish conservative total wrongheadedness about, among other things, the nature of film, the cultural milieu of young moviegoers, the existence of what's known as the 'time cut,' the editing practices of modern filmmakers, and indeed everything that's happened in film since, apparently, Gone With the Wind. Toss in a ridiculous overstatement like 'Tolkien was an especially iodisyncratic changer of time sequences...' (has this man read any fiction published since the 60's either?) and you have a recipe for bog-standard mutual-masturbatory fluff. I've read Brian Boyd on Nabokov and Richard Ellman on James Joyce; as it happens I've read very, very good Tolkien criticism. All such writing shares an evenhandedness about the pleasures, perils, riches, and shortcomings of Tolkien's work, a critical appreciation of his place in contemporary literature (i.e. he was a writer, the words themselves matter), and an ability to see intentional and unintentional allegories in Lord of the Rings. And while it's precise, it's never niggling. Good criticism makes the next reading better; the Shippey essay here is not good criticism. (Indeed its thesis amounts to little more than 'the films aren't bad but they're not...quite...Tolkien, are they?'). When he refers to the strengthening of female characters by Jackson as merely 'bowing to popular taste,' you know you're in the hands of exactly sort of critic your best professors taught you to dodge - and let's say it here, the focus on Arwen adds nothing at all to the films, but beyond that, I like the blinking red telephone that connects Galadriel and Elrond in the films, and I love Miranda Otto's Eowyn. Shippey's refusal to appraise the importance of the film trilogy in any terms but these -
Perhaps the most heartening thing one can say is that there will certainly now be many millions of people...finding once again Tolkien's road to Middle Earth.
- is neither more nor less than one would expect from a literary critic guarding the borders of his chosen medium and profession. Believe me, I don't deny for a second that the books are richer, deeper, more interesting, more inspiring than the films. But the films are magnificent. And beyond their (admittedly debatable) value as cinema, they're important cultural touchstones for a lot of people. Shippey's thing is the books, for which more power to him. But perhaps that's one good reason why his pronunciamentos about the merits of the LotR film trilogy should be taken with a grain of salt.
As for the rest of the book: it's not even the best of Tolkien criticism I've read. I'm inclined to say don't bother, unless this is really your thing, in which case run don't walk.
(Oh how I miss you, Hayden Library at MIT. How I miss your Tolkien section, and your Pynchon section, and the irritating way 'detective fiction' merited its own shelves. How I miss writing my goddamn thesis seated at a desk on your first floor, my headphones truly earning their keep at last, sunlight only a dim memory. How I miss breathing in dust in your basement, photocopying old journal articles for personal use only.)