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Tolkien On Film
Reviewed by Joe Crowe, © 2005

Format: Book
By:   Janet Brennan Croft (editor)
Publisher:   Mythopoeic Press
Genre:   Movie criticism
Released:   Spring 2004
Review Date:   November 21, 2005
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

So you want to know how and / or why the Lord of the Rings movies differ from the books. Tolkien on Film has got that for you. Granted, readers of Tolkien will know the differences already. This book lays out the specifics of some of the changes, the reasons behind them, and whether they're a good or a bad thing.

Discussions of this ilk have taken up a percent of the Internet over the last five years. Here, in convenient book form, you can squint at black type on white pages, instead of blue type on orange pages, or in 20 point fonts on a fecal brown background, or with popups and fire icons. Rather than slog through all that and possibly get distracted by pornography, Tolkien on Film is here. In one place, Mythopoeic Press has assembled writers discoursing on both the pros and non-pros of Peter Jackson's movies.

The book doesn't poop on the movies. The geek nation is divided on this topic much like the likers of peanut butter and chocolate. Much ranting has been lobbed across both sides' bows. In these 14 essays, this book offers viewpoints from both sides. Now, the essayists take the side of Tolkien nearly universally. But most of them differ on the movies' quality or lack thereof. Again, you've seen these discussions. You've probably been involved in them (or at least, rolled your eyes as somebody in your group got on his or her soapbox – again).

Tolkien on Film presents these topics like masters' theses, but without the sociopolitics and the dialectic materialism and the 1,000 words of padding finished the night before it was turned in. The writers back up their points with footnoted research. Thanks to the miracle of DVD, these may be the first book-oriented projects where the writers don't have to say "The author seems to say . . . " Many of the essays quote liberally from Peter Jackson's DVD commentary, wherein, for good or ill, he tells point-blank why he made the choices he made. And of course, Tolkien himself was no wallflower when examining and talking about his own stuff, references to his letters and such are throughout.

The strongest case against the movies is David Bratman's "Summa Jacksonica," using the style of Sir Thomas Aquinas' "Summa Theologica." The first article is "Whether the films be a travesty?" Bratman writes, "I give Jackson an A on visuals and props, a B on the films as independent pieces of work divorced from the book, a C on faithfulness to Tolkien's story and detail, and a D (but only because I won't give an F when the student has shown evidence of trying) on faithfulness to Tolkien's spirit and tone."

He also says "Peter Jackson has a nine-year-old's understanding of Tolkien." Burn!

Janet Brennan Croft mentions that Jackson revealed too much too early story and character-wise. For instance, revealing immediately that Gimli's cousin Balin is dead, eliminating a chunk of the tension in the trek through the mines of Moria. Croft also pointedly critiques Jackson's sense of humor in the dwarf-tossing references and the zany magic duel between Gandalf and Saruman.

Diana Paxson has a more positive view of the movies in the end, saying that more than one version is a good thing, "if the most important thing about a book is in fact not the style, but the story."

Four essays are devoted to the depictions of Arwen and Eowyn. Some argue that Arwen's more active role diminishes the characters of Frodo, Aragorn, and Eowyn, and others note that the character of Aragorn needed a different Arwen in the first place.

Two essays are devoted to film-based fan fiction. Susan Booker says fans need it as a cultural outlet. Amy Sturgis goes into more specifics, discussing Figwit (a background character at the Rivendell council whom fans have adopted), and funny stuff like the Very Secret Diaries and the Condensed Versions.

Speaking of funny stuff: Mark Shea's "The Lord of the Rings: A Source-Critical Analysis" is a must-read. "Reasonable scholars now know, of course, that the identification of Sauron with ‘pure evil' is simply absurd."

Tolkien on Film isn't a zippy, quickly digestible read. The writers don't take it easy on the movies. But it's not a couple hundred pages of flaming rants. The critiques and opinions are elaborate and sourced, but they are also cleverly written. Fans from the anti-movie camp will gain some ammunition. Fans of the movie will understand Tolkien's work better. Everybody wins.

Well, except for the people who are into slash fiction about Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood. Those people only get a paragraph.

RevolutionSF humor editor Joe Crowe wouldn't know Glamdring if it stabbed him in the butt.

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