- Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings”
There are many academic or quasi-academic books on various aspects of Peter Jackson's film of The Lord of the Rings in the works, and Tolkien on Film is, as far as I know, the first to see print. Indeed, its timing does not escape charges of opportunism. Although all the authors take as definitive the extended-edition DVD versions of the first two parts of the film trilogy, the volume itself went into press before they could view the extended version of The Return of the King. Surely lacking 50 minutes of the artwork under discussion is not an insignificant problem.
Would a scholarly book on a major work of literature be published before said work of literature is complete? Not likely. Apparently, though, the fact that the work of art that is putatively at the center of this collection is a film (one which several of the authors dislike) rather than a book leads to a somewhat more casual treatment. Most of the authors are literary scholars rather than film scholars, and as a result, despite its title, this anthology contains few essays that are actually about Jackson's film as such.
"Adaptation studies," essays comparing films and the literary works upon which they are based, gained some currency in the 1960s and 1970s, when cinema studies barely existed and film courses were often taught in departments of literature. Since then, however, cinema studies has gained its own graduate programs and become a discipline, albeit a relatively small one. I am sure that teaching and work involving adaptation still goes on in departments of languages and literature, but I think it would not occur to most film scholars to ask whether the changes made when deriving a film from a book are valid. (I may seem overly touchy about this difference in approach, but I would ask the authors to imagine how they would feel if a group of film scholars started writing anthologies about, say, Dickens' novels without any training in literary studies.) A different title would have helped to signal what sort of approach this anthology takes. Even so, some of the essays here are more like lists of complaints than like the classic adaptation studies I recall [End Page 222] from my university days.
That said, several of the pieces in Tolkien on Film are quite interesting and enlightening, but the frequent denigration of Jackson's work forces one to wonder about the intended audience. Whatever the intention, much of that audience will inevitably be the legion of the film's fans who will buy just about anything connected to it, and they are likely to be disappointed by at least parts of the anthology.
The fan who enthusiastically launches into this book to learn more about Jackson's work will be mightily puzzled to encounter the opening essay, designed, according to the volume's editor, to examine "the place of Jackson's trilogy in the history of film" (vii). J. E. Smyth's "The Three Ages of Imperial Cinema from the Death of Gordon to The Return of the King" spends the first 18 of its 20 pages on the depiction of British imperialism in the 1939 English film Four Feathers and in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Both exhibit, Smyth argues, sympathy for the conquered peoples while being told from the viewpoint of the conquerors. Jackson's film occupies the final two pages, hinting that an existing essay has been expanded for inclusion here. More importantly, however, Jackson's The Lord of the Rings is the opposite of the imperialist films with which Smyth groups it. She assumes that the imperialist is Aragorn, but surely it is Sauron who fills that role in The Lord of the Rings. He is the aggressor who has conquered civilizations to the east and south and conscripted their armies. He has caused the retreat of...