Anthony Hopkins, Cider House Rules, Fellowship of the Ring, Godfather, Hannibal Lecter, hobbits, homoeroticism, Jaws, Jodie Foster, Lord of the Rings, Manhunter, Mario Puzo, Peter Benchley, Red Dragon, Return of the King, Scarlet Letter, Silence of the Lambs, Ted Levine, Thomas Harris, Tolkien, Two Towers, Watchmen
It’s axiomatic that a film is never as good as the book which spawned it. The cinematic dustbin is jammed with book-to-movie abominations such as Watchmen, The Scarlet Letter and Oscar-winner, The Cider House Rules.
Occasionally, however, a certain confluence of creative people (producers, directors, actors, etc.) conspire to create a film that is in every way superior to the sum of its parts. Following are a few examples of films which are superior to the written work which spawned them.
Jaws: Not only did this film make an entire generation afraid to enter the surf, it also stood head and shoulders above Peter Benchley’s page-turner. The book is darker and its ending less rosy than the film version, but lacks Robert Shaw’s magnificent monologue.
The Godfather: Mario Puzo’s book was great, if rambling. Perhaps if not for the superlative film, the novel might be more highly regarded.
Silence of the Lambs: In the days before Hannibal Lecter became a caricature of himself, he was featured in two thillers, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. The first film version of Red Dragon, Manhunter, was well-recieved but made little enough of an impact that the novels might still reign supreme if not for the stellar performances of Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Ted Levine.
The Lord of the Rings: While the impact of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King on fantasy literature cannot be overstated, some readers find the books to be overlong, turgid tomes (others find Tolkien’s literary generosity to be refreshing). The films, with the exception of The Return of the King with its interminable series of endings, distill the books down to their most basic elements (keeping all the groovy hobbit homoeroticism), while eschewing a lot of the dryer history and lore which adds richness to the books, but would detract from the films.
I’m sure there are other movies which have broken from their novel’s event horizon and gone on to existences wholly seperate from the printed word. If anyone has any other examples, I’d love to hear ’em.
I remember my response when a teacher asked me whether I liked Moby Dick:
“The book itself sucked – but the Cliffs’ Notes were riveting.”
So ask me what I think about Lord of the Rings, why don’t you? Oh, never mind, I’ll just go off –
Tolkien is the biggest hack piece of shit ever to stumble on a story that ever existed.
He may, in fact, be the poorest writer ever to create any sort of folktale with resonance. His plots are meandering, his descriptions are overblown in only the way that a boring old English windbag can get, and his dialogue is more wooden than his Ents.
It’s time to destroy Tolkien.
Why Tolkien Is – And, More Importantly, Should Be – Irrelevant
Now, before I get into detail on why Tolkien sucks, let me get one thing straight: Most of Tolkien’s admirers will defend him by pointing out that if it were not for Tolkien, the idea of a vast fantasy saga would not exist. And in that, I completely agree.
That’s one of the reasons I hate him.
First off, let’s get the “the first is always the best” hoo-hah out of the way: How many of you women are going to Freudian therapists to discuss how your penis envy and sublimated love of rape is really what causes your problems? The point is, of course, that quite often a thing that jumpstarts something valid is not something valid in itself. It is a great rough draft, but in the end we have to say, “Hey, thanks for inspiring other people to do a lot better than you did!” and move on.
Tolkien is one of those things.
Furthermore, the shadow of Tolkien has been fouling fantasy for a long time now. Every serious fantasy book must be three novels long, and it must feature a protagonist who needs to get (or understand) the foozle while he slowly goes mad trying to get it to where it needs to be, and a Big Dark Protagonist who’s mean and controls armies. Every fantasy series has a long-buried ancient civilization and a funny language to speak.
Flip through the series, folks: Terry Brooks? Well, he’s a Tolkien clone. But Stephen R. Donaldson? David Eddings? Fritz Leiber? Terry Goodkind? Melanie Rawn? Anne Mccaffrey? Michael Moorcock? Even Dune is, in many ways, a large and elaborate Tolkien riff.
And even if they don’t specifically emulate Tolkien, their books are often written as a reaction to Tolkien – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Piers Anthony’s Xanth.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that every fantasy novel written since Tolkien is, on some level, a reflection of Tolkien.
(Well, that’s not entirely true. There were some smaller series, like Amber and the World Newton universe, that managed to mostly break free… But they weren’t really popular, and in many ways were more science-fictiony than fantasy.)
I think that to find the first fantasy novel that really told Tolkien to go to hell and blazed its own path, we have to look to George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, which features no elf, no dwarf, no fucking Sauron clone… Just a bunch of really interesting humans duking it out in bloody battles.
And upon seeing how well Martin did it, and how interesting his world is, I was infuriated. I’ve had to spend my entire life reading fantasy series where authors spent so much time outline what an elf was like that they forgot to actually give individual elves personality…
And here we have Martin, who said, “Hey! Tolky! Blow me! I’m gonna put all of my effort into creating vivid human characters instead of creating some long and elaborate backstory for my series! And it’s better than what you did, okay?”
We’ve spent all of these years thinking that the key to a good fantasy series was a vast and elaborate backdrop, because that’s what Tolkien concentrated on. And really, the key is characters and plots, which are the least important part of Lord of the Rings. But still, every fantasy wannabe starts out where?
It’s not the people or the plots. Oh, they have people and plots… But ask them, and they’ll tell you about the city, and the history, and the races, and the people and plots are just sort of a sidenote.
Ask any other fucking genre what they’re writing about, and it’s the people and the plots. (Sometimes sci-fi concentrates on the place, but mostly to its detriment.) Yes, mystery writers sometimes fall in love with the mystery, and techno-thriller writers sometimes fall in love with the hardware… But thanks to Tolkien’s ass-backwards planning, fantasy is the only genre where setting is routinely considered to be more important than character or action.
Thus, Tolkien’s amazing accomplishment was that he not only jump-started the fantasy novel genre, but he set it back fifty years at the exact same time.
We must move on. We must leave Tolkien behind, like we would Freud. Don’t look back, or – like Lot’s Wife’s author friend – you’ll be turned into a pillar of bad writing.
Why Tolkien Sucks
I think the best way to present my argument is this: I’ve spoken with any number of hard-core Tolkien fanatics. They nitpicked the movie, hated the minor changes, and squawked like parrots on the bulletin boards.
When I ask them how many times they’ve read LotR, the answer is always in the teens, and often higher: Twenty. Fifty. A hundred.
Except they never have.
Ask them closer, and what you’ll find is that even the most die-hard of the fanatics skim their way past certain segments of the book. The long-ass poetry is a frequent fast-forward button, but often the tedious descriptions of the countryside and the pseudo-history get the flip.
In other words, most of Tolkien’s die-hard supporters can’t read everything he writes.
And thus I repeat: The Cliffs Notes are riveting.
Tolkien is a folksy writer – but his unique delusion is that he considered his world to be almost a real history. The details were crushingly important to Tolkien, which lends his world a weight of gravitas that cannot be beaten….
But his writing also meanders. He spends a lot of time focusing in on things that better writers would discard. His plots are filled with side-trails that wind nowhere, just like real history, and interchanges that really don’t matter much at all. But like a man with no editor, Tolkien regurgitates it all so that you can see it.
There are those who will say that part of the charm of Tolkien is that his books read like history books. To which I say: This isn’t real life. And worse yet, he commits the fatal flaw in that a lot of these sidelines are boring.
If his most devoted fans skip major sections of the book, how the hell can you call it a great literary work?
His writing is long-winded and tedious and focuses on the wrong areas. His dialogue is leaden. He loves his own poetry, which is cute but not particularly meaningful.
And his characters?
What Tolkien Does Right
Many people say that Tolkien does get the characters right, and I have to agree… To an extent. I’ve said that most of the work that a writer has to do is to put his characters into meaningful situations, and you’re really done.
It’s true. You don’t need to write well if you can put your characters in a place the readers can identify with. And in that, Tolkien excels above all others – Frodo going mad as he tries to save the world. Samwise’s love of a partner who is slowly growing apart from him. Aragorn’s reluctance to take power, and the elves’ dilemma of beauty becoming irrelevant.
Tolkien had a right knack for finding parallels to modern living that struck right through the heart of everyone. I wish I had his talent for this, because buried beneath a couple thousand pages of muck and mire lay these unassailable gems.
That said, what do we know of Frodo? He’s brave, and he feels sorry for Gollum, and he’s a hobbit who’d rather be home.
A thousand pages go by, and we barely know anything about the man aside from those three facts. Every character in Tolkien’s books is gloriously – almost aggressively – one-dimensional, each given a task to carry out and placed lovingly in situations where, for a brief moment, you become Frodo. Or Sam. Or whoever.
I will say that the characterization in Tolkien is as crappy as the rest of the book, but Tolkien’s ability to find the right place to put these little chess pieces is what gives LotR its majesty.
If you hold a piece of paper with a line drawing on it in the right way, it will appear to be three-dimensional. The drawing is still two-dimensional, however, and it’s probably not a terribly good drawing at that.
Admire it for a fine optical illusion, but don’t think it’s good art just because it fooled you.
Are the Cliffs Notes. The movies are a joy to watch, with vivid characterizations defined by actors with facial expressions, body language, and a vibrancy that’s not present in the original chapter. Peter Jackson has a deep love of the books… But even more so, he realizes rightfully that a lot of what Tolkien does is boring, and needs both punching up and streamlining.
The movies are a joy. The books themselves are relics.
It’s time to leave the old windbag behind. Yes, his world is charming…. But as a writer, I encourage you to find some other way to go about it. The history’s not the key thing; it’s the people.
Make the people come alive, with depth and desires and plots that go in unexpected directions, and you’ll have a book that might one day outshine the master.
And when you write, pray. Pray that you can channel Tolkien’s amazing ability to find sympathetic situations for your babies, and yet avoid the rest of Tolkien’s many and crippling flaws.
Throw away the ring, folks. It’s time to stop being invisible under the shadow of Sauron.