Focus and The Men Who Lost It: The Works of Tolkien and Jackson

Adaptation is a finicky beast. Creative types have been riffing on each other’s work since, well, forever, and one of the most interesting tells for a source of one artist’s inspiration is what kind of art they themselves riff from. Being a bit of a Freudian in my analytic tendencies, I’m all about seeing the parallels between an original work and its reinvention from the creator’s side. And my oh my, do Tolkien and Jackson give me a lot to work with.

As with all analysis, my view is infused with my own interactions with both their works, so let’s set the stage. My first trip to Middle Earth came when I couldn’t have been more than four, and I spent the summer hearing The Hobbit read aloud to me by my mother (the originator of many a fandom). I still LOVE The Hobbit. It’s a brilliant little gem, filled with sparks of magic and creativity, unexpected joy and riddles set to puzzle the cleverest of hobbitses. Somehow I never got round to reading Lord of the Rings, despite my fondness for Bilbo and his gang, so the next visit to the Shire was in high school with the release of Fellowship of the Ring. I fell hard, along with the rest of the world, and raided my mother’s bookcase for the LoTR trilogy.

Here’s the thing, guys. As a cohesive piece… those books are just not for me. And I would go so far as to say they’re not terribly well written. (Though I feel the same about pretty much all high fantasy novels, so this might be more of an argument against the genre, but I digress.) I know – how dare I? Lord of the Rings IS a masterpiece, the basis of all modern fantasy, and a world that I adore.  I don’t dismiss Tolkein’s brilliance, and I’m thankful for his incredible body of work. Some of the best lines in literature are hidden (key word right there) in his work. But I cannot stand those books. Lord of the Rings is an exercise in taking a brilliant little gem and building out – out – out – until the world gets lost. It works for a lot of people who find it to be a beautiful place to get lost within, but inspiration alone doesn’t make for a well written novel. Tolkien’s best bits are hidden in paragraphs filled to the brim with stuff – not just world-building, but exhaustive and never ending descriptions of god knows what. Lines of dialogue and names that go for miles, and maybe it makes me a bad geek but I just cannot stand it. I did force my way through reading the triology, but it was a slog, made better for me only by the adoration I had for the Jackson films.

Jackson grabbed all those best lines out from under Tolkien’s weighty structures, dusted them off, and gave them to Ian McKellen to work his magic. Then Howard Shore came in and made the whole thing sparkle, and we’re left with one of the best pieces of fantasy known to cinema. I try to watch LoTR every year (extendeds, obviously) – much like other geeky folk read the series annually. Hey, to each her own.

You can see where I’m going with this, right? From where I sit, Jackson’s bloated, excessive Hobbit films are exactly what’s wrong with the Lord of the Rings novels. In an attempt to cover everything, to do it all and give every character their glorious due, Jackson lost a lot of what makes Bilbo magic. And just like Tolkien, there were just enough moments of pure, unabashed brilliance that no one can write them off entirely (the riddle scene?! C’mon. It’s perfect). Just as Jackson took an eagle eye (pun so very much intended) to LoTR and zeroed in on Frodo’s journey to Mordor as the emotional priority, Tolkien was writing a story focused on Bilbo, and his journey of a different, slightly more joyous arch. When both men took a step back and tried to carry on the story, they lost their focus and lost the magic. They lost the precision and the heart of their tales. It took Jackson to bring some clarity to the stunning originality of Tolkien’s later stories, when he had perhaps lost the perspective or the drive to edit himself and to know when things really just belonged in The Silmarillion. And while the Battle of the Five Armies was a solid film, with a beautiful emotional coda that will drive any sane and rational person to the Lord of the Rings films, they will always be the better movie. Just as for me, The Hobbit novel will always be the better book.

I wish we could have had both these men together in the world. Their art needed each other, in many ways, and their own journeys are very much the same. And when it comes down to it, in their later careers, at least as far as Middle Earth was concerned, both men needed a damn fine editor.