Sunday, October 27, 2013

One Down: Two to Go....

Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring

A short while ago I found myself with a fairly light reading stack and decided to tackle a project I had been contemplating for some time, yet never got around to.  The task was daunting and I was biased against re-reading the Tolkien classic, Lord of the Rings, because of how difficult I remembered it.  Let me be honest, the thought of skipping over parts to simply immerse myself into the film adaptation was incredibly powerful.  Each time I consoled myself that it would get better and the accomplishment of reading the trilogy would compensate.  I can’t say I was wrong.

This certainly won’t be a critique of the work, because the plot is well known and been reviewed in far better detail by far more qualified people than I.  Instead I’ll concentrate on what I took out of it and some key notes.

Scene from Bladerunner, a movie
that added to the written work
First things First: Comparisons of Tolkien’s prose to Steve Jackson’s films are obvious and in many ways an entirely appropriate filter for the reader.  The imagery conveyed was incredibly complementary to the written works, an achievement I would think both Jackson and the Tolkien family are immensely proud of and happy for.  Having seen the film trilogy, it is impossible not to make the visual reference to the cinematography as you read.  The only other SF/F film adaptation I can recall off the top of my head with any kind of success and relevance to the original written work is Bladerunner; despite deviations from Philip K. Dick’s written plot, the movie itself was an absolute masterpiece.  As an aside, the most astounding failure would have to be Starship Troopers <shudders>.

Scene from a movie <cough> that failed
in almost every respect compared to the written work

The prose for Fellowship of the Ring is dense and takes a while to get accustomed to.  Written in Third Person Omni, I liken it to The Last of the Mohicans, which appears to be written in a way to be read out loud, the descriptive elements almost better spoken aloud than simply read.  It is relatively easy to see why a new reader to epic/high fantasy would turn their nose after trying to read one of the most revered books of the genre.  Tolkien’s work is certainly not for everyone and I could sympathize why new-to-the-genre readers would turn away.  The pace at the beginning of the novel is slow, introducing the Hobbit worldview and way of life.  Combined with the style of prose, it can be a tough read.  This said, once the ‘code’ is cracked, the prose becomes a character in and of itself, an innate luxury to the plot that draws you further into Middle Earth.

Some key elements to the Fellowship that made specific impact:

Tom Bombadil:  Apparently removed from the film version, largely due to pacing, film length and budgetary reasons, I can see why.  Frodo and gang leave The Shire escaping the dark riders only to be forced into a nasty little forest, complete with Hobbit-eating trees; Tom sings to said tree, setting them free.  Tom also assists in dealing with the Barrow Wight, once again through song.  For Tom everything is a reason for a sing-along jingle, like a guy desperate to get to the nearest karaoke and just decided to sing along while he went to one.  Most shocking for me was the fact Tom Bombabdil knew Frodo had the ring, and then placed it on his finger to no effect.  Elrond’s reference to Tom also makes for somewhat bizarre reading; one of the ageless and most wise has little other than to add Tom’s an ‘odd sort.’  One of Tom’s most evocative lines does get used, spoken by Treebeard as he describes his wrath for the Orcs in the cinematic version of The Two Towers.  In Tolkien’s own words, Tom is more a concept, a characterization of pacifism in a post-WWII world.

Flight from the Village of Bree:  In the cinematic version, the Nazgul send four of their kind in to assassinate the Hobbits in an incredibly stirring sequence.  The book draws out some shenanigans with the residents of Bree and has Aragorn lead them to Amon Sul, but not before getting lost in the woods and eventually heading back to the East Road and finally meeting Glorfindel at the Ford of Bruinen near Rivendell – notably not Arwen.

The Mines of Moria:  In this case, I completely believe the cinematic version outshines the written original.  The visuals, the pacing and tone were excellently done.  From the deep dark recesses throughout, to the Cave Troll battle and ultimately the fantastically rendered “You Shall Not Pass!” sequence and sense of loss the party suffered as they fled was terribly well conveyed.  Some parts of Jackson’s work I found entirely forgettable: the Frodo/Aragorn balance beam-bridge sequence, as well as the way the goblins literally spider their way down the columns in the Second Hall.

Lothlorien – Tale of a Dwarf and an Elf:  One of the pieces of Tolien’s work I found infinitely more enjoyable was the relevance of Galadriel’s presence on Gimli.  She profoundly impacts Gimli, and he her.  Although a generally sheltered time for the party, it allowed a much needed convalescence after suffering the loss of Gandalf, their guide and defacto leader.  The connection these two formed is relevant in further portions of the trilogy and helps form one of the key points that build on Gimli and Legolas’ friendship.

Death of Boromir:  The end faced by Boromir was tragic and wrenching.  A proud man looks to find a solution to the impending doom his people face, the raging bull behind the Iron Curtain, so to speak.  So greatly portrayed by Sean Bean, the cinematic version was true to the emotional impact of Boromir’s sacrifice.  A flawed Man who saw a means to an end that was too much for him to handle, he redeemed himself in as glorious a fashion a man like him could have.  I was ecstatic to hear Sean Bean would play Boromir and could not have been happier with the acting. Along with Gandalf’s fall, I think Bormir’s sacrifice is one of the two most poignant and moving parts of the film.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading the Fellowship of the Ring.  After a slow start and a bit of a slog through to the village of Bree, the flow really picked up after the council of Elrond.  I actually breezed through the last part of the book and headed straight into The Two Towers right after.  I’m finding that the experience of reconnecting with one of the quintessential books of the genre as really invigorating.  I will never attempt to meet the level of complexity Tolkien achieved in his world building and use of language, whether it is English of something entirely made up; it would be a disingenuous and, no doubt, a truly disastrous affair.  

As I write this, I’m actually already halfway through The Two Towers.  I can’t wait to get back to it.

An interesting link to the NYT review of the book’s American release in 1954.