Dear Professor Tolkien,
First of all, you are amazing and brilliant and I love you. I just feel I should preface my comments with that.
Anyhow, I’m writing to let you know that since you’ve been gone, a man named Peter Jackson has made some live-action movies based on your Lord of the Rings. I know that, although you willingly sold the film rights to your book not long after publication (who wouldn’t want some extra money after decades of hard work?), the first script you saw, for a cartoon adaptation, was…less than satisfactory. I’m happy to say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy of my time is much better, and is in fact one of the most popular movie franchises ever. Whether the author would approve of it is another matter.
Based on what I know of you from your writings, your biography, your letters and your friends’ writings about you, I think you would probably like many things about Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. The look of everything, for example. There are no “fairy castles” like the ones you disliked in that (as far as I know, never produced) cartoon script. The fortresses of Men are properly medieval, at least aesthetically, while every Elven city is appropriately ethereal, while seeming very much to belong to Middle Earth. The special effects bring your battles, monsters and mountain landscapes to life in ways you could never have imagined in the 1950s era of film technology. They’re amazing even to the people of my generation. All your names of people and places are kept intact, your languages are spoken correctly and frequently (though probably not as frequently as you would like) and the music is as majestic as your story deserves.
But I’m afraid you would not like some of the changes the movies made to your story. They’re not as drastic as the ones in the cartoon version, but I still fear they might have made you hate the movies as much as your son Christopher does, were you alive to see them. For example, “The Scouring of the Shire,” your favourite chapter and the true climax of the book, is removed entirely. So is Tom Bombadil (although personally, given Hollywood’s habit of ruining subtlety and symbolism, I think that’s probably for the best.) Aragorn and Arwen’s romance is brought into the main story, but the movie’s version of Arwen is just a pale (literally and figuratively) imitation of her ancestor, Luthien. The battles are drawn out and added to, while quieter moments of character development are shortened.
And some of the characters are very different from how you wrote them. Frodo’s feats of bravery are downplayed while his corruption by the Ring is exaggerated (and his bulging blue eyes don’t help). Aragorn doesn’t want his throne at first and only claims his destiny because Arwen’s life supposedly depends on it, a weak and unnecessary addition to his character. Worst of all, Faramir, the powerful character who surprised you in the middle of the book and, out of all the cast, reminded you most of yourself, is not the wise and noble foil to Boromir that you wrote him to be. Instead, he’s a more passive version of Boromir who tries to claim the Ring for Gondor as soon as he finds out about it, a move that seems to exist only to extend the second movie’s run-time.
Christopher dislikes the movies, like I said, and since you refer to him as a true kindred spirit in your letters, I suppose I can assume you wouldn’t like them either. But consider this, Mr. Tolkien: thousands of people around the world might never have heard of The Lord of the Rings if the movies hadn’t been made. Nowadays, books don’t get as much publicity as movies do, period. And, sadly, people don’t read them as much as they used to. Most people I know say that your books (yes, even The Hobbit) are “too long” to read. But for some reason, they’re happy to sit through more than nine hours of extended movie trilogy. So, thanks to Peter Jackson, many people have heard at least a version of your story who might never have picked up your book.
And, when all is said and done, I think the movies stick pretty close to the spirit of your work, if not the letter. Almost everyone who worked on it knows and loves your books. Some of them even seem to share your love of trees. You may remember Christopher Lee? Well, he ended up playing Saruman. He read The Lord of the Rings once a year from the time it was published, and he fulfilled a lifelong dream by being in the movie. So many of the themes that were most dear to you are still present in the movies, in a faint way. Death, immortality and the preservation of memory still loom large whenever we take a break from the battle scenes. Even though “The Scouring of the Shire” was omitted, the movies are still very much about the ennobling of the small and ordinary. And personally, considering the way movies have gone since your time, I think it’s important that your “eucatastrophe” ending, in which Frodo fails but the Ring is still destroyed in spite of every character’s intentions, is left intact.
Here in my time, we have lots of stories about heroism but not many about grace. Heroes who go on quests generally defeat the villain and return home triumphant. We don’t have too many quest stories where the hero is truly brave and noble, and truly gives the quest his all, and still fails–only to be saved by something beyond his power or understanding. It’s difficult to convincingly end a story that way, but you did it. And I cannot thank you enough. Because to me, the “happy catastrophe,” which no one could predict because it comes from outside of human effort, is the only kind of happy ending that rings true to reality.
But I’m glad, for your sake, that you are not alive to see what Peter Jackson did to The Hobbit later on. There is no “eu” in that catastrophe.
Your Devoted Admirer,
The Resident Wizard
P.S. Tell Bilbo and Frodo “Happy Birthday” from me.