G. K. Chesterton on Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films

Here’s what G. K. Chesterton had to say about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy:

Wherever his film is bad it is bad from some extravagance of imagery, some violence of comparison, some kind of debauch of cleverness. His nonsense never arises from weakness, but from a confusion of powers. If the phrase explain itself, he is far more a great film-maker than he is a good one. […] Mr. Jackson was in a great and serious difficulty. He really meant something. He aimed at a vivid and curious image, and He missed it. He had that catastrophic and public failure which is, as much as a medal or a testimonial, the badge of the brave.

Actually, Chesterton was writing about the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but the point stands. Jackson’s failures, and they are many, are the failures of over-ambition. For that reason, they are easy to forgive. All three films have moments where I want to scream at the TV in frustration. But they also all have moments of great beauty and real profundity. And that’s why, warts and all, they have so much more greatness than, say, The Bourne Identity, which I watched yesterday. That film is perfectly executed, but it’s not about anything. But Jackson caught a glimpse of Tolkien’s vision and reached for it. That he failed in part really seems neither here nor there.

16 responses to “G. K. Chesterton on Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films

  1. I’m with you here (and I think also in that the first movie may be the best of all three of them. It doesn’t have a lot of emotional baggae that gets on your nerves the tenth time through :)

    I read the book (and failed to get The Sil and so forth) as a kid, and later browsed heavily through more of the material when I was older. Its magical stuff from an intense imagination. But its been long enough where I remember the Big Bits (Balrog! Shelob!) but forget a lot of the nuance. Not only due to distance in time from reading, but the priorities of a 10 and 15 year old are so very different to now :)

    There are many websites dedicated to many details of how the movies differ from the book .. but those tend to details and nitpickery, without cutting to the meat of it in a sensible fashion.

    So .. where3 do the movies fail (insomuch as they fail ‘at all’); obviously, the whole bit with Faramir and Frodo stands out.

    Do you take issue with merging of characters?

    What about little details like.. I think it was Glorfindel who picked up Frodo and rescued him back to Rivendell, instead of .. Liv Tyler there.

    What issues in the movies really stand out as ‘hu?’


  2. I like the Jackson movies. They’re instant epic and instant classic. I kinda wish he’d stuck to the books a bit more. I mostly a-lot wish he’d had some sort of time machine that would’ve allowed him to go back and edit movies 2 and 3 a lot more.

    I think, partly because of the fractured production schedule where there were a couple years before the deal was really for-sure going to happen, he wound up spending oodles of time on movie 1, with the cave troll and all, and only later realized that movie 2 and 3 were many orders of magnitude more complicated to tell because there was no longer oneparty of adventures–one plot thread, but rather there were now several different angles all of which needed to be covered.

    Also one other good thing–Mr. Peter Jackson deserves much praise just for even trying to make this. I mean–it’s Lord of the Rings! for crying out loud. And Peter Jackson’s main thing was always blood-and-guts movies. That’s an awful lot to reach for. And he mostly got it. So that’s cool.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  3. Jeff, some specifics.

    I’ve already mentioned Jackson’s tendency to overcook the numinous not only with Galadriel’s “instead of a dark lord” speech but also with Gandalf’s “I’m not trying to rob you”. These are failures of craftsmanship rather than spirit, I think, and presumably come down to not trusting Blanchett and McKellan to get the job done.

    More serious problems arise in film 2. You rightly mentioned the Faramir/Frodo rewrite, which I loathe all the more because Philippa Boyens seemed so pleased with herself in the documentary about that plot change. Similarly, the faux jeopardy of Aragorn going over the cliff absolutely stinks of The Hero’s Journey and strikes a horribly non-Tolkienish note. (By contrast, the equally non-canonical arrival of elves at Helm’s deep is absolutely in the spirit of Tolkien, and I love it.)

    In the third film, I suppose the handling of the Paths Of The Dead is the most egregious transgression. Honestly, I love almost everything else about that film — especially how Faramir is handled this time — and I particularly like Gandalf’s “white sands” speech, which again is dramatically different from, though based on, the book.

    And the violation of Gimli (and, to a lesser extent, Legolas) throughout all the films is always a cause of pain. One can nearly write it off as John Rhys-Davies’ fault, except that he handles “I asked for one hair, she gave me three” so deftly that it’s apparent he could have done a fine job had his script not consisted primarily of “jokes” about his being short.

  4. “numinous” is a cool word of which I was not previously aware. Thanks. :-)
    Re Aragorn over the cliff: I guess that is some stinky hero’s journey thing. That’s a good point.

    To me it just felt stinky/false/fake. It’s a very lame movie trick to pull, isn’t it? The very first time you see the movie, if you’ve never read the books, there’s maybe 120 seconds in there somewhere where you actually think he might be dead. But then a horse is licking him awake. And now, every time you see the movie, there’s zero sense of whatever it is you might have had the first time.

    It doesn’t work on replay. That’s what I’m saying.
    Yes, the Elves at Helm’s Deep was an improvement. So much so that it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t like that in the original.

    Re improvements: In movie 3, I very much like how the final struggle for the Ring plays out. There’s no lame “now I decided not to do what I came to do…” or whatever. And, after Frodo’s finger’s bitten off, he still comes after Gollum trying to get it back. IMHO, a marked improvement from the book.
    The part *I* liked least was the Osgiliath detour. You know full-well when Sam bemoans “We’re not even supposed to *be* here!” half the audience is yelling it out right along with him. More generally, the Faramir re-write that caused the detour, I also didn’t like. I get that Philippa didn’t want Faramir to appear to be more cool than Aragorn. That’s a valid concern, but she/they shoulda found some other way around it. I mean we go all the way to Osgiliath and then there’s a convenient, simple sewer to take them back or something!? The lameness! It burns! It freezes!
    Re John Rhys Gimil: I do feel especially bad for John Rhys-Davies–the makeup made him break out all the time. He can act, but he got almost no good lines in all of *three* movies. It’s not the best thing ever. Remember that he did also do the voice of Treebeard.
    Re Gimli in general: I always feel bad for Gimli–both in the movies *and* the books. True the short jokes are grown-worthy, and that’s mostly a movie thing. But Gimli does have several contests with Legolas in the books and he always looses. Badly. That’s ’cause it’s just not even a remotely fair contest. In Middle Earth, Dwarves are short bearded men that mine rock as a way of life. But Elves are essentially angelic demigods. Gimli doesn’t stand a chance.

    The dwarf always gets the short end of the stick. ;-)

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  5. WyrdWyrd,

    It is NOT true that Gimli always loses in the books. Gimli and Legolas compete to kill the most orcs at Helm’s Deep (and that is the only Gimli-Legolas contest I can think of—I am not sure what other contests you are referring to). Gimli wins by forty-two to forty-one.

    The fact that Jackson changed this (WHY? other than pure malice toward the Gimli character?) and now people honestly think that’s the way it is in the book just makes me feel sick.

  6. Faramir appears more cool than Aragorn because he is, even Tolkien said it. Ah well some contrast to Borimor was necessary because the movie (and of course Sean) made him cooler than the book. Its a pity David had to play a cautious younger son, rather than letting it rip.

    Typos courtesy of bugs in SwiftKey beta.

  7. Elizabeth Ayers

    I definitely feel that Faramir is extremely restrained in the movies. They totally ruined his character in the second film and they didn’t give him a chance to redeem himself by even explaining why he acted the way he did! (The scene with Faramir, Boromir, and Denethor at Osgiliath did a lot to reconcile me to the movies (though by no means totally) but they cut that scene out from the more widely-known theatrical version.

    Tolkien might have committed murder if he saw the way Faramir was treated. In his letters he states at Faramir is one of his favorites, that Faramir is the charatcer most like himself. It’s interesting in the book to see the contrast between Boromir, the proud strong sinner who falls yet repents, and Faramir, the humble yet even stronger brother who batters down the temptation until it is a mockery, something to laugh at.

    And Galadriel! Tolkien also mentions that he poured all his love for the Virgin Mary into Galadriel–and considering that he was an extremely devout Catholic with a particular devotion to Mary, that’s saying quite alot. She is pure, strong, despairing of victory yet at the same time hopeful that this little hobbit will bring about the salvation of Middle Earth. As Sam says, she proud and strong as steel while at the same time as soft and full of laughter as a daffy-down-lilly. ;) But though Jackson captures a bit of her strong fragility (pardon the paradoxical phrase) he utterly destroys the character by that scene in The Mirror of Galadriel. Ugh. Thank heavens Tolkien was in heaven before these movies came about.

    And Frodo! He seems so wimpy and weak and melodramatic! He is not as strong, meek, yet fearful and mighty as he is in the book. One of my favorite book scenes was when they encounter Gollum on the slopes of Mount Doom, and Frodo beats Gollum back with mighty words and Frodo stands there, relentless, gleaming with the final strength of a dying fire, with the Ring around his neck gleaming like a wheel of fire. He is mighty, other-worldly. There is no such scene in the movie, with the character Frodo conquering over the Ring (although, as we know, he succumbs to it in the end). And Sam! Sam immediately thrusts aside the temptation of the Ring, knowing it is a lie, yet in the movie we see him reluctant to give the Ring back to Frodo in the tower of Cirith Ungol. ???

    In the movie, Aragorn and Gandalf are the only people who utterly refuse the Ring–Gandalf is fearful, even in temptation, yet Aragorn sweetly and strongly refuses the Ring. That is all and well, as it was in the book too and totally fits with the character of Aragorn, yet this doesn’t excuse the treatment of every. single. other. character.

    The problem with the LOTR films is that Jackson emphasizes more on the evil of the Ring rather than the heroism of the characters who overcome it (Frodo, Sam, Faramir, and Galdriel, amongst others.)

  8. Hi, Elizabeth, welcome aboard. I’d agree with a lot of that, but I’m quicker to forgive several things than you are. Faramir’s awful mistreatment in film 2 is possible for me to overlook in light of his quiet, insistent nobility in film 3. Galdriel’s horrible instead-of-a-dark-lord scene is not a killer because the rest of her performance is so good. I agree that I’d have preferred Sam not to hesitate in Cirith Ungol before giving back the ring; but the bottom line in the film is that he does give back the ring, the only person in any of the films to yield it voluntarily.

  9. Elizabeth Ayers

    That’s true about Faramir’s “quiet nobility” but if Jackson had kept that extra TT Osgiliath clip it would have done a lot for the poor fella. :)

    By the way, I’m an editor for a blog called The Search (thesearchmagazine.wordpress.com) and we deal with Chesterton/Lewis/Tolkien related things, amongst other topics. Would you be interested in possibly writing a guest post for us? It would be an honor to have you. ;)

  10. Pingback: » What The Hobbit Trilogy Brings

  11. Pingback: I wish Jackson hadn’t ruined Galadriel’s speech | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  12. Pingback: Some thoughts on The Hobbit, part 1: An Unexpected Journey | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  13. “Yes, the Elves at Helm’s Deep was an improvement.”

    ## I thought that was a particularly glaring flaw, since it contradicts Tolkien’s oft-repeated insistence that the Elves were comg to their waning. The absence of an alliance of Men & Elves since the overthrow of Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance at the close of the Second Age, is a symptom of this – Men and Elves were estranged. It is unimaginable that the Elves would go, in force, to Helm’s Deep once it had passed to the Men of Rohan, because the Rohirrim are not High Men, like the Men of Gondor, not even by descent.

  14. Well, James, we discussed the matter of elves at Helm’s deep in more detail in the comments to The long-overdue serious attempt at The Silmarillion, part 3: that was awesome!. I think you’ll find it interesting.

    For me, the key point (which I made before in that other thread) is this: you rightly say that by the time of LotR, elves are coming to their waning. This of course is true — and that is just what makes it so poignant that the fading remnant of the elves choose to align themselves not only with Men but with men facing all but hopeless odds. When Haldir turns up with his 300 archers, that group is a very weak echo of the great elven armies of the past; but it’s an echo nonetheless. “Great deeds that are not wholly in vain.” Haldir and his crew could so easily slink off in their ships and leave the world of Men to its fate. Galadriel says (of herself and Celeborn, but the sentiment is applicable to all the elves in Middle Earth), “through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat”. Fought the long defeat, not just witnessed it. Movie Haldir is wholly representative of that attitude. (For that matter, so is Legolas, in both book and film.)

  15. Seth Ariel Green

    9 years later I think this observation about Jackson — and about the TV show ‘The Magicians’, FWIW — is extremely apt!

  16. Thank you, Seth! Do you mean this one or this one?

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