The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Franchise Phenomenon

The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Franchise Phenomenon December 15, 2012

This weekend, Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit is opening in theaters worldwide. It’s sure to be a huge box-office draw. Truth be told, I’ll probably be going to see it myself. I respect what Jackson did with the LOTR trilogy even though it had some significant flaws, and I expect some good performances from Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Richard Armitage as Thorin, and of course the returning Ian McKellan and Andy Serkis (Gandalf and Gollum).

Having said that, I’ve been thinking about what’s happened to Middle-Earth as its stories have become, essentially, a franchise through these movies. If you look at a Nerd Pinterest you’re sure to see funny LOTR posters and pics rubbing shoulders with Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and all the comic book franchises. The characters as portrayed in the LOTR  movies have inspired numerous fan fics. Frodo and Sam’s friendship has become just another “epic bromance” (please don’t get me started on the ugliness of that word, even though I think it’s supposed to refer to a non-sexual male friendship). And of course, there are the video games, and the hobbit slippers, and the Halloween costumes, and the Pez candies, and…
At a certain point I want to just stop and say “Is this what these stories were meant for?” Because anyone who thinks the original stories (we’re talking about the books now, folks) deserve to be on the same plane as Harry Potter, Star Trek/Wars, or the Avengers doesn’t understand great literature when he sees it. Not only are the Lord of the Rings easily the greatest fantasy novels of all time, they’re some of the best novels of all time, period. They’re high caliber literature. Any student of great books needs to read them several times over.
The movies, while decent in their own way and a loving homage to the books, simply don’t cut it by comparison. They’re merely good. The books were great. Unfortunately, the young people of our generation would rather spend nine hours watching a movie trilogy than a couple months reading a book trilogy. Consequently, this generation is growing up with only these pale imitations of Tolkien’s original vision. Some of them don’t even know they’re based on a book. And that’s a sad thing.
Lord of the Rings doesn’t deserve to become just another franchise. These stories deserve more and always have. So for those of you who have kids, or hope to have kids some day, I hope that you will make sure to instil in them a love for greatness. Buy the books and give ’em to the kiddos when they’re old enough to appreciate them. Educate their taste buds. Don’t raise them to be snobs, just make sure they understand the difference between fool’s gold and the real thing. Even if the rest of the world doesn’t get it, make sure someone still does.

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  • Lydia

    “Is this what these stories were meant for?”

  • Lydia

    I was thinking about a paradox here: Modern man is hungry for what is genuine. Tolkien’s work has had from its inception that quality of genuineness. He said himself of the 60’s flower children who embraced his work that they hardly knew what they were looking for. In other words, he understood, though he was rueful about his popularity with that particular group, that the young people were hungry for something, something they could scarcely name, and in his work they recognized “it,” whatever it was. They then, from the beginning, twisted it and popularized it and made it over again in their own image. (I have read that “Frodo lives!” was a piece of graffiti painted in cities occasionally at that time.)
    Naturally, when one makes an artistic work, one wants a large audience. And if one’s work is great, if it has that quality of absolute authenticity, it may indeed attract a great many people once it gets sufficient publicity. (Ironically, the first and biggest wave of that publicity for Tolkien came about because a pirate version of LOTR was released in the U.S., and the cheapness of that edition combined with the subsequent copyright war made LOTR much better known than it ever would have been.) But that audience will then take that authentic work and make that work its own, in ways that will often cheapen and distort it, not maintaining its intrinsic nature.
    I believe that Peter Jackson wanted to have it both ways: He wanted to make LOTR and The Hobbit available to a much wider audience still by making movies out of them while at the same time retaining the authenticity of the original. But he couldn’t quite do it even to the extent that it lay within his own power. Moreover, the very act of commercializing the books into movies had a ripple effect that, I assume, went far beyond Jackson’s control into greater and greater commercialization, with the attendant loss of the authentic quality and nature of the books–though it was that authentic quality that originally inspired the desire to make the movies.
    I think it will always be so. In a sense, if a great work of art is simply to be itself and not to be cheapened in this way, there has to be a limit on the extent to which it is advertised, popularized, and made available. It must remain, to some extent, obscure and exclusive. Yet what artist wants his work to be obscure and exclusive? My own preference would be, for many books, that no movies be made of them at all but that they simply continue to be printed, in high-quality editions, until the end of time. I would allow their translation to Kindle :-), but not to video games. It seems to me that that would maintain that balance between making them available and keeping them what they are. Others will have different ideas about how and where to draw the line.
    C.S. Lewis didn’t even want his books made into radio drama, presumably for the very kinds of reasons I am citing here.

  • Great thoughts. And I had forgotten how the _LOTR_ books were so embraced by the 60s. It’s odd to think of it coming into that particular decade. A remarkable decade indeed.
    I think the radio dramas of Lewis produced by Focus On the Family were just about the best adaptations I’ve heard of anything. They were willing to take their time and not compress things, as well as restraining themselves from superimposing a different vision onto the stories. The result had a very untampered-with feel. I can’t say the same for the movies, unfortunately.

  • Lydia

    And it may be that one reason the radio dramas by Focus were so successful was that Focus is a non-profit organization and (perhaps) did not have any big distribution dreams in mind. As long as they had the money up-front actually to make the dramas in a high-quality way, they could just do that and let the chips fall where they may as far as how many people bought them or how popular they were. Who thinks of Focus on the Family radio dramas as big money-makers? Whereas obviously a movie is intended to make money, and a movie as expensive as the LOTR movies _has_ to make a big profit just to pay for itself. Both the risks to capital and the projected/hoped-for profit are huge.

  • There is nothing sexual to be associated with the term of a “bromance.” Another term that is commonly used as well is “mancrush.” Nothing is supposed to be insinuated sexually about either term…

  • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying both for what they are. I own the movies and enjoy them highly. In fact, I saw The Fellowship before I ever read the books. After Fellowship, I went right out and bought all three books and read them. I loved the books. But I also still love the movies. There is sooo much material in the books (anyone remember that one chapter simply about a TREE?!?! in Fellowship?) that a realistic interpretation of the source material would just be impossible. These are two different mediums here that have to be looked at apart from one another. The novels are AMAZING, but so are the movies when you think of them as just movies. Would someone else have interpreted the texts differently than Peter Jackson? Absolutely. But the movies are still GREAT and so are the books.

  • I realize it typically doesn’t have sexual connotations, which confirms what I said in the post. I still maintain that both are hideous words, from the perspective of someone who mourns the impoverishment of the English language if nothing else.
    The problem is that a non-sexual friendship between two men isn’t the same thing as a non-sexual friendship between a man and a woman. The feeling I get when I read descriptions of “bromances” is a “No, of course they’re not a romantic couple [but it would be cute and totally OK if they were]” feeling. One person was highlighting some banter between two male TV characters who are close friends and saying that it was “just like an old married couple.” Haha.

  • I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t grow up with the books and hence saw the movie first. That’s unfortunate for any great book. But I’m glad you then bought the books and discovered what you were missing.
    There are many things Jackson could have done that would have better preserved the integrity of Tolkien’s vision while recognizing the limitations of film. For example, if you want to talk about economy, he could have removed the unnecessary and cheap action sequences that ate up a lot of screen time without contributing to the plot. He could also have restrained himself from taking scenes that are dealt with fairly briefly in the book (like the Watcher at the gate) and elongating them.
    Secondly, he could have kept the integrity of Tolkien’s characters, e.g. Faramir or even Treebeard. In the books, Faramir is not even tempted by the ring. In the movie, Jackson felt compelled to add an entire sequence where Faramir thinks about taking the ring but has a change of heart. He completely rewrote that character, and it was far inferior to the original. Treebeard also waffles back and forth about whether or not to summon the Ents.
    Plus, he added a lot of cheap chick-flick junk with Arwen and Aragorn that was nowhere to be found in the originals. It didn’t help that Liv Tyler was a disaster, but admittedly they gave her some awful material. What’s this “Arwen is dying” garbage? She’s not dying in the books. That was all added.
    It’s not the cuts I mind so much. Much as I missed Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire, I would have been better able to forgive Jackson were it not for the wealth of inferior added material. My reaction is “Well if you were going to take all that time ANYWAY, then why not use the pre-existing material from a much more skilled storyteller than your script-writers will ever be?”
    I don’t want to be too harsh. I want to acknowledge the love that went into the project, and it does show. Ironically, I sometimes found the behind the scenes material more interesting than the actual films. The costumes, special effects, and set design were breath-taking. And the acting was solid (except for the aforementioned Liv Tyler). They’re good movies. I never said they weren’t. But this isn’t simply an apples and oranges issue. The books really are objectively greater.

  • Lydia

    Okay, it’s therefore disgusting to use the words “crush” and “romance” as part of the words meant to describe it. For quite a few millenia we had a word for friendship. That word was “friendship” or its equivalent in various human languages. It didn’t need to be spiced up by being combined with other words that already had sexual and romantic connotations–like “crush” and “romance.”

  • Precisely.

  • But my point isn’t whether Jackson stayed true so much as his adaptations need to be looked at apart from the books to – as a medium all of their own.
    Did they tell a great story? Yes. Did it work? Absolutely it worked. I understand that it’s hard to detach oneself from the original source material, but try and just look at it through the lense of one who is just a movie goer with a penchant for fantasy. It works, and it works possibly better than any other fantasy film. And yes, that includes Star Wars…

  • I actually think the original Star Wars films, as movies, were better written and edited (with the exception of _Empire_ and the first section of _Return of the Jedi_). If you want to talk about screenplays, they were better screenplays.

  • Lydia

    My own opinion is that the Jackson movies would have been better movies had he left out the extraneous and added material. I dare anyone to defend the silly B-Western scene between Aragorn and his horse where he goes over the cliff and then dreams that he’s kissing Arwen, but it’s really the horse nosing him to wake him up. The movie wouldn’t have been better, qua movie, without that? F’r sure, it would have. I’d be willing myself to go through all of the added material and make a similar argument. For example, when Elrond says that Arwen is dying because her life has become bound up with that of Middle Earth, that’s _poor_ world-making. It’s unexplained. It makes no sense. It doesn’t fit into a well-worked-out metaphysic of the invented world. Hence, the movie would have been better had it simply been left out.

  • I think that’s what I meant. The truly great elements of the original story that were kept in the movie clashed with the added, inferior elements. Chris brought up the original Star Wars—at least they felt consistent.