Monday, 15 February 2010
Pausing at the edge of Fangorn Forest
I am slightly ahead of schedule with the Lord of the Rings. I had given myself until the end of this weekend to reach the breaking of the fellowship at the end of book two but I was too engrossed in the whole thing and flew right into The Two Towers at some point yesterday afternoon. I am now with Merry and Pippin and the Ents, staring down at the murk of Isengard.
I think most people would agree that Fellowship is clearly the best of the books. Tolkien is obviously in complete romantic abandon with the world of The Shire, the Old Forest, The Barrow Downs, Bree and Rivendell. The pace quickens once the Fellowship is formed, but it feels organic as the story turns into a propulsive set of confrontations; The Fellowship v Caradhras, Gandalf v The Balrog, Frodo v Galadriel and finally, and most tragically, Frodo and Boromir. And while the second half of the book was as fresh and vivid as I remembered, I found the early part of the journey, up to the Weathertop to be much more immersive and entertaining this time round.
I think this is a function of being so familiar with the films. In Fellowship, the events after The Council of Elrond follow the course of the novel pretty closely. The deepest cuts are in the earlier part of the journey, and its not just Tom Bombadil. For example, I had forgotten how eerie and tense the whole Barrow-Wight section was (and am sorry to never get the chance to see Jackson visualise that section). And the development of the bond amongst the hobbits is also something which is sort of ‘assumed’ in the film, but is a delight to follow. This isn’t a case of the novel necessarily being better – due to length, the film had to often work in shorthand. Luckily the actors were excellent and had enough chemistry as a group to sell you their bond without it needing to be spelt out.
One of the areas that feels strange in the book is the lengthy time-frames. Once Gandalf confirms that Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring, the film barrels forward with breathtaking momentum, pausing briefly for breath at Rivendell and Lothlorien, but otherwise driving relentlessly forward to its epically emotional climax with the death of Boromir. The book… not so much. For a start, about 17 years or so passes between Bilbo and Frodo’s departure. And even when Frodo learns about the One Ring, he still takes months to leave The Shire. I think this is a story point which Tolkien never finds a particularly good excuse for – the idea that Frodo has to be careful about just disappearing is pretty weak tea when it’s the Root of All Evil that is in his possession. The delay doesn’t serve any kind of story function and really makes Gandalf and Frodo look more than a little idiotic. Though this doesn’t take away form how enjoyable the story is when Frodo finally decides to leave The Shire, it does make the opening a little clunky.
I was also sort of surprised at how the novel, and in particular the dialogue stood up. I don’t think anybody would argue with the idea that he isn’t the world’s most elegant writer of dialogue. It’s often stiff and bland, particularly with some of the more noble characters of high-born Elves (who I find tiresome and dull). Tolkien is at his best when writing Bilbo, Gandalf or Sam – they seem to have the more character and life to them then anybody else. But despite the fact that his style has been imitated and hilariously parodied for almost half a century now, The Lord of the Rings manages to flat above the fray – there is an aura of complete self-possession about the book which make it very easy to get swept by. Tolkien’s own deadly-serious belief actually works in the books favour – it gives it the feeling of revealed history rather than silly fantasy and allows the reader to glide past the awkward plotting and dodgy episodes (Tom Bombadil is just as irritating as I remembered).
Finally, its also clear what an amazing adaptation the movie was. It keeps the emotional and spiritual core of each character, deftly weaves in monumental amounts of exposition and still makes for a hugely exciting and ultimately heart-breaking journey. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens knew perfectly which of Tolkien’s dialogue needed to be kept and the subtle manoeuvrings of plot and character elements is beautifully done.
Onward to Rohan, Helms Deep and Emyn Muil