In a lecture entitled "Filming The Lord of the Rings: How Peter Jackson Coped with J.R.R. Tolkien," Oxford professor and renowned Tolkien expert Tom Shippey went beyond his self-titled "cry of derision" to both criticize and, perhaps surprisingly, praise certain aspects of Jackson's films.
Shippey began his discussion of the films on Wednesday by sharing with the audience his experience at a preview showing of "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." It was a screening predominantly for movie reviewers and reporters, and he was surprised to see that even given the length of the film?over three hours?not one of the reporters or reviewers moved.
"No one spoke, no one ate their popcorn, no one left for the restroom. So," he concluded, "there's something there!"
The more important question to Shippey, however, was whether that "something" did or did not stay true to the original concept of Tolkien's Middle Earth.
While Shippey predicts that they spent somewhere around a million dollars per day while filming the movies, he said that Tolkien was much thriftier in the writing of his books.
According to Shippey, Tolkien often wrote on the backs of his students' reports and used a fountain pen with ink provided by his school, thus completely avoiding even the cost of paper and pen. His only expense was the loss of his spare time, a loss which, Shippey said, "I can tell you from personal experience, is worth nothing at all."
The movies, on the other hand, had an incredible budget. When that kind of money is spent, people develop similarly gargantuan expectations: right away, Jackson had a responsibility to please his audience, a concern which Tolkien did not have to bother with at all. Jackson, however, needed to find a way to make Tolkien's masterpiece attractive to a predominantly teenage audience.
In some ways, he succeeded, according to Shippey. The Council of Elrond, for example, is a 15,000 word documentation of a committee meeting in the book. This would hardly translate well on a movie screen.
Instead, Jackson presented much of the information revealed about the ring during this meeting at the beginning of the movie to a backdrop of warfare and more appetizing special effects. Shippey said he does not have a problem with this, because he believes it does not essentially deny the atmosphere of Tolkien's work.
Other scenes included in the movie, however, would never have fit into the Middle Earth of Tolkien's imagination. To illustrate his point Shippey showed two clips from "The Two Towers": a scene in which Legolas skateboards down a staircase while shooting orcs, and a clip of Aragorn tossing Gimli across a gorge.
"Tolkien would never have included this," Shippey said.
According to Shippey the greatest flaw of the movie does not relate to the characterization or even to the overall approach to the plot, but rather to Jackson's treatment of the palantir?a stone that functions like a crystal ball.
In the books, each of the four times it is used, the characters draw the wrong conclusion based on what they see, which drastically affect their eventual actions. Tolkien's theme here is supposed to demonstrate the importance of free will and not second guessing yourself, even in light of potentially frightening outcomes.
In the movie, though, the palantir is downgraded to a communication device. The idea of questioning free will is completely neglected.
With the exception of the palantir distortion, Shippey said that Jackson did capture the overall spirit of Tolkien's work.
"On the whole, I've been impressed by the movies," he said.
For Assistant Professor of English Mary Agnes Edsall, who teaches a Bowdoin English course entitled Tolkien's Middle Ages, inviting Shippey to speak at Bowdoin was important for a number of reasons.
"His work on Tolkien has been foundational in showing how these so-called fantasy novels were the product of deep erudition in language, literature, folklore, and philosophy," Edsall said in her introduction of Shippey.
According to Edsall, her course on Tolkien has been one of the most exciting she has taught at Bowdoin.
"It has generated some of the most meaningful class discussions and the most engaged essays in the best tradition of the liberal arts," she said. "Students not only participate in close reading and textual analysis with attention to historical context, but also explore the ethical issues at stake in the texts, in the analysis, and, at times, in their lives."