J. R. R. Tolkien vs. Peter Jackson

The great debate among speculators with respect to the Lord of the Rings movies is whether the books or the movies are better. Before I dive into that, I want to state categorically how much respect I have for J. R. R. Tolkien. As a writer, I recognize his contributions to the literary world as revolutionary. To this day Tolkien remains the exemplar for in-depth world building and immersive settings. Having spent a decade working with a colleague to build a complex setting for books, I am among a very small group of people who have first-hand experience following Tolkien’s example. Therefore, I fully appreciate his amazing work with histories, languages, maps, and back-stories. I also happily credit Tolkien as being the pivotal writer in defining the entire fantasy genre. His work has possibly inspired the setting and characters of more genre fiction and games than any other writer in history.

Despite my high esteem for Tolkien, I think the movies are better than the books.

Before you prepare a lynch mob, hear me out. The sheer volume of work and money invested in a movie exceeds that of a book (even one so laboriously produced by Tolkien) by orders of magnitude. Millions of hours by thousands of people go into the movies. They are the highest investment art in the world. It is fitting that Tolkien’s pivotal works should become the most awarded movies in history. However, the genius of Tolkien’s work isn’t really in the writing. The pace of books has increased dramatically in order to compete with so many other media forms today. Tolkien wrote for people with no such competition. If Tolkien tried to submit those books to a publisher today, they would reject him. I’m sure if he wrote today, he would produce brilliant work by today’s standards. Nevertheless, the movies benefit from almost a century of technological advancements, an amazing budget, and some of the best artistic talent in history. Peter Jackson’s work has pushed all movies to a higher standard, redefining what it means to be epic.

Luckily, we don’t have to choose between Tolkien and Jackson. They make the best team of genius artists I can think of.

…Join the debate at The Speculators’ Club.

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7 thoughts on “J. R. R. Tolkien vs. Peter Jackson

  1. Technology and money don’t make a good film, nor do they necessarily create better art. While Tolkien wrote for himself, which is of more value to me, Jackson had to commercialize it. This is a difference: while Tolkien could focus himself entirely on what he wanted to achieve, Jackson had to gain profit – and in art, money can be a very bad source of inspiration: leading to clichés.
    And while you’re criticizing the writing abilities of Tolkien, you do not mention the huge shortcomings from the side of the films. It just happens that Jackson, and the other screenwriters, aren’t good writers at all. Whenever they wanted to change something, it shows in the lack of consistency in those films. Characters acting entirely against their nature: Frodo and Sam at the stairs of Cirith Ungol, but also Arwen being the one that saves Frodo: of course, in the films her character could be a warrior princess, but the problem created here is the character of Elrond: here he allows Arwen to save them, but what about his overly concerned behaviour afterwards? But there are also huge logical problems: the Elves at Helm’s Deep, there isn’t any other explanation than a time-and-space warp. The entire section of the Entmoot to the Ents marching against Isengard (seeing how fast Treebeard could summon an army of his kin, how did he not know what was happening in his forest). Or Frodo at Osgilliath, almost handing the Ring over to a Nazgul which didn’t had any consequences afterwards at all (Faramir had a reason not sending Frodo away, but didn’t tell anything to Denethor or Gandalf about this confrontation, and neither did the Nazgul to Sauron or the Witch-King). Those are serious flaws, from which I conclude Jackson & co didn’t care for the consistency and logic of the plot at all, but just wanted to create action and drama, whatever the cost may be. To paraphrase Tolkien: if you’re changing something, make sure it fits in the larger context.

    • I disagree about Jackson not being a great screenwriter. There are far more internal inconsistencies in the books than there are in the movies. Movies are the highest form or art in our society. They take hundreds of millions of dollars and literally millions of man-hours by hundreds of thousands of people to make. Tolkien, while brilliant, was just one guy alone in his den writing a book. Jackson is a captain of industry capable of bringing a city’s worth of people into alignment to create a dynamic art form Tolkien never dreamed of.

      I like them both. I highly respect Tolkien. But Jackson is the best at what he does.

      • There are not as many inconsistencies in the book as there are in the films, and those in the book are certainly not as big. Except one, and the biggest of Tolkien’s mistakes: the plothole of the Eagles, and Jackson and his billions of dollars and hundreds of advisers all missed it and left it unchanged – so there goes your argument of hundreds of people being more capable than one man. Not only that: while Tolkien left us some material to discuss this problem, we cannot discuss the matter from a film-only point of view. The rest of the inconsistencies in the book are some small mistakes, some of which can be derived to the fact that characters can be mistaken and do not know everything – which Tolkien actually used. And I’ve not talked about things like the inconsistent handling of the power of the Ring during the films – like nobody in the Fellowship or at the Council of Elrond being affected by it except for Boromir (Gimli even tried to destroy it, in a manner that should be considered idiotic for a race of great smiths and miners), but immediately having effect on Faramir (but curiously enough, not on his soldiers), and Sam, while he used the Ring, just giving it back to Frodo: changing it from a subtle corruptive power to something with immediate effect and back again. Or the Eye of Sauron. In the films, it actually sees Frodo, a few times, but the all-seeing eye actually manages to loose track of Frodo and the Ring. While in the book, the Eye was just a metaphor and symbol for a reincarnated Sauron. No, the films had far more flawed writing than the book. Like I said: most of the big changes Jackson made were really flawed in this sense: it seems he changed those things just because he thought it would be good. So now tell me, what are the inconsistencies – apart from the Eagles – from the book? And I’m asking for examples on the same scale as the ones I told in my two posts, so things that are of huge importance to the story itself.

        Films are the highest form of art? That’s just your opinion, and I must disagree. Being commercial successful, working on an industrial scale and having a lot of money are not things I see as an argument to defend the notion of “the highest form of art”. To me, there isn’t a form of art that can be described as such, as all forms of art have given birth to some beautiful creations, but also a much wider choice of bad things, just made for the sake of money. And when you’ve got a lot of people working on it – especially with a big budget – it becomes ever more important.

        • Again, I’m not against the books. They are really, really great. But it takes 116 pages for Frodo to get out of the Shire! That’s just slow pacing. And while I love the world building and prose, the books require patience and an appreciation for the esoteric to be fully enjoyed. People are entitled to their opinions. And I think movies are the most man-hours and money put into a distilled motion picture medium that is the highest (newest and most advance) art yet. I am a published author. So I appreciate books. I love what they can do for characters that movies can’t. I love the places they can take our minds that movies can’t go. But the LotR movies breathed a kind of pace and urgency into the stories the books didn’t have.

          I appreciate people who prefer the books. I just don’t have the same opinion. I think orcs singing is an inconsistency. I think having the fellowship march through a field while giants throw rocks over the top of them is an inconsistency. The movies took a lot of the childishness out of the stories, making it more serious. And I like that feeling of seriousness.

          • I’m not saying you’re against the book (or against literature, your site made that clear already), but that your arguments are flawed in general. You may think films are the highest form of art, but I do not think so. Of course it needs more money, more people and better technology. But I find it really sad hearing those standards define films as the highest form of art. A writer just needs a pen and paper, or a cheap computer – why should the necessities for making the piece define whether or not it’s the higher form of art? It’s definitely a higher form of business and management – but those do not define art. Bill Gates has many people working for him, puts tons of money in his company and has technology far more sophisticated than the things used in the world of filmmaking. Using the things you said, I can argue he’s one of the greatest artists ever. Also, even if they were a higher form of art, it doesn’t necessarily concludes the discussion whether the books are better or not. In fact, it isn’t relevant at all.

            It’s true the pacing is faster in the film, but I’ve never thought of the films as being beautiful when comparing them to Tolkien, because of the reasons you just said: Tolkien was far more sensitive to language than the screenwriters for the film, is by far the best world builder I’ve ever seen, and the philosophy was much deeper. The sheer beauty of LotR is made possible because of this slower pace: all the backstories, histories, songs… The world felt so real, so complete – including the mysteries surrounding it. Besides that you were more like one of the hobbits exploring Middle-Earth because of that slow pace. LotR is not about action, contrary to what the films have shown us.

            The two “inconsistencies” you gave are both from the Hobbit – written for children – not LotR. Jackson included both elements (and especially the Giants in a horrible manner) in his film while he said he was trying to make it more mature (not mentioning his invention of the rabbit-sled). Jackson included more childishness in LotR, like the goofiness of Gimli or the coolness of Legolas.

            But back to the inconsistencies: I do not think those are inconsistencies: saying Orcs can’t sing is like saying it’s not possible for them to sing, that it cannot be considered as a part of their culture, and we don’t know enough of their culture to conclude that. Orcs singing is definitely not an inconsistency. And neither are the Giants, actually. Yes, they are mysterious, but mystery is something that actually makes a world more real: we don’t know everything about our world either, and it makes the world seems even bigger than it already is. So why would it be inconsistent? And while I know many inconsistencies in LotR – like the problem of “the Eldest” or Pippin telling Theoden was the first Man he met that knew about Hobbits – these are not as glaring as the ones in the films.

  2. Technology and money don’t make a good film, nor do they necessarily create better art. While Tolkien wrote for himself, which is of more value to me, Jackson had to commercialize it. This is a difference: while Tolkien could focus himself entirely on what he wanted to achieve, Jackson had to gain profit – and in art, money can be a very bad source of inspiration: leading to clichés.
    And while you’re criticizing the writing abilities of Tolkien, you do not mention the huge shortcomings from the side of the films. It just happens that Jackson, and the other screenwriters, aren’t good writers at all. Whenever they wanted to change something, it shows in the lack of consistency in those films. Characters acting entirely against their nature: Frodo and Sam at the stairs of Cirith Ungol, but also Arwen being the one that saves Frodo: of course, in the films her character could be a warrior princess, but the problem created here is the character of Elrond: here he allows Arwen to save them, but what about his overly concerned behaviour afterwards? But there are also huge logical problems: the Elves at Helm’s Deep, there isn’t any other explanation than a time-and-space warp. The entire section of the Entmoot to the Ents marching against Isengard (seeing how fast Treebeard could summon an army of his kin, how did he not know what was happening in his forest). Or Frodo at Osgilliath, almost handing the Ring over to a Nazgul which didn’t had any consequences afterwards at all (Faramir had a reason not sending Frodo away, but didn’t tell anything to Denethor or Gandalf about this confrontation, and neither did the Nazgul to Sauron or the Witch-King). Those are serious flaws, from which I conclude Jackson & co didn’t care for the consistency and logic of the plot at all, but just wanted to create action and drama, whatever the cost may be. To paraphrase Tolkien: if you’re changing something, make sure it fits in the larger context.

    • Don’t get me wrong. Tolkien deserves the title of the best writer in the 20th century. His work is incredible. But the standards of writing, largely due to his efforts, have gone up. The only points I make about his work are with comparison to today’s level of work. I’m sure if Tolkien were here today, he would take it to the next level again.

      Movies are a different medium for story telling. Just like making a sculpture of the Mona Lisa would require a lot of compromises, making a movie out of the Lord of the Rings requires changes from the original written format. I think the fact that Return of the King is the most highly awarded movie in history (tied with Ben Hur from the 60’s, but coming out in a much more competitive market) speaks for itself.

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