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Cultural Values and Cultural Death in The Lord of the Rings

Martin Ball

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this paper has been divided
into parts I & II


Christmas 2002 witnessed a second coming -- Peter Jackson's film The Lord of the Ringsreturned, with the worldwide release of the second part, The Two Towerson December 18th (Dec. 26th in Australia). As the avalanche of advertising and cross-promotions fades away, it's timely to reconsider the first of Jackson's trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, and its relationship with its literary exemplar, J.R.R. Tolkien's book of the same name. Together with some analysis of the process of adaptation and transformation from novel to film, I want to look at how Jackson's film deals with some key concepts in Tolkien's work, namely; the dialectic between orality and literacy, and the enunciation of cultural identity and value. I finish with a few words about postcolonialism, and some speculation on the place of Tolkien within the purview of a cultural studies curriculum.

"The book of the century"

Looking back at the publicity and hype surrounding the first release of the film, it's easy to think that The Lord of the Ringsfits the model of many such productions these days, where the motivation to make a movie or television series is simply to create a massive advertisement for a pre-conceived merchandising industry. In this case, the add-on sales have been to the fore in the marketing campaign, even including competitions to "win a gold ring". The 'Tolkien Industry' has been operating for decades of course, thriving on posters, calendars, games, teach-yourself-Elvish manuals, etc. Yet amongst all this kitsch merchandising, the great fetish object of Tolkienorama remains the books themselves: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and to a lesser extent, The Silmarillion.

In his review of the film for the TLS, Tom Shippey reported that sales of Tolkien's works in the US doubled in 2000, and increased tenfold in 2001.1 In Australia, in the wake of the film's release, the books appeared to take a mortgage on the bestseller lists. Throughout January 2002 Tolkien occupied the top five places, displacing familiar leaders such as Stephen King and Bryce Courtenay. This was neither a weak field, nor a one week phenomenon. The books remained on the lists for more than two months, and will no doubt return in strength in January 2003.2

The popularity of The Lord of the Ringshas often puzzled and divided literary critics and commentators. The book seems to embody the cliche that an artistic work can be either a critical or a popular success, but not both. The ability to polarise readers is not untypical of works that break new ground – which Tolkien certainly did, in terms of content, style and genre. But perhaps the greatest obstacle Tolkien has faced is that so much of the criticism of his work has been second-rate. For example, the hostile early notices by such influential reviewers as Edmund Wilson and Philip Toynbee display a litany of inconsistencies and embarrassing contradictions.3 At the same time, in a recent bio/hagiography, Joseph Pearce argues that because Tolkien specifically rejected Freud and his ideas, Tolkien's works should then be somehow beyond the scope of psychoanalytical critique. It's a naive argument that does his subject no credit.4 There are of course many valuable and insightful books and articles on Tolkien, especially in recent years. But the excesses of opinion on both sides have more often been underwhelming, leading Brian Rosebury to describe the bulk of Tolkien criticism as "shallow and silly commentary, both hostile and laudatory".5

A good example of this can be seen in the flurry of excitement in early 1997, following a series of polls across Britain to judge the "book of the century". In poll after poll The Lord of the Ringswas consistently chosen ahead of familiar school curriculum texts by Orwell, Golding and Salinger – regardless of whether the voters were viewers of BBC Channel 4, customers of the Waterstone's bookstore chain, readers of the Daily Telegraph, or subscribers to The Folio Society. The immediate response from the literary establishment to Tolkien's apotheosis was that the polls represented a travesty for English literature. The TLS described the results as "horrifying", the Sunday Timesdeclared it a "black day for British culture", and the Guardiancomplained that by any reckoning The Lord of the Ringsmust be "one of the worst books ever written". Never short of a word, Germaine Greer wrote that ever since she arrived at Cambridge in 1964 it had been her nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century – "The bad dream has materialized," bemoaned Greer.6

In the face of such condemnation, Tolkien supporters quickly marshalled some column inches in defence. And while some averred that The Lord of the Ringsmay not be the "greatest" book of the twentieth century, they were not prepared to see it castigated and maligned by a cabal of snobbish critics. Much of the ensuing debate centred on the literary value of The Lord of the Rings; its relative merit compared to, say, Joyce's Ulysses, its status and standing in the literary canon. Such quantitative debates are typical of the London literary press. It is interesting to observe Salman Rushdie having his own little joke about the affair, quoting from The Lord of the Rings in the opening of his 1999 novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet.7

Peter Jackson's film has now reinvigorated discussion about the book's meaning, but the debate has moved from the narrow demesne of literary aesthetics to the broader acres of mass culture. The Lord of the Ringsis now being assessed through a different paradigm of values, and by a different cast of critics. A comparison of the two texts and their receptions is thus a useful exercise. It is important to remember that the film is not merely a new medium for the same text, but a variant, indeed a new text in its own right. I want to look at the changes involved in the production of this new text, beginning with some observations about adaptation of novel to film.  

Adaptation and transformation

Any comparative analysis of novel and film will at some stage engage with the issue of fidelity: how faithful is the film to the text? That this question is inevitable does not necessarily mean that it is useful of course, and quibbles over fidelity can act to disguise the fact that critic and film maker simply disagree about the meaning of the original text.8 As Robert Stam says, "Authors are sometimes not even sure themselves of their own deepest intentions. How then can film-makers be faithful to them?"9 Acknowledging this interpretative cul-de-sac, Brian McFarlane concludes that "the fidelity approach seems a doomed enterprise, and fidelity criticism unilluminating".10 For example, in the case of The Fellowship of the Ring, it is all too easy to identify various story elements which have been changed around, or simply left out 11-- but stating the bleeding obvious is no substitute for questioning why changes have been made, nor analysing the consequences of those changes.

There are nevertheless ways of treating fidelity without being corralled into the traditional literary hierarchy of "novel good, film bad". Geoffrey Wagner's widely discussed theory of filmic adaptation posits a taxonomy of three distinct modes: Analogy, where the film treats the novel simply as base material for the purposes of making a new work of art; Commentary, where some degree of alteration is apparent, deliberate or otherwise; and Transposition, "in which a novel is given directly on the screen" with minimal interference.12 Wagner's terms and categories have been modulated a number of times, but the basic tripartite paradigm remains.13 McFarlane fleshes out Wagner's taxonomy with a few terms from Roland Barthes's theory of narrative, such as nuclei (the hinge-points or cardinal functionsof the narrative), and catalysers(which complement and expand upon the nuclei ). According to MacFarlane, "the film-maker bent on 'faithful' adaptation must seek to preserve the major cardinal functions".

Jackson's film of The Lord of the Ringscan be seen as falling somewhere between Wagner's modes of Transposition and Commentary. The screenplay (written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson) does preserve the major nucleiof the literary text, although it plays around with many of the catalysers. The film is thus completely recognisable as the narrative of the book, but there are many small changes which subtly alter the nature of the text. As the film's editor John Gilbert explains, "I always find that literal adaptations don't work. You have to find what you think is essential to the book, and make your movie of that."14  According to Barthes, "a nucleus cannot be deleted without altering the story, but neither can a catalyst without altering the discourse".15  I do not propose to treat every instance where the 'discourse' is altered between the book and the film of The Lord of the Rings, but will restrict my commentary to questions of Genre and Culture.


The first point to discuss in terms of Genre is the trope of Violence. Battle and death are integral to The Lord of the Rings, and there are scenes in the book which depict warfare with all the savagery and brutality we would expect from an author who served on the Somme in the Great War. Contemporary cinema thrives on violence and so it is therefore not surprising that in the film, the camera angles, make-up schlock and special effects all combine to make the violence hyper-real, to exhilarate the viewer with the thrill of danger and the voyeurism of blood and gore.

Apart from pumping up the visual savagery to ensure adequate cinematic drama, the film accentuates the text's violence in a number of other ways. We can analyse this process in terms of narrative planes of space and time. Firstly, while much of the book's narrative content is contracted or elided, all the fights scenes are retained--thus occupying a greater proportion of the screenplay story. Secondly, the resulting fight sequences are greatly extended beyond their narrative time in the book--for example, the episode with the cave troll in the Chamber of Mazarbul, and the battle with the Uruk-Hai on the shores of the Anduin at the breaking of the Fellowship. Further, there are extra battle scenes interpolated into the film which are not in the book; such as the mind battle between Gandalf and Saruman in Orthanc, and the escape sequence across a stone bridge in the Mines of Moria.

In narratological terms, we can therefore say that violence is increased both in story timeand narrative time; that is, violence constitutes more time within the narrative world, and it consumes more viewing/reading time in the real world.16  In the language of film semiotics, we can say that violence is magnified both as a signifier and a signified.17 Not surprisingly perhaps, the first screenplay written for The Lord of the Ringshad made similar moves. In 1957 an American consortium proposed making a film and commissioned Morton Zimmerman to write a draft story-line--which Tolkien subsequently derided for "showing a preference for fights" (amongst other things).18 This valorising of the sign "Violence" generates commonality with other filmic texts, and acts to ground the film in the genre of Hollywood Adventure. The implications of this generic moulding will be discussed further below.

Aside from manipulations of the trope of violence, we can also identify a number of changes in character and plot--the bulk of which are necessitated by the need to compress Tolkien's 200,000 word text into no more than three hours of film. The screenplay narrows the scope of the book and streamlines the plot. Rather than condensing the entire book, the film abridges the narrative by deleting discrete sections. This accords with Tolkien's own view on filming The Lord of the Rings: having read Zimmerman's story-line, he felt it was better to cut scenes entirely rather than risk "over-crowding and confusion" in a script.19 As is common in film adaptation, main characters are foregrounded, and extraneous characters are either cut or conflated into existing ones. A perfect case is the fortuitous substitution of the Glorfindel character with Arwen: one minor character is suppressed, enabling another to be expanded into a larger role.

This particular example also allows Jackson to increase the amount of female narrative space, thus solving two problems at once, for a common criticism of the Lord of the Ringshas been that it is a bit of a "boy's own" story.20 The few women characters that exist lack emotional dimension, and are mostly distant and idealised. This needn't be an impedient to a successful film, of course, as any number of war movies can testify. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jackson's screenplay consciously works to redress the gender imbalance of Tolkien's dramatis personae, and especially to augment the "love interest" narrative of Aragorn and Arwen. The pre-release trailer of Part II, The Two Towers, suggests that Jackson likewise brings greater depth and tension to Aragorn's relationship with Eowyn. This makes for a classic combination genre: Adventure-Romance.

Initial responses suggest that Jackson's first film has been accepted by critics and public alike. It balances fidelity to the literary text on hand, with the requirements of the film medium on the other. In the words of Tom Shippey, an academic with great sympathy for Tolkien, "Jackson's film is both true to its own conception and respectful of Tolkien's".21 In this, The Fellowship of the Ringcan be contrasted to the first Harry Potter movie, which has been widely criticised for its slavish fidelity to the text, resulting in an overlong, rather pedestrian film.

The main effect of Jackson's screenplay is to concentrate the theme of the hero's quest/journey, and Manichaean struggle of good against evil. Hence the frequent close-ups of Frodo wrestling with inner demons, or Boromir, or the 'Eye' (in his review, Shippey complains that "Elijah Wood as Frodo does the wide-eyed waif-like stare at the screen maybe once too often"). This reading of the book as a hero?quest was clearly enunciated by W.H. Auden in his 1956 review of 'The Return of the King'.22 It fits neatly into the Northrop Frye's contemporaneous theory of plot and genre developed in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), where the mythos of Summer is the quest-romance, with its "perilous journey, the crucial struggle and the exaltation of the hero".23 The idea of the quest as a metaphor for the hero's psychological journey also owes much to Joseph Campbell's hugely influential The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which encouraged readers to undertake their own personal journey, to be a modern hero, "questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul".24

The persistence of the hero-quest interpretation can be seen in a recent comment by John Carroll, a critic who shares Campbell's Jungian interests. Carroll suggests that the film of The Lord of the Ringsis in fact "better than the book", because it more clearly depicts the psychological journey of the hero--which for him is the paramount theme of The Lord of the Rings.25 Carroll's critique confirms how effective Jackson's screenplay has been in streamlining and strengthening such an interpretation. The film has a consistency and momentum which the book, in parts, lacks. The trade-off is that to achieve this, the film has trimmed some of the density and complexity of the book. There are, indeed, a number of changes that go beyond the necessities of genre and form, and which invite further criticism.

Poetry and absence

The first thing to consider is what has been discarded from the book. The most obvious cut in the screenplay in the deletion of three whole chapters of the book, the Old Forest-Barrow Downs sequence. In terms of narrative rhythm, this cut is a serendipitous necessity. By taking the hobbits straight from The Shire to Bree, Jackson avoids a lengthy and possibly confusing episode. Tolkien was entirely frank about the fact that he himself had no idea where his story was going in its early stages. His many drafts chronicle the process of authorial enlightenment, as characters emerge, change names, and occasionally disappear again.26 The consequence is that Book One of The Lord of the Ringshas a poor structure, even if it is rich in plot and character development. The characters of Tom Bombadil, Goldberry and the barrow wights play no further part in the story, and can be expediently sacrificed.

Notwithstanding the relief to the screenplay length and plot however, the excision of this material has significant generic implications. The Old Man Willow-Tom Bombadil action is very much a type of Medieval Romance. The Romance of this genre is not of the amorous nature, but rather refers to a type of narrative divertissement which is entirely incidental to the main plot. As we have seen, Jackson straightens the narrative to avoid unnecessary plots and characters, and sets its generic boundaries in terms of Adventure and (Hollywood) Romance.

A less obvious consequence of the loss of the Old Forest material is that the cultural and social matter of Middle Earth is substantially attenuated. Together, Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow represent manifestations of good and evil that are entirely independent of Sauron and the Ring. Like the gestures to the history of the Silmarils, these characters and scenarios are evidence of a richness and complexity in Tolkien's creation, which lies beyond the generic possibilities of Adventure-Romance. The film can be seen to eschew complicated narrative and cultural formations, instead making room for extended fight sequences. As Rick Altman argues, generic situations offer a process of intensification, not diversification, and generic economy prevails over plurality.27


The most significant change to the cultural fabric of Middle Earth in the film is the almost total absence of poetry and song. Tolkien uses poetry and song as key indices to the cultural capital and cultural identity of societies throughout The Lord of the Rings and other books. Their vital role is made clear if we think of 'culture' in terms of Raymond Williams' familiar social definition--"a description of a particular way of life, which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning but in institutions and ordinary behaviour".28 In Middle Earth, poetry and song are not merely the province of high cultural forms, but extend to the practice of everyday life. Even the simplest domestic ritual become infused with the poetic--such as washing dishes, having a bath, and of course, drinking beer.29 All these are catalysers which add phatic dimension to the nucleiof the narrative, and whose omission materially affects the discursive complexity of the film.

The book of 'The Fellowship of the Ring' provides many occasions for poetic expression, including reciting, chanting and singing of verses. For example, there is much light-hearted verse, such as Tom Bombadil's jolly rhymes, and a variety of Hobbit nonsense and occasional songs. At a more serious level, there are heroic sagas (of Durin, and Eärendil); a romance lay (of Beren and Luthien); a series of laments (for Gil-Galad, Gandalf, and Boromir), and much more besides.30  All of this is absent in the film, which retains only Bilbo's "Walking Song" (The road goes ever on and on). The film gestures to the Elves' lament for Gandalf in Lorien, but not the more substantial threnody by Frodo. Jackson's portrayal of the Prancing Pony inn at Bree offers a brief glance of Hobbit culture--but once again, we lose Frodo's humorous ditty on "The Man in the Moon".31

Apart from its function as a trope of culture, the extensive use of verse is also an index to the fundamental oral traditions of Tolkien's creations. Although Middle Earth is a literate world with a variety of alphabets, it is oral rather than scribal forms that dominate the dissemination of cultural lore and traditions.32 This is best exemplified in the secrets of the Ring itself, preserved in the octave of The Verse of the Rings:

"Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
 Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone
Nine for mortal men doomed to die,
 One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
 One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
 One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie."

This essential piece of verse lore never appears in the film, which only quotes the couplet inscribed on the Ring itself ("One Ring to rule them all," etc.). Further examples of verse lore are Bilbo's riddle of Strider ("All that is gold does not glitter"), and the dream?riddle which brings Boromir to Rivendell ("Seek for the Sword that was broken"). Then there are the numerous proverbial sayings, snatches of lore, mnemonics and such like, all preserved in oral verse. Apart from the information they contain, these verses point to the vital role of oral tradition in the cultural fabric of Middle Earth societies. The book makes pains to include such matter; the film does not.

"Cultural Values and Cultural Death in The Lord of the Rings" continues with part II ...

Martin Ball holds a Ph.D. from the University of Tasmania, with a thesis on Anzac mythology and nationhood. He is the music and drama critic for the Australiannewspaper in Melbourne, and was formerly Managing Editor of the literary/arts journal Siglo.

References (part I)

1 Tom Shippey, Review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Times Literary Supplement, No. 5151, 21st Dec. 2001, 16–17.
2 Based on a survey of one thousand retailers in Australia, published in the Age, 16th Feb. 2002; 'Saturday Extra', p.8. The five separate Tolkien books were the three individ-ual volumes of the Lord of the Rings, the single volume edition, and The Hobbit. In a survey of fiction and non-fiction published in the Weekend Australian 'Review' for 23/24 March 2002, Tolkien's books were still at 3, 4 8, 10 and 11.
3 Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the century. London: HarperCollins, 2000; 305–308.
4 Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth. London: HarperCollins, 1998; 21–22.
5 Brian Rosebury, Tolkien: a critical assessment. London: St Martins, 1992; 2. Rose-bury's assessment is echoed by Charles Moseley (J.R.R. Tolkien. Plymouth: Northcote, 1997; xiii), but rejected by Daniel Timmons (J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary resonances. Edited by George Clark & Daniel Timmons. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000; 3).
6 TLS24th Jan. 1997; Sunday Times26 Jan. 1997; Guardian4th Mar. 1997. Germaine Greer, 'The book of the century–' W: the Waterstone's Magazine(Winter/Spring 1997) 8: 2–9. For a account of the polls and their aftermath, see Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth. London: HarperCollins, 1998, 1–12.
7 As a writer who might conceivably have greater claims than Tolkien to the title "author of the century", Rushdie is happy to acknowledge the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, though he does so with a little sting. In Rushdie's novel, a dying, delirious, drug-saturated youth recites the lines of the Verse of the Rings – in Orcish! Such is the currency of popular culture. (The Ground Beneath Her Feet, London: Jonathan Cape, 1999; 6).
8 Dudley Andrew's frequently rehearsed comment is worth repeating here: "Unquestion-ably the most frequent and most tiresome discussion of adaptation concerns fidelity". 'Adaptation'. In James Naremore (ed.), Film Adaptation. London: Athlone, 2000; 28–37, at 28.
9 Robert Stam, 'Beyond Fidelity: the dialogics of adaptation'. In James Naremore (ed.), Film Adaptation. London: Athlone, 2000; 54–76, at 57.
10 Brian McFarlane, Novel to Film: a introduction to the theory of adaptation. 1996; 9.
11 The pre-history of the Ring and the Second Age, for example, is presented in an entirely different manner, and the Old Forest–Barrow Downs sequence is cut completely – this is discussed in more detail later in the essay.
12 Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975, 222–3.
13 For commentary on Wagner and other taxonomies, see Brian McFarlane, Novel to Film: a introduction to the theory of adaptation.New York: Oxford, 1996; 10–11; and Imelda Whelan, 'Adaptations: the contemporary dilemmas'. In Deborah Cartmell & Imelda Whelan (eds), Adaptation: from text to screen, screen to text. London: Routledge, 1999; 8.
14 John Gilbert, 'From Book to Script'. Interview on the Extended Version DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema, 2002, CD 3.
15 Roland Barthes, 'Introduction to the Structural Study of Narrative'. (Trans. Stephen Heath) Image–Music–Text.New York: Noonday, 1977; 79–124, at 91.
16 For a discussion of these terms, see Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse(trans. Jane E, Lewin). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980, 33ff.
17 For a discussion of these terms, see Christian Metz, Film Language: a semiotics of the cinema(trans. Michael Taylor). New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
18 Letter to Forrest Ackerman, [Not dated, probably June 1958]. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.(Henceforth: Letters) Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981; #210, p.271.
19 In a comment on Zimmerman's story-line (see note 11, above). Letter to Rayner Unwin, 7 Sept. 1957. Letters, #201, p.261.
20 Cf., Edwin Muir's review of The Return of the King, 'A Boy's World'. Observer, 27th Nov. 1955; 11.
21 Tom Shippey, Review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. TLS, No. 5151, 21st Dec. 2001, 16–17. Shippey's comments are somewhat compromised, as he admits, for he acted as linguistic adviser to the film.
22 W.H. Auden, 'At the end of the Quest, Victory'. New York Times Book Review, 22nd Jan., 1956; 5. See also Auden's articles, 'The Quest Hero'. In Neil Isaacs & Rose Zimbardo, eds. Tolkien and the critics: essays on Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings". Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968; 40–61; and 'Good and Evil in The Lord of the Rings'. Tolkien Journal (1967) 3: 5–8.
23 Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics.London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973; 222.
24 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces(Princeton University Press, 1949) London: Fontana, 1993; 388.
25 John Carroll in conversation with James Griffin. Coast to Coast, ABC Television, 3rd March, 2002.
26 See J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow: the history of 'The Lord of the Rings'. Ed., Christopher Tolkien. London: Unwin Hyman, 1988.
27 Rick Altman, Film/Genres. London: BFI Publishing, 1999.
28 Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1966 (1961); 41.
29 Cf., washing dishes (The Hobbit. London: Unwin Hyman, 1987, 19); bathing (The Lord of the Rings, I: 111); drinking (The Lord of the Rings, I: 99).
30 For a complete list of verses in The Lord of the Rings, see part I of the Index, III: 417–9.
31 Jackson did in fact attempt to film many of these sequences, which can be viewed on the Extended Version DVD. Such scenes include: hobbits singing drinking songs at the Green Dragon, Bywater; Sam's vernacular lament for Gandalf; and Strider mumbling two lines of verse, presumably from the Lay of Beren and Luthien.
32 While oral forms are pre-eminent, there are textual traditions as well. Appendix E 'Writing and Spelling' of The Lord of the Ringsdetails the complex history of alphabet development in Middle Earth, including both runes and letters.

"Cultural Values and Cultural Death in The Lord of the Rings" continues with part II ...


This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

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