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what I’m not doing this weekend

This is the latest of several e-mails I’ve gotten from Symphony Silicon Valley:

After the breath-taking, sold-out presentation at Lincoln Center in New York City, Peter Jackson’s film trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic of Middle Earth and one small hobbit’s quest to destroy the Ring of Power comes to San Jose, with Howard Shore’s immortal score performed live by over 250 all-local musicians. Never before has an American orchestra attempted this monumental feat, and the results are stunning. This is not an event to miss.

You know I’m a lifelong Tolkien fan. (I even know how to spell his name.)

I read The Hobbit when I was eleven years old, and The Lord of the Rings soon after. My life in the appreciation of art and the interaction with culture has been spent more on Tolkien and on classical music than all other things together. Here’s the two, combined, in a special rare event, with a friend of mine participating on stage.

Why, then, have I absolutely no desire to go? I accept almost any review assignment I’m given; why did I beg my editor not to send me to this one?

Because while I’d be happy to re-read Tolkien’s 1200-page epic any time, I found Jackson’s three movies a tiresome bore that I have no desire to sit through again. And the music? Look, after nearly half a century of listening to and studying this stuff I think I know good music when I hear it. And Shore’s score is competent hackwork, turned out by the yard: it fills the space and does the job asked of it, and nothing more. Everything else it generates in the way of emotional response is by transference from the movie, and you have to love the movie for that to have any effect. If you don’t love the movie, there’s nothing there.

There’s a claim going around that Tolkienists who hate the movies are nothing but a few cranks. That’s not true. Five of the six or seven most distinguished Tolkien scholars in the world hate the movies so much they won’t even talk about them. And the others aren’t uncritical. At the Birmingham Tolkien Conference of 2005, the largest event to mix serious scholars of Tolkien with those of Jackson, the Jacksonists frequently complained about the near-universal dislike of the movies among the Tolkienists.

When fans of the books as devout as we find the movies so distasteful, I think that speaks eloquently to the profound differences in moral content, in storytelling approach, in aesthetic tastes, in fact in virtually everything except an outline of the plot, between Tolkien and Jackson. Say what you may about “the needs of Hollywood movie-making,” that only reinforces the point: they’re entirely different in spirit.

But what of those who do like both? For such do exist, in fair profusion. (Though not everyone who likes Jackson likes Tolkien. Many Jackson movie fans find the books a bore. That, too, speaks to the differences between books and movies.) I think they simply like two different things, where the rest of us like only one thing.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Ancillary taste differences among Tolkien fans are long-established. Some Tolkien fans like fan fiction; others don’t. Some like parodies (I’m one of those); others don’t. Some like the fantasy epics that have come along in Tolkien’s wake; others don’t. Some like Tolkien’s colleagues the Inklings (I’m one of those, too); others don’t. In no case does the one impinge on the other. Neither does it with the movies. If this appeals to you, go: have a good time. But include me out.

About the Author: David Bratman

David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.


  • Gearóid

    If you don’t like the movies that’s fair and I respect it and I was quite shocked when I re read the book LOTR having just watched the movies before, the differences are massive and at some points not understandable like Gimli being comic relief or the ugly brown grass of Rohan, the second point to me being very annoying and don’t buy into New Zealand being the perfect location for Middle-Earth. I only got in to Tolkien through the films though I read The Hobbit before I knew about them. I am somewhere in the middle of the movies and books and I am now devoting all my time reading The History of Middle-Earth, I am a heavy reader and find the experience and physical act of reading infinitely superior.
    It is a polarising topic, I get the impression the people who like the new Star Trek have no affinity for the old Star Trek, though I have never watched the original series, it was made clear to me by spending awhile reading comments to a bad review of Into Darkness.
    I respect people who do not like what Jackson done and I myself feel as he made each movie it got progressively unlike the books if even they were like them at all in the first place.
    It’s unfortunate that Tolkien fans feel divided, having said that I am forgiving of the movies and do like them.
    it’s just one of those things where people have strong opinions and I am in the middle or on the fence. I personally love the Silmarillion above all other Tolkien works, to me it was a thrilling read though it’s unpopular according to T.A. Shippy among fans.
    I respect that you dislike the movies and are passionate about it.