“The treasure is likely to be your death, though the dragon is no more!”
When a talking raven named Roäc gives you a piece of advice, it behooves you to listen. This axiom applies well to dwarf lords with names like Thorin Oakenshield, but does it apply to Kiwi filmmakers with names like Peter Jackson? Time will tell.
Today, Jackson broke the news on his Facebook page that there will indeed be a third Hobbit film instead of the two originally planned by him and the studio. My reaction to the news was dull; speculation has been building about a possible third film since Jackson hinted at it during a recent Comic-Con interview. I’m confused by my own feelings. As a “fan” of Tolkien and of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, I should be fist-pumping ecstatically. My wife (who is not a Tolkien enthusiast or an avid participant in nerd culture generally), confused by my ambivalent reaction, asked me quizzically “why is this a bad thing?” It isn’t. Necessarily. But it could be, and it puts fans of Tolkien’s work in a precarious position.
I dislike the term “purist.” It implies that someone has abandoned the normal rational framework about an interest or issue in favor of an extreme perspective that accepts no compromises. I don’t think being a Tolkien “purist” does justice to his work. It also tends to make one insufferable. I consider myself an enthusiast, fan, and perhaps even a student of Tolkien and his corpus. I am persuaded by Tom Shippey’s argument that Tolkien is the most influential author of the twentieth century and also one of the most important. Along with his contemporaries CS Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, and others, Tolkien uniquely conveyed the problems of modernity and the wrenching change and destruction of the twentieth century using abstract or abnormal themes. Those willing to take his work seriously are treated to a complex interpretation of morality, mortality, human nature, and cultural conflict that has no peer. What Tolkien accomplished in life – linguistically reconstructing the fabric of mostly lost folkloric material into a corpus of wildly popular and genre-spawning literature – has exactly two parallels in the last three millennia: Homer and whoever wrote Beowulf. Jakob Grimm and Elias Lönnrot narrowly miss the cut.
By contrast, I am simply a fan of Peter Jackson. I think he’s an incredibly gifted director. I think he’s done an admirable job with the mammoth task of translating Tolkien’s incredibly rich but not always accessible work into film. I don’t begrudge him the choices he’s made as a director that deviate from the text. But as the above suggests, I’m far more invested in the health of Tolkien’s legacy than Jackson’s. Hence the consternation about this news.
Recently Forbes columnist Michael Noer calculated that the total value of Smaug’s hoard was $62 billion. The gross value of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films doesn’t quite reach that sum, but at roughly $2.9 billion they’re in the same orbit, especially when one considers that the upcoming trilogy will likely beat the benchmark set by the first three films. With this kind of money on the table, it’s easy to see why the studio hopped on board with Jackson’s wishes for a third film. These are high-budget films, but if Jackson can move quickly on a third installment he can avoid much of the overhead associated with staffing, scouting, and logistics via existing resources.
Tolkien found the symbol of dragons and their treasure very potent. For this and other reasons, one of the main draws of the upcoming Hobbit films will be how Peter Jackson depicts the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his hoard on screen. Greed is the essence of the symbol. Tolkien worked in his professional life as an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon on the poem Beowulf, whose protagonist (spoiler alert) is killed at the end in the act of slaying a dragon. The dragon needs slaying because one of Beowulf’s subjects sneaks into his lair and steals a cup, just as Bilbo does in The Hobbit and with much the same results:
He ruled it well
for fifty winters, grew old and wise
as a warden of the land, until one began
to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow
where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage,
unknown to men but someone managed
to enter by it and interfere
with the heathen trove. He had handled and removed
a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing,
though with a thief’s wiles he had outwitted
the sleeping dragon. That drove him into a rage,
as the people of that country would soon discover.
Beowulf, ln.2208-2220, translated by Seamus Heaney
As viewers of the second film (we think, it could be the third now) will discover, it is difficult to decide what to do with the resulting hoard after a dragon is slain. This is true of any windfall – emerging economies with current-account surpluses have the same problem. The Hobbit contains a precise legal framework for handling the problem, however, in the terms offered to Bilbo:
Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all travelling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for.
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, Ch.2 – “Roast Mutton”
Unsurprisingly, sound legal footing does not mitigate the eventual crisis that ensues when Bilbo and the dwarves acquire the treasure. A siege, a Versailles-style dispute over war reparations and reconstruction costs, and an additional battle ensure that. Suffice to say that Tolkien viewed large windfalls with extreme trepidation. That Peter Jackson will be tasked with translating this very moral hazard via moving pictures is rather ironic.
I should stress that we still don’t know exactly what material will be included in the third film. While principal photography on the first two has recently wrapped up, more will likely be necessary despite the large amount of footage already shot. Jackson and his bosses own the rights to the appendices to The Lord of the Rings via their existing deal, and it has been known for some time that they would delve into it to flesh out the storyline of The Hobbit for film. One possibility is that the third film will “bridge” the chronological gap between the end of The Hobbit narrative and the Lord of the Rings narrative, probably by following the backstory of Aragorn’s career as a ranger. This is the most worrying possibility of all, because unlike the stretching and embellishment of the Hobbit narrative, it will require Jackson to create a new narrative framework for the material and shoot a deep film using scant textual resources. His creative partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, by now, are fully confident that they can manipulate the text to serve their own narrative ends with success, and I mean that in neutral terms. I’m inclined to trust them, but recent developments such as their invention of a completely extra-textual character named “Tauriel” (played by Evangeline Lilly) to fill the need for an aggressive female character, scare me.
As New Line and Warner Brothers have no doubt calculated, they could make a realistic shot at the $7 billion gross benchmark set by the Harry Potter franchise if things go well with The Hobbit. But The Lord of the Rings is not Harry Potter. It is not something that is specifically calibrated to appeal to everyone like a soft drink is. And what it doesn’t need is a protracted and fatiguing parade of films that will leave fans and casual viewers jaded and cynical by the end of the journey. Star Wars is perhaps another cautionary tale, but I’ll stay away from that issue here.
A couple weeks ago Christopher Tolkien, JRR’s son, correspondent, literary executor and primary editor gave an extremely rare interview to Le Monde (English translation here). His words were deeply unsettling and perhaps explain my reservations about the new movie announcement.
The vast majority of Tolkien’s work was still unpublished at the time of his death, and Christopher is responsible for turning innumerable files of manuscript paper into published work, most notably Tolkien’s primary opus The Silmarillion. New works are still being published. When Christopher looks back on this project, he told Le Monde, it fills him with “intellectual despair.” The money quote is thus:
They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.” The divorce is systematically reactivated by the movies. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has gone too far for me. Such commercialisation has reduced the esthetic and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: turning my head away.
For the record, I don’t agree categorically with Christopher Tolkien’s point. But I understand what he’s saying. For a more thoughtful breakdown, I highly recommend listening to this podcast by Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor, and his associates starting at 44:30.
My bottom line is this: the further the film adaptations take the viewer away from the textual JRR Tolkien, the worse they become. If you can watch the films and have an entirely separate participation in Middle-earth than you would from reading, they become no more valuable than fan fiction. Some things are more valuable than dragon gold or cash money. And when Peter Jackson is cobbling together material for films that does not directly correlate to a freestanding publication of Tolkien’s, which he may do for the third Hobbit film, this is how I feel looking into the future. I hope I’m wrong.