Tolkien on the LOTR Movies

If Tolkien had lived to be 111 and seen his masterpiece on the screen – 10+ hours of meticulous sets and costumes, elven dialog, and spectacular effects – what might he have said?

Who knows, but his attitude towards the theatre would likely carry over to the cinema as well:

A reason, more important, I think, than the inadequacy of stage-effects, is this: Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic: the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand. To introduce, even with mechanical success, into this quasi-magical secondary world a further fantasy or magic is to demand, as it were, an inner or tertiary world. It is a world too much. To make such a thing may not be impossible. I have never seen it done with success. But at least it cannot be claimed as the proper mode of Drama, in which walking and talking people have been found to be the natural instruments of Art and illusion.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, (Fantasy)

The story is what is real. The words on the page are a layer over the top of that. An actor walking around pretending to be someone else is a THIRD layer. It is the nature of the art form and has it’s place and certain advantages and tools to communicate meaning. Tolkien felt that ultimately it served to obscure the “real” story even more. I think it likely he would have thought the same of the movies.

I quite enjoy the movies myself, though they aren’t perfect. I’ve often told people who are critical of the movies for not always following the book exactly that they must view the cinema as a retelling of the real story itself, not a reworking of the book. If the movie is a 2nd layer, like the literature is a 2nd layer, then it stands up much taller as a piece of art and is exempt from much of the criticism thrown at it (action-packed Warg fights not withstanding).