Tolkien & Hollywood Angst
Cinema & New Media Arts | On Feb 14, 2013
There are two fundamental types of conflict in literature: external and internal. External conflicts pit the character against forces in the world around them: other men, society, or nature itself. Internal conflicts pit the character against himself. For prototypical examples, one might think of Odysseus and Hamlet. While each faces a variety of conflicts, Odysseus spends of the majority of his time confronting external enemies, and Hamlet spends a great deal of his time wrestling with himself. One of the literary strengths of Tolkien’s works is that they contain just about every sort of conflict imaginable.
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In Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, this diversity of conflict has been flattened out substantially. Aragorn is filled with self-doubt as to his fitness for the kingship; Faramir buckles what we might unkindly but accurately call a “daddy complex;” the Ents are plagued by indecision and selfishness; Frodo’s heroic resistance of the forces of Sauron is replaced entirely by his conflict with the Ring; Théoden’s steadfast resolve to fight once freed from the lies of Wormtongue is switched out for cowardice and bitterness toward Gondor. To be sure, plenty of external conflict remains: these are epic action movies. But for very few characters in Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings is external conflict primary. (Sam and Gandalf are perhaps the only exceptions.)
This is to the very great detriment of the movies. Frodo, Aragorn, Faramir, Théoden, and the Ents are most diminished, but it affects nearly every character.
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I highlight this not to jump on Jackson’s team in particular — these are old, staid criticisms of their treatment of The Lord of the Rings by now — but because this trend is endemic in popular culture at the moment. Every superhero must confront not only a pantheon (sometimes literally) of enemies, but a host of internal conflicts. In some cases this is appropriate: Spiderman has long had his constant, nagging self-doubt and guilt; Batman has long been a tortured figure. Superman? Not so much. Yet Superman Returns spent a great deal of time building up Superman’s angsty relationship with the world, and trailers for Man of Steel suggest that director Snyder may take the reboot in the same direction.
Perhaps as a reflection of American reflections on our place in the world in the early 21st century, external conflict is out and internal conflict is in. Witness growing resistance to the narrative of American heroism on the world stage — a sense that our purposes are rarely so truly noble or our enemies as unabashedly evil as we have sometimes believed. Corruption among leaders at home and an increasingly ambiguous world stage on which America plays have left us uneasy with the idea of American heroism. We might debate whether this malaise is justified, but in any case it has deeply influenced the zeitgeist into which the movie renditions The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were born, and which they accurately reflect.
But all this is to our loss.
A world in which we cannot conceive of nobility and steadfastness in the face of temptation is a poor world indeed. Likewise, the inability to picture a man (or woman) who seeks the good unabashedly and without constant self doubt reveals a great gap in the sensibilities of Hollywood at the moment. To be sure, there is value in the recognition of human foibles. Too stark a heroism, sans real internal conflict, rings false. But humans have told hero stories for a long time for a reason.
Thirty five years ago, Hollywood was in the midst of another celebration of antiheroes, conflicted leads, tormented souls, and the angsty murk of indecision and moral ambiguity. Then, as now, our nation wrestled with economic troubles, the shadow of a long war, and a gnawing mistrust of the government. And into the murk stepped Luke Skywalker and lit his lightsaber.