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The war of the 'Rings' [Commentary]

December brings holiday parties, subfreezing temperatures — and, not infrequently, the release of a new Peter Jackson movie based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Whenever this happens, a low-simmering debate among lovers of Tolkien's works bubbles to a full boil. Friday's release of the second installment in Jackson's trilogy of "The Hobbit" is no exception.

For more than a decade now, the questions have persisted among Middle-Earth devotees: Do Mr. Jackson's films honor Tolkien's books or ruin them? Is his work a tribute or a travesty? And does any of this really matter?

Hordes of fans, some wearing elf ears or bearing crossbows, will still line up in the cold for a midnight premiere.

I will be there, at least in spirit.

I'm something of a Tolkien nut. I discovered "The Fellowship of the Ring" at 11 and remember holding the book in my lap under the dinner table, sneaking peeks. Thoroughly enchanted, I immersed myself in the complexities of Tolkien's imaginary world: "The Hobbit"; the thousand-page "Rings" saga, including dozens of pages of appendices; and the denser, more challenging "Silmarillion." I read Tolkien biographies; I studied the man's letters. I knew the three varieties of hobbits; I could even speak a little Elvish.

In college, I taught a class on Tolkien's works. (Sadly, I had to flunk a friend of mine — a nice guy who somewhat resembled a hobbit — for failing to turn in his final paper). One of the best experiences of my adult life was reading "The Hobbit" aloud to my three children one summer.

So, yes, I care about this stuff — and I'm not alone. There are a lot of Tolkien fans out there, and quite a few of them are not happy. On websites like theonering.com the daggers are out for Mr. Jackson. Purists have quibbled with many of his choices since the first "Lord of the Rings" movie was released, but especially his penchant for over-the-top battle scenes and his failure to include certain beloved elements of the story. (Where have you gone, Tom Bombadil?)

University of Maryland professor Verlyn Flieger, an expert on Tolkien's books, spoke for many when she roundly condemned Mr. Jackson's films after the release of "The Return of the King," the last part of the "Rings" trilogy, back in 2003:

"I think the films are lousy, poorly written and in many instances poorly acted. There's also too much emphasis on special effects. That subverts one of the book's great strengths, which is the power to awaken the reader's imagination. These films, in fact, leave nothing to the imagination."

A friend of mine, Joe Basile, a professor at MICA, puts it succinctly: "Jackson often ignores or fundamentally misunderstands Tolkien's work."

Although Ms. Flieger's argument is a little unfair — how can a visual medium be blamed for spoiling the reader's imagination? — I can't really disagree with her or Mr. Basile. My head tells me that I should be in the anti-Jackson camp. He took too many liberties, changed too many important details, was way too cute in some places and overly bombastic in others.

But I can't help it. I love the movies anyway. Frankly, they're a romp, a rip-snorting, edge-of-your-seat good time. Sure, they might not qualify as art, but who cares? Where is it written that a film adaptation has to rise to the literary aspirations of the original work?

Moreover — and here I risk heresy — I like some of the things Mr. Jackson changed. The role of women, for example. Females in Tolkien's books are, with a couple of notable exceptions, virtual nonentities; Mr. Jackson promotes them to real characters. Also, I appreciate the way Mr. Jackson uses humor to leaven the grimness of much of Tolkien's writing.

But here's the main reason I think Mr. Jackson's films are worthy of celebrating: Through his work, millions of people who might not otherwise have done so have purchased and read J.R.R. Tolkien's books. Maybe they'll like the books better; maybe they'll prefer the movies. Perhaps, like me, they will thoroughly enjoy both the books and the movies in different ways and for different reasons.

If Tolkien was akin to Gandalf, leaving us spellbound with his literary magic, Mr. Jackson is assuredly a less powerful wizard — Radagast the Brown, perhaps. Even the foolish Radagast had an important part in the tale, however. To appreciate the lesser works of the apprentice in no way diminishes the monumental achievements of the master.

Michael Cross-Barnet, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Baltimore. He is the former op-ed page editor of The Sun. His email is charmcityrising@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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