Saturday, October 30, 2004

What Jackson Missed in Tolkien

The imminent release of the final extended DVD in the trilogy has put me thinking about the themes I most wish had made it into the movies (or had been better portrayed). Of course, there is always more in a movie than there is in a book, and no doubt if I had made the movie I would have left out themes that resonated deeply with someone else. I won't pick on any of the little details, just the big ideas that I think the movies missed.

The Sorrow of the Elves
The elves were tinged with sadness and a sense of loss in the movie. But the movies didn't really capture how central the elven sorrow was to Tolkien's mythology; I have always felt it was as great in importance as the whole good versus evil conflict. It colors the whole struggle with Sauron, because the elves know that in destroying the ring they will themselves lose their ability to preserve the beauties of their own land. It is the same reality that Frodo eventually must accept: that one often cannot destroy evil without losing all else that one values as well.

But I think Tolkien portrays something even bigger with the elves. For the elves, immortality is as great a sorrow as mortality is for humans. It is indeed sad to leave all one's works and joys and go we know not where; it is just as sad to see all the things one loves decay while you live on. We desire immortality, but the immortality we desire is not just an endless lengthening of our mortal lives. It is something altogether different; it is not something that could be enjoyed or even imagined in a dying land. Both elves and men must, sooner or later, give up the limits of Middle Earth in order to enjoy the immortality for which they long.

The Maturing of Eowyn
The initial Eowyn is portrayed quite well. The only trouble is that the movie never lets her grow up. Watching the actors being interviewed, it seemed to me that nobody had a clue that she even needed to grow up. (I still have a faint hope that we'll see a little more of that in the extended version.)

Everyone sees Eowyn as a heroine, a great woman. She is a heroine and she has the makings of a great woman. But she's not one yet. She's not comfortable with herself as a woman. She chafes at her assigned responsibilities, no matter how important and honorable, because they lack the glamour and excitement she wants. She gets a schoolgirl crush on Aragorn. She is an adolescent, and I mean that in the nicest possible sense.

Eowyn doesn't yet know that the greatness of a woman comes not from what she does, but from who she is. She doesn't see, for instance, that being her uncle's one link to sanity until he could be freed from his oppression was as valiant and vital a task as all the orcs her brother could kill.

In the book, we get the chance to see that Eowyn after doing the second-greatest feat in the entire war--which ought to fulfill all her dreams of greatness--is still not happy. It's not just disappointment over Aragorn; as Aragorn points out, she didn't know him well enough to love him as a person, just as an ideal. Only after Faramir declares his love does Eowyn realize who she is meant to be and accept it:

Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.

"I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun," she said; "and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren." And again she looked at Faramir. "No longer do I desire to be a queen," she said.

Eowyn grows up at last and finds joy in being a woman. In the movie she stays a feminist heroine. Indeed, much of what is human and even good in feminism is simply an adolescent desire to prove one's self. But women are never going to find peace in copying the male path to maturity, achievement.

Eowyn has always resonated deeply with me because I was her. I always wanted to prove myself better than the boys. When they got too big for me to beat at arm wrestling, I took to besting them at slaying law exams. I tried to minimize my enjoyment of "girl stuff." But I think Eowyn helped me with the process of realizing I didn't need that; that being a woman was as worthy a calling as being a hero. (And I have to admit that, like Eowyn, it was a certain young man who triggered the change.)

I'm sorry they left out the grown-up Eowyn.

No comments: