Saturday, July 21, 2007

One Thing is Not Necessarily Like the Other

Yesterday John Scalzi admitted that he's never read any of the Harry Potter books although, he says, "I saw one of the Potter books on a shelf and flipped open to a random page to get a sense of JK Rowling's writing style. After a few pages I decided that I would probably think better of the books if I didn't actually read any further." He then went on to point out that he likes the movies fine and referenced a previous post where he had said that The Lord of the Rings is an example of where the movies were better than the books.
In fact, one could argue -- now that the technology exists to illustrate the nature of his creation -- Tolkien's world is uniquely suited for film. The man created a vast store of world-building material for filmmakers to work with, including a history, a mythology, a geography and a bestiary. As a culture, Middle-Earth is arguably better known than some actual cultures that existed on this planet. ~ John Scalzi, Why the Film is Better than the Book
Actually, doesn't that mean that it would be even better to make this something you can experience? If there were only some way that we could engage ourselves interactively with that world... Oh, right. Gaming. You can try it out by playing Lord of the Rings Online.

I'm trying to imagine the reaction that my LOTR-loving friends would have to Scalzi's opinion. All of them love the movies because the movies were, indeed, reverent explorations of Tolkien's world. But I think that they would stop far short of saying that the books themselves are anything less than great works. And we're not talking about people who wouldn't have an opinion on literature. The three that come to mind have, in descending order of magnitude, a Masters in Literature (focus, Wordsworth), a Bachelors in English, and just a butt-load of literature classes for fun while getting a Bachelors in Biology. In the group I'm the low man on the totem pole, literary wise. (It hurts to say that, but it's true.)

Of course, this is basically Scalzi's opinion vs. the opinion of my peeps. What other sources could we turn to? Colbert would probably point out that the market has spoken, which makes both the book and the movie great. But certainly there are other people to cite. How about some literary reviews?

". . . the Tolkien mass popularity was not fostered by the mass media; it grew from the excellencies and appeals of the work itself and was simply reported in the media" ~Neil D. Issacs, On the Possibility of Writing Tolkien Criticism

"And all the time we know that the fate of the world depends far more on the small movement than on the great. This is a structural invention of the highest order: it adds immensely to the pathos, irony and grandeur of the tale." ~ C. S. Lewis, The Dethronement of Power (granted, they were peeps...)

"The Quest is one of the oldest, hardiest, and most popular of all literary genres. In some instances it may be founded on historical fact - the Quest of the Golden Fleece may have its origin in the search of seafaring traders for amber - and certain themes, like the theme of the enchanted cruel Princess whose heart can be melted only by the predestined lover, may be distorted recollections of religious rites, but the persistent appeal of the Quest as a literary form is due, I believe, to its validity as a symbolic description of our subjective personal experience of existence as historical... The essential elements in this typical Quest story are six. (1) A precious Object and/or Person to be found and possessed or married. (2) A long journey to find it, for its whereabouts are not originally known to the seekers. (3) A hero. The precious Object cannot be found by anybody, but only be the one person who possesses the right qualities of breeding or character. (4) A Test or a series of Tests by which the unworthy are screened out, and the hero revealed. (5) the Guardians of the Object who must be overcome before it can be won. They may be simply a further test of the hero's arete, or they may be malignant in themselves. (6) The Helpers who with their knowledge and magical powers assist the hero and but for whom he would never succeed. They may appear in human or animal form." ~ W. H. Auden, The Quest Hero (I know that my excerpt doesn't include a direct reference to Tolkien, but the set up is what he uses to later illustrate how Tolkien fulfilled it. I doubt you want to read the whole paper.)
And if you're a real Tolkienite (is that a word?) you have probably read The Road to Middle-earth, Shippey, 1982. Shippey has released a new (2001) tome called J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century. A book review by David Bratman at The Mythopoeic Society notes: "By its deliberately provocative title, Shippey means two things -- that Tolkien was one of the great authors of the 20th century, despite critical attempts to dismiss his importance; and that Tolkien was an author of the century, a characteristically 20th-century writer, despite perceptions of him as a medieval atavism. Shippey discusses the curious critical neglect of Tolkien, and finds striking similarities between Tolkien and modern authors as different as George Orwell and William Golding."

What do you think? Are the LOTR books great books? Are the movies great movies? Is the game a great game? Do any of those things have an inter-relationship, meaning that greatness (or non-greatness) in one area inspires another?

Oh, and a post script. I made it through the first three Harry Potter books but lost interest during the fourth one and just set it aside. I see the movies, but not with any enthusiasm.

*Update 1/5/10: This post can now be reached through

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