SW vs. LOTR: Some responses to Salon.com
We had a lively response to the recent Salon.com article criticising the lack emotional depth and humanity in LOTR, as they perceived it compared to Star Wars. Many good points were raised, often by people who said they LOVED Star Wars but just had to disagree with Ms. Tang’s comparisons.
I’ll limit my own comments to this: her criticism of Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf really stung me. She found his character shifts from lordly to jovial to panicky to be bizarre, illogical, unexplained. Currently I’m watching another great British actor, Brian Blessed, playing the Emperor Augustus in ‘I Claudius’ and it reminds me again of what a pleasure it is to watch an actor who can play a mercurial, contradictory, obscurely-driven character. Where Salon.com’s Ms. Tang praises the clearly-delineated development of the characters in Star Wars, I find them too clear, too simple, too transparent. Nothing is left unexplained about who they are, what they think, and why they change their minds. One of the great moments in FOTR for me is the odd conversation Sam and Frodo have before the Council of Elrond. Is Frodo troubled because he has a premonition that his part in the struggle is not over? Or is it because part of him has developed a taste for adventure that hastn’t been fulfilled? Or does he wish he could do something more decisive than just barely make it to Rivendell alive? Or is he regretting the moment when he must give up the Ring to his betters (which is what he expects will happen at the Council.)? We don’t know. It could be any or all of those. It’s a moment of ambiguity that leaves you wondering and guessing, and I hope for many more like that.
Here’s a sample of some of the points other people made.
From Matt Cruser: “It is painfully obvious to me that Ms. Tang has never read Tolkien’s trilogy and has probably only seen the first installment of the movies once if at all. She has been watching Star Wars since 1977 and has seen the next two parts of the trilogy, as well as a prequel. How is this a fair comparison? How can Ms. Tang compare one movie to a whole trilogy and a prequel? She talks of the round character development of Luke, yet she had THREE movies to observe it in. Did Luke go from a depressed boy on Tattoine to a Jedi Knight in the first movie, NO. To call Frodo’s character 1-dimensional is just ignorant, considering Ms. Tang hasn’t fully observed it yet.”
This from Chris: “I am sorry the themes in LOTR were too deep for you to pick up on right away. Perhaps if you realized LOTR is one continuous story cut into three sections and that themes need to be developed over time. One needs to look no further than Socrates to see LOTR’s theme, [the] question of ends justifying means or means justifying ends. Tolkien attempted to prove the latter. Didn’t you see Boromir’s character redeem himself from temptation and lust? Aragorn an unpolished man who fears to have the same destiny as his bloodline, who have failed before him? aren’t these human themes? Our greatest lesson humanity has learned is self sacrifice so that others may go on. This is the strongest theme in LOTR, so please do not say it is without humanity. One day if you sit down and actually read the book, you may see that each character is very humane and has character arcs, success and failure; great and small. Maybe you were disappointed with the cliffhanger ending to this movie; which may have forced you to write this article in the first place. Unlike STAR WARS, LOTR characters don’t have a big parade and get rewarded at the end of each film. The best STAR WARS film, according to any true STAR WARS fan, TESB(The Empire Strikes Back)ended the same as the FOTR ended, uncertain with many unanswered questions.”
Arashi answered a lot of points: “Now, I am a big Star Wars fan. I just want to point that out. The original Star Wars series are great. But this article annoyed me. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings should be taken as seperate entities. [He goes on to quote Ms. Tang and then respond to the quotes]:
“Incurably down-to-earth, “Star Wars” gives a guided tour of evil’s consequences, with a tailor-made John Williams score. Good guys DO die” … And Lord of the Rings doesn’t? Example, Boromir. He was NOT a bad guy!! I can’t stand when people refer to him as “the bad guy”. The point of LotR is not only that no matter what your problems are you can overcome them, that no matter what your problems are there are others who share them (ie you are not alone), that power CAN corrupt (and often does). There is a thin line between Good and Evil (a lesson CLAMP teaches us constantly). It is the victor who defines which is which for they are the ones that write the history. Not to mention Gandalf! Gandalf does die!! (He then comes back as Gandalf the White but that’s in The Two Towers).
“Fanatics in any realm are difficult to satisfy, but Tolkien’s are the type who engage in prolonged, heated debate over authenticity, all the way down to the technical accuracy of props”
This is a mean jab right here. As if Star Wars fans don’t get into heated debates about things.
“Take Gandalf. One moment he’s a reassuring wizard, the next he’s shoving the young hobbit Frodo squarely out Bag End’s plump little door with nothing but a tense, hasty goodbye.”
GANDALF IS NOT GOD!! He does not know all the answers. He sends Frodo on his way because he suspects that Sauron will have some little escort party on the way to the Shire. The Hobbits are not a warrior people, they can’t fight Mordor, and as the inheritor of the Ring from Bilbo it’s something of Frodo’s duty to take the Ring! Gandalf certainly can’t take it! And he gives his reason why! “Through me it would yield a power too terrible to imagine.” (Or something to that effect). He also is going to Isengard to get help from Saruman, whom he does not know is a traitor!
Re Strider : “This gentle figure of incorruptible royalty makes his entrance on the screen as a noisome, pushy bully.”
Strider for one is annoyed by Frodo’s carelessness with the Ring!! For god’s sake he was playing with it under the table! Gandalf warned Frodo about the Ring’s ability to manipulate, and Frodo himself knows about it from the earlier encounter with the Nazgul, yet still he had it out in an open place for anyone paying attention to see (the fact that hobbits had the ring was known, so any spies would be on the lookout for hobbits). The fact that Frodo then disappeared before the astonished patrons of the Prancing Pony was a HUGE tip-off, and even had consequences in the book.
“At first, Frodo takes the ring just to follow Gandalf’s orders. Later, when he meets the council, his offer to carry the ring to Mordor plays at best like a simple act of bravery, or at worst an impulsive decision that runs against his initial reluctance.”
Yes, Frodo’s offer to carry the Ring was brave- but he could see what effect it was having on the council. The Elves and Dwarves were ready to kill each other, the Men (with the exception of Aragorn) were niave as to the corrupting power of the Ring, and Gandalf certainly (as mentioned above) could not take it. This all still harkens to the reasons I stated above. He is still reluctant to take the Ring to Mordor, but at this point I don’t think he fully understood what it was he was walking into. The threat of Mordor so far had been the Nazgul, a fiery eye, and the weight of the Ring. But he had carried it so far already, and the Ring itself may have had a hand in this too. Remember, it IS trying to get back there.
“Whence comes hobbit buddy Sam Gamgee’s unswerving dedication to Frodo?”
Frodo and Sam are best friends!!! If you were a true friend to somebody, and they were in trouble, wouldn’t you lend them a hand? The meaning of true friendship is lost on too many people nowadays.” [Tehanu: I would add to that: the way PJ tells the story, you have to pick things up from small moments which cue you into what is going on. We see Frodo pushing Sam into Rosie’s arms at the farewell party, and then a few scenes later we see them together walking home at night. They say goodnight in the voices of old friends who’ve known each other a long time. You can’t miss the friendship in their voices. Nothing is spelled out and yet the essentials are shown (and not told, as Ms. Tang complains), quickly and surely.
Another Chris: “Firstly, I am taking the premise that you are only comparing Star Wars: A New Hope (ANH) to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (FOTR). If not, you comparison needs to wait until the 2nd and 3rd installments of The Lord of the Rings complete the story, otherwise you are not comparing full story against full story.
Below are a list of inaccuracies, or incorrect comparisons:
1) Saruman/Darth Vader: In ANH Darth Vader is the primary villian. There is no other real villian above him. Saruman has the very tangible Sauron as his master.
2) Mystical languages: Where in ANH is there a mystical language ? Greedo is speaking a _mystical_ language ? I think not.
3) Comparing flesh-and-blood action heroes – there are _no_ similar characters in FOTR ? Gandalf: involved and stand-handed mentor, Arwen: spunky elven princess, Laurel-and-Hardy-esque: Merry and Pippin (and Legolas and Gimli to a lesser extent). No individual transformation ? Boromir goes from oft-tempted mortal, through to sorrowful and resolute. And really – Leia thaws ? Is that the best you could come up with ?
4) Prejudices creep into Lucas’ world ? What about how humans look down on halflings (literally and figuratively) ? Elves and dwarves ? Elves view of humans ? The elves and dwarves come very close to a brawl during the council correct ?
5) Good guys do die: Rebels shot in earliest scenes FOTR: Armoured elves and humans go flying into the air from hammer strikes in the very first scene.
6) Nothing is shown when Leia is tortured: Nothing is shown (apart from arms) when Gollum is tortured. And while we’re on the subject, why did the Sandperson do a little victory dance instead of slicing Luke’s skull open after he fainted ?
7) ANH and FOTR are both about their own universes – there is as much “humanity” in both, and again with ANH there is no _need_ for authenticity, Lucas is alive and can do what he likes. Tolkien is not, so film makers have only the books to draw from to fit what Tolkien was seeing in his head. Implying that how the picture of a spiked wheel “prop” looked causing a “global rift” amongst Tolkien fans in terms of authenticity is ludicrous. I hope you realise it was not the prop, but what was impaled on it that caused interest.
8) Glorified video trivia game ? Ah, you mean the plot was too intricate ?
9) Uneven characters ? You mean the involved and steady handed mentor can actually be scared by something instead of being steady handed all the time. Wow it’s almost like he has more than one emotion! Again with Strider. In ANH no-one really reacted to real danger: “There’s TIE Fighters behind us, let’s all sit here in a row in this trench and let them pick us off.”
10) Why is the emotion in FOTR presumptuous and finite ? And comparing Luke with Frodo ? Luke dreams of adventure, gets it, finds he has powers to help him do it. Frodo doesn’t like adventure so much, gets pushed into it, finally chooses it, and then at the end decides he should shoulder the burden alone, no matter how unequipped he is.
11) Whence comes different senses of duty ? Why does Han (the self proclaimed smuggler, cynical, out for himself smuggler – with a price on his head no-less suddenly have a change of heart ?)
12) With racist undertones and smacking of pretense ? When referring to ANH these were : “not shying away from the gritty reality of human struggle”. And is there any in-fighting in ANH ? Do Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbecca, Artoo, C3PO or Ben actually ever fight each other ?
13) Insufficient comedy ? Perhaps some films have parts that are meant to be solemn..not “Oh no my mentor’s dead, let’s look sad for 10 seconds and then whoop and cheer at shooting TIE Fighters and never be sad again.” FOTR is actually showing that people in real life don’t joke a second after they nearly die.
14) And realism ? ANH has a band of: seven individuals stuck on their deadly enemies battle station which is the size of a moon and has patrols through corridors ever 10 seconds, and yet they only suffer one casualty ? Deadly Stormtroppers apparently bump their heads on doors, are fooled by robots and making little noises behind them to name but a few.
15) Schlocky – ho ho – you should’ve seen some of the effects in Star Wars! Oh wait…
16) Macrocosmic ? “…a fairy tale intimately involved with its good guys” – which would describe both movies .sorry.
17) Why are unexplained things “loopholes” ? Why does Ben care about anything ? Why does Han ? What makes a stormtrooper inherently bad apart from the fact that they’re in a black and white uniform ?
In summation, you appear to have loved Star Wars for many years (as have I), it has been raised to one of the greatest films of all time, and it should be. Unfortunately you now see another film come along, apparently getting worryingly close to where StarWars was at the start, thus you have to make the comparison, and back-lash against the new-comer. In doing this, you highlight Star Wars: ANH’s good points, and refuse to acknowledge the bad, but do the reverse with LOTR: FOTR. Thus ending with a disappointing, and one-sided argument. Too bad.”Posted in Old Special Reports on January 10, 2002 by Tehanu