Jackson and Tolkien: Hollywood’s Infatuation With Angst

Matt’s piece on The Lord of the Rings a few weeks ago nicely summed up one of the major ways in which Peter Jackson’s view of the world diverges from Tolkien’s: its profoundly different moral vision. But Jackson’s storytelling sense diverges from Tolkien’s in other, equally profound ways — not least in its approach to conflict.

Return of the King book and movie covers

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.

Aragorn’s conflicts are all external: he must protect the hobbits and vanquish the forces of Saruman and Sauron, he must bend the treacherous inhabitants of the Paths of the Dead to his will, and he must become king if he is to marry the woman he loves. The closest he comes to a major internal conflict at any time during the book is when leadership of the Fellowship falls to him after Gandalf’s apparent death, when he must decide whether to continue on to take up the kingship of Gondor and the persecution of its war against Mordor as he had originally planned, or continue to guide and protect Frodo. Yet even this internal conflict represents not Aragorn struggling with his own weaknesses but rather competing external conflicts he might address.

By contrast, Sméagol/Gollum’s conflicts are almost entirely internal. His own corrupted nature wars against the better impulses Frodo attempts to draw out of him. While he faces external conflict — against Sauron in one way, against Frodo and Sam in another — the real question for him is always whether he will give into his lust for the Ring or resist it.

Other characters face a mix of the two. Frodo and Boromir most profoundly struggle with the lure of the Ring (with both succumbing to it eventually), but both also heroically confront the forces of Sauron. Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, and Sam largely face external conflicts along the same lines as Aragorn, though Sam in particular faces a few moments of substantial internal conflict late in The Two Towers and early in The Return of the King. Merry and Pippin both confront their fears and need for a place in the world, as well as the forces of Sauron. Éowyn struggles with despair and kills the King of the Ringwraiths. Again: Tolkien covered every kind and combination of conflict.

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.1 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.

In the behind-the-scenes materials supplied with the DVDs, the creative team explained some of these decisions in terms of adding interest or making the characters more interesting. What they mean, it seems, is that characters are not interesting unless conflicted. External conflicts are judged insufficient for the weight of a grand story. This is the root of the ignoblizing of Faramir in the movies: Jackson’s team simply couldn’t conceive of a character not facing internal conflict, and so his kingly stature and purity of heart were traded for insecurity and a need to please his father.2

In short: Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens seem to find it impossible to conceive of an unconflicted character, and unable to see how external conflict alone can be enormously satisfying under the right conditions.

Why all the fuss?

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.

There are many reasons Star Wars worked so well then — enormous innovation, deeply archetypal characters, and so forth. But I suspect Star Wars spoke profoundly to culture then for the same reason that it continues to resonate well today: the boy hero and his mentor are unabashedly good and heroic. We cheer for Han Solo not because he is a rogue, but because he is redeemed. We like the fact that they rescue the princess and she turns out to be, well… a princess.

In other words, Star Wars captivates for many of the same reasons that Tolkien’s original The Lord of the Rings does: an unambiguous demarkation between good and evil and heroic figures who are willing to pursue the good and wage war against the evil without hesitation. In neither narrative are the heroes without internal flaws; but in neither does the internal struggle so overshadow the others as to make them all but irrelevant.3

Turning again to our original point, then: Peter Jackson and his team, in their work on both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, just sort of miss the point. So does most of Hollywood these days. Yes, inner conflict is real, and tormented struggle is a major part of our lives.

But so is the valiant hero who valiantly scorns the temptation of easy paths and power, who resolutely pursues the goods to which he is called, who feels no hesitation about taking up the mantle of the king that is his by right. Christians of all people know this best. And so perhaps there is an opportunity for Christians to say something the world needs to hear right now. Skip the sermonizing, and skip the somnolent, self-indulgent soliloquies, too; show me a hero — a real one.


  1. One might critique Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s work here, too, as Tolkien conceived of The Hobbit as a children’s story and The Lord of the Rings as nearer myth than the modern fantasy epic. But that is another post; this one is already too long.

  2. This is particularly odd, since it was precisely Faramir’s unwillingness to kowtow to his father and his desire to embody the nobility of the old Númenorean kings that earned him his father’s dislike in the books. It hangs on nothing at all in the movies, with lines of dialogue lifted from the books that are completely out of touch with Faramir’s actual characterization on screen.

  3. This is one (of many) flaws of the Star Wars prequels. Anakin’s story is the only point, and so it is difficult to care about the other conflicts: who cares about these tens of thousands of ships flitting about and exploding on screen? The external conflict is all but meaningless in the prequels.

    Whether the upcoming sequels will do better is anyone’s guess. Me? I’m hopeful, but not holding my breath.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/marly.youmans Marly Youmans

    Lovely encapsulation–I’ve thought a good bit about these things, not in an analytical way but in a character-dreaming way, and found your essay quite interesting.

  • http://twitter.com/anthonyparisi Anthony Parisi

    Great post –– this is a trend my film friends and I have been bemoaning for awhile now especially in the superhero genre. It also hugely characterizes the Daniel Craig-era James Bond. I think it leads to some of the weakest parts of Casino Royale and the train wreck of Quantum of Solace.

    While I’m a stalwart Star Wars prequel defender, you’re right that it contributes to some of the story weaknesses of that trilogy (primarily Attack of the Clones). It’s also at the core of why JJ Abrams is entirely the wrong fit to direct the sequels. In both storytelling and stylistic approach, Bad Robot and co. tend to center on the subjective / internal / psychological. The characters find self-esteem, self-actualization, or in Lost: “self-forgiveness”. In Abram’s Star Trek, Kirk and Spock need to find out who they are and overcome their childhood demons … as opposed to Luke wanting to go out and fight the Evil Empire.

    I’m definitely worried that Star Wars is about to become just another noisy summer blockbuster instead of the counter-cultural fairy tale that made it resonate in the first place.

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com/ Chris Krycho

      I haven’t seen the new Bonds, but from what I’ve read, that makes a lot of sense. As for the Star Wars prequels, I really like the broad concepts there, and I even think Anakin’s story is fairly interesting; it was just poorly executed. Whereas most of the stuff Obi-Wan did was far more boring but actually better executed in terms of acting delivery and so forth. It makes for something of a mixed bag.

      I hadn’t thought about that point with the new Star Trek, but it does ring true. I would be more concerned about Abrams in the director’s seat if he were also in charge of the story development and script. At the same time, while Arndt has definitely proven his writing chops—Toy Story 3 was pretty spectacular—I’m not persuaded he’s outside this box, either.

      I think this is part of what made Iron Man so much fun, and also part of what dulled the sequel so much: he gets through his internal conflict in the first act, and after that, it’s off to the races. Stark is good (with foibles, but good), the bad guys are bad, and so Stark goes and fights the bad guys—and he doesn’t feel conflicted or remorseful about it. (He could, of course, use some humility and also some sexual restraint. But I’d hate to see him get there via a whiny, emo phase.)

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  • PJ King

    Gandalf dies!?!?!?!

    • http://www.chriskrycho.com/ Chris Krycho

      Perhaps I should have put a spoiler alert… for a book released almost sixty years ago.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/michelle.a.black.9 Michelle Audrey Black

    It is interesting to note, that a hero in the Greek literature sense, is a man or woman who is dead, because only the dead can accomplish the impossible.

    I enjoy the Star Wars original trilogy for the space-opera it is, though its theology is irritating to me. Pull away the attractive non-shiny surface and you’ll find the ‘callow youth to hero’ trope is merrily whirring away along along with the plot of ‘redemption’ as well as several others.

    I have often thought that the literature or entertainment of a generation mirrors the appetite of a generation, and the heroes of that cinema time the values of that generation. Sad, really, to see how far we’ve fallen. From Rick at Casablanca to sparkling delusional faerie beasts in Forks in less then 100 years.

  • Marve

    I think in film externalizing conflict is a valid tactic. Since we have neither the expository inner monologue of the books nor Hamlet protracted soliloquies, we see the internal conflict in the apology for external action.

    Faramir claims the ring then repents, and we apprehend what his internal conflict has been all the while. Alternately, many of the characters cited as having a good internal conflict represented are represented by way of a deliberate interlocutor with which they can soliloquize: Smeagol with Gollum, Gandalf with any number of The Wise, Sam with Frodo, etc.

    For as much monologuing as the characters in the film do, perhaps externalizing the conflict and assuming the audience is smart enough to ferret out the internal processes beneath it is not such a bad shorthand?

  • Marve

    Oh wait, never mind, I missed the ultimate point.