Sunday, January 11, 2015

Stephen Colbert, the biggest Tolkien nerd of them all?

So, a little before Christmas I came across the current issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY in the Kent library and decided I needed to hunt down my own copy, which I did the next day. It had what is probably the last Tolkien cover I'll see on a mass-market magazine for a while, and have to say it's a fun one: Stephen Colbert dressed as Bilbo. This turns out to be one of three special covers, all of which feature Colbert professionally made up as a Tolkien character (Bilbo, Gandalf, and Legolas respectively) by Peter Jackson's wardrobe/make-up people. The accompanying article is fun and unexpected.

Think of it: here's Stephen Colbert, probably the best-known Tolkien fan in America, given the cover story for a major mass-market magazine, One wd expect him to use that forum to celebrate the ending of his spectacular eight-year-run on THE COLBERT REPORT.  Or to plug his upcoming show, when he takes over as host of THE LATE SHOW from David Letterman early this year.

Instead, he chooses to let his Tolkien geek flag fly, and talks about what Tolkien means to him. As Colbert himself puts it,

Tolkien's world has been a lifelong haven for me -- truly
a light in dark places when all other lights went out.
For an awkward teenager, Middle-earth
was a world I could escape to.
Peter Jackson's Middle-earth also gave me
a world to escape to, but by the time
his films came out, I was rich and famous
and didn't really want to escape my life anymore.
Still, great movies.

This is in part tongue in cheek, of course, but not entirely. The best kind of escape is the one that's there for you when you needed it, and which ultimately leaves you in a better place than the one you were escaping from: you're no longer escaping because you've arrived someplace else.

What's more, Colbert, who famously appeared in a cameo as a Lake Town spy in the second of Peter Jackson's HOBBIT movies, interviews Jackson himself as part of this feature. In particular, the two men talk about how Tolkien is NOT science fiction but more like historical fiction. And Jackson makes the interesting observation, or perhaps prediction, that "I'm sure in 50 years people will probably still be going to New Zealand because of these movies". Which, if the past decade-plus is anything to go by, might well turn out to be the case. Colbert also, in the accompanying article, includes a bit about his own apprehensions, way back when he first learned about plans for Jackson to film LotR, about how he hoped and feared for the results, esp. given his response to the Bakshi and Rankin-Bass LotR films.* He frankly admits

"I was afraid that Jackson would be just another thief 
come to take my treasure -- my hoard of Middle-earth memories.
 It was a very possessive, obsessive, dragony feeling.
   "Or worse, he might not treat them with respect . . . 

   "And I began to have hope . . . 

". . . And the movies came, and they were more than good.
 To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, they were beauties that pierced 
like sword or burned like cold iron. It was clear 
that the filmmakers, like the elves of Lorien, 
put the thought of all that they loved into all
 that they made."

So. Stephen Colbert: for being an unabashed Tolkien fan in a very public place, we salute you.

--John R.

current dvd: BARBARELLA

* "while I was happy to see someone finally take a live-action stab at the trilogy, I was worried. Because with previous attempts at bringing LOTR to the screen, I had been burned. Take Ralph Bakshi's 1978 quasi-animated Lord of the Rings, a mishmash of The Fellowship and The Two Towers that never even finished the story. And of the 1980 Rankin/Bass The Return of the King, the less said the better. We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!" --Stephen Colbert, December 2014


Paul W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul W said...

I cannot agree with his evaluation of the filmmakers loving Tolkien. It seems to me that from the second movie on they do constant, violent damage to the tale and consistently change and alter his story so it is barely recognizable. The Hobbit is so different it is not even close to the same story.

I believe long term Tolkien fans are worse off because of Jackson's movies, and that Jackson has no respect for the source material at all.

John D. Rateliff said...

Paul W. wrote "the filmmakers . . . do constant, violent damage to the tale . . . and alter [Tolkien's] story so it is barely recognizable . . . so different it is not even close to the same story"

Well, let's see:
After being dropped off by the Great Eagles Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves fear pursuit by the goblins and wargs and so seek refuge in Beorn's house. Though Beorn doesn't much like dwarves, he decides to aid these enemies of his enemies and loans them horses to ride to Mirkwood, as well as gives them advice about the forest.

At the edge of Mirkwood Gandalf leaves the group to go off on pressing business of his own. Bilbo and the dwarves trek through the forest, encountering an enchanted stream (into which Bombur falls) and a white deer (at which they shoot but miss); Bilbo climbs a tree and sees butterflies. The dwarves are attacked by Giant Spiders and captured by wood-elves. Bilbo engineers their escape via barrels. They make their way to Lake Town, where after some uncertainty they are aided by the humans and sent on their way with supplies to the Mountain, where they discover the Secret Door.

BIlbo goes in alone, though Balin accompanies him for a short distance, and unintentionally stirs up the dragon, which flies off to destroy Lake Town . . .


I'd submit that anyone making a movie with that plot-line wd get themselves sued for plagiarism, and rightly so -- even the most egregious of the Tolk-clons (Brooks, McKeirnan) never dared adhere this closely to Tolkien's book either in outline or in detail.

So, while there's much room for debate over whether Jackson et al captured the spirit of Tolkien's book (sometimes very much yes, sometime most emphatically no), I can't agree that it's not even recognizable as Tolkien's work.

--John R.

Paul W said...

It took me years to realize the RB Return of the King, which I first saw only part of in the pre-VCR days (well, before we had a VCR or cable, at least), was supposed to be the same story as Tolkien's Return of the King. Yet it follows then same basic plot at least as well as Jackson does in the Hobbit. Aside from the name, no one would mistake Thrainduil or Thorin for the same characters.