The Problem of Heroes

The recent development of Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings television series has left many Tolkien admirers in a delicate position. The offer to explore the vast lore of Tolkien’s world is always tempting; but such an opportunity comes with risk, and big name franchises are starting to crack. The latest Star Wars movies have discouraged and angered fans, the last season of Game of Thrones was fantastically frustrating, and of course, there’s the haunting specter of the abysmal production of three Hobbit movies. In terms of both quality and fan-interest, Amazon faces some tough sledding.

As far as it has been made clear, Amazon’s intention is to follow a different main character in each of its five seasons, starting first with Aragorn. This concept has potential, as following characters that have already been explored in depth by Tolkien himself certainly provides a handy guideline. Such an approach, however, also risks drawing the ire of hard-core fans if the writers deviate from Tolkien’s original presentation. The success of the show will rest entirely on the depictions of the characters that it follows.

Yet herein lies the problem. The Lord of the Rings franchise already has a problem portraying the characters of Tolkien’s writings. Even completely disregarding the Hobbit trilogy, for obvious reasons, the original movie trilogy still has its own share of problems. This is not a total denouncement–-the extended edition movies in particular are still very well-done–-but several characters were altered in ways that really didn’t stay true to the books. Aragorn was a reluctant hero who wasn’t sure about claiming his rightful crown, yet always managed to appear more noble and kingly than all of those around him. Faramir was portrayed as just a slightly better version of Boromir, who only realized what the right thing to do was after listening to a speech from a lowly gardener. And Theoden, well… that was something else entirely.

Of course, Peter Jackson and his crew had reasons for altering these characters. It was a professional team of writers and directors that knew how to craft a story. But that’s part of the problem. Within Hollywood and mass media (or modern society in general), there is an obsession with breaking down characters and attempting to analyze their psyche. It is seemingly impossible for them to approve of a character without some sort of fatal flaw, childhood trauma, or a super dark and mysterious backstory. Why go through all this trouble? In short, to manufacture dramatic tension, and to make characters “relatable.”

The problem with this approach is that Tolkien did not write every character to be relatable. He didn’t create an 80 year old ranger that’s the only claimant to an ancient kingdom who also happens to be one of the last of a dwindling race of men all for the average reader to “identify” with the character. There are other characters for that, most notably the four hobbits. Their experience is meant to be the same as the reader’s, as it is through the perspectives of the hobbits that the reader learns about the world that Tolkien created. Like the reader, the hobbits are completely out of their element in a world they barely know, attempting to accomplish a desperate errand in the name of the good and the just. It is these four small characters that allow the reader, small enough in his own way, to relate to the larger problems of darkness and evil around them.

These other characters, those like Aragorn, and Faramir, and Theoden, are not intended to relate to the reader, but to inspire them. Instead of individuals burdened by flaws and sufferings, they are noble men who understand the problem of evil and how to combat it. It is these characters who inspire the hobbits on to their greatest deeds and in turn are humbled by the heroism of the very ones whom they have fought to defend. Plain and simple, they are folk heroes–-mythic figures, meant to serve as an ideal that every man should strive for.

It is the mix of these characters that makes the story so compelling. The readers relate to the world through the hobbits and they see the perilous journey and the dangers ahead. But then they look up (literally and figuratively) to the mighty men of valor around them, and in them they find the prudence to pursue justice, the courage to face evil, and the mercy to spare the unwitting. As the hobbits look up to these characters, so are the readers called to look up to them, to marvel at and emulate their greatness. If Amazon’s new series is to be successful, if it aims to truly do justice to Tolkien’s world, its creators will have to do the same.