Slavish fans! Desperate accusations!

Readers say: Keep your storm troopers away from our hobbits!

Published January 18, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Readers brought out their light sabers to have at writer Jean Tang after her stirring essay arguing for the superiority of the original "Star Wars" over director Peter Jackson's new epic filmed version of "The Lord of the Rings."

The letters are reprinted below.

To read Eric Lipton's defense of "The Lord of the Rings," click here.

To read Jean Tang's original story, click here.

And a complete list of Salon's writing on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy and the blockbuster new movie version can be found here.

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Comparing Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" to "Star Wars" is like comparing a fresh T-bone steak to a 25-year-old McDonald's cheeseburger. "Star Wars" may have served billions and may yet serve billions more, but it's still the same old tired sci-fi fare in a slightly different wrapper.

-- S. R. Rouse, Jr.

Although I disagree with many of her points, I have to give Jean Tang credit for trying to preserve "Star Wars'" reputation as the Greatest Fantasy Ever Filmed, something George Lucas doesn't even seem interested in doing these days. I caught a showing of "Lord of the Rings" that featured the trailer for "Star Wars: Episode Two," and the lack of excitement from the audience was rivaled only by the utter silence they maintained for the "Austin Powers 3" preview that preceded it. What was it that Ms. Tang said about digital tricks standing in for old-fashioned imagination?

The original "Star Wars" trilogy and "LOTR" may place their emphasis on different aspects of the story (character vs. world, or what have you), but they both qualify as compelling fantasy epics that stick in a viewer's mind long after the collectible Burger King cups are gone. Even though we've only seen the first third of what Peter Jackson has to offer, I think it's fairly safe to say that the "LOTR" trilogy will wind up being this generation's "Star Wars," while this generation's "Star Wars" flicks are destined to become the even-numbered Star Trek movies.

-- Bryan Stratton

I love "Star Wars" and always will. But I also love "LOTR" (though I reserve the right to pass final judgment on its movie incarnation until all three films are released). They are different stories; does one have to be proved superior to the other, or can both peacefully coexist in fans' hearts?

-- Emilie Karr

Jean Tang has gotten it almost all right, particularly with regard to the lack of character development in "LOTR." But characters have not been lost primarily because of slavish devotion to details of the dense text. On the contrary, the movie draws out the battle sequences with details that don't appear in the book and aren't consistent with it, even adding an entirely new and completely out-of-character fight seen between the wizards Gandalf and Saruman. At every point, spectacle trumps both accuracy and character.

-- Michal Young

Has Jean Tang read the "Lord of the Rings?" I don't think she gets it at all. She's entitled to her opinion, but she's upset because "LOTR" is a bit incomprehensible to people who haven't read it. Tolkien's story has been waiting for this day, when technology could do it justice. Efforts to interpret Tolkien (previous cartoon movies of "The Hobbit" and "LOTR") fell flat because they didn't stay true enough to Tolkien.

Or maybe she has read it. Regarding the racism, the story reflects Tolkien's mid-20th-century British upper-middle-class worldview. Jackson left out Easterlings (Asiatics) and Southrons (Africans), who side with the Sauron. Perhaps we should never make a movie out of a pre-politically correct era for fear of encouraging racism. That's what PC apparatchiks like Tang assume, that they are a bit smarter than everyone else, so they must dictate what is acceptable.

If anybody is being manipulative and money-grubbing, it's Lucas, who turned a fine movie ("Star Wars") into a bodice-ripper with muppets (if the "Clone Wars" preview is for real).

-- W. Park

Jean Tang's "'Lord of the Rings' vs. 'Star Wars'" article tries strenuously to convince us how much better the latter is than the former. I say tries because I think the author fails utterly, relentlessly nitpicking "LOTR" to support her hypothesis and ignoring the long stretches of excellent character interaction between "LOTR's" action sequences. She also conveniently ignores the many nitpicks one could similarly make of "Star Wars" (Frodo and company survive hordes of orcs with only two casualties? Well, Luke and company survive legions of blaster-firing storm troopers with only one casualty).

Apparently, Tang's biggest gripe seems to be that "LOTR" isn't exactly what "Star Wars" is. Why should it be? "Star Wars" is a fun, rollicking space opera, with mythic threads woven through its story. "Lord of the Rings" is a much more solemn epic, shot through with equal measures of grandeur and melancholy.

I happen to really like both movies, for some similar reasons and some different ones. To prod them into battle like dogs in a pen is counterproductive. In the meantime, I look forward to Tang's next incisive article, about what a bummer it is that apples don't taste like oranges.

-- Dan Perez

I've been a fan of "Star Wars" since I was 10 years old. It dominated my world for quite a few years, and I would still rank it up in the list of my favorites. However, now, as an adult who can look at things more objectively (something Jean Tang is apparently unable to do), I must point out that all the characters in "Star Wars" are one-dimensional archetypes whose portrayals ranged from wonderful (Harrison Ford) to amateurish (Mark Hamill). The characters in "Lord of the Rings" are much more complex while still attaining an archetypal nature, and the portrayals all brilliantly reflect this.

In terms of humanity (and this is where Tang most assuredly loses all touch with reality), there is more of it in the opening scenes between Bilbo and Gandalf in "LOTR" than in the entire first "Star Wars" movie! Tang conveniently forgets that "Star Wars" uses two robots as its central characters around which the rest of the story develops. That anthropomorphic qualities are given to these machines (one is a pessimist, the other an optimist -- still one-dimensional) adds very little to the film's humanity.

I am a movie fan, not an enraged geek-boy. And though I read "LOTR" when younger, I do not make it a habit to debate its finer points. Rarely do I respond to blatantly inflammatory articles that cannot see beyond their own tunnel vision. However, I read because it generally presents me with well-thought-out and informed articles about a wide variety of subjects. This article, while desperately trying to keep up the pretense of intelligence, fails to meet the standards I've grown to expect from this site.

Jean Tang comes off as a "ringophobe," desperately defending his or her childhood memories against some sort of "attack" from those who have the gall to say that the "Rings" trilogy is the next "Star Wars." Big deal. Really, who cares? I enjoyed both movies ... in completely different ways. Grow up.

-- Chris Chapman

While Jean Tang wrote an interesting and comprehensive article regarding my two favorite movies of all time, I believe she overlooked a very important point when critiquing Tolkien's flick.

Simply put: "War is hell."

When Lucas made the "Star Wars" trilogy, he chose not to keep that adage in mind. Death was glossed over during the rebels' fight against the alliance. Leia's entire world was destroyed, and throughout all three movies she never gave it a second thought. Solo blasted anything that looked at him sideways and never once had a crisis of conscience. Ewoks were scorched on the forest moon on Endor, but 20 minutes later there was dancing in the trees.

Humor was the confection by which death was candy-coated in Lucas's opus. In Jackson's "Rings" it was not.

"Lord of the Rings" delved into the hell of war. War made the characters somber, cynical, remorseful and terrified. What is evident of the Fellowship is that none of them want to be there! None of these people had anything to joke about. To have them do so would have been awkward.

When Kenobi died, Skywalker gave a curt scream before trading shots with storm troopers. Han and Leia didn't blink, and I don't think Chewbacca even noticed.

When Gandalf died, grown men threw themselves to the ground and wept.

The difference in style is clear. One director chose to keep his characters in the light while the other chose to drop his characters into darkness. Based on this, I do not believe you can say one was lacking.

With respect,

-- D. Olsen

While the original "Star Wars" movie was a nice space opera, very well done and all, it was hardly a great movie in the sense "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" was a great movie. "The Empire Strikes Back" was a wonderful character study and a beautiful film and the only "Star Wars" to approach greatness, but it doesn't match the rest of the series in tone. "The Return of the Jedi" and "Phantom Menace" are dreck as films go, interesting only because they show what happens to the characters we love. In short, only "A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" are good films, regardless of how many tickets they sell.

While I suspect that "Star Wars" will always be the more popular series of movies, and while I know that Lucas has intended to say more to a wider audience about human nature, I suspect that his ultimate message from the eventually six movies is why a young man chooses evil over good and is somewhat redeemed at the end. I do not think that message will endear people to the entire story arc. I think that is why we were treated to the second half of the story first. Do I think it is an important story? Yes, because it will ultimately be original for this very reason.

-- Dan White

"Star Wars" was a fluke in the oeuvre of George Lucas, who earnestly and determinedly has nuked away at whatever resonance that film and its superior sequel "Empire Strikes Back" have had on pop culture with the inane digital kiddie drivel of "Phantom Menace." Judging from the new trailers, the "Titanic" romance-in-space vibe coming off of "Attack of the Clones" will only confirm the galactic ILM well is dry.

Jean Tang's article is bizarre in that "Star Wars" is commonly and critically considered the beginning of the end in character-based epics and heralds the dawn of the "event movie." You can't have an "Independence Day" without a "Star Wars." Effects took the place of character in 1977. Anyone willing to read into the "cinema icon" archetype shorthand of loveable Luke, smart-talking Leia, rascally Han and Gandalf-y Obi-Wan as fully developed "characters" would flunk out of scriptwriting 101. Nowhere have I ever heard the opinion that "Star Wars" was a character-driven film. Was this article paid for by Lucas Films?

Peter Jackson's "Fellowship of the Ring" was handicapped from the start, with all the thunder that Lucas stole from the Original Tolkien trilogy. (The third movies in each bear practically the same name! Not to mention the wholesale theft from Frank Herbert's "Dune.") The fact that Jackson pulled off the task of making an emotionally resonant film while juggling the task of not repeating "Star Wars'" Tolkien-esque scenes and set pieces is amazing. "LOTR" will always be a more richly developed world, its weight and potency created before Ewok Happy Meal tie-ins and thus carrying its integrity into the film medium barely tarnished. I am a "Star Wars" fan, but I would never mistake it for more than it is.

-- Jim Dwyer

Jean Tang's comparison of "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" is so superficial and simplistic that I initially thought she was being satirical. She is aware of plot and character similarities between the two but seems not to have recognized the huge debt owed by the plot and characters of "Star Wars" to "LOTR," which anyone who had read "LOTR" immediately recognized upon the release of "Star Wars" in 1977. Her argument is exactly the reverse of reality: The cartoonishness of the plot and characters of "Star Wars" comes up short when measured against the much more deeply drawn plot and characters of "LOTR," and these are fully realized in the wonderful movie version. We need a W.H. Auden for this generation.

-- Sean Kelley

If a generation of film school grads hadn't grown up with "Star Wars", and therefore been indoctrinated into its entirely sophomoric world of white vs. black, good vs. bad, we'd all realize that it's a terrible movie: poorly acted, poorly directed. George Lucas has almost no grasp of film form. The movie works in spite of its shortcomings as a film only because the spectacle of the special effects distracted us long enough to forget about Lucas' serious deficiencies as a filmmaker. "LOTR" is a serious work of Hollywood cinema, not simply a two-hour commercial for special effects.

-- Joe DiCastro

The point of this piece was to provoke, and that's fine, but provoking geeks is easy sport. We are easily outraged and ready to defend completely meritless points.

The article has the feel of someone trying to rationalize the fondness for an important movie of the author's youth and how a similarly resonant and fantastic movie in no way can measure up to what the author experienced as a child. It's fogeyism and similar to complaining that the "Willy Wonka" film is better than the "Harry Potter" film (it isn't), and that the current generation is more helplessly shallow because it's being cheated and too dim to know it.

"Star Wars" concerns human instinct and virtue in a world of hardware and technocracy. "Lord of the Rings" is about perseverance and renewal in a world where the grandest moments have already passed. Can't both movies, touching on very different aspects of life, be enjoyed without pissing on one of them?

No, probably not.

-- Bruce Scherer

"Lord of the Rings" is meant to be a tale of a battle against evil. Not against some very bad men with lots of power and evil ambitions. In fact, to equate the understanding of evil in both movies is to misunderstand its relation to power. In "LOTR," greater power is in and of itself a temptation, while in "Star Wars," it is a temptation only when sought without the proper spirit and discipline.

And to deride the movie for not being a novel in its lacking proper character development and exploration of motivation is also to misunderstand it in a related way: There is some evil which is not in any way part of human life, that is unnatural and must be resisted at all costs. The point is that some weaknesses are unforgivable.

-- William Stafford

Ms. Tang has missed the point.

She apparently has neither understood the movie nor the book from which it is derived.

"LOTR" is about duty, honor, friendship and bravery in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and evil.

"Star Wars" is about an adolescent's resolution of his Oedipal issues. Given, this resolution does take place in overcoming obstacles and evil. But the point of the three-film serial is the son's saving his father by his decision not to kill him.

Both are excellent stories and films. Both are fairy tales. Both set the standard for cinematic effects and storytelling for their time.

However, I have found that, following the seemingly overwhelming evil of 9-11, "LOTR" moved me much more than "Star Wars" ever did. And in some small measure it has confirmed my hope.

-- George M. Greene

I find amusing how people, even of the intelligent and articulate sort as Mrs. Tang seems to be, can be fogged by personal preferences as fast as the most simple-minded fan.

Certainly "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" share similarities, but ultimately they belong to different species. For so eagerly drawing comparisons between the two I must assume the author is a "Star Wars" devotee, especially since she is ready to pass over the film's own flaws in a clear manifestation of bias.

Or maybe she is quite aware of her lack of objectivity but is willing to bear it for the sake of calling attention to her writings. In which case she has succeeded.

-- Edgar Montemayor

"Star Wars" is by Lucas' own admission a Saturday morning adventure serial, and heavily derivative of Tolkien's work, like nearly all works in the fantasy genre that Tolkien unwittingly revitalized.

"Lord of the Rings" is an epic borne of Tolkien's desire to give his beloved England a coherent body of myth all its own. Jackson created a moving and compelling film out of that. Comparing Lucas' and Jackson's work is shaky at best.

I love both films, but when I look past the nostalgia and childhood memories, I see "Star Wars" as a chance phenomenon that occurred at just the right time and place; while the film may not have succeeded without its story, the story would not have held up without the then-groundbreaking special effects. The "restraint" Tang applauds is hack writing and cheap laughs.

-- Lee Nichol

I would like to thank Salon for allowing Jean Tang to write this article, despite her obvious handicap of having done no research whatsoever.

First of all, if she's going to champion "Star Wars," at least she should watch the film, or at the very least, check out the Internet Movie Database, so that she'd know that Luke's uncle was Uncle Owen, not Otto.

Second, she should try to hold "Star Wars" to the same standards she sets up for "Lord of the Rings." She asks why the orcs are evil. Well, why is Darth Vader? Why are the storm troopers serving the evil empire? Why is the whole empire evil in the first place?

Just as Jackson's "LOTR" fails to answer such questions, so does Lucas' "Star Wars." (Also, contrary to her implication, Tolkien's trilogy does not answer the questions she raises, for the most part, though several of the answers are detailed in Tolkien's other -- much less read -- work, "The Silmarilion.")

For that matter, the question of what the Force is has never been fully explained, but who cares besides Jean Tang? While we all hope "Star Wars" may answer certain of the questions in the next two films, if Jackson gets no credit for his next two (as yet unreleased) installments, then neither does Lucas.

I agree with her that "Star Wars" will not be dethroned by Jackson's "LOTR" as the foremost cinematic cultural reference marker, but the reason for that is entirely different than the flaws she notes. The reason "Star Wars" will hold preeminence is that the characters are rather one-dimensional melodramatic archetypes devoid of any subtlety or reality. That makes it far easier to relate to the characters and to see their analogs in both ourselves and in those with whom we deal on a daily basis. All melodrama is like that; the simplicity enables the viewer to draw parallels to his or her own experiences.

While "Lord of the Rings" certainly has its melodramatic aspects as well, and while I would hardly claim that the characters are well developed, "Star Wars" is simply on a different level. That is its greatest strength; "Star Wars" is so absurdly melodramatic and the characters so shallowly developed that it cannot possibly take itself seriously, and it's from there that it derives its (admittedly campy) charm.

-- Kurt Yost

Tang criticizes "Lord of the Rings" for having good special effects and not making her laugh. But when I watch "Star Wars," the things that make me laugh are the movie's outdated special effects and the terrible acting of Mark Hamill!

-- Jason Owens

I enjoyed your article comparing "Lord of the Rings" with "Star Wars." It precisely articulated some of the feelings I had after viewing Peter Jackson's movie. Thank you for your insightful writing.

-- Rob Hanson

The tone of Jean Tang's review of "LOTR" leaves me trying to imagine "The Simpson's" Comic Book Guy as a woman.

-- Logan Rogers

This silly article is based on an untenable premise, frequently asserted: that all the people who see "Lord of the Rings" the movie are former readers of "Lord of the Rings" the book. What's more, Tang writes, these people are all fanatics about the book.

What nonsense.

Having seen both films, I wouldn't dream of rating them competitively. I do recall the remark of the writer of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," who recognized "Star Wars" as a western, and one that would probably put real westerns out of business. How right he was.

And I point out that "Lord of the Rings" is probably the first big-budget film in which the new crop of children are seeing screens full of actors who haven't had their teeth capped, and who do in fact have real countrymen's hands with ground-down, dirty fingernails much overgrown with cuticle.

Tooth caps gleam from most mouths in "Star Wars." Dental care will doubtless be excellent in that far-off galaxy when that time rolls round.

-- Paul Kunino Lynch

I find myself wondering why Jean Tang went to see "Lord of the Rings," since she seems not to get the basic premises of the movie. And she seems to have missed the idea that it is in fact part one of three, and intended that way -- unlike "Star Wars."

That's probably because she's a critic, and too wound up in analysis to enjoy the movie.

However, I'll quibble with one of her points -- the notion that box office figures are a popularity contest. First, what if they are? Presidential elections are popularity contests. Second, box offices figures do not cover repeat viewings. And I'm betting -- from simple observation -- that more people will see "Lord of the Rings" twice or thrice than any other movie in history.

Finally, as to historical perceptions of quality, Ms. Tang completely underestimates the fannish mind. The only reason that "Star Wars" has lasted is its potential for "trivia," as she calls it, and "Lord of the Rings" has far, far more. "Lord of the Rings" will be seen alongside "Star Wars" for decades to come, and may even surpass it in popularity eventually.

-- Drew Shiel

While Jean Tang's comparison of "Lord of the Rings" to "Star Wars" makes some very good and valid points -- especially with regard to translating a work of literature into the language of moving pictures -- I think that the comparison is fundamentally unfair.

Obviously, "Star Wars" has set the standard for all action/sci-fi/fantasy movies. But it has also set the standard for movie series. Ms. Tang's comparison is only in terms of the former, whereas it seems that the latter might be a better comparison.

No one is able to say that "Lord of the Rings" as a series is better than "Star Wars" as a series -- but they can't say it is worse, either. Comparing the first episodes of each series yields obvious results. And comparing the best single episode of each series will probably still favor "Star Wars: Episode IV." But once all of the cards are on the table, the high card doesn't matter and the best hand will win.

-- Michael S. Thibault

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