David Brin doesn't know a damn thing about "Lord of the Rings." Plus: Say what you want about "Adaptation" but lay off Wes Anderson.

By Salon Staff
Published December 19, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

[Read David Brin's "J.R.R. Tolkien -- Enemy of Progress."]

Shame on David Brin for failing to note an obvious and delicious irony in his discussion of "LOTR" as an anti-technological treatise: The current film series that's bringing Tolkien's anti-progress back to the front of our cultural consciousness is an incredible example of progress in technology itself.

Exactly how far do Tolkien's anti-scientific sentiments extend? Was the printing press an instrument of Mordor? How about CGI?

-- Nathan Fisher

Hooray for David Brin and his cogent, powerful argument that exposes the darkness in the roots, not only of the history of Middle-earth, but so much of today's myth- and nonsense-loving culture.

Just think of the Shire, that so-English pastoral paradise. At least, however, the land of the Hobbits was essentially egalitarian and non-hierarchical -- unlike, interestingly enough, all the other nations of Middle-earth ruled by kings, queens, nobles, aristocrats and mystics. It's odd that Tolkien's epic celebrated the glories of that medieval world while at the same time saving its true love for an out-of-the-way, virtually classless semi-anarchy. Goodness, all the reverberations that sets off: Even the ideal world of the SDS in the '60s was essentially the same.

Of course, that dream of the golden age of peasants and kings only started when its actual models in Europe were overthrown by such horrors as the American, French and Industrial Revolutions.

-- Peter Goodman

I'm quite certain that, given the numerous factual errors in David Brin's article on J.R.R. Tolkien, you have been inundated by letters from geeks pointing them out. The purpose of this letter is not to play Trivial Pursuit with Tolkien, but to address a central fallacy of Brin's article, which is not, unfortunately, the subtle invitation to complexity that he thinks it is; instead, it is a misleading oversimplification. Leaving aside his laughably cartoonish compression of Western history into a page-long feel-good story of progress and enlightenment, Brin shows an inability, or unwillingness, actually to read what Tolkien wrote. It's not just that he gets obvious plot details wrong -- which he does -- but that he has, perhaps intentionally, missed the whole point.

Brin seems to have a good deal of trouble with Sauron in general, trying several times to turn him into a misunderstood good guy. This is hardly a revolutionary thing to do: It's the same tired gambit that Tolkien's critics have been trying, unsuccessfully, for decades. In addition, it is simply the same intellectual reversal -- sympathy for the devil -- that Blake tried with "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" and that Nietzsche attempted in "Thus Spake Zarathustra," "Beyond Good and Evil" and similar works. Brin's position is, in other words, pure romanticism. It's deeply ironic that he accuses Tolkien, who was not a romanticist but a Catholic humanist, of precisely the intellectual fallacy that he himself has fallen into. The mistake goes something like this: Hierarchies exist in the world. Sauron challenges them. Therefore, Sauron must be egalitarian. That Sauron simply wants to replace all the other hierarchies with a single one, with him at its summit, is conveniently forgotten. What Blake said -- mistakenly -- of Milton turns out to be true of Brin: that he is of the devil's party without knowing it.

The funny thing about all of this is that Brin is trying to get us, as he says, to understand evil. But he himself doesn't seem to understand the most important thing about it: That it is different from good. In fact, Brin doesn't seem really to take evil all that seriously; even when he brings the word up, he implicitly apologizes for it by placing it in ironic quotation marks. He even shies away from assigning the word to Hitler, preferring instead the weaker description "bad."

This is not to say that Brin is completely wrong. Of course, democracy is a fine thing, as was the Enlightenment. There is no doubt that most of us, myself included, would far rather live in a modern egalitarian society than a pre-modern hierarchical one. And the ability to understand rather than condemn points of view different from one's own is a great achievement of civilization. But none of that makes evil simply nonexistent; none of it makes people who take it seriously, as Tolkien did, into fools; none of it makes perpetrators of genuine evil into misunderstood good guys. Nor does it make those who disagree with Brin's one-sided, rah-rah view of the modern West into backward-looking dupes.

-- Chester N. Scoville

Two things about David Brin's essay demand comment.

1. The notion that "The Lord of the Rings" is racist is simply ludicrous. What is the evidence for this? That the orcs are "darker people" than the protagonists? They're not people at all. They're goblins, specifically bred for evil. There's nothing racist about that, but more importantly the chief villains are white! Sauron isn't really a person at all, but as a young apprentice to Morgoth. Saruman is known as "Saruman the White!" Wormtongue is white. Smeagol was white (you'd turn greenish-purple if you lived underground for a few centuries, too). The racism theme is a canard.

2. The suggestion that we have no way to be sure that Sauron's "perspective" isn't equally valid is also without merit. His expressed goals are the subjugation of all Middle-earth and the enslavement of millions. There's no moral theory on which this is legitimate.

-- A. J. Skoble

Dr. Brin's critique of the "Lord of the Rings" has once again demonstrated an ability for abstract analysis that doubtless is the envy of every poli-sci grad student on the planet.

What he misses is this: In the end, it was the mutual loyalty and dogged determination of two ordinary people, Frodo and Sam, that confounded Sauron's evil. They weren't princes of Elves; they weren't aristocrats; they had no secret hidden knowledge passed on by romantic cabals. They were common people doing their best in awful times. Perhaps "LOTR's" underlying message is not as elitist as some might perceive.

-- Don Livingston

David Brin makes an interesting point about the one-dimensionality of evil in Tolkien's world. In "Beowulf," a text that powerfully influenced Tolkien, the poet portrays the monster known as Grendel's Mother with interesting touches of sympathy; she's a grotesque creature, but she's also doing what many, many human mothers would do -- seeking justice for her murdered child. It's too bad Tolkien didn't absorb this quality of complexity and ambiguity into his vision of Mordor.

-- Jason Moss

High kudos to letting David Brin deconstruct "Lord of the Rings" and my pity upon everyone at Salon for the hate mail you'll receive. I can already see it: "Brin hates Tolkien and George Lucas, but let's see him do better! 'The Postman' movie sucked, so what's he doing, writing 'The Postman 2'?" I've worked in the business and can anticipate the mail before it comes: Many of these people have a point, and when they wear a hat, you can't see it.

Sadly, analysis such as Brin's is increasingly rare in the science fiction/fantasy/horror community, which is why it's very refreshing to read it in Salon. Finding intelligent and thoughtful science fiction magazines these days is like finding intelligent and thoughtful tractor-pull and wrestling magazines: Even if the editors have loftier motives, the industry has, through laziness and hubris, created an audience that wants nothing more than wish-fulfillment fantasies, so standing up and suggesting better (much less demanding better) only wastes your time and annoys the pig. Don't worry, though: The same hate mailers will end their campaigns to put Brin's head on a spike soon enough and return to much more important matters, such as petitioning the Sci-Fi Channel to bring back "Lexx."

-- Paul T. Riddell

I may have been liberated from the feudal servitude of my ancestors, and have an education and a better life than I would have had as a serf in my small village, but I'm obviously too stupid to know what to do with my Enlightenment-granted freedom. I need the keen understanding and superior insight of David Brin to direct me to appropriate literature and a correct worldview. Left to myself, I might read things that are bad for me! Brin is so good to take me by the hand and tell me what to do. I just can't live without his guidance.

I mean, on my own I thought that women who ruled kingdoms in their own right, had adventures, and lived their lives as they chose were role models to follow. Now that Brin has instructed me properly, I see that the future holds much better things! I can pick Kirk, or Riker, or Sisko, or Chakotay, and be the fuck of the week! How could I ask for more?

Thank goodness for David Brin. Without his stunningly brilliant analysis I might never have realized that Tolkien and Jackson are evil Nazis who want to take away my freedom. I must run out and find an appropriate movie, like Brin's "Postman," at once! Now that the light of Brin's intelligence has illuminated my previously pathetic understanding of the world, I know I'll find that "The Postman" doesn't really suck

-- Genevieve Carnell

[Read Stephanie Zacharek's "'Adaptation' and the Perils of Adaptation."]

I think that Ms. Zacharek should relax a little. Every now and then a movie comes along and shows us what movies can do. That's how film language expands. There should be room for every kind of movie. A moviemaker (was it Kazan?) once said that in movies there are no rules. There are only sins. And the deadliest sin is dullness. "Adaptation" was far from dull. It is, among other things, a glimpse into the creative process. It's honest and it's funny. It's much more accessible than the inside joke she claims it to be. I saw it to a full house and most people were laughing genuinely. It couldn't possibly have been that all 500 of the audience members were in the movie business.

-- Michael Sibay

I am probably about as annoyed by Stephanie Zacharek's essay "'Adaptation' and the Perils of Adaptation" as she was by the film "Adaptation," since, among other reasons, very few of the movie-going populace outside L.A. and N.Y., as well as film critics, have gotten a chance to see it yet. A negative critical appraisal may be in order, certainly; I'm less sanguine about a self- congratulatory pseudo-philosophical attack on the film's alleged self-congratulatory pseudo-philosophy.

Perhaps "Adaptation" is as creatively bankrupt as Ms. Zacharek suggests, perhaps not. Nonetheless, it strikes me as not unlikely that this was a case of a book being optioned that by necessity would have to be shoehorned into the Hollywood blueprint due to its own non-Hollywood nature. Should this be the case, then doesn't Mr. Kaufman deserve credit for at least attempting to address this problem in the screenplay itself? God forbid that someone should try to insert some creative commentary into their work.

Finally, Ms. Zacharek's essay is undercut by the fact that the upcoming film "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," penned by Mr. Kaufman, is an adaptation of a book that shows no signs of being preciously "meta," if there are people still using that tired appellation.

-- Jacob Fyrste

Jesus, lady, if you don't get the joke, just say so.

-- Mike Trotman

Ms. Zacharek seems to have missed the point. Perhaps the problem stems from the context in which she places the film. Rather than simply comparing "Adaptation" to other novel-to-film adaptations, this film seems to fit more aptly with novels that share its mechanics. I would point her toward Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds," something Borges called a "verbal labyrinth." What Ms. Zacharek dismisses as a self-defeating how-meta-can-you-be game is really something more complicated -- like James Joyce (though with a far more popular sensibility), Jonze and Kaufman are pointing out that the mechanics of a story define its sensibilities and plot. How we write is as important as what we write, if not more so.

-- Ian Eletz

Thanks for the interesting roundup of movies that adapt books. However, I'd like to respond to some generalizations that Salon critics Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor have made recently that I think are mistaken.

The genre of literary fiction called "postmodernism" has lent a number of bad habits to the screen. David Fincher even provided a step-by-step guide to all the problems of the genre (in print or on-screen) with the slickest and emptiest movie ever, "Fight Club." In film and literature, it's appropriate for reviewers to attack these bad habits and the intellectual laziness they conceal.

However, filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman, and even Alexander Payne (who is certainly more of a satirist than the rest of those guys, and hence a little meaner) simply aren't guilty of the kind of slick, hip detachment that Salon critics have been accusing them of. Although they employ some of the narrative devices of postmodernism, they use them to completely different ends than do no-heart pseudo-experimenters -- say, Fincher, Oliver Stone, or any Brett Easton Ellis adaptation. It's a mistake, I think, to label these filmmakers by the narrative devices they employ. To choose the clearest example, Anderson's humor is always inclusive; his portrayals of his characters are always warm. Kaufman may stoop to making easy meta-jokes in "Adaptation," but even if the film doesn't work (and I'm not saying it does), it isn't cynical or condescending to its characters -- or to the book it's based on.

As an increasing number of young writers and a few young filmmakers have shown, postmodern narrative devices don't need to imply postmodern emptiness. The sooner Salon's film critics learn this, the sooner they'll avoid the embarrassing mistake of calling Wes Anderson hip and condescending, or of accusing Charlie Kaufman of having nothing to say.

-- Robert Mentzer

Kaufman's adaptation of "The Orchid Thief" may be the self-referential, self-indulgent and smugly hip meta-aware work that Stephanie Zacharek claims it to be, but it is fully redeemed by also being entertaining as hell. No, it may not be a particularly deep meditation on the pain of creating meaningful writing (see "Barton Fink" for that); and it may not be an especially vicious satire on Hollywood (see "The Player" for that); but it has enough pleasures to keep it fun, and enough depth to keep it thoughtful.

Also, I might feel as "protective" as Zacharek of Orleans' book if the movie were called "The Orchid Thief," but it 's rightfully called "Adaptation" precisely because it's about not being "The Orchid Thief." In my opinion, that gives Kaufman even more latitude in making his choices.

-- Jordan Fields

"Adaptation" stunk as badly as the Florida swamps that orchids thrive on. Two-thirds of the way through I couldn't take it anymore and walked out of the theater. (And I loved "Being John Malkovich.")

It's comforting to know that your film critique agrees with me. Although reading Salon's review was almost as painful as watching the film.

-- Monica Gullon

Bravo to Stephanie Zacharek for exposing Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze for being the pathetic, naked emperors they are, and for taking on all the short-sighted film "critics" that are just as self-serving as the talent- and vision-depleted "filmmakers" working today. "Adaptation" is simply the latest of a long series of nails in the coffin of American filmmaking that matters.

-- Dennis Osborne

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