Purism in Five Minutes

Much of this site is written with the assumption of basic knowledge of purism, revisionism, and the debate that has gone on between the two for over a decade.  However, it is likely that some of the people reading this are new to the debate, or would simply like a brief overview that does not take much time.  If so, this page is for you.

“Purist” and “revisionist” are not universally accepted terms, but they generally apply to two broad factions within the Tolkien fandom.  Purists are more critical of changes made to Tolkien’s stories by adaptations, whereas revisionists are more accepting of supposedly minor changes.  Such a brief summary ignores much of the nuance and diversity within the two positions, but it is sufficient for an introduction.  Most of the differences between purists and revisionists come down to two basic questions:

  1. Should adaptations recreate the original story faithfully?
  2. If so, how should faithfulness manifest itself?

The first question is hardly debated, because it is near-universally agreed upon.  Even the staunchest defender of Peter Jackson’s films will tend to blanch at the thought of early film proposals where Frodo had sex with Galadriel, or at Miramax Film’s proposal to PJ that Gondor and Rohan be combined into a single kingdom, with Eowyn as Boromir’s sister.  (PJ, to his credit, refused this and other changes and went to work with New Line Cinema instead.)  If the basic premise that adaptations should bear some resemblance to the original work is accepted, then the question remains: how should faithfulness be expressed?

If you are looking for a conclusive answer to this question you will be disappointed, as there are mostly just broad theories on this.  In general, purists look for faithfulness in the form of direct similarities to the original text.  To use an example from Jackson’s films, Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is often criticized for being too different from the book version because the movie character is defined by his coming to terms with his uncertainty about his heritage, whereas the book character is far more self-assured and looking to the future.  A good representation of this idea is the computing acronym WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get.  To assess faithfulness, a purist simply compares the stories and characters.

Revisionists tend to excuse changes to specific elements of story or characterization, preferring to look towards a “spirit” or “essence” of the book to assess faithfulness.  Most revisionists assert that Peter Jackson captured the spirit of Tolkien in his films, and that he thus made a faithful adaptation.  It is important to note that some critics of the films also make spirit-based arguments, most notably David Bratman in his Summa Jacksonica.  This highlights a major flaw in all spirit-based arguments: the nature of the “spirit of Tolkien” is inherently subjective, as Tolkien’s own stated goal in writing The Lord of the Rings was simply to tell an entertaining story.

Since not all entertaining stories are adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (faithful or otherwise), individual readers must make up their own conceptions of the spirit of the story.  However, even leaving aside the questionable notion of an outsider deciding what the spirit or essence of someone else’s book is, most if not all definitions of spirit are too broad or too vague to be usable criteria in assessing the faithfulness of an adaptation.  This is because more specifically-defined notions of spirit are dependent on the details of the story, and thus do not excuse such changes.

There is much more to the debate than this, and there have been many variations of both pro- and anti-movie arguments over the years, but most debates come down to a disagreement over whether faithfulness can exist in ways other than direct, literal similarities to the original book.  I hope that this introduction has interested you in the debate if you are new to it and that you are intrigued enough to read more of this site.

Back to main Tolkien Purism page.

One Response to Purism in Five Minutes

  1. […] get something out of the way: When it comes to the Lord of the Rings movies, I am not a purist. The fact is, I saw the Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, before […]

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