Books or movies as “canon”

We caught the end of the Oscars last night, starting at around the point they did the Katherine Hepburn memorial section. Billy Crystal remarked that all of New Zealand has now been thanked, so apparently Lord of the Rings had been winning in the technical categories. I was actually mildy surprised it won Best Picture, but that was because I became more of a Tolkien purist about fifteen minutes into the movie, and therefore disliked large parts of it. Still good, could have been better, certainly not the best movie I’ve seen.

I remembered this comment on Plastic about what is considered canon, in terms of the secondary creations of writers and filmmakers. The main thread was about the release of the original Star Wars movies on DVD, except that what we’ll get isn’t really the original films but the modified versions released in 1997. As everyone notes, Han Solo shoots first.

But what’s the canonical film? Is it what Lucas says is canonical, or what the fans consider to be canonical? The Star Wars special editions are a messy case. Other issues of canonical-ness are clearer: the movies and TV shows are canonical for Star Trek, no matter how many books are written, and no matter how internally inconsistent the movies and TV shows are. A commentator on the thread brought up the two different versions of the Lord of the Rings movies, theatrical and extended cuts, and asked which should be considered canonical. Someone noted that Tolkien’s books are canon. In this case, the movies are the add-ons.

But, as was pointed out by MrWarmth in the above linked comment thread, the only reason the books have been canonical may be because there hasn’t been a credible film version of the story until now. Historically, we have the Oz books versus the Oz movie, with the movie winning out as what people think of when they think of Dorothy. Similarly for the Maltese Falcon, Gone with the Wind, and The Silence of the Lambs. In these cases, the movies made from these famous books are dominant in the popular imagination, and if we read these books, we picture the actors from the movies as the characters in our minds. And, generally, people will see the movie before reading the book, if the movie exists. In many of these cases, people aren’t even aware that the books exist.

So what’s the fate of the Tolkien books decades from now? When we refer to the charge of the Rohirrm to our children (yes, Grace, we’re going to raise them with a geeky reading list), will they picture the Lord of the Nazgul at the broken gates of Minas Tirith? Will the books remain canon?

One counterargument might be something like Moby Dick. There have been film adaptations of this book, but these haven’t cast such a shadow on the popular imagination. Perhaps because the density of the literary work is too great for any film to capture, or because we know there’s a book out there because we were forced to read it in high school. This likely won’t be the case with Tolkien, except with the density of languages found in his Middle Earth.

The case of the Oz books may be the most instructive, as these may have been as well loved as Tolkien is now, and yet we barely recall them in comparison to the movie. And I think this would be a sad fate for the books, an unintended side effect of Peter Jackson’s epic film series, though this outcome would perhaps fit with Tolkien’s theme of loss and fading away for the Eldar. Into the Undying West these books may go.

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