Why Star Trek Worked — And Lord of the Rings Didn’t

THE ONLY THING THAT BUGGED me about the new Star Trek movie — and that only for the first 20 minutes — was that it didn’t look “retro” enough; as though Mr. Abrams’ idea of “early Star Trek” was taken from the first films rather than the original series.

That disappointment was much more fleeting than the one which still accompanies another mythical relandscaping, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Sure, he got a lot right — including the balrog issue — but like many fen I loudly objected to Jackson’s character-monkeying (e.g., the emasculation of Aragorn) and addition of narrative-twisting scenes neither in the book nor appropriate to it. Not because I’m a purist (even though I am); adapting a Beloved Work from text to image, or from older image to newer image, almost always requires sacrifices, edits, and rewrites. And if you’re lucky or good enough to be in such a position you’ll soon split the fan base along love-hate lines depending on whose vision you ruined.

But even though Abrams’ Star Trek employs a couple of revisionist touches in look (2000s sweaty for 1960s antiseptic) and continuity (the planet Vulcan turns out to have been destroyed by time-travelling Romulans before Kirk and Spock can go mano-a-lirpa in “Amok Time”), he didn’t mess with the characters. Kirk, Spock, Uhura, McCoy, Chekov, Sulu, Scotty — they’re played by the next generation (puntended) of actors, but their essential Kirkness, Spockness, et al is intact.

And that contains a lesson for religiospiritual seekers of modern mind and purist bent. I can’t speak for members of other traditional religions who try to balance ancientry with innovation, but Jewish communal organizations have recently been floating a number of well-intentioned “repackaging” initiatives designed to make the old attractive to the new. As Jewish tradition is all about reinterpretation, we have something of a 3,000-year head start on the process. Yet many of these initiatives seem to assume that Judaism can’t speak for itself — that it has to be changed in order to suit 21st Century palates. But at what point, then, does it cease to “be” Judaism?

E. g.: Aragorn a la Jackson. By Tolkien, Aragorn knows exactly who he is: the last son of a line of noble kings trying to restore a united realm and win the hand of his love. By Jackson, he’s just another afraid-of-his-destiny Kevin Costnerism. That may play well in our no-heroes-without-ironic-flaws era. But it’s also inauthentic and dishonest, robbing both character and work of integrity and intended meaning.

An authentic Spock doesn’t need to be played by Leonard Nimoy, or even to have pointed ears — but he does need to struggle with his twin-world identities, just as many Jews do whether they live in the United States, Russia or Iran. Likewise, an authentic adaptation of anything must maintain the source’s integrity — instead of changing it beyond recognition by those who know and love it.

2 comments for “Why Star Trek Worked — And Lord of the Rings Didn’t

  1. 2009.08.20 at 1138

    Oh, THANK YOU! I’ve been yelling blue murder about what Jackson did to Aragorn for YEARS. My theory is that Jackson is a liberal modern populist New Zealander, who doesn’t get, or doesn’t WANT to get, royalty or even nobility *at all*. He screws up the Elves, too. Elrond, at his council, ends up sounding and looking more like some peeved CEO than a leader of a race which can lay claim to a millennium or more of accumulated power, knowledge and wisdom.

    Thank you for this. Seriously.

  2. Aron G.
    2009.06.05 at 1351

    I haven’t seen the new Star Trek movie, so I can’t comment on it, but I very much enjoyed the Lord of the Ring films and the original book on their own merits, but agree they’re different. I think for me, I never really had much interest in the Aragorn plot line in the book, so frankly didn’t notice there was any change until you just pointed it out.

    My main problem was that Jackson ignored the idea of the last chapter of Return of the King. I think Tolkein was making a point about war, that when you experience it you lose a kind of innocence you never can go back to. For the hobbits just coming back and things were pretty much as they left it, ruined that point.

    I realize that the ending was long enough already, but he could have shown when they returned a more scarred Shire, wounded by the War.

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