Robot 6

Quote of the Day | When tastes trump morals in creator rights discussions

Detail from the cover of David Wenzel, Chuck Dixon, and Sean Deming's comics adaptation of The Hobbit (which is only peripherally under discussion, but that's a nice painting)

“It’s instructive to read something about a family wanting certain rights returned or better rewarded when most people really like what’s been done with those rights as opposed to their either not caring or actively hating the result. One of the reasons a lot of our comics-related issue discussions remain unsophisticated is that we frequently choose to fight our battles along fundamental “I like it”/”I hate it” lines and then kind of furiously stare at the other issues involved until we can find a way to make them comply to our initial impression. It’s no way to move forward.”

Tom Spurgeon, on Christopher Tolkien’s dismay over the Lord of the Rings films

Spurgeon’s observation is helpful, because the first step in solving the problem is acknowledging the problem.

On a purely intellectual level, I’m a huge advocate for creators’ rights, but I have trouble staying consistent on the issue. I have no problem pitching in to defend the creator (and his family) when he’s being exploited in a way that I don’t enjoy. It’s easy for me to be upset at the treatment of Siegel and Shuster when I don’t care about modern Superman comics. Others with more interest in current Superman disagree. Loudly. Usually in blog comments.

But before I wag my finger at those folks, I need to come to terms with my own lack of sympathy when the subject is a derivative work that I happen to love. Especially — as in the case of The Lord of the Rings -- when I love it more than the source material itself. I admit that I’ve usually thought about Christopher Tolkien’s complaining the same way some comics fans think about Alan Moore’s: that I wish he would shut up and let me enjoy what I enjoy.

As Spurgeon says, that’s no way to move toward figuring out the solution to the complicated issue of creators rights. Acknowledging that there are differences in every case and that one solution does not necessarily fit all (for instance, allowing a creator’s heirs to have a voice in the discussion is a huge complication), the first step still needs to be divorcing my emotional investment in a derivative work from the argument over whether or not the derivation is moral. The two have nothing to do with each other.

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The difference is that Tolkien himself sold the film rights. He wasn’t particularly keen on a film version, but he wasn’t so entirely against it either. The Tolkien family also still owns the rights to the novels. Christopher Tolkien is just a stick in the mud and a notoriously bitter old man. He supposedly cut ties with his grand-nephew Royd Tolkien who had the audacity to like the films and ask Peter Jackson for a cameo in Return of the King (He’s the dude handing out spears at Osgiliath)

It’s easy to take a stand on any creator rights fracas. Just figure out which side Toberoff is on and take the other side. Assclown.

The books are vastly superior

In the article that Spurgeon cites, it talks about how there will be female characters in the movie that were not in the book. I find Tolkien’s works to be very much a product of his time. I’ve read the Hobbit and the first 2 books of Lord of the Rings. There are almost no women in those books. The women who are there have very minor roles and are largely forgettable. To me Tolkien’s works reflect an imperial British mindset of a male-dominated racially white world. In his books the only dark-skinned people are villainous “men from the East,” while the heroes are fair-skinned men from the West (not exactly subtle). There was even a controversy over a dark-skinned actress trying to get a role as an extra in the Hobbit. So, I think the studios re-interpreting his work to include women is a good thing. However, I get how the Tolkien estate would angry about stuff like the LotR slot machines or the Lego Lord of the Rings video game, which is basically a parody of the movies.

The most powerful elf left in Middle-Earth is a woman and I always found Galadriel’s story of exile, creation of a haven, and direct battles of will against Sauron some of the most compelling material in Lord of the Rings. Exiled from the West she’s used her ring of power to create an image of the paradise she left behind. She’s waged a sort of psychic war against Sauron to protect that haven. If he wins the war she knows Lothlórien is doomed. If Sauron’s ring is destroyed she will also lose her haven because her ring of power will no longer work. Either way she characterizes her fight as the “long defeat.”

Regarding the original topic, it is a very selfish perspective to consider these things only within the framework of personal consumption but we probably all do it in some form or another. There are other considerations of course. Works of authorship represent significant hours of a person’s life and often (as surely in the case of Tolkien) a personal struggle to sort out individual perceptions and experience in some meaningful tangible form that clearly communicates their intent.

Given Christopher Tolkien’s direct history with his father’s writings and role as a steward his opinion should matter. It certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed with convenient and self-comforting ad hominems. To do so actually validates his criticisms that these movies are a dumb escape rather than an engagement with Tolkien’s creation.

I’ve been wrestling with this ever since Tom Spurgeon posted the link and I can’t really come down one way or the other on the aesthetic issue. I liked the movies but I agree with Trey about their inferiority. But again I only found my way to the books after watching the movies. So I’m not sure about the harm or threat to Tolkien’s legacy. The stuff about the casinos, product glut, and payout shenanigans does bother me, though.

Kind of ironic considering the themes of possessiveness, good stewardship, and sacrifice as well as creative interpretation that are so prevalent in Tolkien’s stories.

There’s another point too: I’m very much of the opinion that these works should have been public domain by now.

Of course they’re not, and that doesn’t excuse Warner’s treatment of Tolkien’s heirs, or Warner’s treatment of Siegel’s heirs, or Disney’s treatment of Kirby’s heirs. But these issues would be moot if copyright terms hadn’t been extended in 1976 and 1994.

I read a great piece on copyright reform last month; it was written by Derek Khanna and published by the Republican Study Committee. It was probably the most concise, intelligently-written summary I’ve ever read about how copyright has become broken and how we can fix it.

So of course it was immediately retracted and Khanna was fired.

With me, I tend to (for a while now) take a more Solomon-like approach: BOTH parties must pay. That’s the ultimate gist of entertainment–people PAY to be entertained. BOTH sides–creator/creator’s estate and the company–MUST acknowledge that one truth, or forever be stuck in a Ragnarok of their own collaborative making making.

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