Lord of the Rings
film by Peter Jackson
I: The Fellowship of the Ring
A review by John D. Rateliff
wrote the book he wanted to read
-- we got to make the movies we wanted to see."
-- Peter Jackson, December 2001
wait is over. After nearly fifty years, J. R. R. Tolkien's masterpiece
The Lord of the Rings has finally gotten the film treatment it
last we left this review, we had covered how well the director and actors
brought to life the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Read the final part of John D. Rateliff's comprehensive movie review and
see the differences between the movie and the novel.
Tolkien's Book, Jackson's Movie
the stakes so high, has Jackson turned the Book of the Century into a
movie that will please Tolkien's legion of fans? The answer is, inevitably,
both yes and no.
with, Tolkien's fans are in a league all their own. Some authors count
themselves lucky to have fans who read their every new book as it comes
out; Tolkien's fans read and reread the major works -- The Hobbit,
The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion -- as well as the minor works
(Farmer Giles of Ham, "Leaf by Niggle," Smith of Wootton
Major, etc.), medieval tales Tolkien worked on or was inspired by
(Beowulf, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight), and imitations of
his work by other authors ("Tolkienesque" fantasy). A surprising
number go on to read his essays, letters, translations of medieval tales,
and posthumously published drafts. Several volumes of the History of
Middle-earth series have been released in mass-market paperbacks,
including the unfinished epic narrative poems, and done well enough to
be reprinted several times. The "History of The Lord of the Rings"
volumes sold briskly this past holiday season as a trade-paperback gift
set. They publish their own fanzines, maintain websites to discuss the
invented languages, hold conventions, and support a vast "Tolkien
industry": over a hundred books about his world, dozens of dissertations,
calendars every year for the past 18 years, artbooks, music inspired by
(including classic rock, folksongs, filksongs, heavy metal, new age, psychedelic,
and classic rock, and a symphony), games (previously by Iron Crown, SPI,
TSR, and others; currently by Decipher, Hasbro, Fantasy Flight, Rio Grande,
and Games Workshop), and much more. They are a dedicated lot and very
passionate about their favorite book, which they know as well as English
professors know their Shakespeare or Joyce. Small wonder that his masterpiece
The Lord of the Rings, which has sold some fifty million copies
despite never being accepted as a "modern literary classic"
by those who supposedly decide such things, has won a whole string of
"best book" polls over the last five years, whether the voters
were collectors of fine literary editions (The Folio Society) or Amazon.com
beyond this, his influence on our culture is deep. Without The Hobbit
and The Lord of the Rings there would be no D&D or the
hundreds of novels inspired by it and other roleplaying games. The whole
fantasy genre, which now takes up more space in most bookstores than any
other genre (mystery, romance, horror, etc.) and sometimes even matches
or outnumbers the literature/fiction section, would shrink to a few books
stuck in with the humor or children's/young adult section. Would we have
ever had Star Wars without Tolkien? Possibly, but it would be a
very different film without the Gandalf-inspired Obi-Wan and other Tolkien-inspired
touches. Given all this, how can any movie, no matter how good, live up
to the expectations of Tolkien's millions of fans?
answer: by recreating the story in cinematic terms. Few books survive
the translation into films: either the film disappoints fans of the book
or improves upon it so much that those first encountering the story in
the movie find themselves puzzled and disappointed when turning back to
the original. The elements that make a book great, as Tolkien himself
observed, are not necessarily the same things that make for a good movie.
But in order to please the book's readers, the movie has to either incorporate
those elements or find new ones equally compelling to convey the power
of the story. And these new presentations or new elements have to "feel"
right; they have to be true to the spirit of the book. And by and large
Jackson's movie passes this test with flying colors. Thus, Jackson's script
often substitutes more colloquial language for the slightly more formal
and impressive dialogue of Tolkien's book,
but the substitutions work for the most part because in context of the
movie the new lines are moving in themselves:
- "Even the
smallest person can change the course of the future."
- "Are you frightened?"
"Yes." "Not frightened enough yet."
- "A wizard
is never late!"
- "Nobody tosses
- "Anyway, you
need people of intelligence on this sort of mission . . . quest . .
viewer could easily add his or her own favorites to this sampling).
problem for a purist is not that material has been omitted -- after all,
the unabridged audio recording of the first volume runs some twenty hours
-- but if material in the book gets omitted in order to make room for
fabricated scenes. Thus, at one point the movie skips four whole chapters
(the events in Crickhollow, the Old Forest, the scenes with Bombadil,
and the barrow-wight); while fans like myself may consider this excision
a mistake, it's a defensible one for purposes of moving the story along
(although the logic of the movie would have been improved if Jackson had
included some reason, even if only a line or two, explaining why Merry
and Pippin continue to accompany Frodo beyond Bree). By contrast, the
battle with the cave-troll in Moria, which the book devotes only half
a page to, expands into a five-minute melee royale in the film, no doubt
precisely for its "cinematic" quality -- and many fans of the
book I talked to were delighted by the result. Scenes that are mainly
dialogue ("The Shadow of the Past," "The Council of Elrond")
are shortened, with much of their information either shown in the film's
prologue or interspersed with the main action, some of it oddly enough
transferred to (spoken by) other characters. Sometimes bits of action
are added in as well, as when Gimli tries to destroy the Ring with his
axe right there at the Council -- a character-defining moment that shows
both that he is a no-nonsense dwarf who believes in not putting things
off and demonstrates the truth of Elrond's words about the Ring's indestructibility.
Scenes Tolkien doesn't show us but which we know took place, like Aragorn's
reunion with Arwen at Rivendell, are brought on-screen to emphasize the
importance of the love-story (and, frankly, to increase the screen time
of the relatively few female characters).
of course, is that the viewer has to believe that the new scenes he or
she is getting more than make up for the ones that have been left out
to make room for them. Strider's balancing act on the crumbling stairs
in Moria is a good example of such a new-minted moment: It is suitably
cinematic (even if it does harken back to some '70s disaster movie) and
helps establish what a cool customer Aragorn is, weighing possibilities
and carefully choosing his moment to act. But is it worth, say, the loss
of the scene with the barrow-wight? The barrow-wight episode is just the
sort of creepy scene Jackson excels at, and its omission means the movie
must come up with an alternate means whereby the hobbits get their weapons
before the assault on Weathertop. In one of the few plot glitches, Jackson
has Strider pull four hobbit swords from his bundle when they arrive at
Weathertop -- yet even if Gandalf had somehow gotten word to Strider off-camera
to be on the lookout for Frodo and Sam before he rode to Isengard, there's
no reason Strider should have weapons for four hobbits, since Jackson's
script has Merry and Pippin join the quest by mere accident just before
Frodo and Sam leave the Shire. A minor point, but illustrative of Tolkien's
observation that his was a tight-knit narrative and excision of one thread
tended to create cascading difficulties later on.
problematic are scenes where motivations have been changed or plot-elements
altered. Some will be annoyed by Glorfindel's being replaced by Arwen,
while others will be delighted that an interesting character who haunts
the book has her on-stage time enhanced.
More will, I suspect, be irked to have Bree and the Prancing Pony transformed
into sinister, rough places where hobbits are woefully out of place. By
and large, though, the scriptwriters have done a good job dealing with
the consequences of their changes. For example, in the book, Merry plots
for seventeen years to help Frodo deal with the Ring when the time comes;
in the movie, their paths cross by pure accident on the edge of the Shire
and Merry and Pippin join Sam and Frodo simply because they are all being
chased (first by Farmer Maggot, and then by the Black Rider). Yet Merry
is still the smart one (anyone who can't tell Merry from Pippin, whether
in the movie or the book, simply isn't paying attention), the one who
at a glance can size up a situation, make plans, grasp consequences, and
act upon them, as when he deliberately risks his life to draw the Uruk-hai
away from Frodo near the end of the film. Thus, an element of characterization
survives into the movie, even though the incidents that demonstrate it
in the book have all vanished.
end, each reader must decide for himself or herself whether the film succeeds
or not and whether the changes were justified. Those who would simply
bash it are faced with the problem that it is a sincere work of great
beauty, upon which its creators lavished years of their lives to make
the best possible movie within their power. Every Tolkien fan's comfort
level with the changes will be different. Some will note the changes and
not be bothered by them, enjoying the movie in its own terms. Some will
be mildly annoyed but feel the overall excellence of the movie more than
makes up for such flaws. Some will find the changes too intrusive and
be unable to enjoy the film because it does not match the ideal film they
have imagined for so long, rejecting it as a tragic lost opportunity.
And a few will be unable to accept anything less than perfection and,
having made up their minds to hate it long before it was ever released,
might as well not bother going to the theater ("Whoever thinks a
faultless Piece to see,/Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall
be" -- Alexander Pope, 1711).
is not Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. This is Peter Jackson's
LotR: a deeply moving film about the pain and suffering quite ordinary
people are willing to undergo for the sake of their friends, family, homes,
and even people they'll never meet -- a lesson that's all too timely.
But Tolkien's LotR is still there, on your bookshelf, as vivid
and enthralling as ever. A film, even a great film, cannot supplant a
great book, and LotR is a great book in the eyes of millions. Pride
and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Wuthering Heights, The Maltese Falcon,
Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, and more have been
made into great films (some of them more than once), yet the original
books have lost none of their impact for being supplemented by a new version
in another medium. Instead, Peter Jackson's film is likely to send millions
back to their bookshelf, to reread the story for themselves and plunge
ahead into the second and third volume (unlike the original readers in
1954-1956, we don't have to wait a year or more to find out how the story
comes out!). Millions more will be encountering Tolkien for the first
time through Jackson's movie, and many of them have been deeply impressed.
It's a fair guess that a goodly number of them will go to their libraries
and bookstores to see for themselves what the original that could inspire
such a movie is like. Even Bakshi's movie, which was terrible, and the
Rankin-Bass Hobbit, which was not much better, created a whole
new generation of Tolkien fans, many of whom grew up to be avid readers
of fantasy fiction, active gamers of D&D and other fantasy
roleplaying games, and authors. I would not be surprised to see another
vast swelling of our numbers in a decade or two to come.
the meantime, I'll be heading back to the theaters again to catch it a
few more times during its initial run. See you there!
exceptions: Frodo's words upon accepting his Quest ("I will take
the Ring -- though I do not know the way.") and Gandalf's words concerning
mercy ("There are many that live who deserve death, and some that
die who deserve life. Can you give it to them? . . . ") are almost
verbatim from Tolkien.
A second possible
glitch is Gandalf's staff. We see it taken from him by Saruman, yet later
after his escape we see him carrying what looks like an identical staff,
though there is no way he could have recovered it during his escape. Presumably
he simply made a new one that looks very like the old, but the viewer
is forced to speculate to come up with some explanation for what looks
like a simple continuity lapse.
More interestingly, the film leaves unexplained how Gandalf's moth-messenger
got word to the eagles that he needed rescuing. Jackson's fellow scriptwriters,
Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, stated in an interview in Scr(i)pt
magazine (Nov/Dec '01 issue) that scenes omitted from the film nevertheless
should be thought of as taking place off-screen. While this cannot be
true of all omitted scenes from the book (for example, the four hobbits
are not carrying the weapons they would have gotten from the barrow),
we might speculate that Gandalf's little messenger reaches his fellow
wizard Radagast, and that the eagle's arrival represents the off-stage
Radagast's intervention in Gandalf's side in the quarrel between his two
It seems likely
that Arwen's role will be even more enhanced in the later films, since
in one major divergence from Tolkien's plot Aragorn does not take
the reforged Sword of Elendil with him when the Fellowship sets out from
Rivendell, although a scene is inserted showing the shards and his reverence
towards them. Since Glorfindel has already been omitted, it seems probable
that Arwen's brothers, the twins Elrohir and Elladan, will also be replaced
by Arwen herself accompanying the Rangers of the North when they ride
south to join Aragorn in war, and that she will come bearing not just
a banner but the sword itself. Time, of course, will tell.
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