The Lord of the Rings
A film by Peter Jackson
Part I: The Fellowship of the Ring
A review by John D. Rateliff

"Tolkien wrote the book he wanted to read
-- we got to make the movies we wanted to see."

-- Peter Jackson, December 2001

The long 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 deserves.

When 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.

(iii) Tolkien's Book, Jackson's Movie

So, with 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.

To start 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 customers.

Even 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?

Jackson's 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[9], but the substitutions work for the most part because in context of the movie the new lines are moving in themselves:

(Any viewer could easily add his or her own favorites to this sampling).

The greatest 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).

The trick, 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.[10]

More 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.[11] 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.

In the 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).

This 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.

But in 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!

-- John D. Rateliff


[9] Two notable 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.

[10] 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 fellow wizards.

[11] 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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