Well, I did it. I finally read all of The Lord of the Rings in one go, cover-to-cover. I’ve been a fan of the series for actually most of my life, and though I’d read scattered bits and pieces that amounted to a majority of the book, I’d never just read the whole thing from beginning to end. For one who is such a huge nerd about the movies and who even went so far as to name this column in reference to the series, the fact that I’d previously failed to read these books is shameful.
Now that that’s taken care of, though, I can happily critique them. They are, by all—or at least most—accounts, great books. As I was reading them, though, I realized just how mad and ill advised it was of Peter Jackson to adapt them. It remains, however, that his adaptation is my favorite movie (I count them as one), and I think it probably stands as the best adaptation ever, perfectly demonstrating what it means to adapt a book. Film and literature are two very different mediums, so any transcription between the two demands several serious changes. Jackson pretty much made all of the best possible changes to guarantee a strong film, whilst preserving the heart and soul of Tolkien’s original text. So, without further ado…
The 10 Best Changes Peter Jackson Made to The Lord of the Rings
Warning! Spoilers Below!
Question: Other than the bits with the ents, what are the most skippable parts of the films? Answer: the bits with Arwen. She’s not as well developed as the other female characters and spends the whole time moping about and detracting from the momentum of the narrative. Surprisingly, though, I’m now really happy that Jackson chose to include her and flesh out her character so much. She has a huge impact on all the decisions that Aragorn makes, being the love of his life. Furthermore, Aragorn has kind of a complicated love triangle with Eowyn. Eowyn is a much better character than Arwen, but Aragorn has already made a commitment. This adds to some of his development. Now, this scenario plays out in both book and film, but here’s the big difference: Arwen doesn’t talk at all until after the Ring is destroyed in The Return of the King. We have no concept of her aside from the fact that she’s pretty, and so the fact that Aragorn picks her over Eowyn doesn’t really make sense.
9. Cutting Extraneous Characters
Prince Imrahil, Fatty Bolger, Glorfindel, Ghan-buri-ghan, Bergil, Beregond, Ioreth, Elfhelm, Gleowine, Elrohir, Elladan, Erestor, Bill Ferney, Gildor, Halbarad, Hurin the Tall. Who are all these people? Well, if you haven’t read the books, you might not know. Of course, you might not know them even if you have read the books, because while these are elaborate and somewhat developed characters, none of them are wholly necessary. Tolkien gets a little carried away with introducing new characters. Every time something needs to happen, he seems to create a new character for that action rather than just using the perfectly capable ones he already has at hand. So, Glorfindel is replaced by Arwen, Prince Imrahil is replaced by Gandalf, Bergil and Beregond are replaced by Pippen, Ioreth by Aragorn, Elrohir, Elladan, Erestor, and Halbarad are all replaced by Elrond (that’s what efficiency looks like), and in part by Legolas and Gimli. The others don’t fill a role important enough to be given to a main character, so they’re just deleted entirely. This actually saves a lot of time, and allows for the better development of more important characters.
8. The Journey to Helm’s Deep
In the book, this is one of those classic instances wherein Tolkien provides a long journey in excruciating detail, and nothing at all happens. Jackson extends the journey quite a lot, but with great purpose and necessity. Several things happen as the refugees of Edoras flee to Helm’s Deep. I will deliver them in the form of a list within a list.
- Character Development Oh! Another list:
- Eowyn: In the books, Eowyn is not a fully developed character until The Return of the King, at which point Tolkien has to act hastily (and not in his typical Entish fashion at all) to develop her, and sacrifices some other characters in the process. Peter Jackson chooses to do this earlier, spreading it out more. Most of her development in The Two Towers takes place between Edoras and Helm’s Deep.
- Aragorn: As Eowyn develops, so does Aragorn. He suddenly becomes aware of her feelings for him and has to consider his relationship with Arwen.
- Theoden: The King of Rohan unloads some of his massive quantities of emotional baggage onto Aragorn, admitting his shame at letting his kingdom fall into disarray and not fulfilling the role of father for his niece, Eowyn.
- Legolas: Jumps onto a horse.
2. The Warg Fight: In the books, this occurs during The Fellowship of the Ring, between Rivendell and Moria. Peter Jackson decides he has enough fights in the first movie, but that wargs are cool, which they totally are, so he tosses them into The Two Towers. Unlike in The Hobbit, though, he uses this fight to further develop characters. We see Theoden as a military leader, and how Legolas and Gimli react to Aragorn’s (supposed) death. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, Legolas jumps onto a horse.
3. Aragorn Sees Isengard’s Army: It’s just a scout in the books, and no one gets to dramatically open doors.
7. The Speeches
The speeches. The Lord of the Rings has so many great speeches. Theoden gives one as he’s suiting up for Helm’s Deep, which is just beautiful; Sam has one at the end of The Two Towers, which might be my favorite movie speech ever; Theoden has another on before the charge of the Rohirrim at Pellenor; Aragorn delivers a famous one at the Black Gate. Lots of speeches, all of them very good. None of these speeches are the same in both book and movie. Most of them are composites of various lines of dialogue. Sam’s speech, for example, is spoken almost in full at scattered points throughout The Two Towers. Jackson just took all of the best lines and put them together into one speech. Aragorn’s at the Black Gate, though, the most famous one from the trilogy, that’s an entirely original speech. PJ totally made that one up. Boom, Oscar.
Remember just a little while ago when I mentioned Theoden’s biblical amounts of emotional baggage? Theoden knows, as Saruman says, that he is “A lesser son of greater kings.” He comes from a long, proud line of bold, brave, and benevolent rulers, but he kinda sucks. There was a time, in his youth, when he was a good leader, but that was before any significant test. When the evil power of Mordor arose, it fell to Theoden to protect his people from this threat, he faltered, and utterly failed, becoming an almost literal puppet for Saruman. When Gandalf releases him from this spell, he must face his failure and the knowledge that he very nearly led his kingdom to ruin. Coupling this with his failings as a parent, his determination to redeem himself, and the knowledge that he now serves amongst better men than he (most notably Aragorn), Theoden thereby becomes one of the most complex and intriguing characters in the trilogy, surpassed perhaps only by Boromir. Of course, Peter Jackson made most of that up, or rather really read into the subtext of Tolkien’s books, wherein Theoden is old, polite, ready to die, but mostly just there so that Eomer can learn some things.
Here’s another character who was straightforward in the novel, but became a little more complex in the hands of Peter Jackson. His whole arc hinges on whether or not he will live up to his birthright and claim the previously vacant throne of Gondor. There’s this whole thing about a magic sword and how he’s perfectly happy living alone in the woods, etc. In the movies, he wrestles with his destiny, constantly doubting himself on the grounds that, you know, the last king of Gondor was almost aggressively incompetent. It takes the blessing of his father-in-law-to-be, the allegiance of armies (dead and alive), and the deaths of his friends for him to finally decide what he has to do. In the books, though, he’s made up his mind even before he meets the hobbits. As such, he doesn’t have a noticeable character arc or anything resembling inner turmoil. Tolkien was writing Aragorn as a flawless, Beowulf-type epic hero, which is all well and good, but totally wouldn’t have worked with modern film-going audiences. Self-confidence isn’t really an issue in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
4. Tom Bombadil
I hate Tom Bombadil. I hate hate hate hate hate Tom Bombadil. F*ck that guy.
3. Boromir’s Death
Spoiler City! Sorry, I probably shouldn’t have told you that Sean Bean’s character dies in this movie. Whoops.
This is arguably one of the best scenes in the trilogy. Seriously, the last twenty minutes of The Fellowship of the Ring is pure cinematic gold. It is packed to the brim with lines that could have been corny and melodramatic if the actors and director hadn’t done such an incredible job with it all. This happens similarly in the book, insofar as there is a fight at Amon Hen (though it happens entirely off screen), Frodo does leave the fellowship, Merry and Pippen do get abducted, and Boromir does die. In the book, Boromir must die defending hobbits to redeem himself, since he’s just tried taking the Ring from Frodo. Aragorn catches up with him too late, Boromir tells him that the hobbits were captured, and then dies. It takes a third of a page. Here’s what happened in the movies:
That is the moment when Aragorn decides he must take up the kingship. And when he says, “I swear to you, I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.” You see Boromir’s reaction? That’s because it is the first time Aragorn has ever referred to the men of Gondor as “our people,” or accepted any but the most tangential connection to them. Not only that, but Boromir’s heart-rending “My brother, my captain, my king” is the first time he has acknowledged Aragorn’s claim to the throne. This is a HUGE moment. It’s not in the books. It just kind of sucks that Boromir died because he was likeable and really strong and could lift things.
2. The Scouring of the Shire
The Lord of the Rings is sixty-two chapters long. Now, it is perhaps possible that not all sixty-two of these chapters are wholly necessary to the development and advancement of the narrative and characters. Every so often as you’re reading the novel, you may find yourself thinking, “When are the going to leave the damn Shire!?” (That is, incidentally, my favorite quote in the book. Chapter 6, Merry turns to Frodo and says, “There, you have left the Shire.”) One of the least necessary chapters, though, is “The Scouring of the Shire.” It is the second-to-last chapter in The Return of the King, about fifty pages after the Ring is destroyed. The hobbits finally get back home only to discover that the Shire has been conquered by the evil wizard Saruman, and they have to fight yet another battle to get rid of him.
Much of The Lord of the Rings, I think, is based on Tolkien’s personal experiences in the First World War. While it is maybe a little uncommon for soldiers to return home and find an evil wizard in charge of things, it’s not uncommon for them to find their home quite altered, and not for the better. So, I understand why Tolkien included this part, but that doesn’t mean it was necessary. At this point, Frodo and Sam have been through quite enough, Merry stabbed the Witch King, and Pippen killed a troll, so I think they’ve all earned a bit of a break.
1. Narrative Reorganization
Tolkien, bless him, sucks at this. He is quite incapable of cutting back and forth between simultaneously occurring actions. So, the first half of The Two Towers follows Aragorn, and the second half follows Frodo, even though these sections coincide chronologically. It isn’t just in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, though. Take, for example, everything that happens in the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring that doesn’t involve Frodo. Aragorn’s back story, Gandalf’s quest to uncover the truth about the Ring, the treason of Saruman, the prologue and history of the Ring, Elrond’s back story, etc. All this occurs during the Council of Elrond in the form of stories that other people tell. “The Council of Elrond” is one of the longest chapters in the books, totaling thirty pages in my edition. The breakdown is twenty-five pages of people telling stories, and five pages of talking about the Ring, and the Fellowship isn’t even formed. Frodo, Gandalf, Bilbo, Aragorn, Elrond, Boromir, Legolas, and Gloin all tell stories during the council. Rather than having eight flashbacks in one scene, though, Peter Jackson shows these events as they take place. How about that?
It doesn’t kill the book or anything, and it functions enough, but that’s the kind of thing that totally wouldn’t fly in a film. PJ had to do a lot of work to set everything straight and intercut the scenes, and thank goodness he did. Even with the good he did in the other changes and considering how much I really, really hate Tom Bombadil (I have a lengthy rant that I’m just not going to get into here), if you could pick only one change for him to keep, this would be it. It makes for much more coherent story telling.
Sorry this was so long. I tend to go on and on while talking about The Lord of the Rings. Oh, much like Tolkien.