The Lord of the Rings: film versus book
Commentators have compared Peter Jackson's 2001–2003 The Lord of the Rings film trilogy with the book on which it was based, J. R. R. Tolkien's 1954–1955 The Lord of the Rings, remarking that while both have been extremely successful commercially, they differ in many respects.
Critics have admired Jackson's ability to film the long and complex work at all; the beauty of the cinematography, sets, and costumes; and the epic scale of his version of Tolkien's story. They have however found the characters and the story greatly weakened by Jackson's emphasis on action and violence at the expense of psychological depth; the loss of Tolkien's emphasis on free will and individual responsibility; and the replacement of Frodo's inner journey by an American monomyth with Aragorn as the hero.
As for whether the film trilogy is faithful to the novel, opinions range from feeling that a film adaptation is not even worth attempting, or that Jackson's interpretation is unacceptable, to granting that the film version is inevitably different. From that standpoint, several critics have described the films as a partial success, giving some of the feeling and capturing some of the key themes of the novel. Yvette Kisor considers that Jackson was unfaithful to many of Tolkien's details, but succeeded in achieving something of the same impact and feelings of providence, eucatastrophe, and interconnectedness. Dimitra Fimi suggests that Jackson was continuing Tolkien's tradition of adapting folklore, incorporating both the fans' views on that folklore and cinematic traditions such as the zombie in the film trilogy to produce "its own vibrant and influential [modern] folklore."
Tolkien's fantasy novelEdit
J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes in 1954–1955, and has sold over 150 million copies. It has been translated into at least 58 languages. It takes up, according to the edition, around 1000 pages of text. Read out loud in the unabridged audiobook voiced by Rob Inglis, it has a running time of nearly 60 hours.
Tolkien was involved in a proposal to make an animated film adaptation by Morton Grady Zimmerman. He was not opposed to the idea: in 1957 he wrote that an abridgement "with some good picture-work would be pleasant". He felt that selective omission would be better than compression as in the script he was shown, with "resultant over-crowding and confusion, blurring of climaxes, and general degradation".
Peter Jackson's film trilogyEdit
Peter Jackson's film series was released as three films between 2001 and 2003. The budget was $281 million, and together the three films grossed over $2.9 billion worldwide. The series runs for 9 hours, 18 minutes in the "theatrical" or cinema version, and 11 hours, 26 minutes in the extended version released on DVD. Although long for a film trilogy, this was short compared to Tolkien's work, presenting the films' makers with a major challenge of abridgement, compression, and transformation.
Filmgoers and non-academic reviewers rated the films as almost perfect, The Two Towers actually scoring "a rare 100%" on Rotten Tomatoes, and gaining many Oscars and other film awards. The film scholar Kristin Thompson, reviewing an early book on Tolkien on Film, wrote that "[literary] scholars seem particularly irked by the films' enormous popularity, not just among fans but also among reviewers", noting that the films have brought a "vastly enlarged" audience to The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps millions of new readers to the book; and that there are "book-firsters" and "film-firsters" among Tolkien fans, as evidenced (she writes) by the message boards on TheOneRing.net.[a]
Necessity for transformationEdit
Tolkien's version contains a variety of types of writing, especially descriptions of landscape and of characters and their appearance, namely narrative, dialogue, and embedded songs and poems. As Joseph Ricke and Catherine Barnett write, "Tolkien's characters … – like the narrative in which they exist – pause often for reflection, lamentation, poetry, song, moral inventory, refocusing, wrestling with their consciences, and debating their commitment to the mission before them." Furthermore, the main text is supplemented by a prologue on the nature of Hobbits and the social and political organisation of their home, the Shire, and by six appendices describing the history of Middle-earth's kings, its chronology over more than 6,000 years of the Second and Third Ages, family trees, calendars, and guides to pronunciation and the Elvish scripts, and to the languages of Middle-earth.
Film has different capabilities from prose fiction. The film version translates descriptions of landscape into actual landscapes, whether those of New Zealand or computer-generated imagery; something of the feeling aroused by the descriptions is conveyed by the choice of landscape and the photography, from woodland scenes in the Shire to wide panoramas of majestic mountains. Subtle effects such as Tolkien's indirect suggestion of the power of the Ring are difficult to replicate. Dialogue is sometimes taken unchanged from the book, but much is cut.
The film version differs in content from the written version in several ways, including cutting some scenes, adding scenes, adjusting scenes to cope with other changes, such as moving some action to different locations, and adding some minor characters. The differences of content created by compression and transformation of Tolkien's story inevitably result in differences of style.
The early chapters "A Conspiracy Unmasked", "The Old Forest", "In the House of Tom Bombadil", and "Fog on the Barrow-Downs" are essentially omitted completely, though brief mentions of these are made later. The penultimate chapter "The Scouring of the Shire" is omitted, though its scene of the death of Saruman is retained in the extended version.
Some scenes are new to the films; a major addition is the attack on Aragorn by cavalry Orcs riding wolflike Wargs, leaving him wounded and unconscious. The entire episode is a digression from the main story; Tom Shippey suggests it was inserted to provide more of a role for the beautiful but distant Elf-woman Arwen, who helps to bring Aragorn back to life.
An addition that critics felt worked well was the incorporation of an appendix, "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen", as a secondary plot line on the "bittersweet love affair" between a man and an immortal Elf.
Transformations of structureEdit
A major change was Jackson's use of some of the "history" (events long before the main action of The Lord of the Rings) in a dramatic film prologue. It begins with Sauron's forging of the Ring in the Second Age, his overthrow by an alliance of Elves and Men, and the taking of the Ring by Isildur, a distant ancestor of Aragorn. This resolves a major problem for the film-maker in the narrative, namely that Tolkien tells much of the history through "talking heads", reflecting long after the events on what they meant, violating the basic "show, don't tell" principle of film.
Other scenes have necessarily been adjusted to handle the effects of cuts and other changes. The death of Saruman is moved to Isengard and to an earlier time, as the end-of-book action on returning to the Shire is omitted. Since the Hobbits failed to visit the Barrow-downs and so didn't pick up ancient blades from the Barrow-wight's hoard, they get their swords from Aragorn on Weathertop: he just happened to be carrying four Hobbit-sized swords with him, all the more surprising as he had only been expecting to meet Frodo and Sam.
Yet another structural change was Jackson's decision to abandon Tolkien's interlacing structure (entrelacement) and replace it with a story told in chronological order, with intercutting between characters in different places at the same time. This may make the narrative easier to follow, but it allows the audience to know more than the characters do, undercutting the feeling that choices must be made based on personal courage in the face of incomplete knowledge.
Transformations of charactersEdit
Scholars such as Janet Brennan Croft state that many of Jackson's characters are "demonstrably different" from Tolkien's: she lists Arwen, Faramir, Denethor, Théoden, Treebeard, Gimli, and "even Frodo, Sam, and Gollum". But the character she picks out as radically transformed is the hero Aragorn. She suggests that the changes reflect Joseph Campbell's "heroic 'monomyth'" in which the hero ventures into a supernatural realm, fights strange forces, wins, and returns with enhanced power. The American variant is that the hero begins as a lone outsider, seeks justice for the community, is morally pure, and returns accepted by the community. Croft writes that Tolkien's quest fits Campbell's model quite closely, but that it is Frodo who sets out as the fairytale hero, the ordinary person who as Verlyn Flieger writes "stumbles into heroic adventure and does the best he can"; Tolkien then switches about Frodo's and Aragorn's roles as hero. Jackson puts the Shire under violent threat from the start. Tolkien has Aragorn always aiming for marriage with Arwen; Jackson, in keeping with the chastity required in the American monomyth, has Aragorn avoid both Arwen and Éowyn, who carries a torch for him.
Victoria Gaydosik notes that the screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens joke about "crimes against the book" on the extended edition DVD, and investigates the transformation of Arwen in the films. In the film of The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen takes on elements of the "warrior princess" role not found in the book. This prompted debate on fan sites about how she might feature in The Two Towers; a photograph showed Arwen "in full armor wielding her father's sword at Helm's Deep", but what Boyens jokingly called a "slight departure" from Tolkien did not appear in the film of The Two Towers, where Arwen returns to being "passively feminine"; in the book she does not appear at all, only her hand-woven banner for Aragorn being mentioned. Walsh confirmed that the conception of Arwen in the script changed radically before the release of The Two Towers.
Specialists of different kinds, including film critics, literary critics, weapons experts and Tolkien scholars have commented on Jackson's films with opinions varying from highly critical to enthusiastic.
Not worth attemptingEdit
The scholar of English literature Verlyn Flieger granted that Jackson's films had been commercially successful, that it is sometimes possible to transform literature into "visual dramatic form", and that film could sometimes "get maximum impact from images without words", giving the examples of Jackson's Middle-earth landscapes "translated from New Zealand", and "Boromir's magisterial funeral journey down the river [Anduin]", which she found "effective and moving". However, she felt that the "pictographic opportunities" of film, especially when enhanced with computer-generated imagery, could tempt film-makers to do things just because they could; and the result was to give viewers finished images rather than allowing them freedom of imagination. Flieger suggested that some images simply could not be rendered on screen, like Gimli the "dour and rugged" Dwarf "capering" – like a playful kid – on receiving lady Galadriel's message. The effect, she states, would be ludicrous, and instead Jackson played Gimli wholly for laughs, flattening his character to a simple stereotype, like the "caricature" dwarfs in Disney's Snow White, which she notes Tolkien loathed. In her view, a larger instance of the same, insuperable problem is Tom Bombadil, who charges about, talks in a musical rhythm, and says things like "Don't you crush my lilies" which would sound "camp or comic or both". She noted that Jackson dropped the entire Bombadil sequence of three chapters, as not advancing the story. To this Flieger replied that Bombadil is important not for plot but for theme, namely to show the limitations of the Ring. It has no effect on him, as he is in Tolkien's words "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford[shire] and Berkshire countryside", not a human. Unlike the Dark Lord Sauron, he does not dominate the land about him, but is its Master, with no agenda; he can't be depicted in film. Flieger's final example is the Ring, which Tolkien barely describes, focusing instead on its surroundings, the effects it has on people. The reader's imagination fills in the rest. In her view, film can never do that.
Some close to Tolkien's text have found the films' differences from the written work unacceptable. Christopher Tolkien, editor of his father's Middle-earth manuscripts, stated that "The Lord of the Rings is peculiarly unsuitable to transformation into visual dramatic form", and that the films had "eviscerated" the book. Wayne G. Hammond, a Tolkien scholar, said that he found the first two films to be "travesties as adaptations … faithful only on a basic level of plot" and that many characters had not been depicted faithfully.
In Croft's view, the film versions of Aragorn and Frodo are "strangely diminished"; she notes that Carl Hostetter described Aragorn as less noble, more full of angst, and Frodo more of a wimp. Using the critic Northrop Frye's literary modes, Croft describes Tolkien's Aragorn as "the typical hero of romance, who is 'superior in degree to other men and his environment'", whereas Frodo is a hero of the high mimetic mode, superior to other men but not to his environment. She concludes that Jackson's screenplay aims at "Hollywood's lowest common denominator … the pathos of the low-mimetic mode and the irresistible power of the American … monomyth", allowing the audience to identify with the "lone redeemer, riding into town, … saving the day, and galloping off into the sunset", whereas Tolkien challenges his readers to "emulate timeless characters of a higher mode than ourselves".
The Tolkien scholar David Bratman discusses various scholarly and critical defences of the films, and writes refutations of all of them, concluding that Jackson has "taken out just about everything that makes The Lord of the Rings a strikingly unique work, one which we love, and reduced it to a generic sword-and-sorcery adventure story … Condensation is not the issue: the evisceration of Tolkien's spirit is the issue." He writes that he did enjoy "those few moments which come straight from the book", such as Frodo and Gandalf's discussing the moral issue around Gollum, which he calls "scenes from a different movie, the one I wish Jackson had made".
Others associated with the films insist that differences are inevitable. One of the scriptwriters, Philippa Boyens, stated that the trilogy was simply their interpretation of the written work. Jackson asserted that it would not be possible to film a straight retelling of the story on screen, and said of his version "Sure, it's not really The Lord of the Rings … but it could still be a pretty damn cool movie."
A partial successEdit
Others again took a balanced view. Douglas Kellner argued that the conservative community spirit of Tolkien's Shire is reflected in Jackson's films as well as the division of the Fellowship into "squabbling races".
Daniel Timmons, in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, commented that a deft touch was needed to balance artistic integrity with Hollywood's demands, and that Jackson had "often failed" to achieve that balance. Compression made the action exciting, and in his view the shortening of the long talk between the Wizard Gandalf and the protagonist Frodo in "The Shadow of the Past" successfully preserved "the aura of the source text". On the other hand, Timmons felt that in scenes like Frodo's meeting with Strider, the stay in Lothlórien, the fall of Saruman, the tense meeting of Gandalf and Denethor, and many others, the hasty coverage seriously weakened the story. He found the "cinematography, art direction, sets, props, and costumes" spectacular, calling this "probably Jackson's finest achievement". He admired the motion-capture that brilliantly animated Gollum, and the special effects that made Gandalf's battle with the Balrog in the caverns of Moria so effective. Against that, the "orgy of Orc killing" at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring made the film in his view quite implausible; Jackson continually "minimizes mood development and dialogue, and offers seemingly nonstop flights and fights"; and "the significance of Frodo's inner journey becomes submerged in frenetic action". All the same, Tolkien's core story, that the Ring insidiously tempted everyone to evil, was effectively told, through the Ring's "subtle and seductive voice".
The scholar of humanities Brian Rosebury called Jackson's film trilogy a "qualified success" (based on the first two films). He especially admired the film's realisation of Middle-earth, writing "The attentiveness to the original text's descriptions of locales is often quite remarkable: The West Wall of Moria, the Argonath and the lake of Nen Hithoel, Helm's Deep, Minas Tirith, all provide the Tolkien reader with a satisfying shock of recognition". However, he mourned the loss of "some of the book's greatest virtues" including English understatement, emotional tact, and spaciousness. He regretted the absence of the book's emphasis on free will and individual responsibility. He was sorry, too, about the film version's choice of physical conflict over rhetorical power, "dignity of presence[,] or force of intellect".
The Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey noted that Jackson was under much greater pressure than Tolkien, who was risking nothing more than his spare time. In his view, Jackson was obliged to address different audiences, including teenagers who expected Arwen to have some of the characteristics of a "warrior princess", and who delighted in jokes about Dwarf-tossing, something that he notes Tolkien would not have understood. In Shippey's opinion, more problematic are Jackson's tendencies for "democratisation" and "emotionalisation". Where Tolkien has a clear hierarchy, Jackson is happy to enlarge the parts of humble characters like Sam, who converts Faramir to supporting the quest, or Pippin, who (unlike in Tolkien's version) persuades Treebeard to attack Isengard. Where Tolkien's Denethor is a cold ruler doing his best for his country, Jackson's is made to look greedy and self-indulgent; Shippey calls the scene where he gobbles a meal, while his son Faramir has been sent out in a hopeless fight, a "blatant [use] of cinematic suggestion".
Timmons recorded that the film critics of major newspapers both pointed out the trilogy's weaknesses, as when Roger Ebert said of Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring that it was "more of a sword and sorcery epic than a realization of the more naive and guileless vision of J.R.R. Tolkien", and noted that the critics gave Jackson "high praise".
Robin Anne Reid analyses the grammar used by Tolkien, which she states often dwells on the environment, with devices such as placing the characters into subordinate clauses, and the equivalent visual grammar used by Jackson. She concludes that the cinematography successfully mirrors the text, except in Ithilien (which Frodo and Sam pass through as they approach Mordor); in that place Reid finds the film "perfunctory in its construction of Ithilien compared to earlier scenes". Against that, she considers that the lighting of the beacons to summmon the riders of Rohan to Gondor, a lengthy scene at 98 seconds, "exceeds the impact of the novel because of the cinematic narrator's ability to move away from a single character's point of view to dramatize the event".
Bratman was reported by The New York Times as stating "I felt as if I were seeing two films at once. One in the visuals, which was faithful and true to Tolkien, and another in the script and in the general tone and style, which was so unfaithful as to be a travesty."
Unfaithful but successfulEdit
Yvette Kisor wrote that Jackson was unfaithful to Tolkien's narrative technique (such as interlacing), character development and motivation, and specific events, but strove continually to be faithful "to the totality of Tolkien's epic – its impact, its look and feel, and, perhaps, some of its themes". In her view, he allowed himself "unusually free reshuffling" of scenes to simplify the chronology, but managed to build the Tolkienesque themes of "providence, eucatastrophe [sudden happy reversal], interconnectedness" through skilful intercutting and use of music. She gives as example Éowyn's battle with the Witch-king, intercut with Aragorn's unlooked-for arrival with an army in the captured ships of the Corsairs of Umbar. The scene looks like her defeat, and indeed the defeat of the army of the West, along with the Witch-king's triumphant prophecy "You fool – no man can kill me" and a break in the music, suddenly reversed as the music restarts with her revelation of herself as a woman, and her killing him. The method of narration is not Tolkien's, but the effect is similarly eucatastrophic.
The writer Diana Paxson, describing herself as a lover of the book version, said she found watching the films a "fascinating, if sometimes mixed, experience". Seeing the films "refreshed" her re-readings of the book; she felt that the films showed "in rich detail" things "all too briefly described" by Tolkien, though the text provided dialogue and explanation skipped over by the films. She writes that "a surprising number" of lines of dialogue survive in the films, though often transposed, continuing a process begun by Tolkien, who as his son Christopher notes, often moved conversations into fresh contexts, voiced by different speakers. She concludes that it is possible for multiple versions all to be valid, and that it is "a story that can survive being retold".
A developing folkloreEdit
The scholar of literature Dimitra Fimi noted that Tolkien made use of medieval myth, legend, and fairytale, including Norse mythology, Arthurian legend, and the Finnish Kalevala. In turn, his Middle-earth has, she states, become a source of folklore, influencing both fantasy authors and the role-playing game industry, and in so doing redefining or creating races such as Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, and Halflings. Jackson was thus taking on an adaptation not only of Tolkien's writing but was what Weta Workshop's creative supervisor, Richard Taylor, called "an opportunity to bring a piece of modern English folklore to the screen".
Among the strands of such modern folklore, in Fimi's view, are the Balrog, the Elves, and the Dead Men who follow Aragorn.
- Tolkien leaves unclear whether the Balrog had wings; it appears as a being of monstrous size, wreathed in flame and shadow. Jackson consulted with fans and decided to give it satanic bat-wings; this has become its definitive form in fantasy artwork and games.
- Tolkien's Elves are rooted as firmly as possible, Fimi writes, in Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and Norse tradition, but influenced also by Celtic fairies in the Tuatha Dé Danann. Jackson's Elves are however "Celtic" in the romanticised sense of the Celtic Revival. She compares Jackson's representation of Gildor's party of Elves riding through the Shire "moving slowly and gracefully towards the West, accompanied by ethereal music" with John Duncan's 1911 painting The Riders of the Sidhe. She notes that Jackson's conceptual designer, the illustrator Alan Lee, had made use of the painting in the 1978 book Faeries.
- Tolkien does not attempt to describe the Dead, noting only the reactions of dread they inspire in Aragorn's men and the Dwarf Gimli; the underground scene of the "Paths of the Dead" is dark and chilling. In a "complete departure" from the book, Jackson's Dead are "visible in a misty greenish light, partly skeletons, partly ghosts and partly rotten-fleshed zombies". Taylor's design team at Weta Workshop indeed repeatedly mentioned "zombies"; Fimi commented that the more embodied form for the Dead Men probably prevailed because they had to fight a battle (for the Corsair's ships); she noted that Jackson's first successes as a director were horror films. Jackson and Taylor were thus, in her view, continuing a tradition of cinematic folklore.
Fimi concluded that Jackson adapted a novel "rooted in [medieval] folklore" and in his film trilogy produced "its own vibrant and influential [modern] folklore."
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