On Distinctions between Books and Movies

The Journey to the Cross-Roads

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Peter Jackson’s adaptation (Source)

Given the past one hundred posts, it may come as no surprise to an attentive reader that I have a passion proclivity for praising The Lord of the Rings. As part of this particular persuasion, I have been frequently asked to render judgment on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s trilogy (sidebar: let’s just forget The Hobbit movies exist for the sake of my sanity) as well as compare the films to the books. It is a sad state of affairs that there are some (especially among the younger generations) who have never actually taken up the written words of Middle-earth themselves, instead relying on the moving image and sound for their War of the Ring experience. It is a further sad matter that there are others (especially among older generations) that condemn the movies outright for their modifications and interpretations, instead choosing to splice together their own editions of “uncorrupted film” or awaiting the day with Christopher Tolkien comes down from the mountain with the “true” digital adaptation of his father’s work. As with many matters, reality rests somewhere in the middle of things.

Any sort of adaptation of a work that changes its medium of presentation requires alterations. Strengths and weaknesses vary between different forms of art and culture, and a true adaptation requires appreciation for the distinctions, opportunities, and challenges that arise. Military conflict and warfare generally has much greater potency and vigour on a screen than on the page, and therefore Jackson’s expanding the the battles of Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith, and the Black Gate augment the original imagery of the novels. Digital transformation, as with language translation, requires a balance between the nuances of the new form and the intentions of the old. Sometimes, even more extensive changes can add value to the story, particularly when such modification don’t undermine the original themes and currents of the tale. In the limited scope of the movie universe, replacing Glorfindel with Arwen in order to cultivate a more extensive female role has merit, as Glorfindel has little further impact in the tale. Combining the characters of Éomer and Erkenbrand into one does not lessen the role of the captains of Rohan; excising the Prince of Dol Amroth from the film does not lessen Gondor’s merits.

There are, however, more troubling changes in Jackson’s films, decisions that cause consternation or raise inquirious eyebrows. Though the books are incredibly long – perhaps far too long for any digital adaptation – nevertheless the removal of certain scenes hinders Tolkien’s motifs. That Frodo does not come to Crickhollow in the film is of little importance; that Frodo does not come to Tom Bombadil in the film is a more serious matter. Tolkien’s emphasis on the sacrifices needed to preserve good is not nearly as poignant without the Scouring of the Shire.

And then there are the changes to characters, often done to allow opportunities for “growth” and “change” throughout the unfolding of the films. In the movies, Aragorn is far less confident in his claims on the kingship, while Gandalf is far less commanding in his leadership. The most drastic transformation, however, has to be that of Faramir: the noble, wise, and reflective gentleman of Ithilien becomes a troubled, anxious, and quick-thinking soldier with a serious case of younger brother syndrome. Yes, such a modification adds tension and uncertainty to the second half of the film version of The Two Towers. Yes, Faramir now has a moment of “revelation” and “understanding” with Frodo. But in now departing from Faramir and his men in the book, it is easy to see what the films lost in such a change: deep-penetrating insight, a complex interweaving of sadness and resolve, a sense of honor and discernment that provides some of the most moving and memorable lines from the tale.

Are Peter Jackson’s versions of The Lord of the Rings perfect? Certainly not, and with particular decisions of character and scene, I am of the opinion that he errored. Are the films then unwatchable? Quite to the contrary: they are moving and inspiring displays of filmmaking skill and passion, and are perhaps one of the best adaptations from book to movie ever done. No adaptation of any creative work can be perfect, just as no creative work itself is flawless (yes, even including The Lord of the Rings). With a mind both of critique and of appreciation should we approach The Lord of the Rings films. What they lack in song and poetry, they gain in score and scale. In their own way, complementary and distinctly, they are quite beautiful.


2015’s Reflection: “On Letters and the Truth in Stories

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