My obsession with Tolkien’s Legendarium has never needed much encouragement, but Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings understandably stoked the fires. My sophomore year in college was a relatively lonely time in my life: a lot of my friends had transferred to different schools, I was living with a difficult roommate, and I was feeling the warning rumbles of a quarter-life crisis that would, in many ways, define the next decade of my life. The opportunity to lose myself in Middle-Earth, especially in such an exciting new way, was a welcome one. I don’t even remember how many times I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater, but it was often alone, and it was often in the middle of the night. Which was by choice: going by myself meant I didn’t have to worry about someone else. I didn’t have to keep up a conversation, wonder whether they were enjoying themselves, or generally interrupt my own rapt ingestion of the film to concern myself with the presence of another human being.
Yeah, I was a pretty self-absorbed guy back then.
I didn’t go in to the movie expecting much. The Lord of the Rings was, after all, the defining literary experience of my life at that point (and at every point afterward). Mostly, I was just hoping it wouldn’t completely suck. I couldn’t stomach the idea that millions of people who hadn’t read the books might be introduced to the story for the first time by way of an adaptation that was insipid, depthless, or just plain bad. It was too important to me, and I felt like I had been defending its artistic validity for too long to have Hollywood screw it up.
Obviously, I was pleasantly surprised. Stunned. Enraptured, even. It was actually good. And not only was it good, it felt like Tolkien. It felt like reading the book. There are so many things, in Fellowship in particular, that Jackson and company just got right. I could list half a dozen moments when I found myself thinking: this is exactly as I imagined it. I won’t, because if you’re reading this I’m sure you had a similar experience. But the quality was there, and the feeling was there, and I was hooked.
Certainly there were things I missed, portions of the book that I knew, academically, couldn’t be included: the deliciously tense, years-long period between the Long-Expected Party and Frodo’s departure from the Shire; Farmer Maggot; Fatty Bolger and the house on the Brandywine; the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-wight; Glorfindel and the torturous flight to the Ford. And that’s just in Book I of Fellowship. I understood, as any realistic fan and especially any realistic aspiring artist had to understand, that sacrifices must be made for the sake of time, clarity, and pacing. Realizing that was the beginning of realizing that it was possible to love both the book and the film, that they were each their own animal, and that I didn’t have to choose between them.
The films became a new way to enjoy my favorite books. I lived to watch and rewatch them, often pointing out the allusions to the larger world of Tolkien’s creation or even little inaccuracies when they popped up. But over all I loved them, and didn’t spend much time focusing on the rare flaws.
But almost fifteen years and innumerable viewings later, I feel like I finally have enough distance to confidently point out a few of the mistakes Jackson made in bringing Tolkien’s magnum opus to life on the screen.
I understand Jackson’s writing team’s argument for the changes made to the character of Faramir, brother of Boromir and prince of Gondor. If you listen to the commentary on the Extended Edition Blu-Ray of The Two Towers, Jackson explains rather cogently that they felt Faramir’s resistance to the Ring’s sway struck something of a discordant note in an overall theme of domination and temptation. Who was this lesser son of Gondor to so easily reject the Ring’s seductions, when figures as powerful as Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted by its power?
In the book, Faramir hesitates only briefly at the Forbidden Pool before sending Frodo, Sam, and Gollum on their way, and the conflict he struggles with is his duty to arrest trespassers on his father’s lands versus the obvious merit of the hobbits’ quest. Common sense prevails, and Frodo’s journey continues.
Jackson and his co-writers, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, felt that this easy resistance to an artifact that brought the world to its knees made no sense in the context of the story, and changed Faramir’s character for dramatic purposes. It worked better, they thought, if Faramir was just as tempted as everyone else, and like the better men in the story was finally able to overcome temptation and do the right thing, than to portray him as immune to the Ring’s power.
But they’re wrong. Faramir stands out as the perfect foil to his brother Boromir, whose lust (however well-intentioned) for the Ring’s power proves his downfall. Unlike Boromir, Faramir is a truly good man: one whose love of others is unsullied by pride. His words to Frodo once Isildur’s Bane is revealed to him are telling:
But fear no more! I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.
Go ahead, name another character whose response to the One Ring essentially amounts to: not if you paid me my weight in platinum, bub. Faramir is the chivalrous ideal: the honest man, wed to duty and love of his people, who defends the weak and tempers his power with justice and restraint. He represents the incorruptible heart of Men, and thus the future of Middle-Earth–the hope for a pure future unburdened by the sins of the past.
You could write a doctoral dissertation on this subject, but suffice it to say that Faramir being incorruptible is important. It crystallizes the evil of Sauron and the One Ring, and the degeneracy the dark powers have engendered throughout the Ages.
2. The Elves aiding Men at Helm’s Deep
Look, I get it. You’ve got all these Elves, right? And they’re apparently all super badass warriors, right? So why would they just peace out of the fight against Sauron and leave the future of Middle-Earth to the scattered, leaderless race of Men? And what about the Dwarves, for that matter? Where were they? Wouldn’t it have been easier if they had formed another great alliance to defeat him once and for all?
There are two primary answers to this. The first is entirely plot-based: quite simply, the Elves had their own battles to fight. Both the Elves and the Dwarves were busy fighting Sauron’s forces in the northern theater of the War of the Ring. From Wikipedia:
Mordor’s war effort was focused in the south against Gondor, but using his outstretched right arm Sauron attempted to flank the lands of the Free Peoples through the north, using Orcs and allied barbarian nations of Men. In this northern theatre of the war (which had spread far across Middle-earth) Sauron’s primary objective was to use the forces at his primary base of operations in the areas, Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood, to defeat Lothlórien, then pass the Misty Mountains (attackingRivendell), and wheel around to take Rohan and Gondor from the rear. However, Dol Guldur had to deal with the threat of the Woodland Realm of Thranduil, and thus split their forces between the attack on Lothlórien and the one on the Woodland Realm. Sauron wanted to use his barbarian Easterling allies in a joint attack with the Orcs from Dol Guldur on the Woodland Realm, and then have this victorious army link up with the other ones attacking Lothlórien and defeat it. However, unfortunately for Sauron a strong Dwarf nation now existed at the Lonely Mountain thanks to the efforts of Gandalf, as well as the Dwarves of the Iron Hills and allied Men of Dale. Mordor’s Easterling allies were tied up fighting the Dwarves of Erebor and Men of Dale, and never linked up with the Mordor forces assaulting the Woodland Realm, which in turn could not link up with those attacking Lothlórien, and the line held.
Bridging the gap between the northern and southern theatres of the war was the line of the River Anduin between Lothlórien and Gondor, running along the Rohan border. Orc armies peeling off from the assault on Lothlórien tried to enter Rohan via this route, while almost its entire army had left to fight at Minas Tirith, but the Ents of Fangorn forest counterattacked and drove the Orcs back in a panic, and most if not all drowned while attempting to flee by crossing the river.
This part of the War isn’t really mentioned in the films, and even in the books it receives only passing mentions. Add to that the fact that the Elves’ numbers were greatly diminished, due to a low birth rate and the fact that most of the High Elves were leaving Middle-Earth for Valinor, and you’re forced to come to the conclusion that neither Lothlorien nor the Woodland Realm was in any position to come to the aid of Gondor or Rohan. Arguably, keeping the fight on their own turf resulted in preventing Sauron’s northern armies from sneaking up on Gondor’s from the north while it was engaged with the main front in the south.
Same for the dwarves: their just weren’t enough of them, and what dwarves there were were busy defending their own kingdoms.
The second reason is more thematic, and concerns the Elves in particular. The reason the Elves are such a sad race is that their golden age is long past, and their immortality means that they don’t even have the release of natural death to comfort them. The result being that most of them, the Eldar in particular, spend most of their time reminiscing about ancient glory and mourning the loss of their great civilizations. The Jackson films hint at this, but it’s never really driven home.
Many of the Elves resent Men: they resent their comparative primitiveness, they resent their fruitfulness, they resent their industry. They resent the fact that, but for the sins of Men, Middle-Earth might not have fallen so far from the heights of its beginnings. They also envy their mortality, even as they look down on their short lifespans. Elves, to put it simply, are done with Middle-Earth; they’re on their way out, by choice. They’re taking to their ships and sailing the Straight Road into the West, never to return, mortals be damned.
The leaders of the Elves lent what assistance they could to the quest to destroy the Ring: Elrond defended the hobbits from the Nazgul, held the Council of Elrond, sheltered the heir to Gondor’s throne in his home, and provisioned and prepared the Fellowship for its journey. Galadriel sheltered the Fellowship in Lothlorien after Gandalf’s fall, and clothed and sheltered Mithrandir himself after he returned. When the fighting was done, Elrond gave up his only daughter to be Aragorn’s queen, knowing it meant her death. As bearers of the Three, both Elrond and Galadriel used their rings’ powers to preserve their territories and aid in the local fight against the Dark Lord. Thranduil sent Legolas to the Council, just as Dain sent Gimli and Gloin. So you can’t say the Elves and the Dwarves did nothing.
But Jackson’s team apparently found their assistance lacking–thus the scenes showing Elrond and Galadriel communicating telepathically, and Haldir’s unexpected appearance (and apocryphal death) at the Hornburg. Again, I get it. Dramatically, if you don’t have the time or the inclination to explain that the Elves had their own battles to fight, then it seems strange that, without apparent reason, the kickass Elven warriors who can apparently all John Woo the hell out of bad guys leave the paltry forces of the Rohirrim to face Saruman’s army of Uruk-Hai all alone.
But this ignores a major theme of the story: this is Men’s fight. The Elves are leaving. They have neither forces nor the requisite interest to justify military aid. The Middle-Earth of the late Third Age is a very different place from the Middle-Earth of the Second Age. Moreover, remember that Elrond and Galadriel’s interest in the affairs of Middle-Earth is not necessarily reflective of their subjects. As members of the White Council and some of the last remaining High Elves in Middle-Earth, they bear something of a personal responsibility toward Sauron’s destruction. Their children and followers felt no such compunction.
By artificially whisking the Elves in to Helm’s Deep, Jackson and company are both denying the hard truth of the Elves’ inability and disinterest in lending more aid than they already had, as well as diminishing the Rohirrim’s own victory against the long odds they faced.
3. Saruman’s Death
Putting aside for the moment the fact that I consider the Extended Editions to be the defining versions of the Peter Jackson trilogy, I was very disappointed to discover that the final confrontation between Saruman and Gandalf was excluded from the Theatrical cut. That scene, in which Gandalf the White, along with Aragorn, Theoden et al., breaks Saruman’s staff and officially strips him of his authority as a wizard, is one of my favorite from the books. I felt it was important not only as a show of the augmented powers of the resurrected Gandalf, but also as form of closure to the struggle against a long-time adversary. Plus it was just badass.
The controversial decision to remove Saruman’s demise from the theatrical release of The Return of the King underscores the disservice Jackson did to the character as a whole. This is my primary objection here: not including the confrontation with Saruman. I get the counter-argument, that it would have felt anticlimactic after ending The Two Towers with the victory at Helm’s Deep, but contrary to Jackson’s explanation in the Extended Edition commentaries, there just wasn’t enough closure with Saruman in the films. Sure, we see him blown back by Gandalf’s power when Theoden is released from his control, but his continued existence and the lack of explanation for his sudden irrelevance is never really explained. The scene shot at Isengard explains this a lot better, and really should have been included in the version of the film that went to the Academy.
That said, it’s not perfect. It changes things substantially from the books. The decision to cut the Scouring of the Shire in its entirety obviously necessitated some kind of change to Saruman’s end, but I just wasn’t satisfied. Seeing Wormtongue stab him in the back after hearing Theoden’s encouragement to return to the light was powerful, and it was well done, but for me it will always stand out as one of the scenes that will simply never live up to the books themselves. Perhaps this is one of those examples of why The Lord of the Rings is unfilmable that Tolkien used to refer to.
When the hobbits return to the Shire at the end of The Return of the King, the discovery that Saruman has taken up residence in Bag End is shocking and compelling. Here is a character who simply won’t die, who seemingly cannot be gotten rid of. It’s an apt metaphor for the persistence of evil. The circumstances surrounding the hobbits’ decision to let Saruman and Wormtongue leave alive, and the latter’s subsequent decision to murder his master in retaliation for his revelations about the death of Lotho Sackville-Baggins are perhaps not as epic in scope as the film’s portrayal of this act, but nonetheless they serve better to explain the sickening, co-dependent relationship between master and servant. The description of Saruman’s death itself is also more powerful in the book: Wormtongue cuts his throat, a mist rises from his body, and the flesh of his face shrivels dramatically. A more fitting end for such a powerful evil than the film’s take on it, which has the wizard fall from the top of Orthanc and be impaled on a spiked wheel.
Of course, as I said above, the problem of how to write Saruman out of the story came as a direct result of not including the Scouring of the Shire, which leads us into the next mistake Jackson made.
4. Not including the Scouring of the Shire
The Scouring of the Shire is one of those portions of the novels which, like the hobbits’ adventures with Tom Bombadil, is so perfectly self-contained that it’s an obvious choice to be cut when deciding what parts of the story to omit. Unlike many of the other scenes that were filmed and later included in the Extended Edition DVD releases, the Jackson and his team knew from the very beginning that they wouldn’t be including this part of the story. The Scouring of the Shire was never written into the script and never filmed.
The argument for its exclusion was, again, that it would have been anticlimactic. Sauron had already been defeated, and the heroes have already celebrated that victory: the Fellowship reunited, Aragorn crowned king. Now the hobbits return home only to have another battle to fight?
Moreover, for a story that has been described by many as having “too many endings,” it seems like it would have been a bad idea. But I’d submit that leaving it out is both unrealistic and anticlimactic in its own right.
From the very beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, the viewer is told that Sauron’s evil cannot be ignored. That if he were to regain the One Ring, he would “cover the world in a second darkness,” an evil reign that would be both merciless and unstoppable. His forces are so powerful that even in the absence of the Ring’s power, the heroes of Middle-Earth are hard-pressed to survive. His treachery and deceit, combined with his pleasure in violence and destruction, threatens to wipe out everything that is beautiful or sacred in the world.
And yet, the viewer is asked, at the conclusion of The Return of the King, to believe that the four hobbits can return to the Shire to find it completely untouched. They literally ride in to Hobbiton to be glared at and ignored, just as they always were, their neighbors blissfully unaware that anything important has happened or that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin had anything whatsoever to do with it.
I see what Jackson was trying to do here (aside from ignoring a problem). He’s trying to show that the incredible changes the hobbits have experienced are only thrown into stark contrast by returning home to an unchanged setting. Home has gotten smaller, and they have grown.
The problem with this is that it’s so unrealistic as to be ridiculous. This one area of Middle-Earth is just completely untouched by war? This pastoral land, peopled by halfling farmers unskilled in war and ripe for the plucking, is ignored by all of the powerful enemies running around at Sauron’s command? No. This doesn’t happen. A war of the magnitude that Tolkien and Jackson describe affects everyone and everywhere in some way. The hobbits returning home to discover their homeland ravaged and under the control of an enemy isn’t anticlimactic, it’s expected. It’s real. It literally strikes home: nothing is safe. Nothing was ever safe. The bubble of ignorance the hobbits grew up in has been popped.
Moreover, one of my favorite parts of the ending of Return of the King involves Tolkien’s description of the changes in the hobbits’ character and demeanor when they return. The come back to the Shire to find their friends, families, and neighbors enslaved, under the control of a villain who turns out to be Saruman in disguise. None of the other hobbits, being the innocent children the were, were in any position to do anything about it. But Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin’s experience as part of the Fellowship of the Ring has changed them. They are greater men for it: more powerful, more confident, and bear the aura of command. They have seen the real world, and experienced dangers their compatriots couldn’t even imagine. One more battle against a comparatively human enemy is no longer intimidating to them. Tolkien does a great job of describing their competence in dealing with this situation and taking charge, and in so doing he shows quickly and expertly just how different everything is. Nothing will ever be the same for the hobbits, but not all change is an evil. The Shire is now home to a set of leaders esteemed the world over.
What’s anticlimactic is four war heroes, at least one of which is dealing with scars that will “never fully heal,” sitting down at the same old local pub and raising a pint like nothing’s changed.
Part of the reason the ending of The Return of the King seemed so long to people was because it was so one-note: there was no conflict anymore, no danger. By putting the Scouring of the Shire between the end of the war proper against Sauron and the final ending of the Ringbearers’ departure into the West, as Tolkien did, Jackson could have added some dynamism to the film’s ending and kept people more engaged. In showing the hobbits dealing with a threat entirely on their own, as a team, the viewer would also have gotten a foreshadowing of Middle-Earth’s future. The most powerful beings have left; the mortals are on their own now. But they still have leaders, and are not unprepared.
The obvious problem with including all of this would be time: The Return of the King was three hours long in its theatrical cut. This would have added a good half-hour to the movie, and that’s if you did it concisely. But it would have been worth it, and there are parts of the film that I would have cut long before I cut the Scouring. A lot of the scenes shot with the Army of the Dead could have been cut or shortened. The changes made to Faramir’s character, noted above, also resulted in a lot of time added to The Two Towers, time which could have been used to include scenes like the confrontation with Saruman in the second film (where it belongs). And as beautifully shot as they were, Pippin’s song and Faramir’s offensive at Osgiliath took up a fair amount of screen time that might have been better used elsewhere.
The ridiculous, CGI-heavy pick-up shots of Legolas and Gimli quipping at each other and killing oliphaunts were always cringe-inducing: imagine using that time to make the dramatic story more coherent and finished?
The beacons of Gondor, too: again, beautiful scene, beautifully shot, but a lot of screen time just to make one simple point.
Granted, I’m Monday-morning quarterbacking here. I realize that. But I think it’s a worthy discussion to have, if only to highlight the different choices diehard fans of the books might have made as compared to the choices Peter Jackson did make as a filmmaker.
These are the greatest sins that come to mind as I sit here considering this topic. This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list; there are many other changes, mistakes, flaws, and imperfections in the movies that we could spend hours discussing. Nor do I mean to imply that every change made by Peter Jackson was a bad one. There were some that were necessary, and some that actually improved the flow of the story a bit, at least for the purposes of the silver screen. What are your thoughts? What did I forget? What aren’t I considering?