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.