In Defense of Peter Jackson’s LotR
If there is one discussion topic to which I most often return, it is the endless debate concerning the Lord of the Rings movies. Are they good movies, from the perspective of fans of Tolkien’s original work? When I respond in the affirmative, I invariably receive the question (often accompanied by a look of shock or horror), “But what about the changes to ____________?!?”
Fill in the blank. Lots of people have lots of problems with Peter Jackson’s recent film trilogy. With The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers already two of the most popular movies of all time, and The Return of the King on the way and promised by the cast and Jackson himself to be the best of the bunch, true devotees of the novels worry that Tolkien’s glorious and classic fantasy work has been butchered, seasoned with cheap spices, and served on a silver platter to the hoi polloi. Is this the case? Have the movies cheapened, or even ruined, a priceless work of literature?
What about Tom Bombadil, ask the fans? Where is Glorfindel, and what’s with warrior-Arwen? The Duel of the Wizards (or “Willow” Revisited)? How about the cave troll sequence and the collapsing staircase? Inverted-image Galadriel? Indecisive Ents and manipulative hobbits? What’s this, some random Attack of the Wargs episode? Whose bright idea was it to have Elves at Helm’s Deep? And, of course, what in the WORLD is up with Faramir?!?! Not to mention Frodo, Merry, Aragorn, Arwen, Saruman, Théoden, Gimli, Haldir, Treebeard, and the many other characters who, according to some, have been completely destroyed by the shoddy moviemaking of Jackson and Co.
There is no way I can answer all of these objections in this essay; in any case, some of them are, in my opinion, perfectly valid complaints. I am not a mindless fan of the movies, and I am the first to admit that they have problems; for example, a certain tendency to overemphasize and elaborate upon action sequences in Fellowship of the Ring, which was completely unnecessary to an already intense story, not to mention aesthetically unpleasing and bordering upon downright corny. My purpose here is to defend the movies — especially The Two Towers, as I have heard more complaints about it than about Fellowship of the Ring — from several of the most common criticisms leveled against them, and to defend them as worthwhile representations of Tolkien’s work.
Firstly, I must briefly address differences in imagination. I have many times heard the movies criticized as being different from readers’ mental images. The characters, the places, the monsters, all are accused of being “wrong” because they are not identical to the readers’ imagination. This may seem obvious, but I must say it before I move on: readers’ mental images are bound and indeed welcome to differ from each other and from the movie, but we must certainly not blame Peter Jackson, Alan Lee, John Howe, or any of the other designers if their imaginations differ from our own.
Anyhow. The Fellowship of the Ring is the longest of the three volumes of Tolkien’s trilogy, and the movie’s makers condensed it in many instances. The most notable change is the removable of Tom Bombadil. However, I find this large cut perfectly understandable. As Tom Shippey puts it, “For the first nine chapters at least the action of The Lord of the Rings does not move very far.” The reason for this is an accepted fact: “that Tolkien was initially groping for a story” (Author of the Century, pgs. 64, 66). Tolkien had a hard time coming up with a plot, and in the meantime wrote a sequence of charming and interesting, and even intense, events, but events which had almost nothing to do with the eventual plot of the trilogy. Therefore, the removal of Tom Bombadil from the movie, while he certainly has his own appeal, is a logical and, in my opinion, well-advised step. The movie would probably have dragged had he been included.
The adjustment of Arwen’s role in the trilogy has brought much criticism upon the movies. However, after much thought, I find this change not nearly as problematic as it at first appears. I can’t get around the stupidity of her first line. After that, though, she gets better. Firstly, she is not a warrior princess as many critics claim. Her originally conceived role as fighter at Helm’s Deep was blessedly abandoned. She carries a sword, but she does not use it. And it is perfectly conceivable that she should carry a sword for her own protection, and know how to use it too, considering the power of Elven women in general to hold their own (consider Galadriel or Lúthien, for example). In any case, there is nothing in the books that gives us to understand that Elven maidens never held swords in self-defense.
Secondly, in response to those who find it offensive that Arwen’s role should be expanded at all: it is not a travesty that the moviemakers decided to emphasize it more, for several reasons. Firstly, the Aragorn-Arwen romance is a good story — a tragic and beautiful plot with all the glory and melancholy of anything Tolkien ever wrote. Secondly, for today’s modern audiences (unfortunately, if you want to say so), female characters need to be more prominent in the movie than they are in the original work. Thirdly, and most importantly, Tolkien made it all up. Not only that, but, in his own words, “I regard the tale of Arwen and Aragorn as the most important of the Appendices; it is part of the essential story” (Letters pg. 237). This is probably because, as Tolkien also said, “The real theme [of LotR] for me is…Death and Immortality.” A focus on the Aragorn-Arwen plot brings this theme into sharp focus. Considering all these facts, the moviemakers have done the best thing they can — since they feel the need to enhance the female character, they’re doing so through highly dramatic and sympathetic material from Tolkien’s own writings.
As I stated above, the film of The Two Towers tends to have drawn more criticism from fans of the books than that of The Fellowship of the Ring. It seems likely to me that this stems at least partly from the fact that we’d all had a lot of time (and, if you’re anything like me, a fairly large number of viewings) to get used to the changes made to the first book’s plot by the time the second movie came out. There do seem, though, to be three main changes in The Two Towers which frustrate many fans: the Elves at Helm’s Deep, the changes to the Treebeard sequence, and the alteration of Faramir’s character. I will therefore do my best to answer each of these objections.
Far from being totally pointless, the Elves at Helm’s Deep were there for a very good reason — or two, actually. First, this change helps movie viewers to understand the power and significance of the Elves a little better. They are still an important race in Middle Earth — and, as any reader of The Silmarillion knows, an incredibly majestic and powerful people — but with many references and small bits left out of the movie, moviegoers won’t know that. If they were to think of Elves simply as pretty-boys who sit around in forests and do nothing of importance, they would have a very warped picture of the power, glory, and beauty of the Elvish race which Tolkien so loved and admired. The depiction of the Elves as warriors gives them as a people more depth in the movies. More significantly, though, the Elves’ appearance at Helm’s Deep provides an opportunity to show the horror of the slaughter of immortals, which, beyond being important to the theme of the books (as quoted above), and helpful in the characterization of the Elves as a race (and Arwen in particular), should also have special resonance to Christians, who know that we, too, were created to be immortal. Haldir’s death scene, therefore, while not in the books and at first apparently irrelevant to the plot, is one of the most moving and, arguably, most significant parts of the movie.
Secondly, many people find the movie’s Ents frustrating, with their indecisiveness and sudden change of mind. However, I find this understandable. Much of the interaction between Treebeard and the hobbits was taken out of the movie, for good reason: the movie’s Treebeard sequences are already the most likely to drag, and lengthier ones would not have been appropriate. In the book, Merry and Pippin explain to Treebeard the whole situation; he is already aware of much of what Saruman and the Orcs are doing, and they have lots of time to convince him of the rest. In the movie, not nearly as much of this conversation takes place. If, as the movie stands, the Ents were to have headed off to destroy Isengard directly after the Entmoot, they would have been acting (probably their first action in thousands of years) on the word of two hobbits, who simply said, “Saruman is evil. Help us destroy him!” The Ents, who have no “side”, would have automatically aligned themselves with the “good side” without any real and driving reason for doing so. This would have been far too simple, in fact a sort of deus ex machina cop-out. In the movie, the conflict must become personal before the Ents will act, which is much more consistent, actually, with how Tolkien wanted it to appear (in my opinion). He wasn’t much of a one for cop-outs, either.
Regarding Faramir, less can be said. This change is admittedly serious, and frustrating for those of us who especially liked Faramir in the books. However, Peter Jackson has offered a relatively reasonable explanation for the change; it will be best for me to quote him (in slightly abridged form) rather than explain it myself: “In the book, Tolkien reveals Faramir to be very pure. At one point, Faramir says, ‘Look, I wouldn’t even touch the ring if I saw it lying on the side of the road.’ For us, as filmmakers, that sort of thing creates a bit of a problem because we’ve spent a lot of time in the last film and in this one to establish this ring as incredibly powerful. Then to suddenly come to a character that says, ‘Oh, I’m not interested in that,’ to suddenly go against everything that we’ve established ourselves is sort of going against our own rules. We certainly acknowledge that Faramir should not do what Boromir did and that he ultimately has the strength to say,’No, you go on your way and I understand.’ We wanted to make it slightly harder, to have a little more tension than there was in the book.”
There you have Jackson’s explanation, which I find plausible. My main problem with Faramir in the movie was not the change in his actions, but his lack of motivation. I could have handled the change much better if I had understood why he was doing what he was doing. However, previews for the Extended Edition of The Two Towers have revealed that Faramir’s character will be greatly expanded there — and all according to the books’ depiction of him. His family dynamic will be explored, and his reasons for acting as he did strongly implied. I am confident that, between this and the upcoming Return of the King movie, Faramir will turn out all right.
And that brings me to Return of the King. As I write this we have two days until the official trailer is released on the Internet, and I couldn’t be more excited. I have every confidence that the Return of the King will be every bit as grand as the previous two movies, in spite of all their little mistakes and frustrations, certainly are. I can’t wait!