Monday, 17 December 2012

Book to film

I confess. I caved. I went in to find out how long The Hobbit was sold out for, and it wasn’t. J. R. R. Tolkien was such a big part of my childhood that I’m afraid my disgust at the union-busting tactics Peter Jackson and the John Key government used him as an excuse for, didn’t beat my deep need to see more of Middle-Earth onscreen. My only (poor) defence is that I do want to support a New Zealand industry that doesn’t involve digging big holes in the wild country or fouling the rivers with excrement. However, I began writing this post before all that, and so this isn’t a post about The Hobbit, it’s a post about the Lord of the Rings movies. I’ll be able to judge The Hobbit properly when the new trilogy is complete.
When I was a kid I was very uptight, as everyone called it, about films being different from the books they were supposedly based on. I’m told I first saw the animated Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH when I was very small, but I don’t remember it; I remember watching it in primary school after having the book read to us in class, and the main thing I remember was the feeling of mingled anger and contempt because THEY GOT THE BOOK WRONG. Same with the animated Charlotte’s Web. I was not diagnosed with Asperger’s for seventeen or eighteen years after that, and primary school was an angry time for me anyway, and I think I’ve mellowed a lot. Things that are wrong still bug me, as anyone who knows me will attest. Misspellings and mispronunciations make me itchy. As for scientific fact-checking, I understand the need to simplify for readers unfamiliar with the concepts, but the kind of “simplification”, all too common in the news media, that amounts to telling plausible lies to quell people’s curiosity and make it look like you’ve given them the whole story when you haven’t, will set me grumbling for weeks. It’s not “helping people understand”, it’s making people misunderstand. (Why yes, I am thinking of a specific example right now.)
Um, I wandered off the point there somewhere. I think I’ve become a bit more accepting since then. I have certainly figured out that books and film are two quite different art forms, and very often what’s best in one just wouldn’t work in another. The first Harry Potter movie, for instance, clung too closely to the book, and ended up a bit of a mess. In a book you can wander away and explore your fictional world; you can convey large amounts of information through a character speech, since the whole thing is words anyway; you can tell your readers a lot about the background, or about what’s going on in your characters’ heads, directly – not without limit, but you have much more wiggle room than in a movie. And particularly, you can resolve a lot of tensions at the end of each chapter and introduce new ones in the next chapter, which would make for a very choppy story on screen, which is why The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie had to be so different from the book. (Same with The Hobbit, come to that.) In film, on the other hand, you can squeeze a lot of emotional nuance and expression into a single close-up of a character’s face; you can cut much more quickly and understandably from one scene to another, because the change of background is immediately apparent; you can convey urgency in a way that text just can’t manage.
So simply copying out the book and calling it a screenplay isn’t going to work. I get that now. But I still think film-makers have some kind of a responsibility to their source material. Now, of course, in Hollywood, the film-makers aren’t entirely responsible for the content of their films. There are actors and directors and screenwriters and so on, who do the actual work, and then there are the executives in suits who shred all the original ideas because they can’t be sure they’ll make them money, or at least that’s the impression I get. However, now that nerd-value is becoming unignorable in Hollywood marketing – due in no small part to the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – it’s no longer a lost cause to hope for a film that pays at least lip service to its source artists’ integrity.
Look, I’m going to cut the preamble. I’m basically writing this because I never did sit down and do a blog post comparing the Lord of the Rings movies with the books, seeing where they went right and where they went wrong. I’m going to do that now. And just to show I’m not a curmudgeon, I’m going to start with the best...

Stuff Where the Films Improved on the Books

  • The Sword that was Broken: When we’re first introduced to “Strider” at Bree, he seems to be carrying a sword. A page or two later, he shows the hobbits that it’s just the fragments of a sword that he’s carrying around in his scabbard. It’s reforged, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “Oh, it’s been reforged now” conversation, before they leave Rivendell. Then, early in The Return of the King, Aragorn rides off to a tunnel full of ghosts known as the Paths of the Dead. He is accompanied by some ranger guy we haven’t really heard of, who’s come bringing him some flag that we also haven’t heard of. At this point you’d excuse the reader for not paying much attention to the scene.
    Um. First of all, this is a guy who tramps around in the wilderness and probably has to fight brigands and orcs every so often. Second, this guy is the heir to the freaking throne of Arnor and Gondor, which makes him about the one person in all Middle-Earth who is (a) closely linked to its fate and (b) mortal. Is it a good idea for him to walk around unarmed? Really? No, Peter Jackson’s idea was better. Have the Sword that was Broken kept in honour at Rivendell, while Aragorn carries an ordinary sword around with him to defend his royal person with. Then, in The Return of the King, have Elrond himself bring him the sword to send him on his mission through the Paths of the Dead.
  • Aragorn and Arwen: Arwen was a late addition to the Lord of the Rings story, because the idea that Aragorn was the long-lost heir to the throne of the Kingdoms of the Dúnedain was a late addition to the story. In the earliest drafts the character who was later to become Aragorn was a shoe-wearing hobbit called Trotter. Over the years that Tolkien spent writing it, Aragorn became a human ranger, then a prince who was going to be paired up with Éowyn of Rohan. Then he rose too close to the centre of the Middle-Earth mythos, which Tolkien had been working on since World War I, for that, and instead was partnered with another of the descendants of Eärendil and Elwing, which is all very circle-completing and satisfying if you’ve read the story of the Silmarils, but as no-one was to read the story of the Silmarils until Tolkien’s son published it after his death, it’s a bit of a flub in this story to have Arwen sit around in the background at the Council of Elrond and then suddenly be marrying a main character at the end. Tolkien did his best to correct his mistake by putting their love story into the Appendices, but it was too little, too late.
    I gather that Peter Jackson’s movies were originally going to over-correct and have Arwen travelling about with the Fellowship, which might have made a decent story but it wouldn’t have been The Lord of the Rings. In the end, I think he got it about right. In the book, an Elf called Glorfindel meets Aragorn and the hobbits and carries the wounded Frodo on his horse across the Ford, after which he melts into the crowd of Elves at Rivendell and doesn’t appear again apart from maybe some lines at the Council of Elrond but I may be mistaken about that. Which is not that much of a problem in a book, but it’s not good film-making to have characters appear and disappear again. I think Jackson made the right choice giving Glorfindel’s role to Arwen.
  • Boromir: Boromir is clumsily drawn in The Lord of the Rings. From the time we meet him in Rivendell to his death above the Falls of Rauros, at every mention of him – every single mention, without exception – he’s doing one of three things: (a) boasting about Gondor, (b) arguing with Aragorn or Gandalf or Elrond, or (c) giving Frodo creepy looks. He dislikes Lothlórien and mistrusts Galadriel, despite both being obviously the definition of good (Tolkien lays that on very thick, too). He’s surly, suspicious, and uncooperative. Tolkien fails to mention whether he has a neon sign saying I’M GOING TO CAUSE TROUBLE affixed to his head, but he might as well have. It’s only after he’s dead that anything good is said about him. When Pippin is reminded of him in Minas Tirith and Tolkien tells us that he had admired him from the first, my reaction was “What? Why?”
    Jackson’s Boromir is a much more rounded character. He makes friends quickly with the younger hobbits, and we see him teaching them swordsmanship. When he contradicts Aragorn it’s out of compassion for them, to allow them to grieve for Gandalf. His suspicion of Galadriel and the Golden Wood is passed to Gimli – Gimli I am not so happy about, and I’ll have more to say on that later, but Boromir comes out the better for it.
  • Merry and Pippin at the Breaking of the Fellowship: Merry and Pippin I’ll have more to say about later too, because they were mostly not improved; but there’s an important exception. When Boromir tries to take the Ring, Frodo decides he must leave the Fellowship and go to Mordor alone (as it turns out, of course, Sam comes with him). In the book, at this point, Merry and Pippin run about like headless chickens yelling “Frodo! Frodo!” and walk smack into the arms of a troop of Saruman’s orcs. Whereas in the movie they see Frodo heading for the boats, then spot the orcs, and deliberately and bravely get themselves captured to save him.

Stuff Where the Book was Good but it Wouldn’t have Worked in Film

  • Most of the Early Stuff: Years pass after Bilbo goes off to Rivendell and before Gandalf arrives wanting to do the fire-test on the Ring. Then when Frodo leaves the Shire, he first pretends that he’s just moving to Buckland where his mother’s family, the Brandybucks, live, and he even buys a house there (Buckland is too flat and wet for hobbit-holes). Sam, Merry, and Pippin and another hobbit called Fredegar Bolger help him move and then reveal that they know his plan; Fredegar stays on at Frodo’s new house to keep up appearances, and has a narrow escape from the Nazgûl, while Merry and Pippin come along with Frodo and Sam. On page, this all makes sense – Bilbo’s sudden disappearance is still the talk of the Shire after all that time, whereas Frodo needs his departure to go unnoticed. In a movie it would be fiddly and rather boring to watch. Same, I think, goes for Bill Ferny and the other suspicious characters in the inn at Bree.
  • Tom Bombadil: Tom Bombadil’s part in the story is important enough to remark upon separately from the other early material. For those who know only the movies, Tom Bombadil is an ancient, immortal being who lives somewhere between the Shire and Bree. In appearance he’s a man with a long beard and big yellow boots, who seems to be not much bigger than a hobbit. He seems to have tremendous supernatural power: the Ring has no effect on him (it doesn’t make him invisible and he can see Frodo with it on) and he can banish evil ghosts just by telling them to leave, but he can’t, or won’t, leave his own little valley. Oh, and he speaks all in blank verse. In the book he’s what first gives you the sense of deep time and history in this world, that there are things older and stranger than Sauron and his rings – if you haven’t explored further than The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is himself a servant of the evil god Morgoth, who has been banished to the Abyss or some such. On screen it would not remotely have had that effect; it would just have been a surreal little interlude, like the aliens in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, except that surreal little interludes enhance Monty Python, where they would spoil The Lord of the Rings. Some of Tom Bombadil’s lines, when he rescues Merry and Pippin from a malevolent animate willow tree, went to Treebeard in the Extended Edition DVDs.
  • Faramir: Or, at least, Faramir in the Extended Edition. Faramir in the book is largely an exposition-monkey. Much of the back-history in the Appendices first entered the manuscripts via Faramir’s mouth. Tolkien cut him back severely, but even so, he talks about Númenor and ancient Gondor and the Elves and what not a lot. Which, in context and in print, is fine; the point we readers get from it is that Faramir understands better than probably any other mortal (except Aragorn, obviously) just what kind of forces Frodo is dealing with. Yet another thing that wouldn’t have worked on screen. But without that, Faramir’s immediate acceptance of Frodo’s quest, given that Faramir’s job is to kill anybody who seems to be taking information about Gondor to Mordor, would have seemed beyond absurd. Jackson got the balance right in the Extended Edition, letting Faramir be sympathetic but suspicious, and only slowly convinced that Frodo is doing the right thing. The theatrical version, which cut out a lot of the sympathetic side of him, was less satisfactory.
  • The Paths of the Dead, and the Corsair Ships: In the book, Aragorn heads down the Paths of the Dead accompanied by Legolas, Gimli, and some anonymous Rangers. Aragorn summons the Dead to follow him so they can fulfil the oath they broke long ago, lift the curse, and go to their rest. And we don’t hear from him again until the black ships come up the Great River and it turns out to be him... and the Dead are already gone, the taking of the ships apparently being enough to count as fulfilling their oath. Now the battle at this point has already taken up huge amounts of time and reader emotional energy, so it’s probably just as well Tolkien didn’t write in an offensive by ghosts on top of it all. But, having removed the anonymous Rangers for the good reasons outlined above, I think Jackson did right to have the Dead be the turn of the tide. Not quite so keen on the avalanche of skulls, and this is an instance where I think the theatrical version got the balance better than the Extended Edition. Still, it made for some nice vivid scenes.

Understandable but Not Quite Satisfying Changes

  • Middle-Aged Bilbo: The very first thing we read about Bilbo in the book is that he has retained his youth despite being over 100 years old. Gandalf in the movie confirms this: the first thing he says when he sees Bilbo is “You haven’t aged a day.” Bilbo is old, in fact, but he doesn’t look old. It’s our very first hint of the malign power of the Ring, which lengthens life with endless weariness. Now, I suppose you could argue that it’s still quite an achievement to be over 100 and look no more than middle-aged, and let me also add that Sir Ian Holm is a great actor and nailed Bilbo’s character without apparent effort. But it’s not quite the same as not having aged a day.
    What I Would have Done: That’s a simple one. With the benefit of hindsight, which is the basis of this whole essay after all, I’d have cast Martin Freeman from the get-go.
  • Merry and Pippin: Merry in particular is a much more capable character in the books than in the movies; he’s an organizer where Frodo is a contemplative, Sam a hands-on person, and Pippin a “no-worries” type. We’re introduced to them in the books via their part in covering up Frodo’s departure from the Shire – Merry organizes the change of address. Then it turns out they know what’s going on (Sam told them), and have decided to stick with Frodo because he’s their friend and cousin. At Rivendell they stick with that decision, refusing to abandon him, although unlike Sam they don’t gatecrash the Council of Elrond. Now, since Jackson dropped all the stuff about Frodo changing his address, that’s not going to be how it goes in the movie. But crop theft? Really? And complete cluelessness from both of them? That was the best we could come up with?
    What I Would have Done: I think I’d have kept the fireworks prank at the start, but have Merry think up a plan to set them off without blowing themselves up only for Pippin to ignore it – showing Merry’s capability and Pippin’s casual attitude nice and early. Then, when Frodo and Sam are on the road, they meet the other two coming out of a pub singing drunkenly or something (so we can still get the sense that these are a pair of young scalliwags) and tell them they’re going on a walking-holiday, which Merry and Pippin enthusiastically insist on joining – but Merry puts two and two together and starts asking Sam what’s going on... at which point the Nazgûl turns up. Once they’ve got away, Frodo tells Merry and Pippin to go home because they’re in danger if they stay with him, to which Merry replies to the effect of “Bugger that, we’re your mates, if you’re in trouble we’re going to help you sort it out,” as he does in the book.
  • Gandalf in Orthanc: I almost put this into “Most of the Early Stuff”, above, but not quite. Of course, it would have been a bit boring to have Saruman reveal that he’s turned to evil in a semi-philosophical, albeit disdainful, conversation, and then just have Gandalf locked up like any minor villain might do. And the way Gandalf comes to Saruman in the book would have been fiddly as well. Radagast the Brown brings a message from Saruman saying “The Nazgûl are abroad, come to Orthanc and let’s make plans,” all in good faith, not knowing Saruman intends to imprison Gandalf to keep him out of the way. Gandalf asks Radagast to keep in touch, and Radagast’s magic happens to be all about talking to birds, and he happens to pick Gwaihir the giant eagle to bring a message. All of which would have taken just that bit too much time to clarify on screen, for how important it actually is to the story. I can understand Jackson cutting it down and making the confrontation a bit more physical. But I’m a little disappointed with the execution, all the same, and the moth replacing Radagast doesn’t sit too well with me, either. Couldn’t Gandalf and Saruman have been a little more dignified? Did we have to see all! four! doors! slam! and Gandalf’s reaction four times over? And then throwing each other backwards and forwards like that?
    What I Would have Done: I’m normally not keen on the Magic Is Sparkly film trope, but some CGI pyrotechnics in the Orthanc fight – maybe some glowing runes in the air, some ripple effects – might have conveyed a rather more, well, wizardly sense of power. And couldn’t Gandalf have told Frodo he was going to consult “my brother wizards” rather than “our leader Saruman”; and then we’d see him talking to Radagast, who says there’s not much he can do but ask “my friends the birds” to keep an eye on things; and then Gandalf saying “I’m off to Isengard, Saruman will know what to do, send your friends there if they’ve seen anything”? We wouldn’t need all the backstory about the Five Wizards to get the point. Then perhaps have Radagast riding one of the Eagles at the end when they turn up at the Gates of Mordor, the idea being that he’s come along to do his part against Sauron; that should also help clear away the taint of deus ex machina that hangs about their final appearance in both book and film.
  • The Warg Attack on Rohan: Quite apart from the Wargs having dopey-looking short faces (rather improved in the Hobbit movie), there is nothing like this at this point in the book; a Warg attack occurs much earlier in the story, at the entrance of Moria. Aragorn does not get separated from the others and fall off a cliff and have Arwen dream about him, or anything like that at all. Now, fair enough that Jackson put a main character in jeopardy, and fair enough that he enlarged Arwen’s part in the story. My main objection to this part is the minutes it adds to the running time of The Two Towers, which is already badly stretched by the ridiculous length of the Helm’s Deep sequence, in consequence of which a couple of other things got dropped that really shouldn’t have been, as I’ll discuss later.
    What I Would have Done: No Warg attack. I’d still have Arwen being troubled, but let’s just intercut that with scenes of Éowyn flirting with Aragorn. Aragorn can be put in jeopardy at Helm’s Deep itself, as in the book where he’s right above the wall when the Orcs blow it up – give the audience serious doubts about whether he’s still alive, for five to ten minutes or so.
  • Aragorn and the Palantír: Didn’t you wonder why there was no-one waiting up Mount Doom to stop Frodo from destroying the Ring? I mean, Sauron knew what they were all up to, right? Well, no, that’s the thing. He didn’t. Sauron knew, mostly via the Nazgûl, that the Ring had been through Rivendell and was coming south in the hands of a hobbit. But this is the key point: he never imagined, in his darkest dreams, that anyone would destroy something so powerful and valuable as the One Ring. He assumed from the beginning that the plan was to bring the Ring to Minas Tirith and use it against him.
    Then Pippin looks in Saruman’s palantír – that’s that crystal ball he uses to communicate with Sauron – and Sauron assumes Saruman has captured both the hobbit and the Ring. He sends a Nazgûl to collect it, which flies overhead while the protagonists are busy about something else, only to find Isengard all wrecked and Saruman imprisoned in Orthanc. Next thing he knows, Aragorn looks in the palantír and says “Ha ha, you big bastard, I’m the Heir of Isildur, I’m coming for you” (I’m paraphrasing). Then along comes Aragorn leading an army – a foolishly small army – up to the Gates of Mordor. “Right,” says Sauron to himself, “now I know who’s got my Ring. This is my one chance to get it back. All units to the Gate, no exceptions.” All of which takes a bit of figuring out in the book because Tolkien had made a decision never to put Sauron on the page in person, so all that is described indirectly. I certainly didn’t understand it the first few times around. Jackson could have made it clearer, but even with the Aragorn-palantír scene left in (as in the Extended Edition) all we see is him threatening Sauron with the reforged Sword.
    What I Would have Done: Explain it, obviously. Partly have Gandalf and Aragorn discuss it, but obviously not tell the whole thing in one big boring infodump. Have Pippin, perhaps, ask Gandalf what chance Frodo has, and Gandalf can explain in a couple of sentences (as he does in the book) that Sauron thinks the Ring is to be used as a weapon. Maybe, going back to the first movie, when Boromir says “Let’s use it against him” at the Council of Elrond, have Gandalf argue then that, as well as whole “turning its user evil” thing, that’s exactly what Sauron expects and what he’ll be prepared for. Then when they’re heading to the Black Gate, give someone – Gimli would do – the line in the book about “Won’t he smile, and crush us like a fly that tries to sting him?” And Gandalf’s reply, “No, he will try to trap the fly and take the sting. No, he will not smile.”

The Crap

Actually, I am a curmudgeon. This is my favourite part, the complaining.
  • Oddly Distractable Nazgûl: A minor point, perhaps, but I felt it seriously detracts from the menace of the Nazgûl if you can distract one by throwing a stick, as the hobbits do in the first movie.
    What I Would have Done: As in the book, have a troop of Elves go by, and the Nazgûl decides not to tangle with them alone in daylight. In the Extended Edition Frodo and Sam see some Elves ride past westward before they meet up with Merry and Pippin; I’d put that scene right after the Nazgûl and kill two birds with one stone. Perhaps have the Elves say a blessing on them in passing, as between fellow-travellers.
  • Gimli: Yes, yes, I know drama needs comic relief. I do not like the Hollywood orthodoxy that you need one particular character whose job is to be the comic relief throughout, or people won’t get it. It has led to some absolute disasters in other movies (*cough*Jar Jar*cough*). And it ruined Gimli for me. Yes, he banters with Legolas – the orc-killing competition is in the book. Yes, he can be gruff and proud. Yes, you will get a lot of height jokes out of the fact that he’s a Dwarf. But he’s the only Dwarf in this story apart from the ones at the Council of Elrond. If he’s a buffoon, it looks like all Dwarves are buffoons. And you really start to wonder what he’s doing on a quest in the first place (*cough*Jar Jar*cough*). The worst moment? No, not the dwarf-tossing jokes, bad as those were. When he’s running to keep up with Legolas and Aragorn, and complains “I’m wasted on cross-country, Dwarves are natural sprinters, very dangerous over a short distance” – that one little speech completely reverses Tolkien’s entire concept of the Dwarves, removing Gimli’s main contribution to the quest in the process. Because, fundamentally, what Dwarves do is endure. They are tough, they keep on going when everyone else has given up, and they’re immensely proud of it.
    What I Would have Done: I much prefer the Joss Whedon approach to comic relief – share it out between everybody. Gimli should have his own moments to shine, and they should be highlight his endurance and perseverance; just as his weakness is that he’s stubborn and doesn’t know when to give up. Given this is a Hollywood movie, he might even have had some useful platitudes about not giving up to hand out.
  • The Battle of Helm’s Deep: Good gods, did this have to take up an hour of the movie? Really? An hour of guys in armour bashing each other in the rain? And what was with the Elves joining in, which is not just not in the book but shows a serious problem with priorities given they don’t help at the much more critical battles at Minas Tirith? Dude, everywhere is at war. Saruman is not some be-all and end-all linchpin of the evil side, he’s just one arm of Sauron’s power and the one the protagonists happen to get entangled with. And how could you leave out the Ents smashing Orthanc altogether from the theatrical release, and make it look like an afterthought in the Extended Edition? Actually, I have a nasty suspicion I know some of the answers to this one, which I’ll talk about more below...
    What I Would have Done: Well, for a start, I’d have cut it down to about 20 minutes of guys in armour bashing each other in the rain. Then I’d have moved back some bits at the beginning of the third movie to the end of the second one, up to about where Sam kills the giant spider. That is how the books work out, but that’s not what I’m concerned about (I’m fine with having Boromir die at the end of Part I instead of the beginning of Part II). I’m more concerned about fixing the ending, as you’ll see later. I read somewhere Jackson argued that the spider shouldn’t go in Part II because the audience wouldn’t understand why the non-combative characters (Frodo and Sam) were suddenly fighting. Speaking as an audient myself, I think he’s wrong.
  • Frodo, Sam, and Gollum: No. No no no no NO. Gollum does not create dissent between Frodo and Sam by clumsily framing Sam for stealing, and Frodo does NOT send Sam away. “The protagonists fall out over a misunderstanding and fight each other” is an elderly and by now quite smelly Hollywood cliché of which Jackson should have been ashamed, ashamed.
    What I Would have Done: This is how it goes in the book. Gollum has decided to lead Frodo and Sam to their deaths in Shelob’s tunnel (Shelob being the spider, for those who’ve only seen the movies). Gollum comes back from preparing the trap to find Frodo and Sam asleep. Suddenly his old life as a hobbit on the banks of the Great River returns to him. Deeply conflicted, he is on the point of repenting... and Sam wakes up and calls him a sneak. The poignant irony of the scene made it Tolkien’s own favourite; writing it moved him to tears. And Jackson thought it could be replaced with a boring old standard-issue Hollywood protagonist quarrel. Please. I’d have kept it as written, only maybe have Sméagol whispering to himself just to make it clear what was going on. Actually, seeing as in my arrangement this would be in Part II not Part III, this would be an opportunity for Sméagol to flash back to the scene where he murders Déagol for the Ring...
  • Denethor: There are several things wrong with the Denethor scenes, but they mainly come down to one central issue. Denethor is not refusing to go to war because he’s grieving for Boromir. No, the thing about Denethor – who Denethor fundamentally is – is he’s a general who cares for the progress of the war and nothing else. Not that he doesn’t feel Boromir’s death keenly, but he deals with it by immersing himself in his war plans. Then Faramir comes in deadly wounded as well, and Denethor realizes that it’s his fault, and also he has a palantír through which Sauron has been feeding him true but misleading information about the state of the war, all of which put together make him go mad and he commits suicide and tries to take Faramir with him. But he accepts his death, he doesn’t run out of the pyre and jump off the rock.
    This is the thing. Tolkien has a lot to say about war in The Lord of the Rings, but one thing he doesn’t do is glorify it. Denethor is wrong to judge everyone and everything else in Middle-Earth according to how it helps or harms Gondor in war. Boromir is wrong to want to use the Ring as a weapon, and Faramir is right to value the sword only by what it defends. There is nothing wrong with Tom Bombadil, or the Elves of Rivendell or Lothlórien, or the Ents, defending their own country and staying out of the war at large. The whole point is that war against Sauron can only be defensive; Sauron will never be defeated by force of arms as long as the Ring remains. Tolkien’s other writings confirm that to him, as a veteran of World War I, war was at best a sad necessity and in most cases an evil. I really don’t think Jackson gets that. He has Merry and Pippin urge Treebeard to go to war against Saruman, brings the Elves in at Helm’s Deep because they’re good guys and what good guys do is bash evil guys, right? So he can’t have a Denethor who is in despair and turning aside from the path he should be taking and yet deeply involved in the war, because being involved in the war is what everyone should be doing. Given that the Lord of the Rings movies were released in the build-up to the Iraq War, I find this deeply troubling.
    What I Would have Done: I don’t think I would have given Denethor a palantír, despite it being in the book; it would have been a bit much. But I wouldn’t have had him refuse to light the beacons to call for Rohan, although I did like that Jackson let us watch that happen (in the book they’re already lit when Gandalf and Pippin ride to Minas Tirith) – I think I’d have had Denethor himself make that Pippin’s first duty. I wouldn’t have had Denethor sitting all alone, either, though I can see there wasn’t room to introduce any of his retainers and underlings as characters as Tolkien does; I don’t see why they couldn’t have been extras. And I’d have played up the idea that he’s spending his soldiers’ lives to avoid dealing with his grief for his son.
  • Gandalf in Combat: Another minor point, but – since when does a wizard use his staff of power to whack orcs over the head?
    What I Would have Done: OK, The Lord of the Rings is not Dungeons & Dragons. But watch The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe some time. Watch how the White Witch uses her wand on the battlefield, swinging it around like it’s a second sword. Now obviously Gandalf is not going to be turning people to stone, but in the books he uses his staff to crack stone bridges, light things on fire, and (as Gandalf the White) shoot beams of light to drive off the Nazgûl. Why couldn’t we have seen some of those powers on the walls of Minas Tirith?
  • The Messenger of Mordor: By gods, think yourself lucky on this point at least if you have not seen the Extended Edition DVDs. At the Gates of Mordor, an ambassador comes from Sauron to negotiate, and he’s bringing some of Frodo’s stuff taken off him when Frodo was lying captive in the border fortress after being paralysed by Shelob. “Your spy’s mission has failed,” he says, and offers to return the prisoner if Aragorn lays down his arms and Gondor concedes huge amounts to Sauron. Gandalf rejects the terms, sends the Messenger packing and battle is joined.
    What doesn’t happen is, Aragorn doesn’t spur his horse forward and cut off the Messenger’s head in a fit of pique. Because there is a difference between good and evil in this book. And it’s not that evil wears black. And it’s not that evil employs ugly soldiers with fangs. And it’s not that evil speaks a language full of uvular fricatives. It’s not even that evil destroys trees, though that’s slightly closer. The difference between good and evil is that good people do not cut other people’s heads off in a fit of pique. Even if said other people are wearing the enemy’s uniform and sneering at you. But it seems that point has escaped Peter Jackson.
    What I Would have Done: Not that. I don’t think this bit works all that well anyway. It does in the book because The Two Towers and most of The Return of the King are split in half, the second half being just Frodo and Sam and Gollum, the first half everyone else. (Tolkien, raised before television, thought cutting back and forth between characters would be too confusing.) So when Aragorn arrives at the Gates, the last we’ve seen of Frodo is that he’s been captured by Sauron’s forces – though we do know Sam has taken the Ring in the belief that Frodo is dead (it turns out he’s just paralysed). Only afterwards do we hear of their escape. On film, we know they’ve got away long before, and the Messenger makes no dramatic contribution. Let’s do like they did in the theatrical release and drop him.
  • The Ending, Oh Gods the ENDING: This was the single biggest criticism of the movies. The ending dragged on forever. I’m inclined to agree the ending was wrong; I think it was far too short. No, hear me out.
    What I Would have Done: In most movies, and this is one place where Hollywood conventions do make a lot of sense, if the action is still going on after the big climax it means there’s a twist coming. And that’s just what happens in the book, too. The four hobbits get home from their long journey, all covered in armour and weaponry, to find the Shire has been trashed – by none other than Saruman, who does not (as in the Extended Edition) at any point fall off the top of Orthanc onto a spike. Worked properly, this could have been a classic The Bad Guy Is Always Still Alive moment. But you’d have to move a bunch of stuff off the beginning of the movie to make room for it, as I’ve suggested, and put it on the end of the previous one, and make room for it there by cutting down the gods-damned Battle of Sweaty Guys In the Rain.
    Not that it would necessarily work the same way in the movie as in the book. It would be an even longer dénouement to slowly reveal the kleptocratic state that Saruman’s regime is and have Merry and Pippin going all over the place organizing militias. A few lines between the protagonists and some other hobbits who stayed in the Shire about people being fed up and ready to revolt but what can we do? would have to suffice. Then confront Saruman on the steps of Bag End, Wormtongue murders him, and the hobbit militia shoots Wormtongue dead, that scene would work fine on film. And straight from there to the Grey Havens, I think.
Well, at least you can see I wasn’t kidding about how important Tolkien was to my childhood. I’ve been wanting all that off my chest for a long time. I’m sure there will be other Middle-Earth movies in the future, but, alas, probably not for another generation or so. I’m interested in seeing what happens with The Hobbit. And I’m hanging out for the rest of the Narnia movies...


  1. Sam! They spoiled Sam! In the early drafts of the book, it is with the instalment of Sam as a main character that it starts to look properly like Lord of the Rings. He is an optimist, and a rustic humorist, not the grizzling, moaning thickwit of the movies. If there's one grievance I have above all with the movies, it's what they did with Sam - much more than the trivialisation of Arwen and the weakening of Faramir, or even the excision of Tom Bombadil.

  2. A correction, since the theatrical release of The Two Towers was recently played on TV. It's not the Ents at Orthanc that get left out, it's the trees turning up to Helm's Deep and mopping up the surviving Orcs.