Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Tolkien Would Have Hated the Lord of the Rings Movies

In June of 1958, Tolkien wrote a detailed response to a screenplay of a potential film treatment of The Lord of the Rings (Letter 210, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien). He begins the letter by noting: "If Z[immerman] and/or others do so, they may be irritated or aggrieved by the tone of many of my criticisms. If so, I am sorry (though not surprised). But I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about. ..."

Tolkien proceeds to complete eviscerate the screenplay down to the most minute detail, objecting to literally any deviation from the text. Any amendment, contraction, exaggeration, or flourish was met with Tolkien's acerbic rejection. 

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • "I deeply regret this handling of the 'Treebeard' chapter, whether necessary or not. I have already suspected Z of not being interested in trees: unfortunate, since the story is so largely concerned with them."
  • "Why on earth should Z say that the hobbits 'were munching ridiculously long sandwiches'? Ridiculous indeed. I do not see how any author could be expected to be 'pleased' by such silly alterations. One hobbit was sleeping, the other smoking."
  • "The Balrog never speaks or makes any vocal sound at all. Above all he does not laugh or sneer. .... Z may think that he knows more about Balrogs than I do, but he cannot expect me to agree with him."

  • As you can see, Tolkien has strong opinions about even minor deviations from the text. Balrog laughing? I think not. Hobbits eating sandwiches instead of smoking? Ridiculous. 

    The Lord of the Rings Film Series, Newline Cinema, 2001-2003

    Consider, then, Jackson's treatment of the trilogy. 

    Film adaptations are notoriously bad, but Jackson's is generally well received. What makes a film adaptation "good" or "bad"? Enjoyment of a film is pretty subjective. But here--in this RPG blog that has nothing with film criticism at all--I would actually argue that Jackson's treatment of the trilogy is "bad," in so much as it unfortunately mishandles the core themes of heroism and virtue present in the novels. 

    Let's talk through the ways that the director adapts the text to film. Jackson's adaptation is done through addition, omission, translation and more unfortunately, subversion. 

    I'll talk through these techniques. 


    At times, a 1-to-1 rendition of a book into film would leave the audience confused or unsatisfied. Tolkien's text was notoriously scant on a lot of details later filled in by long talks with Gandalf (or the appendices, or by pouring over the letters of Tolkien). In these cases, Jackson has (usually wisely) added in connecting scenes to fill in the gaps. 

    Sometimes this is done successfully. When successful, the tone of the books is maintained, but additional context is added for the audience:
    • Galadriel's introduction gets a new audience up to speed, more or less, with the events of Isildur and Bilbo's adventure in only 8 minutes. 
    • The treason of Isengard is shown with a pretty cool wizard duel (my favorite "addition" in the films).
    • Various flashback scenes where Aragorn and Arwen make eyes at each other, and her whole backstory is explained. 
    When unsuccessful, scenes or story points are added that do not advance the story. For example:
    • The elves show up at the Battle of Helm's Deep. Why? The Rohirrim already have a narrative out (the huorns--the same as the books) and the elves pull their weight elsewhere in the movies. 
    • Aragorn crosses swords with a CGI army of the undead. Why? In the books, invoking himself as Isildur's heir is enough--and comes across all the stronger for it.


    The films are already long. If Jackson had included absolutely everything, they would have been unfit for a film treatment. 
    • Tom Bombadil, a puzzle piece that never quite fits, is removed from the story entirely. 
    • Various minor characters, like Fatty Bolger or Beregond or Imrahil, aren't mentioned. 
    • The Scouring of the Shire never happens. 
    This is usually where people tease me about being a stickler ("You're just sad because there's no Tom Bombadil"), but this is perhaps the most "pure" form of adaptation. I agree with almost all of Jackson's calls here. 


    Sometimes Jackson keeps a particular story beat in the film but translates the character or the circumstance. In general, this is done successfully. 
    • Arwen, not Glorfindel, rescues Frodo at the ford. This introduces her character before literally the last book, which is fine because you really never see Glorfindel again.
    • Elrond, instead of his sons, tells Aragorn that he must take the Paths of the Dead.


    Of all the techniques used to translate the trilogy into film, this is the one that proves to be most onerous. If Tolkien was nitpicky about small changes, these would have been intolerable. 

    Subversion is where a character says or does the literal opposite of what it is stated in the text. 
    • Movie Faramir: "The ring will go to Gondor."
    • Book Faramir: "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."

    • Movie Aragorn: *Aragorn just straight up kills the Mouth of Sauron*
    • Movie Mouth of Sauron: "I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!"
      Movie Aragorn: *Abides by this because that's what heroes do.* 

    • Movie Aragorn: "Do not let him speak! He will put a spell on us! Let us be quick"
    • Book Aragorn: "We may not shoot an old man so, at unawares and unchallenged, whatever fear or doubt be on us. Watch and wait!"
    You will see a trend here. There is a sense, I think, for American audiences that might makes right. The heroes are being heroic by taking bold action, drawing their swords, rushing in to fight the bad guys. But this is not the morality found inside the text. Quite the opposite. The heroes are heroes because they do not use their might. Almost every villain--Saruman, Wormtongue, Gollum--are offered a chance to go peacefully, or stay and put right what they've made wrong. They are villains because they refuse, but nobody compels them to do anything through force of arms.

    In conclusion: If Tolkien objected to Pippin and Merry eating sandwiches (something in line with their character), he would have objected more strongly to characters acting in a manner completely in opposition to their core values. The film has "no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about."


    1. I agree with almost everything you say here, and even have a few additions: Both Theoden and Denethor are treated very badly by the films: Theoden becomes an incompetent prop for Aragorn to correct, and Denethor a mad fool instead of a subtle and wise leader who makes one grave mistake out of desperation. However, I disagree that the wizard duel is a good addition. It represents magic as a physical contest, whereas in the books it is a contest of will. When Gandalf calls Saruman back to the balcony in "The Voice of Saruman", it is not telekinesis. Gandalf told Saruman that he could not go, and Gandalf is more powerful in will and spirit than Saruman, so Saruman is incapable of going.

      1. I agree with you. I don't know why I've let myself like the wizard duel. I'll allow myself this one little indulgence.

      2. Sometimes you’ve got to literalize a metaphor in a visual medium.

    2. I'm in the camp that the best LotR adaptation is actually Banner Saga.