If you’ve been Puttin’ the Blog in Balrog this summer, and taking part in the group read of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you may have been brave enough to take part in the live-tweeted movie drinkalongs organized by SJ.
Every Friday, whoever uses the hashtag #PtBiB can join in for an hour of snark (and drinking). This past Friday marked the third week, so the group is done with Peter Jackson’s version of The Fellowship of the Ring.
It’s often said by readers, “The book is always better.” But is it? Are some works of literature impossible to translate to such a visual medium as film? Or do they just need some tweaking to let their stories run free on the silver screen?
I wrote this piece some years ago; my opinion still stands, though I’m interested to hear what readers and fans of Tolkien have to say, since I’m well aware opinion is divided on what Jackson did with Tolkien’s work.
J. R. R. Tolkien spent many years creating his “Middle-earth.” Detailed genealogies, languages, and peoples fill his most widely-read work, The Lord of the Rings. But popularity notwithstanding, is Tolkien’s Rings an unfilmable story?
New Zealand director Peter Jackson didn’t think so. Jackson, along with his wife Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, adapted Tolkien’s trilogy into three films.
The first instalment, The Fellowship of the Ring, doesn’t slavishly follow the structure or indeed the plot of the book; where it succeeds is in taking one kind of story and making it into another.
As author Orson Scott Card has observed, Tolkien’s book is more about the world of Middle-earth than any one character or event. Readers who enjoy exploring fantasy worlds happily follow Frodo and friends through meandering adventures, long stretches of imagined history, and references to other stories that have nothing to do with the “real” plot. This is heresy if you believe characterization or events are the only possible heart of a story; but the effect of Tolkien’s attenton to detail is that if you stay with him, you accept his world at face value, and begin to really care about what happens to everybody in it.
Unfortunately, that won’t work in the movies. Moviegoers have different expectations; they want characters they can identify with and a storyline that keeps chugging along.
As a result, Jackson and his co-writers have substantially trimmed the narrative of Fellowship to focus on Frodo (Elijah Wood), compressed the time frame, and taken out episodes that don’t, ultimately, have an effect on the climax of the entire story.
What this means is that instead of many years passing between Frodo accepting the ring from Bilbo (Ian Holm) and learning that it really is Sauron’s One Ring, it seems only a few months. Likewise, Frodo and his fellow hobbits’ pursuit by the Black Riders is relentless; they never get a reprieve from their hunters. Encounters with the murderous Old Man Willow, puckish Tom Bombadil and undead Barrow-Wights are all absent.
It’s significant not only what is left out, but how it’s done; Jackson doesn’t present the story as if those side adventures never happen, he merely chooses not to show them. (This is true of both versions of the movie — Jackson’s skill as an editor is unsung, but considerable.)
Also included is a prologue, showing a brief history of the One Ring. Jackson subtly uses this chunk of exposition to introduce characters who come to the fore later, notably Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Gollum (Andy Serkis).
Purists may criticize the augmenting of Arwen’s (Liv Tyler) role in the story. Her romance with Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is barely noticeable in the book, but is played up in the movie.
Careful reshaping aside, does the movie do the story justice?
Jackson plays to the strengths of his medium. Set and character design, costumes, and music bring Tolkien’s Middle-earth to life. The Shire, Rivendell and the Mines of Moria seem real — in part because Jackson tries to show whereas Tolkien tells. Many details are left out; but others leap off the screen in ways they never did from the page. One example among many is the monstrous Balrog, a creature of “shadow and flame” that is unforgettable on the big screen. Another is the Black Riders, terrifying creatures given the benefit of Jackson’s skill with horror.
The film is also noteworthy for its performances. Ian McKellen (Gandalf) and Christopher Lee (Saruman) in particular breathe powerful life into their roles, but the rest of the cast is strong as well. It becomes very easy to care what happens to Frodo, Sam (Sean Astin) and their friends, whether you’ve read the book or not.
Ultimately, it’s fair to say that if you’re never going to read The Fellowship of the Ring, you could do a lot worse than see this movie. It’s not the same, but it gets to the heart of what Tolkien created: a magical world that will truly draw you in.
The Fellowship of the Ring
- by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1954
The Fellowship of the Ring
- dir. by Peter Jackson, 2001
Originally published in WordWrap, November 2002
- Book Review: The Fellowship of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (thesolitarybookworm.com)
- Breaking LOTR News from Comic Con! (gatherednettles.com)