Books to film: The Fellowship of the Ring

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.

Film poster for The Lord of the Rings: The Fel...

Film poster for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (film) – Copyright 2001, New Line Cinema (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring is...

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

vs.

The Fellowship of the Ring

  • dir. by Peter Jackson, 2001

Originally published in WordWrap, November 2002

P.S. I should note that the reference to Orson Scott Card comes from his book Characters and Viewpoint, a must-read for any writer. He delineates the types of stories in books according to the “MICE” quotient: the focus is on Milieu, an Idea, Character, or an Event.  Tolkien’s LOTR is clearly a Milieu story, he argues, because the most effort is put into establishing the rich world and its history, mythology, people, and languages. (It has the other ICE, of course, as any story should; but to a lesser extent.) Jackson’s take on the story, I would argue, is to make it a Character story in terms of what happens (everything is about Frodo, and to an extent about the other characters), and let the costumes, design, cinematography and score flesh out the world.
P.P.S. For more Puttin’ the Blog in Balrog, see a comprehensive list of realted posts here, or read the latest by Em, a.k.a. Hatzi Hatzi here.
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5 thoughts on “Books to film: The Fellowship of the Ring

  1. I’m kind of a book purist, so I tend to stay away from movie adaptations of books–especially if the books are as good as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I had decided some time ago not to watch these movies–I’m only watching them now because sj decided to have a watch-along.

    I’m really disappointed with just how different the movies are, and some of the differences are making me stabby. Not only that, but Eric and I don’t even have the extended editions, so we’re watching the super-cut-up theater editions. Ugh. But I’m having a ton of fun watching with everyone and joking around, so it’s been worth it.

    • I can understand that — I won’t watch the theatrical versions, anymore, actually, because the extended editions have so much more. Scenes from Lothlorien, more context for Sam and Frodo’s wanderings — even Legolas mentioning Morgoth! I think a longer post/analysis of the differences between the books and the movies is warranted — it’s especially noticeable in THe Two Towers. The structure of that movie, compared tot he books, is totally different, and certain things, such as the importance of the battle of Helm’s Deep and the characterization of Faramir, are very different. I don’t think all the changes made for the movie are unwarranted, because I think simply filming the books as they are would be boring, but I was surprised and disappointed by the way some things were handled.
      I think the movie version of FOTR is my favourite of the film trilogy, despite some great moments in the other two movies.

  2. I completely agree, even with all the shortcuts he had to take, these are still sprawling, epic stories. They work very well as movies. What a monumental task to undertake.

    • I think it’s worth re-watching what Bakshi attempted (and failed) with his animated version; and the truncated attempt to “finish” the animated adaptation Rankin-Bass made, to appreciate just how difficult it is to adapt LOTR. I’m never seen the stage/puppet version that toured in the ’80s and ’90s, but even then I wondered how they could tell the story in a single sitting. I do think Peter Jackson et. al. did their best and made some great movies.

  3. Pingback: Structural suspense in Tolkien's The Two Towers | As You Were

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