Lord of the Rings: The Peter Jackson Remix
It has now been almost twenty years since the release of the first film in Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Lord of the Rings. Those films were enormously successful and brought Tolkien’s work to the attention of a new generation of fans. The films were so successful that Jackson was eventually able to film a three-movie version of The Hobbit. The first of those films was released in 2012.
Each of the three Lord of the Rings films was released in mid-December. Because I was always on vacation at that time of year, I was able to see each film on the day of its release. Approximately a year after each film was released, Jackson released an extended-edition version on DVD. I watched all of those as well.
From time to time, I’ll have a student who is a Tolkien fan ask me my opinion of the films. I find the question somewhat difficult to answer. In short, I have a love/hate relationship with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. There are aspects of the films that I greatly admire. There are other aspects of the films that are incredibly frustrating. In what follows, I will briefly discuss both.
A Few Preliminary Points
Before I say anything else, I do want to acknowledge that what Peter Jackson managed to accomplish is extraordinary. I think many were beginning to wonder if a good film version of The Lord of the Rings was even possible. Jackson did the seemingly impossible, and the way he did it is very impressive. He filmed all three of these very long movies at the same time over an 18-month period.
I also understand that books and films are different media, and some things that work in one don’t work as well in the other. I realize that Tolkien’s book is not a screenplay and that certain changes had to be made. Condensation, for example, was unavoidable. If everything in Tolkien’s book was to be filmed, the three movies would be far longer than three hours each.
I also realize that much of my frustration with the films comes from having been a fan of the book prior to seeing the films. Many people watched the movies before reading the book or watched the movies and never read the book. Had I been exposed to the films with no knowledge of the book, I am certain my response to them would have been very different. The book, however, existed for almost half a century before these films were made, and the book was beloved by many readers including myself.
With those caveats out of the way, let me say what I love about the films beginning with the decision to make three films and not one or two. As I understand it, when the project first began, the possibility of three films was not on the table. Had it remained that way, I don’t think the films could have succeeded to any degree. The story requires at least three films, and, in my opinion, the fact that Jackson and his team were eventually able to do this saved the entire project. The fact that Jackson himself was from New Zealand was also fortuitous because the decision to film there was stroke of genius. Much of what works in the film is related to the scenery of New Zealand.
The hiring of Alan Lee and John Howe to be in charge of conceptual design also greatly benefitted the films. Lee and Howe have both illustrated Tolkien’s books for decades, so their vision of Middle-earth was already familiar to fans of the books. I think this provided a needed level of continuity for such fans. Bringing the conceptual vision of Lee and Howe to life fell to the people at WETA Workshop, and they did an amazing job. Their work on the sets and creatures and clothing of Middle-earth is jaw-dropping. They brought places such as the Shire and Rivendell, Rohan and Minas Tirith to life. They brought creatures such as the orcs and the Balrog to life. I think what impressed me most about the work they did was their attention to detail. The sets and costumes are truly amazing. They made Middle-earth look real.
The costume designers deserve special recognition. I remember watching an interview with Bernard Hill, the actor who played Théoden. He recalled the first time he put on his armor for the role. He said that in most film productions, the exterior of the armor would have looked good because that is all that the camera would see. The inside of the costume would have been ignored. When he put Théoden’s armor on, he immediately noticed that the same intricately detailed craftsmanship that was visible on the outside of the armor was also visible on the inside. The camera would never see it. Viewers of the film would never see it. But the costume designers were so dedicated to their work that they refused to be happy with “good-enough.” They put the same care into fabricating the inside of the armor as they did with the exterior. That kind of dedication to their craft deserves respect.
Another aspect of the films that I love is the music. I think Howard Shore’s score is brilliant, and in some scenes, it brings chills. When Gandalf sheds some light on the interior of Moria and the viewer sees the giant underground columns extending back into the darkness, Shore’s score accompanies that scene perfectly. The same is true in the scene when Théoden’s men show up on the hilltop near Minas Tirith. Shore's music throughout is simply outstanding. Some of the songs chosen for the film also work surprisingly well. I would have never thought an Annie Lennox song could possibly work in a Lord of the Rings movie, for example, but her song “Into the West,” which plays during the end credits in the third movie, is beautiful.
A final aspect of the film that I like is certain casting choices. I will mention only a few. First, I can’t imagine a better casting choice for Gandalf than Ian McKellen. He did an excellent job, sometimes communicating a great deal with only the slightest facial expression. I think Miranda Otto was an outstanding choice to play Éowyn. Obviously, not everyone will agree, but I think she gave the best performance of any of the female cast members. Bernard Hill, as Théoden, was also a great casting choice in my opinion. Last, but not least, I really enjoyed what Andy Serkis did with the character of Gollum/Sméagol. When I discovered a film version was in the works, I wondered how they would manage to create Gollum’s character and was skeptical that they could succeed. I think the choice to cast Andy Serkis saved that element of the films.
In sum, what I love most about the films is the world created by the production, art, and costume designers. The locations, the sets, the costumes, all bring to life what I imagined when I read the book. The great music and some of the casting is icing on the cake.
I have already mentioned a few (not all) of what I think were great casting choices. Some of the other choices were not, in my opinion, quite as successful. One of the most significant of these was the casting of the four main hobbits in the film. The problem is not so much with the actors as individuals. I do not have problems with any of the four as actors. The problem has to do with their very different accents. Elijah Wood (Frodo) is an American actor. Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee) is an American actor. Dominic Monaghan (Merry) is an English actor, and Billy Boyd (Pippin) is a Scottish actor. All of them have very different accents. Even Elijah Wood’s accent and Sean Astin’s accent are different because Astin tries to do an accent closer to that of the two U.K. actors. Why does this bother me? Because all four hobbits are supposed to be from the Shire, which doesn’t seem to have the geographical requirements necessary for such widely varying accents to develop. The different accents took me out of the story. Every time they talked, it was like watching a play and seeing a stage hand peer out from behind the curtain. It broke the illusion. In my opinion, it would have helped if the actors portraying the four hobbits all had the same accent. This, however, is a trivial quibble, and I could live with it if it were the only problem.
Another relatively trivial problem is that some scenes simply did not work. I know this one is very subjective, and people will disagree on what "worked" and what did not. So, feel free to disagree, but in my opinion having Legolas “surf” down the stairs at Helm’s Deep and later “surf” down an Oliphaunt’s trunk was silly. These scenes were, I suppose, intended to show how “cool” Legolas is, but I think Tolkien would have covered his eyes and shook his head had he lived long enough to see those scenes. I also think the wide shots of the army of the dead at Minas Tirith did not work. It looked like a mass of green “Scrubbing Bubbles.” Again, however, this is a minor quibble. The scenes that fail are balanced out by the scenes that work.
The two biggest problems with the film, in my opinion, and the ones that are not trivial, have to do with the film’s departures from the plot of the book and what Tolkien called “perversion of the characters.” I have already mentioned that I understand some departures from the plot are necessary. Condensation and removal of some scenes (e.g., In the House of Tom Bombadil, The Scouring of the Shire, etc.) may have been necessary. What is not necessary is the complete creation out of whole cloth of scenes that are not found anywhere in the book and whose addition to the film dramatically changes the plot and the characters. This happens to a degree in the first film, but starting with the second film it becomes a more noticeable and frequent problem (at least to those viewers who know the book). I will mention only two instances for the sake of brevity. First, the scene in which Faramir decides to take the ring and the hobbits back to his father is not in the book, and its addition creates a domino effect of changes to that part of the plot, and those changes are not for the better. It also completely changes the character of Faramir as Tolkien envisioned him (I will come back to this issue presently). In Tolkien's version of The Lord of the Rings, Faramir would not take the ring. Second, the scene on the stairs in which Frodo angrily sends Sam home is not in the book. It is one of the worst betrayals of the book in the movies. What is most perplexing about all of the non-Tolkien additions is that there was enough in the book for a thirty-hour movie. If it is necessary to cut or condense the content in order to create a nine-hour film, that is understandable, but if that is the goal, there is no need to cut Tolkien's content to seven or eight hours and then add an hour of two of material that isn’t in the book at all.
Closely related to the addition of non-Tolkien material is the “perversion of characters.” In my opinion, this is the biggest problem with the movies. Take Faramir, for example. When the film has Faramir decide to take the hobbits and the ring to his father, Faramir is no longer the Faramir of Middle-earth. He is not the character Tolkien created. Not even close. He’s just a weaker and more fickle version of Boromir. I think Tolkien would have been very unhappy with the way Faramir was changed. In one of his letters (Letter 210), Tolkien is talking about a proposed film version of his book. He says in this letter, “I should resent perversion of the characters (and do resent it, so far as it appears in this sketch) even more than the spoiling of the plot and scenery” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 275). In other words, Tolkien cared about his characters. Over and over again, the films pervert these characters into unrecognizable versions of what Tolkien created. Faramir is not the only victim of this. In the books, Gimli the dwarf is noble and brave and an exemplar of the notion of chivalry. Try to say something bad about Galadriel in his presence if you do not believe me. In the film, he is largely used as comic relief. Treebeard is another of Tolkien’s great creations, and the film alters his character as well. This is especially evident when, in the film as opposed to the book, he has to be tricked into going to war against Saruman. Among the other characters that are changed for the worse to one degree or another are Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Éowyn.
I think the perversion of the characters points to what is the underlying "meta" issue with the films and the source of many of the related problems. The filmmakers do not fully get Tolkien’s worldview. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic. He was a scholar immersed in the literature of the Middle Ages. Notions such as honor and chivalry were in his blood and they come across in his book. Jackson and the other screenwriters simply do not fully grasp this very important part of Tolkien’s stories, and it leads them to major on the minors (e.g., extended battle scenes) and minor on the majors (the significant metaphysical and ethical themes in the work) and in the process pervert many of the most beloved characters in the story.
There is much to enjoy in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. I cannot express enough how much I admire the work of everyone involved, especially those involved in creating the sets and costumes. They brought Tolkien’s world to life in a memorable way that was faithful to the source material. In my opinion, however, it is unfortunate that those in charge of the screenplay often presumed to do more than bring Tolkien’s world to life. They added foreign plot elements that were not faithful to the source material. More significantly, they changed numerous characters in ways that were completely unnecessary and would have caused Tolkien himself great resentment.