I’m old enough now to see some of the flaws in Tolkien’s work: the long and rambling nature of the story, with several components that turn out to have no real contribution to the main plot (especially the Tom Bombadil episode, which has never made it into any movie adaptation); the very minor and entirely secondary place of women; and above all, the myth of redemptive violence, made all the more attractive by the fact that in fantasy literature you can make the enemy armies entirely evil and so never have to confront the fact that you are killing human beings much like yourself. Still, despite all this, I remain a committed Tolkien fan, and although I think it rather pretentious to say that a book is ‘the greatest book of the 20th century’ (I’ve only read a tiny fraction of the books written in the 20th century, so how do I know?), yet I have no hesitation in saying that it is the greatest work of 20th century fiction that I’ve read.
And so I awaited with a mixture of excitement and foreboding the Peter Jackson movie project. An epic of enormous proportions, reputedly costing $285 million and starring such luminaries as Ian McKellern, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Viggo Mortensen and Ian Holm, it was released one volume at a time over the three Christmases at the beginning of the new decade. My children were nervous about going to see it in my company; they knew how committed I was to the book and how scathing I can be about cinematic adaptations of stories I enjoy. And to a certain extent I think their fears were justified. I enjoyed the three movies, but I think them deeply flawed.
But first, to be fair, let me say what I liked about Jackson’s work.
For me, the best parts of the movies were the visuals. Jackson has given us a stunning depiction of Middle Earth, from the rural beauty of the rustic Shire, to the Elvish dwellings in Rivendell and Lothlorien, to the sweeping plains of Rohan, to the spectacular city of Minas Tirith, to the horrors of Minas Morgul and Barad-Dur. Yes – this is what Middle Earth was meant to look like, and I will always have these pictures in my mind now when I read about it.
Most of the casting decisions were excellent. Chief among these, I would place Ian McKellern as Gandalf the Grey; his portrayal of the wizard is entirely faithful to Tolkien’s original, as is Christopher Lee’s Saruman. Sean Astin as Sam is also very good, as is Orlando Bloom as Legolas. Andy Sirkis’ CGI-assisted portrayal of Gollum is nothing short of brilliant. I also enjoyed Miranda Otto as Eowyn (by far the best female part in the movie, I thought), Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, and Billy Budd and Dominic Monaghan as Pippin and Merry.
Some of the casting decisions were less happy. Tolkien’s Frodo was far, far older than Elijah Wood; he was meant to be my age, 51, when he left Hobbiton on his long journey to Mordor. Likewise, Liv Tyler was far too young to play Arwen Evenstar, who is meant to be an immortal elf; yes, she needs to be ageless, but ageless does not necessarily mean young. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel is somehow not majestic enough for the part. And Hugo Weaving as Elrond also failed to portray the agelessness of the character, although some of the worst features of his part are probably to do with the script rather than the actor.
Which leads me to my main complaint about these movies: the way in which Peter Jackson has changed Tolkien’s story. Let me explain.
First, the proportionate amount of time taken up by battle scenes in the movies far exceeds that found in the book itself. For example, in the original book The Return of the King the actual battle for Minas Tirith takes up approximately 10% of the story; I wasn’t timing it in the movie, but I’m sure it was at least 25% (and this despite the fact that the movie version of The Return of the King includes some scenes that in the original are part of the previous volume, The Two Towers). Tolkien’s original includes some dark battle scenes, yes, but it also includes lengthy times of rest in places of light and gladness such as Rivendell and Lorien. These are always abbreviated in the movies, and the battle scenes are extended. The result is a much darker and more violent story than Tolkien wrote.
Second, almost all of Tolkien’s humour has been lost. And this is bad, because Tolkien did humour very well, and his hobbits were especially humorous. The movie has humour of its own, to be sure, but almost none of it is taken from the original.
Third, Jackson has imported large sections of story that deviate from Tolkien’s plot. For instance, he has added an element of conflict between Elrond and Arwen about whether or not she should marry Aragorn, and in fact his Elrond is a character who seems to have very little interest in Middle Earth; his main desire seems to be to get his daughter and the rest of his people safely to the Grey Havens and out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. There are significant changes to Aragorn’s character, too. In the original he keeps his identity as the heir of Isildur secret, yes, but is never hesitant about embracing it, and he carries the shards of Narsil, the sword of Elendil, with him at all times. In Jackson’s version Aragorn is full of self-doubt, fearing that he will prove as weak as his ancestor, and he does not take up Narsil until three-quarters of the way through the story, when it is brought to him, reforged as Anduril, by Elrond.
Tolkien’s story includes a little coda at the end, ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, in which the hobbits find when they return home that evil has preceded them; Saruman, who Treebeard freed from his prison at Orthanc, has taken over the place with the help of Wormtongue. The hobbits have to fight one more battle to set their homeland free, and it is concluded when Wormtongue stabs Saruman in the back. But Jackson removes the scouring of the Shire entirely, and the murder of Saruman takes place much earlier in the story.
Worst of all, to my mind, is the way the character of Frodo has been changed. Tolkien’s Frodo had his times of self-doubt yes, but he had many other times, including great bravery and good cheer. But Frodo as written in this movie and protrayed by Elijah Wood seems to have only one mood: angst. The expression on Wood’s face throughout the movie is one of fear and foreboding. His Frodo is far more fragile than Tolkien’s original – and, as I said before, far younger as well.
Tolkien started out to write a children’s book, a sequel to The Hobbit, but his older mythology got pulled into it and he ended up writing an epic saga. Some of the saga remains in Jackson’s movie, but he has seriously perverted it, importing into it elements of both the modern psychological novel and the shoot ’em and kill ’em action movie. The parts of his work that succeed, to my mind, are the parts that are truest to Tolkien’s original plot line (chiefly found in the first of his three movies, The Fellowship of the Ring). The parts that fail most badly are the parts where he has intruded his own replacement plot lines (mainly found in the second movie, The Two Towers).
I hope that people who see these movies will go on to read the books. My fear is that Jackson’s story line and characterisations will be established in the minds of most people as definitive; that when they think of Frodo and Elrond and Arwen and Galadriel, it will be Jackson’s characters they will think of, not Tolkien’s. To me, this would be a shame.
If I were in the business of giving stars, I’d give these movies a three out of five. There’s no doubt that they are works of cinematic brilliance, but as interpretations of Tolkien’s story they are seriously flawed. I can’t see it happening for at least couple of decades, but I hope that some day another movie maker will come along and do a better job of retelling Tolkien’s tale in a way that is faithful to his original vision.