(N.B. this was previously published on my old Bucket of Tongues blog, but I think the post bears repeating. I have also added some pictures and further comments).
I have a confession to make – lean close and I’ll whisper it in your ear… I’m a Lord of the Rings nerd. Only the novel mind you (not a trilogy!! It is a novel which was published in three parts due to the postwar paper shortage); I’ve never managed to get into The Silmarillion, despite numerous attempts. I first read it in 1990, and have read it at least once a year since then; it’s one of the staples of my reading life, along with Shogun, Bad Wisdom, and Howards End.
So when the film trilogy came out I was pleased. I saw them all at the cinema and was astounded at numerous scenes – jumping the falling bridge in Moria, the battle of Helms Deep, the magnificent part played by Andy Serkis. I devoured the extended versions and savoured the success of the films, financially and critically. (Especially when Return of the King was awarded so many Oscars – it almost made up for the monstrosity that is Titanic being so grossly overrewarded).
However, as time has gone on, the weaknesses of the films have become ever more apparent. They are not films which age well, films which merit repeated viewings (like Chinatown or Pulp Fiction or Groundhog Day). I can imagine them in ten or twenty years time being viewed as historical curiosities, like epics such as Ben Hur or Cleopatra, rather than living parts of cinema which are vital parts of beloved film collections. I’d go so far as to say that the 1978 animated version by Ralph Bakshi is a superior cinematic experience which is far closer to the spirit of the novel, although it’s not by any means perfect.
Peter Jackson took a lot of credit for the success of the films. He must take the blame for their failings. (There is a story that he only read the book once – whether it’s true or not I don’t know. But it would explain a lot, especially his superficial treatment of the whole concept).
So what are the failings? Let’s go through them. (I have a feeling I might be some time on this…)
Characterisation. This is frequently completely off, to such a degree that it must be deliberate. While some modifications and condensations are to be expected (especially in such a large novel), why Jackson felt the need to change numerous characters for the worse I’ll never know. Gimli for example – reduced from a representative of the noble dwarf race to a Snarf (from Thundercats), a figure of fun for cheap laughs. Frodo loses all his nobility and “stature”, becoming a tepid victim. Merry and Pippin are reduced in a similar way to Gimli, becoming joke-figures – and without their apotheosis in “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter, there’s not enough development. For Gandalf, the difference between him pre- and post-Moria is too great; it’s like he’s a different character, rather than revealing different aspects of the same person. In Fellowship, he’s a kindly old man, with a bit of a temper; in Return he’s a a philosopher-warrior-king: there’s little connection between the two. Sauron – apparently this source of all evil, this destroyer of worlds, this ancient power and unholy dread, is a glorified lighthouse. What a fucking joke! Denethor should be stern, cold and proud – introducing him as broken by the death of Boromir removes all the dramatic tension from his escalating hopelessness, and reduces the impact of the palantir. And what they hell is with his eating scene? What a waste of time!
Mishandling Scenes. Several scenes are understandably telescoped or skipped altogether (we’re dealing with a novel that’s over one thousand pages long and whose principal action takes place over one calender year). I doubt many would complain about the loss of Tom Bombadil or Ghan Buri Ghan. Nonetheless, there are several examples of Jackson getting scenes completely wrong, to such an extent that you wonder if he understood the book at all! The Council of Elrond for example – Jackson usefully gives some backstory at the start of each part of the trilogy, which reduces the need for such a lengthy, unwieldy scene. So what does he do with it instead? He has the various characters squabbling and then Frodo pipes up with “I will take the ring!” and all fall silent. This is just utterly ridiculous. Arwen making the river rise up is foolish, suggesting that any old elf can do “magic”, whereas it is Elrond does it, as he possesses one of the Three Rings. The fight between Gandalf and Saruman in Orthanc is just absurd – why the hell would two wizards have a glorified stick fight?! The scene between Theoden, Gandalf and Saruman in the ruins of Isengard is also handled appallingly, with all tension removed, and a complete lack of subtlety. Jackson, as always, goes for the conflict without considering what it might mean symbolically or thematically: it’s just good people against bad people, i.e. simplistic, reductionist nonsense. In Moria, we see the skulls of dead dwarves right away, rather than an rising feel of dread through the emptiness and darkness, and the battle in the Chamber of Records is much longer than it should be, and the troll unnecessary, reducing the impact of the later climactic scene with the Balrog. And what the hell is with that scene with Aragorn being nearly drowned in The Two Towers? With so much choice material being cut, why add more? We know he loves Arwen already, for christ’s sake! I also hate the entire section with Faramir – gone is Frodo’s nobility, gone is Faramir’s ability to resist the temptation of the Ring. It’s his ability to withstand the temptations of power which make him worthy of it – just as Aragorn announces that he will never set foot in the Shire. But such subtleties seem beyond Jackson, who seems more concerned with action and fighting than with conveying Tolkien’s thematic points.
Directorial Tics. There are several terrible examples of these littered throughout the films, things which become increasingly grating. The habit of showing the Ring in Frodo’s hand, the camera zooming in on the hand and Ring is one. The ridiculous elven music which comes out of nowhere at especially vital moments (Gandalf riding out to rescue Faramir, for example) is unwarranted by any dramatic necessity, and just seems absurd. And worst of all, the Hulk Hogan-esque displays performed by Gandalf and Galadriel when they display their hidden powers – these are frankly embarrassing. Tolkien was a man of great sensibility and subtlety – there is not the slightest chance he would have them rampaging in such an absurd fashion. And when Frodo is variously injured, the camera lingers on his pained expression far too long, emphasising his victimhood at the expense of his other qualities (which are never really shown).
The Scouring of the Shire. This chapter may have added little to the overall plot and action of the film, but it is absolutely fundamental in terms of theme, atmosphere and dramatic synchronicity. Tolkien himself said “it is an essential part of the book, foreseen from the outset”. The chapter shows not only how much the hobbits have grown, but that after wars, the Shirefolk choose to revert to their prior mode of life. Wars traditionally bring mechanisation, regimentation and industrialisation, all of which Tolkien deeply opposed. The Lord of the Rings is not (let me emphasis this a million times over) a sword-and-sorcery epic, it is a deeply-felt parable on the hidden powers of the “little people” based on the heroism of ordinary men Tolkien saw during the First World War, and is based on Tolkien’s anarchism and opposition to government. That the hobbits come back and reclaim their land from the usurpers and despoilers is a metaphor for what Tolkien wished, after the war brought increasing regimentation and government control. In this sense, it is similar to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, where the First World War is won at the cost of the freedom of the small farmers amongst whom Gibbon sets his novel.
Frodo and Sam. Frodo (still less Gandalf or Aragorn) is not the hero of the book, Sam is. It’s that simple, and Tolkien himself acknowledged as much. Although Frodo gets top billing, this just goes to show Tolkien’s ultimate sympathy is with the underdog. To be fair, Jackson does acknowledge this to some extent by showing Sam and Rose’s wedding near the end, but because Jackson omits the Scouring of the Shire chapter, there’s nowhere to show Sam’s real growth, his leading role in the restoration of the Shire, his planting of the mallorn tree (trees being a symbol of lineage, as Tolkien well knew); nor do we see Frodo’s pacifism, illness and withdrawal from Shire life, which lead to his desire to leave for the Grey Havens. Given the addition of some pointless if not absurd scenes (Gimli getting drunk, Aragorn revealing his real age), it is endlessly irritating that vital sections were chopped.
Religious subtext. Though not religious myself, I think it is fatal to Lord of the Rings if the religious aspect is not conveyed. By “religious”, I mean the sense of perhaps mystical power some characters and indeed some places demonstrate. The wizards, Elrond and Galadriel are clearly angel-like, while Sauron is a Satanic figure – their powers are obviously hard to demonstrate, but Jackson never seems to bother his arse in even attempting to do so, with little revealed about Elrond, his lineage and his importance. The Old Forest, Rivendell, Fangorn, Lothlorien, Mordor, and the Shire meanwhile all have a power of their own, something beyond an atmosphere, a power that’s not quite sentient or tangible but can be felt in the soil, whether for good or ill. Little of this is ever conveyed, yet one does get a sense of the bucolic richness of the Shire, the horror and damnation of Mordor, and the timelessness of Rivendell (albeit in a kinda hippyish way) in the Bakshi film. Jackson’s vision of Mordor seems to be a place where your face gets dirty.