In many film adaptations- most particularly in those with Christian themes or subtext- it is very common these days to diverge from the original intent, plot-line, or characterization of the source material. Often, it is for the purpose of cramming some new tension, conflict, or action sequence to ‘spice up’ the work. (Logic would dictate that, if it is popular enough to warrant an adaptation, it must’ve done something right already and might be best left as-written… but such logic is lacking in modern Hollywood).
Sometimes, these alterations are harmless. I don’t know what CS Lewis would’ve thought about the frozen waterfall sequence in 2005’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or how Tolkien would’ve viewed cartoon Legolas’ little jaunt up the side of an unreal Oliphaunt in Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, but most people would tend to agree that these little action-sequence additions are largely harmless (apologies for the pokes; I suppose the CG was good for its time). Perhaps enjoyable, perhaps fluff, but unintrusive to the narrative as a whole.
Even those that mourn the absence of Tom Bombadil probably agree that the alteration of a months-long journey from Hobitton to Bree into a single night of fleeing terror (to emphasize the unstoppable, deadly threat of the Nazgul… a running theme in these alterations) does not adversely affect the story. It is different, but it doesn’t diminish the tale (other than mangling the geography a bit and putting the Shire much closer to the outside world, I suppose- but this is thematically negligible in the context of the films).
Other times, however, these adaptation-changes miss the point of the original work entirely, working directly counter to the themes or intent of the source material. (In recent ‘Biblical’ epics, for instance, the storylines, characters, and theology are so off-base as to not even be worth discussing.)
In these unfortunate instances, agenda overcomes understanding, highlighting flaws in the comprehension of the source. However, with the remainder of the text left largely intact, the adaptation is left in conflict with itself. Themes in the added or omitted material clash with others that remain in the final work… an act of creative schizophrenia that serves to muddle the plot. These moments may niggle at you as ‘off,’ or blend in subtly enough not to draw attention to themselves- simply preventing some of the deeper themes from coming through.
In this instance, I’ve chosen to focus on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films; a list which is hardly exhaustive, but represents (to me) some of the most grievous instances. Here are some of the messages, meanings, and themes that you may not have caught if your only exposure to Middle Earth comes through the film saga…
The Two Towers was my least favorite of the Peter Jackson Tolkien films (until the utter ineptness of ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ came out, a movie that I actively detested, rather than simply ‘liked least’). Elements like the silly head-slamming exorcism of Theoden (seriously, he’s an old man- that’s going to break bones!) or the random Aragorn-falling-off-a-cliff false drama diminished the storyline, which seemed to polluted with the contrived or silly insertions of the modern film crew. (Again, this pales in comparison to the same phenomenon, multiplied a thousand-fold, in ‘Desolation.’) But for all of that, the change that always bothered me that most was the film’s treatment of the Ents.
The Ents have one defining quality. It is a species-trait around which all else revolves. It is their main characteristic, comprising practically the core of their being; the utter heart of their essence. It is emphasized repeatedly in the books, and even the films use it as a source for humor, whilst paying lip-service to the concept at the heart of what it is to be an Ent.
The Ents are not hasty.
It is their raison d’être, their reason for being. It is as closely tied to them as ‘being on fire’ is to Sauron’s eye. And yet, it is a characterization that is carried through the films inconsistently at best.
The book’s plotline regarding the Ents is fairly straightforward… the Ents deliberate for three days, and- already incensed at Saruman’s clear-cutting- arrive at a decision and go to war. (If the movie wanted tension in this sequence, on whether the Ents would or wouldn’t be coming to the rescue, it would be very simple- have Treebeard announce ‘we’ve come to a decision,’ then cut away from the scene, leaving the outcome in question until the Ents arrive on the scene to save the day.)
Instead, to ‘build tension,’ the filmmakers took it in a direction that directly undermines every quality that the Ents have been shown to possess, leaving their characterization (and landspeed) confused and contradictory at best.
First, the Ents decide ‘hey, not my problem,’ apparently unaware of Saruman’s actions. (Thus making them oblivious and very poor tree-shepherds who haven’t noticed the culling of their flock!) Then, the Hobbits show Treebeard the clear-cut. He screams in rage, and INSTANTLY every Ent is marching to war behind him.
Firstly, this requires Ents to apparently possess telepathy, in order to instantaneously all know, and agree, that they’re going to war without so much as a word exchanged between them. (Perhaps that was an uncharacteristically-short ‘to-arms’ cry in Old Entish?)
Secondly, it is an absurdly hasty, instantaneous decision, reversing their deliberated position. This conflicts directly with the deepest and most prominent aspect of their character- a rash decision that turns the Ents into the embodiment of haste, rather than its opposite.
Thirdly, it adds ‘teleportation’ to the list of Ent skills alongside telepathy, because all of the other ponderous, generally slow-moving Ents are instantly there, at the edge of the forest- where presumably none of them tended to congregate or travel normally, or else they’d have already known about the clear-cutting. There is absolutely NO reason or logical means for them to be there, or have arrived so quickly (which would require roughly ‘Barry Allen’ levels of speed).
This scene is such a monument to illogic and logistical absurdity, and so directly and blatantly in opposition to the previously presented characterization of the Ents that I’m amazed that no one in the studios said, “Uh, no. This is less logical than the physics of a Road Runner cartoon; we are not releasing this to the general public until you fix it.”
By far, the worst-served character in the LOTR saga is Faramir (arguably; mopey lack-of-self-confidence Aragorn is a pretty far cry from the books, too…). A man of character and honor in the books is reduced to a treacherous thug whose villainous torture of Gollum is almost solely responsible for thwarting a nascent rehabilitation of the character. A man who drags both the Hobbits and the narrative ridiculously off-track for a weak, cobbled-together, superfluous ‘climax,’ before suddenly making a complete turnaround of character (thanks to a stirring speech by Sam) and getting both his character, and the narrative, back on track to where the presented them.
Novel Faramir, by contrast, was somewhat a Tolkien self-portrait. Rather than an avatar of how the ring could corrupt humans (as his brother had already served), he was a contrasting picture of how temptation could be resisted.
“But fear no more! I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.”
Faramir was a man of strong character, and demonstrated- like Tom Bombadil’s interlude- that the nature of evil was not all-consuming, or undefeatable. (Indeed, unlike the films, even Sauron was slain in battle, and THEN the ring was cut from his finger by Isildur; even with it, he was not invincible.)
This is a key thematic difference; in the novels, evil can be overcome where it exists. It is powerful, and one must be ever on-guard against it, but it can be overcome. In the film versions, this is barely true; evil can be resisted, for a time… but corruption is all-powerful. The only way to defeat the temptation is to destroy it. Evil can only be overcome by eliminating it completely- for as long as it remains, it will overcome you eventually. (I’m certain that an entire series of blog posts could be devoted to which aspects of either philosophy are theologically accurate…)
As a consequence, the Faramir in the films- like his father- abandon nobility (or subtlety) in favor of being given over fully to their demons- driven, haunted, and easily corrupted. Rather than demonstrating that the evil of the ring can be resisted by nobility or strength of character, Faramir becomes emblematic of how every man is inescapably and absolutely vulnerable to it (a position that is affirmed all throughout the trilogy, including as the weak-willed Aragorn’s reason for allowing Frodo to leave).
However, since we never get the chance to see Faramir’s good character beforehand (and thus observe the change), this message becomes clear… and perhaps was never even consciously intended. Instead, we just see a man suffering from younger-sibling syndrome, willing to do anything to impress his father. A man who is cruel, selfish, and cold; ruthless… even if he is grieving, he is brutal, manipulative, and callous through the majority of The Two Towers. (Again, just observe his handling of Frodo in the Forbidden Pool scene, and his treatment of Gollum thereafter).
In essence, whether intended to be that way from the start, or corrupted by the ring in a way that is impossible to perceive due to lack of contrast, we get a Faramir who embodies the exact opposite of the written character’s characteristics.
At some point in the process, the writers understood this one. The crux of the entire quest is summed up by Gandalf in Moria- “The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” In the final film, an entire conversation is given to emphasize this point, as it should be. As a major theme of the book, it is crucial to the climax- in which Gollum bites the ring from Frodo’s fingers, then, in leaping and cavorting with joy, falls to his doom (no pun intended). It was not an act of combat or violence that won the War of the Ring, but rather an act of mercy. Bilbo’s pity saved the whole of Middle Earth- for without Gollum’s presence and actions, the ring would not have been destroyed.
In the film version, however, Gollum does not fall into the crack by his own actions. Instead, to give Frodo an ‘action hero’ moment (sort of; see below), he gets up again, grapples with Gollum, and knocks them both off the edge.
It’s a strange choice, as it’s not really a hero moment for Frodo (after all, it’s still an act of clumsiness, and ring-possessed greed), and it also adds a needless moment of Frodo appearing to die (along with Aragorn’s cliff-tumble in Two Towers, these films are big on clumsy fakeouts) and Sam having to haul him up (perhaps to mirror the ‘drowning’ scene from the end of Fellowship?).
It also exacerbates the issue of Frodo’s fluctuating energy levels, in which he is near-dead and needs to be carried, then suddenly sprinting into the crack, than incapacitated by a ruined finger, then suddenly back up to fight, then manages- with zero energy and every reserve spent, and a mangled, blood-slicked hand- to still hold on to the ledge, and haul himself back up with Sam’s help…
But worst of all, it takes the emphasis off of pity ruling the day. No longer is it an act of Bilbo’s mercy that saves everyone- the message of the original storyline- but rather, an act of Frodo and his mad desperation. An act of his weakness, thematically, because it is just an extension of his being controlled by the ring.
The argument could be made that Gollum’s presence is still necessary, as Sam probably wouldn’t have done something active to stop Frodo when he claimed the ring, and thus Frodo would’ve kept it, and shortly have been killed by the arriving Nazgul, losing the day; thus, Bilbo’s act of sparing Gollum still indirectly saves the day. But even if that is the case, it’s certainly gone from being the main point of the climax to an obfuscated message that you have to look hard to find. Once again, the emphasis is shifted back to the ring’s power (in this case, to compel Frodo to go and fight for it), in a narratively unsatisfying scene that neither leaves the original intent intact, nor gives its hero a moment to overcome and triumph. Essentially, the ring is a moron that defeats itself by summoning Frodo to try and reclaim it in a precarious locale. And that’s a far cry from a veteran of terrible war advocating mercy as the surest salvation.
It is a rare occurrence indeed for an adaptation to surpass the original. The very divergent natures of different media ensures that things will be mangled in the transfer, and a story designed to work in one medium will inevitably lose some of what it was intrinsically designed with. Porting a work over from the format it was crafted in and for is always rife with difficulties, and for a work as beloved and complex as Lord of the Rings, some issues were inevitable.
All in all, I still think that Peter Jackson made some fine movies- including the two under criticism here. The phenomenal score makes the Last March of the Ents, mischaracterized as it is, a spine-tingling moment- and if you don’t get a chill from the beacon-lighting scene, or stirred by Sam’s ‘But I can carry you!’ moment, then your heart may be made of stone.
There is much to laud in The Lord of the Rings films; and, as with all adaptations, any viewers must be willing to accept the necessity of some changes to account for the changed format. So long as the creators keep in mind the original intent of the author, those changes can be positive- or at least, harmless. And I think it’s safe to say that generally, for the first trilogy of films, changes like these stand out precisely because of their failure to do so- in contrast to the numerous other instances that are far more successful.
In the next blog post of this series, however, I’ll be looking at another franchise that has not been so fortunate; CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.
About Andrew Gilbertson
Forged in the fires of internet message board debates on Nitcentral.com, professional video editor Andrew Gilbertson has always been a filmmaker and writer. At last count, he’s edited over 40 short film projects in a roughly 8-year period, all of which are showcased for free at www.nolinecinemas.com- along with short stories, audio dramas, and podcasts. But his primary effort at the present is the Heavens Declare series, a sci-fi novel saga that he hopes to have ready for Grail Quest Books within the next year or so. He currently shares a suburban home with Sarah Gilbertson, the love of his life, and a newly-minted third member of the family, in a town that he’s geekily gleeful about sharing the same name with the hometown of a Doctor Who companion…