Well, it's official. Thanks to the prompting of the lovely Anna Jewell, I finally got around to reading the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now, technically, I had already read to the middle of The Two Towers back when I was around thirteen, but for one reason or another, I found them boring and overly descriptive and put the series down. I've heard that same excuse from a lot of people who don't read the books. I got all three as unabridged audiobooks and as soon as I started listening I was confused that I ever thought the books were boring. The Lord of the Rings, as written by J.R.R. Tolkien is a masterpiece in every way. It is (and perhaps always will be) the epic fantasy to rule them all. The story is dynamic, the characters are wonderful, and the world is deeply intricate in every way. Tolkien was a master storyteller and delivered what I would consider the best work of fiction ever created.
That being said, that is not where my journey with Middle-Earth began. My father took me to go see Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring when it came out in theaters, back in 2001. I am so eternally grateful that he did because the moment I saw that movie, my life was changed irrevocably. 2001 was the true beginning of my lifelong passion for the fantasy genre, and in truth, of my lifelong passion with stories. My tastes have changed and gotten more complex as time has passed, and over the past several years I have branched out drastically from the standard sword and sorcery fantasy I grew up reading and watching, but The Lord of the Rings is the truest classic, in every sense of the word.
Getting to go back to those roots once more and experiencing the story in a way that I had never fully experienced it before was wonderful. I was able to have entirely new perspectives on characters I had grown up with and the story I had fell in love with. And I gained a newfound appreciation for both the magnificence of the world of Middle-Earth, but also for just how good of a job Peter Jackson did in translating the saga to film.
That is what I really want to talk about today--the differences between the movies and the books and what I thought of them. I apologize for the long introduction to this, but I can't just bring up a topic like The Lord of the Rings and not explain my history with it.
There are several main differences between the two stories (Tolkien's original and Jackson's interpretation) that I'd like to discuss. Most namely, those are the viewpoint, writing style, chapter breakdown, character development, and simple condensing of the story.
We'll begin with the first three. Tolkien was writing in a time much different from our modern world. The style of writing was very different, as was the style of storytelling in many ways. One of the main things that make Tolkien's story different than Jackson's interpretation is the way the books are written in third-person omniscient. For those of you who are wondering what in the world that is, third-person omniscient is a way of writing a story from the viewpoint of an omniscient, impersonal narrator--someone who knows all of the details of the story and is conveying the story directly to you as if he is speaking. In this case, Tolkien is pretty much the narrator, as opposed to one of our characters being the narrator in first-person or from a character's perspective in tight third-limited. Omniscient was very popular back in the time Tolkien was writing and was pretty much the industry-standard. Now, there are pros and cons to this style of writing, but Tolkien used it very well (though that's not surprising since he did everything well). Omniscient allows you to head hop to whoever you like and give us their thoughts, so the narrator can let you know exactly what everyone in a room is thinking without it costing too much space in the story or being inconsistent with the viewpoint. It also allows the writer to give (or hide from) you any piece of information that can help the story move forward, without restriction. This allows you to paint a much broader picture and in some ways a much more epic scope.
The films, on the other hand, are told in third-person cinematic. The camera follows a specific person in every shot, and the story is being told from their viewpoint whenever the camera is on them. You get to read their facial expressions, see the light in their eyes, and see the world around them vividly in a way that is impossible in written form. Tolkien's work does not have this personal feel to it and has a much more grand scope, a larger picture of everything going on sort of view. That is one of the things that I feel helped the films immensely--the way we get to be right beside the characters every step of the way, despite the lack of thoughts being told to us. Instead, we get to be shown that by the way they act and the expressions on their face. That might be one of Tolkien's story's weaknesses. The lack of a personal connection telling the story in a different viewpoint would have given it. I'm sure many modern readers would tell you the same, but that might just be because we're so used to third-person limited in this day and age. Much of this can be extrapolated into Tolkien's writing style in general, as well. He is definitely much more descriptive than most writer's today, and that is mostly a convention of his era. One of the great things about translating the story to film is that you still get all of those detailed descriptions, but with one camera shot instead of a page of descriptive text.
The chapter breakdown is also a main difference between the mediums. Tolkien told his story very consistently with one set of characters at a time. In Fellowship, we follow Frodo all the way through the story without fail. If Frodo is not there, the scene is not in the book. In Towers, this changes because the party splits. We have a large section of chapters from Aragorn's perspective, Merry and Pippin's perspectives, and finally Frodo and Sam's. Same with King. Now, this sort of storytelling can work fantastically in a novel, and in truth it does in The Lord of the Rings , but it is impossible to do that sort of thing well in a movie. And there are many things that are told in hindsight to characters or only touched on in the books that the films show in chronological order to give the audience a better of sense of being present while the story is happening around them, rather than having to go back in time and go through days you've already been through before, albeit in a different setting. Both mediums do wonderfully with what they chose to go with, and I had no real qualms with either way of presenting the story.
Character development is where I start to learn with the movies over the books. I'm going to say it straight out--I found Aragorn to be immensely annoying in the books. This surprised me, because he's pretty much my favorite character in the films. Aragorn in Jackson's translation is a reluctant wanderer who doesn't think he's good enough to become king and struggles with his own weaknesses throughout the story before finally coming into his own. Tolkien's Aragorn, I thought, was an arrogant jerk who went around ordering people around and telling them all how he was going to be king someday. And technically he had every right to do so because he was undoubtedly the most heroic and noble character in the entire series in terms of pure morality, but it still annoyed me. I found a similar if much less subdued version of this in Faramir's character that also irked me. Faramir in the movies struggles with himself. Faramir in the books can do no wrong. Maybe that's just a personal taste, but I like my heroes to have weaknesses they are forced to struggle against. People who are good without any sort of struggle seem unrealistic to me.
That being said, I think I might like Legolas and Gimli (and to some extent, Merry and Pippin) more in the books than I did in the movies. Legolas and Gimli's friendship is much deeper in the novels, for one, and especially in Gimli's character, I found so much more depth in personality than just being the action hero or the comic relief character. Merry and Pippin seemed much grander and larger than life in the books, and I really enjoyed that, because once again, they were mainly comic relief. That can be fun, and it undoubtedly was in those movies, but it can grow old if that is all a character is.
Finally, we come to simple condensing of the story. When you go about translating a work such as The Lord of the Rings into three films three hours in length each, you have your work cut out for you. Really, when you're doing any sort of book adaptation to the screen, it's going to take a lot of work to create a translation that stays true to the heart of the story while keeping it engaging for it's medium. I think that Peter Jackson did this better than anyone else in history has ever done. The more I read the books, the more respect I gained for the way Jackson stayed true to the heart of Tolkien's masterpiece. So many of the lines in the films are taken directly from the books with little to no editing. And though many of them are placed in different settings and said by different characters, their meanings do not change and it continues to stay true to the feeling of the core story.
One of the best things Peter Jackson did was cut out all of the unnecesarry characters. Even though an epic fantasy will always have more characters by its very nature, the amount of side characters that had relatively minor roles in the plot was significant, and there was a lot of fat to be trimmed as Peter Jackson began to tell the story that would be the films. From Tom Bombadil to Glorfindel to Beregond, things started to be cut to consolidate and tighten the story. The most important thing, however, is that whatever Peter Jackson removed, he always replaced with something that would fulfill the same role. And that is why the films were so amazing.
Instead of Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Downs showing the audience that the hobbits didn't know what they were doing, Jackson added other elements that accomplished the same goal with much less side-questing. Instead of Glorfindel coming to save the day out of nowhere, we get Arwen, a character who actually matters to the plot, doing the same thing and showing us one of the reasons she and Aragorn really need to be together. Instead of adding another ending to already long epilogue with the Scouring of the Shire, Jackson gave us other scenes that told us that the hobbits had changed and that things were not the same as they had been.
If I had to choose, I would watch the films over reading the books. Which is weird, because I'm usually more of a book person. It might be nostalgia, it might be the modernity of the medium, or it might be something else entirely, but Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings is undoubtedly my favorite story of all time. And I would venture to say that the world Tolkien created and the stories surrounding it are the best pieces of fiction the world has ever seen.
Thanks for reading.