I was off work last Friday with an immovable neck, and since I couldn’t do anything useful, I sat down and watched the extended DVD editions of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King (I don’t have The Two Towers, though I have seen it). It’s been a while since I last watched them. While I agree with the view that Tolkien’s novel is probably unfilmable as written, and that Jackson mostly did a pretty good job of filming the book, they didn’t capture my imagination as the book did. Admittedly, I was around nine or ten when I first read The Lord of the Rings, and the films came out twenty years later, but there is a magic about the book which I don’t feel was there in the films, particularly now, ten years after their release.
There’ll be spoilers, so be warned if you haven’t seen the films or read the book.
The good points. The look of the films was generally fantastic – the costumes, the landscape both natural and computer rendered, the simple attention to detail (particularly noticeable in the copious DVD extras). The acting was generally good, even if very few of the characters actually looked how Tolkien described them or how I’d envisaged them. And the action scenes and battles were exciting, though not particularly realistic. I thought that The Fellowship of the Ring was the better film, both as an adaptation of Tolkien’s text, despite the omissions and changes, and as a film: there were fewer longueurs and it hung together more cohesively. It helps, of course, that until the breaking of the Fellowship, there’s mostly a linear storyline, which isn’t the case with the other two films or the rest of the book. There were a lot of fan complaints at the time of the first film about Arwen’s considerably beefed-up role – she barely appears in the book – which didn’t bother me too much, at least, not in the first film, where she basically takes on the role that Glorfindel played in the book. Of what Tolkien wrote about Elves, too, this isn’t entirely unrealistic.
However, there were a lot of things I really disliked about the films, particularly Return of the King, which were mostly to do with characterisation, and for which I place most blame on Jackson as director, and he, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, the screenwriters. Firstly, the hobbits were portrayed as comic characters who lucked out, and whose strength of mind and resilience – particularly of Frodo and Sam – were nowhere to be seen. Merry and Pippin just happening upon Sam and Frodo as they leave the Shire, and their appearance at the Council of Elrond reinforces this idea that they’re feckless and silly. The omission of The Scouring of the Shire – where they discover that war has effects at home as well as far away – from the end of the third film completely diminishes their achievements (this omission of course explained the different gifts given by Galadriel in the first film – poor Sam gets fobbed off with a coil of rope instead of his box of earth, for example). It also makes Aragorn’s remarks at his coronation in the third film that the hobbits should “bow to no-one” seem utterly absurd, particularly since he was addressing Merry and Pippin as well, and they hadn’t actually contributed that much to the defeat of Sauron.
Secondly, Aragorn’s uncertainty and doubt about the kingship and his relationship with Arwen did not ring true, and made him – of all people – seem less heroic and even uncertain of himself. In the book he has moments of self-doubt, it’s true, about what he should be doing, but he never loses sight of the ultimate goal, and it’s never implied anywhere that Arwen had any second thoughts about marrying him once they’d become betrothed. I think this was a general issue with the adaptation – that no-one was allowed to be absolutely honourable and heroic. Denethor, for example, was portrayed in the third film as already sunk in despair, so much so that he couldn’t even be bothered to have the beacons lit which would call for aid from the Rohirrim (though the bit where the beacons were shown lighting, one after another, was very stirring to watch): one of the interesting things about book!Denethor is that he is honourable, and cares for his people, and he only succumbs at the last to despair when he sees, as he thinks, inevitable defeat sailing up the river. And I’m not even going to go there with Faramir, my favourite character from the book (though the worst part of what the films did to him was in The Two Towers). Poor Gimli was treated as a comic turn (as were Merry and Pippin, mostly), there for light relief. Although in the book there are amusing moments which involve him – his rivalry with Legolas in killing Orcs at Helm’s Deep, or Boromir’s ironic remark about everyone being tired “except, no doubt, our sturdy dwarf”, when Gimli is half-asleep – he is a serious sort of person and one whom I can’t imagine engaging in a drinking contest with Legolas.
And there was an awful lot of plot tomfoolery. I won’t go into everything that bugged me, but will mention the most egregrious example. Since Narsil was not reforged before the Company left Rivendell, Aragorn had to wait until after the battle at Helm’s Deep to receive Andúril from Elrond, who turned up casually in Rohan to deliver it, and then disappeared again. I mean, what? And things which were changed then led to other changes, which led to illogicalities. The fact that Aragorn saw in the palantír of Orthanc Arwen dying, rather than the fleet coming north to wreak havoc on Gondor, removed all the urgency from his long, brutal journey through the Paths of the Dead and into southern Gondor (which is thrillingly recounted by Gimli and Legolas in the book), and again undermined his utter self-confidence in his destiny. The Mouth of Sauron, for example, implied in his parley with Aragorn and Gandalf that Frodo had been killed by torture – if so, then they would have absolutely no incentive to agree to Sauron’s terms. And so it went on (though my rant stops here).
Maybe I am too much attached to the book after thirty years to like any film which could be made of The Lord of the Rings, and I’m being unfair to these adaptations. Having re-watched two of the three, however, reinforces my conviction that I would not enjoy Jackson’s The Hobbit films. The BBC did a fantastic version on radio back in 1981 – which took a little less than 13 hours (though the three extended edition films are together almost 11-and-a-half hours long) which remained much more faithful to the plot and the characterisation, though omitting certain parts, such as the bits with Tom Bombadil, understandably. Although I dislike some of the voices (Jack May as Théoden, for example), it was generally very well cast, and its use of music was very well integrated into the dramatisation. Of course, it doesn’t have the visual power of Jackson’s version, but it does let one use one’s imagination.