Yesterday, a friend posted on Facebook that the Lord of the Rings movies did the character of Boromir dirty.  I countered that those movies did every character dirty, with the possible exception of Sam and Gollum.  The best parts of the movies are the visuals and the soundtrack.

This is because Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, and Fran Walsh don’t actually understand Tolkien’s work.  They certainly lack his subtlety.  (Yes, I’m going to go into some detail on what they got wrong.  Some.  Those who don’t like people trashing movies for screwing with the source material might want to stop reading now.  Because I’m not going to stop, because it’s my blog.)  And every character change they made watered down the character.

First of all, Aragorn didn’t need an arc, where he agonizes and broods, worried that he shouldn’t be king because wanting power is bad.  Because The Lord of the Rings isn’t the entirety of his story.  It’s the culminating chapter of a long life of hardship, toil, and duty, that has led him to this point, where it is time to take up the mantle left to him.  He’s got the experience, he’s got the hard-won wisdom, and he knows that no one else can do it for him.  He’s not hiding in the books.  He is doing his duty as best he can, both to the North and the South.  And he’s old enough and wise enough that he knows what that duty is, without a lot of immature whinging and worrying about it.  He’s past procrastinating and wrestling with the right thing to do.  Which is why he deliberately takes the palantir from Pippin and uses it, wresting it from Sauron’s control and letting Sauron know just who is really on the field.

He also doesn’t have an arc because he’s not the main character.  The hobbits are.

But no, let’s set him up with lots of angst, because that makes him “relatable.”  I wonder if the screenwriters ever met someone who lived through the Depression and the Second World War.  Or, if they did, I wonder if they listened to them.

The hobbits in the books were plain folk, earthy and somewhat provincial.  They lived on good food, good beer, good pipes, and common sense.  What put the four of them out of their comfort zone was that the wonder of the wider world was so far out of the every day experience in the Shire.  They were English yeomen, turned into The Little People and thrown into an epic.  (There is a theory that Merry, Pippin, and Sam were somewhat inspired by some of Tolkien’s friends who were killed in WWI.)

Yet the versions of the hobbits (with, as aforesaid, the possible exception of Sam) given in the movies are mostly juvenile troublemakers and borderline buffoons.  “Fool of a Took” becomes an accurate descriptor, rather than an exasperated exclamation partly let out from worry.  The young hobbits are no longer clever, upstanding lads doing their best to be brave.  There are flashes of it, of course, in the parts that are directly taken from the books.  But the adjustments generally make them into comic relief.

As for Frodo, while his character wasn’t nearly as assassinated as many of the others, they really should have cast someone older and earthier in the role.  Frodo was in his 50s in the books, though he looked younger.  Elijah Wood looks like a teenager.

What they did with Arwen and Elrond, while somewhat more subtle in its wrongness, is even worse than the hobbits.  Replacing Glorfindel with Arwen is roughly like replacing St. George with the Virgin Mary.  Arwen’s place wasn’t riding alone through the woods with a sword.  She was too important for that.  And even Glorfindel didn’t try to fight off the Ringwraiths at the ford; he’d put Frodo on his horse alone and sent him on ahead.  As for Elrond Half-Elven objecting to his daughter marrying a mortal man…that’s just sloppy.  Elrond was a descendant of just such a union.  And given that they reference the story of Beren and Luthien in the movies, the screenwriters didn’t even have the excuse of ignorance.

Casting-wise, for Elrond they needed someone who didn’t immediately fill the audiences’ ears with, “Mr. Anderson.”

They continued making each character a weaker shadow of themselves in the books.  Gimli, stout and rugged as the very rocks of the hills, untiring, a fierce enemy and a fast friend, becomes a clown, a bumbling bit of comic relief.  Legolas, who has to learn to let go of some of his immortal people’s long grudge against the dwarves (going back to the First Age and the fall of Nargothrond), becomes a smug comic book character who doesn’t really need the rest of the Fellowship.  Theoden, worn down by age and cares, convinced by clever words that all is lost, is instead possessed by Saruman.  And then, after a ludicrous pseudo-exorcism, he regains some of his strength, except that it’s still fatalistic and defeatist, almost as bad as he was at his lowest in the books.  Helm’s Deep becomes a retreat, rather than the front line of defense, which it was in the books.

Faramir went from being a man of such honor that without even knowing what the weapon of the Enemy was, “I would not take it, were it lying by the roadside,” to a child so desperate for his father’s approval, regardless of the means needed to get it, that he would try to take the Ring by force.

Even Saruman is watered down.  The greatest of the wise, who looked a bit too deeply at the darkness, attempting to defeat it, is slowly consumed by it, until he seeks to set himself up in Sauron’s place.  Except in the movie, suddenly he’s a willing pawn, rather than an enemy slowly twisted to Sauron’s purposes, while thinking himself using Sauron’s means to his own ends.

The high points, the general strokes of the story, are still there.  But Jackson and his friends missed most of the soul of Tolkien’s story.

One of the themes that is threaded through The Lord of the Rings is the insidious nature of evil.  It doesn’t always come at you the same way.  The Ring is the temptation to power, domination.  It is the embodiment of the principle that inherent evil cannot bring about good, no matter how inviting the shortcut might be.  But the Ring and the hordes of cannibalistic orcs are not the only evil shown.  The greatest is despair.  And against the evil of despair, Tolkien contrasts hope.

That is why there isn’t a lot of “comic relief” in the books.  He wrote moments of relief from the darkness and the battles and the hardship.  But they are not jokes and pratfalls.  They are moments of beauty in the midst of darkness, moments of peace, quiet, and hope in the midst of darkness and evil.  The most emblematic are when Frodo sees the fallen head of the statue of the king in Ithilien, crowned with flowers, or when he and Sam look up through the murk of Mordor and see a single star glimmering in the darkness.

Compared to that, Gimli having a drinking contest seems…juvenile.  And I think that is the greatest flaw in the movies.  The writers lacked Tolkien’s maturity.  And as such, they missed the true heart and soul of the story.

The LOTR Movies Aren’t Really Tolkien
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Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

3 thoughts on “The LOTR Movies Aren’t Really Tolkien

  • April 4, 2020 at 10:47 am

    Largely, I agree with most of this, although I would also argue the Lord of the Rings, as written, isn’t really cinematic friendly, or at least not easily. I give Peter Jackson credit for even doing as well as he did. Peter Jackson and his crew had a rather unenviable task of making an unfilmable series filmable. It also had to be, I’m sorry to say, sellable, hence some of the decisions that were made. I do agree that many of the characters didn’t have to be written as they were.

    All that being said, comment on Faramir? Spot on. Much maligned, and the relationship the eventually builds between Faramir and Eowen is largely brushed over. Saruman, yep, agree there and I think Tolkien’s death of Saruman is much more fitting. TONS of other things that were left out or perhaps not as well done as they could have been.

    Interesting and thoughtful commentary…now I have to go read the books again…

  • April 4, 2020 at 6:16 pm

    Nobody really mentions that the Scouring of the Shire is conspicuously absent. You know, the part where the hobbits, having marched forth and confronted soul-searing terror to save the free world from domination, and having suffered immense emotional and personal damage for it, return home only to find that it has been taken over by Saruman. Saruman, who they foolishly allowed to slip away previously, has stripped away the very freedom they fought for and reduced their beautiful rural Shire to an industrialized fascist or socialist state. They rally their former neighbors and drive out the oppressors and collaborators to restore freedom before the denouement.

    Why would that have been omitted? The pernicious nature of fascism and socialism, their ability to worm its’ way into the most unlikely places is a major theme of the entire work. Omitting it is a major disservice to the author. I can live with them omitting Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, whose arc is obscure and unclear, but failing to deal with the evils of both fascism and socialism has left a generation missing a huge lesson of mindfulness and remaining alert to the danger. Pity.

  • April 5, 2020 at 11:17 am

    Excellent points. I never made it past the first movie… sigh


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