Recently, I reread The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for fun. That got me thinking about the movies, as anyone who has seen both versions can’t help but compare the two as they go through. I can’t definitively say who did the story better, although I do think J.R.R. Tolkien put more love, thought, and effort into it, as he is the creator. Sometimes a new person in a different decade can expand on an author’s original ideas, in ways that he or she never thought to explore.
Both he and Peter Jackson should be commended, however, for their contributions to books, films, fantasy, and franchise overall, and I thought I’d examine some key differences between the versions today. Even the extended edition can’t cover everything, and Jackson had to somehow make the movies his own while still being relatively faithful to Tolkien’s original story.
So here we go!
What You Lose By Only Watching the Movie
- Realistic time-passage. The book may be a lot slower, but events tend to happen at a more natural pace, especially given how disorganized each party was before the Council of Elrond. Lots of time is spent resting, talking, and walking,
Yeah, yeah, I know, but this load of walking offers many more details and, for some, more subtle and nuanced character development.
- More interaction with Middle Earth as a whole. People that we see in passing (such as the wood elves in the extended version and the men/hobbits of Bree) are engaged in conversation, and a lot of history about them is expanded on in great detail.
- Songs, poems, and lore. Another element that adds realism to a fictional world is storytelling. Bilbo in particular is a gifted lyricist and writer, and he shares many tales that lend culture, history, and ideology to the diverse cultures and races the characters encounter. It really shows Tolkien’s detail and passion for the world he created, and even those who might find parts of it boring must at least admit that his skill and intelligence is admirable.
- Sam’s cleverness, and his great fascination with elves.
- More details that inform Frodo’s character. His parents died in a boating accident when he was twelve, and after almost a decade living in Buckland before being adopted by his cousin, Biblo. Bilbo leaves when Frodo turns 33, adulthood in hobbit years, and Frodo begins his journey with the One Ring at nearly 50 years old. He is very close with Merry and Pippin, who are younger relatives of his, and he has a good sense of humor and fairly quick wit.
In addition, Frodo impresses many of the elves he meets by demonstrating what Bilbo taught him of their language. He is smart and practical, for the most part, and despite being afraid and feeling out of his element, Frodo also demonstrates great bravery and loyalty to his friends. Elijah Wood’s Frodo gets less time to shine, unfortunately, and in many moments where Book Frodo would have attempted to fight, he just drops his sword or falls over, leaving others to do most of the work. Both Frodo characters are endearing, curious, and brave, but Book Frodo has more time devoted to him, for better or worse, and the medium allows us to see some of his thoughts occasionally. It’s unfortunate, but no movie would have been capable of doing him perfect justice.
- Aragorn’s sword is re-forged immediately. There is very little build up to this, unlike in any of the movies.
- Various scenes and characters from the book. Tom Bombadil, Glorfindel, the Barrow Downs, time in the Prancing Pony. As you might expect, to add drama, suspense, mystery, and urgency, Jackson switches around the placement of some scenes and completely omits others. Some other moments that are told in passing in the book get more direct screen time in the movie, which, while interesting and definitely an effective use of the visual medium, sometimes lose exposition and the thought process of the teller. Some motivations change, depending on the needs of the plot, but that can also subtlely or drastically change a character.
- Answers to various questions. What has Thorin’s company been up to since The Hobbit? Who are all of the people at the Council of Elrond, and why are they important? Why did Balin go to Moria in the first place? And what’s up with those damn eagles? Anything you wanted to know and more is revealed in the book, and while the tone of The Hobbit was sillier and less weighty, it bridges the gap between the two stories fairly nicely. Certainly better than The Hobbit movies, anyway.
- Aragorn’s more diplomatic, “kingly” side. In this book, he’s still just a Dúnedain ranger, not a true king yet, but you see snippets of what he will be like. He is scraggly, but wise and well-spoken with the people he believes deserve his respect. When he takes charge of the Fellowhsip, and the elves of Lothlórien insist on blindfolding Gimli, Aragorn tells them that everyone will go blindfolded, even Legolas. He respects their law as much as he can while honoring his companion at the same time, even if Legolas is indignant about it.
Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is a little too gruff and scraggly, in my opinion, but he’s a fine enough choice.
- More of Gollum’s skillful and creepy tracking of the Fellowship.
- Some good, old-fashioned elf-dwarf cattiness. Especially once they reach Lothlórien. Good lord…it’s kind of hilarious though. The elves really need to check their privilege.
- The sense of accomplishment you get when you reach the end.
What You Lose By Only Reading the Book
- Urgency. The pace slows to a crawl at times, and characters rest for waaaaay longer than you think they should, given the threat. At one point, Frodo becomes suspicious of being followed by a creepy rider dressed in black, but thinks it’s totally necessary to sit down and chat with the older farmer he knew from childhood and have dinner with his wife. At best, it can come across as silly, but at worst, it absolutely kills the tension.
Peter Jackson occasionally adds closure and genuine pay-off by shifting scenes around, even those from other books in the series.
- Natural dialogue. Similarly to the urgency issue, characters in the book are needlessly polite and wait very nicely for people to finish, whether they are having a disagreement, an exchange of thinly-veiled insults, or simply have new information that contradicts the current speaker. Hardly anyone politely interjects, when you would think that time is of the essence. Some characters actually bring this up during the council meeting, which is hilarious, but also suggests that Tolkien knew he was spinning his wheels and continued anyway, maybe because he couldn’t think of how else to get that exposition in. This is a killer for some readers, making parts that should be interesting needlessly tedious. As much as I love this book, I am perfectly willing to admit that.
- Orc scenes/dialogue. Other than some vague “shouts” from their enemies, the orcs in the book don’t get any lines. We also don’t get much description of how Saruman is prepping for war, and nothing so far about how Uruks differ much from regular old orcs.
- Great music. Howard Shore’s score is absolutely amazing. It’s perfectly atmospheric to the scenes, and he used actual Sindarin (Elvish) for some of the songs. When this film came out, I thought I could not possibly love Enya any more than I already did, but I was prove wrong. And I’m okay with that.
- Great landscapes. How much tourism has been driven to New Zealand from this movie alone? If but I had Kim Kardashian’s vast riches for a hideously expensive royal wedding, I’d go to where they shot Rivendell and pay them to set up whatever else they needed to make it complete, then invite the cast to dress up in costume and show up in the crowd.
…Yes, I’m a dork. What else is new?
- Great casting. Elijah Wood. Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, who actually met J.R.R. Tolkien, in addition to being a general badass in life and acting alike. The costuming is impeccable, although Sauron the Dark Lord is a bit over-the-top. He matches his lair, though, so that’s good. There’s no mistake that he’s wholly, irredeemably evil.
The only one who looks a little out of place is Hugo Weaving as Elrond, but unbeknownst to strict film-viewers, he is actually only half-elf, so his harder features can be forgiven. What might not be forgiven in light of this is his harshness towards Aragorn for trying to court his daughter.
Also, I love that John Rhys-Davies is taller than pretty much anyone else in the cast, but he’s a dwarf, so he ends up looking shorter than everyone.
- Great effects. I truly believe that a healthy mix of practical effects and CGI is the way to go in movies. This is less relevant in this film, but part of what makes Gollum so convincing and lifelike is that Andy Serkis is really there, interacting with the people talking to him. In most strictly CG fare, the characters typically never meet each other’s eyes, if they’re even looking in the right general direction to begin with. It doesn’t fool me, it’s not very immersive, and it only looks so impressive standing next to things that clearly don’t mix, with different structures and textures.
- Arwen getting some development and screen time. Because otherwise, this story is one big sausage fest. Which isn’t really a problem for me, but the addition of a capable, badass female character gets no complaints from me. And her romance with a main character is actually in the book, if only more subtly hinted. She wasn’t created from thin air and then forced into a stupid love triangle for no reason.
- Boromir gets less to say, but he’s much more likeable. At the risk of “spoiling” The two Towers, it’s as though Jackson sucked out some of Faramir’s likability and gave it to Boromir…while completely missing the point of Faramir’s original character. But that’s another story!
Boromir really gets to bond with Merry and Pippin, making his sacrifice at the end all the more redeeming and endearing. The little morons went and wasted it immediately, but still.
Boromir is presented in the movie as arrogant and naïve, but misguided. The One Ring still seduces him, and it’s very similar to the book, but we get more scenes showing that he cares about his people and just wants to defend them as best he can. It’s more implied in the book, but as a result, the most personality you get out of him is just that arrogance and naiveté, less clearly motivated. Sometimes subtle isn’t always better, and I get the sense that the first son of Denethor was not terribly popular with Tolkien himself.
He’s less young in this version and more of just a thoughtless idiot, but he’s still cute. He and Merry actually have personalities that aren’t confusing and interchangeable, even if they do come off a little less braze at times.
- Frodo doing the chicken dance.
- The Ring Wraiths are much scarier. It’s hard to imagine the imposing, hissing foes from the movie just walking up to the Old Gaffer and even remotely casually asking him where Frodo is. But that is how most people recount speaking to the black riders, even if they seem a bit shaken or their dogs were sent off scurrying. I like the movie wraiths better because they ask questions or swing their swords. They seem sinister and imposing without seeming undignified, whether it’s by their demeanor or their encounters with people on the road.
- Fight choreography. Before Gimli’s height or Legolas’s archery became a running joke, they were just straight-up badasses. Fights can be flowing and energetic, almost like a dance. It’s not as gritty or chaotic as it might be in real life, but there’s certainly an art to it. In the book, you get very little description of strikes.
- Showing, not telling. This is pretty standard for film, but acting has to clarify thoughts in place of narration. This allows for some brilliant, even powerful subtlety, like Gandalf’s hilarious posturing when trying to open the Doors of Durin in Moria, or Frodo’s silent exchange with Merry and Pippin before he leaves in the end. Not everything needs to be spoken aloud, and that is one place where realism comes into play in movies.
One thing missing from the book and movie is moral ambiguity on the part of the villains. There are good guys and there are bad guys, and otherwise, there may be a few characters who are misguided or harmless and confusing. Tom Bombadil in particular reminds me of someone you might find in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
But the antagonists are all ugly and rotten to the core. They vary by race or level of depravity, but there appears to be no possible redemption for any of them, which doesn’t ring true in the real world. It’s a comforting idea – that evil exists, but good will prevail in the end – but it’s not the most challenging of concepts.
That said, Fellowship of the Ring is still an amazingly creative, in-depth story, and the film is the best mainstream adaptation we could have hoped for, despite its flaws. If you like it (or especially love it), you should definitely try to read the books at least once. My parents let me see the first movie (I was about ten when it came out), but then they made me read each book before I could see the film version.