Fellowship of the Ring Adaptation Comparison
This article is the follow-up to my Fellowship of the Ring critique, which can be read here. I suggest reading the critique before you read the adaptation comparison, though this article should be comprehensible on its own as well.
Whether you’re a die-hard Tolkien fan or a critic like me, I think we can all agree that the Lord of the Rings movies are good. But I would go as far as to say that the Fellowship of the Ring movie is considerably better than the novel it’s based on. Calm down, don’t grab your pitchforks just yet. Let’s discuss why.
In case you haven’t read the disclaimers in the first article, let me reiterate: My assessment is opinion, not fact, even if I don’t explicitly say so. If you disagree with me or think I’ve overlooked something, you are free to bring it up (constructively) in the comments.
First of all, there is the matter of pace. There are a number of structural changes that are to be expected when you turn a book into a movie. Travel sequences are glossed over, action scenes are extended. Something major is always happening. Whereas Tolkien takes the time to narrate even mundane activities in order to immerse the reader, the movie focusses all attention on plot-relevant and character-building events.
As one might expect from my earlier comments about pace, I much prefer this faster and more focused structure. One might think that I simply prefer movies over books, but that’s not true. Pretty much every other book I’ve read has a faster pace than The Fellowship of the Ring. For example, the Song of Ice and Fire books, to name something vaguely comparable in terms of subject matter, are approximately the same size as the LotR books, but I feel like way more actually happens in them. By things happening, I mean anything that has some relation to the book’s overall conflict. Whereas Tolkien spends huge amounts of time describing the scenery and narrating mundane events, GRRM saves that time and spends it on relevant character dialogue. (Which is not to say that GRRM doesn’t waste time with repetitive descriptions sometimes, but that’s a whole different topic.) The point is, yes, you can write a book that’s faster-paced and more focussed than LotR without it turning out rushed or really short.
Changes to the Story
My preference for pace aside, there are a number of plot points that stand out as being changed in the movie. These are what really make the difference for me. Let’s go through the notable ones in chronological order, both the good and the few bad ones.
1. Right away, giving the exposition about the origin of the ring at the very beginning of the movie is an improvement. The audience immediately knows what they’re getting into, whereas in the book they have to get halfway through the story before the main conflict is properly explained to them. To be fair, this “opening narration” thing is generally accepted in movies but is significantly harder to do right in a book.
2. The theatrical release lacks a proper introduction about the hobbits, which is admittedly a loss. Thankfully, this is added in the extended edition, which contains a brief but solid exposition similar to the more lengthy “Concerning Hobbits” prologue in the book.
3. After Bilbo leaves, the immediate backlash that Gandalf feels upon touching the ring is a nice touch. It shows that he truly can’t be the one to carry it, instead of only speaking about the reasons why he shouldn’t, as is the case in the book. Of course, Gandalf should’ve known not to touch it, but I can ignore that for the sake of setting a solid precedent.
4. The conflict between Gandalf and Saruman is expanded upon in the movie. I would argue it’s an improvement. In the book, there is no mention of how Saruman subdued Gandalf to begin with. It sounds almost like Saruman told him to go to the top of the tower, and Gandalf just meekly went along with it. (Admittedly, this might be the case, since Saruman later turns out to have mind-control-esque abilities. But if Gandalf was mind-controlled in the book, why didn’t he mention that?) Either way, I prefer the events of the movie, because it actually shows the audience how Gandalf was defeated and teaches them that Saruman is a serious threat. Though on the other hand, I don’t remember these telekinesis abilities being shown in any other scene, which could be considered a plot hole, seeing as they could’ve been useful in many instances. This one is admittedly a bit of a mixed bag.
5. The early introduction of the Uruk-hai helps create a greater sense of urgency and threat, which the book slacks. We aren’t just told that orcs are amassing in some far-away places, we actually get to see it happening. We see their destructive potential as they desecrate the lands of Isengard. They even get a “face” in the form of Lurtz, which sends a message to the audience that these guys are going to be more than just a faceless speedbump.
6. I appreciate the removal of Glorfindel in order to more efficiently introduce Arwen. It cuts out some world building, sure, but that’s hard to avoid with the limited runtime of the movie. Arwen gets a bit of screen time, and she gets to pique the audience’s attention by being the one who summons the Flood. Now when the romantic subplot between Arwen and Aragorn is introduced, it’s easier to be invested, because the audience is already somewhat invested in Arwen’s character. By contrast, Arwen’s presence in the book is very brief and superficial, and the romantic subplot is mostly told indirectly through Aragorn.
7. Obviously, Tom Bombadil has been completely cut from the movie. If you’ve read my critique, you’ll know why this is an improvement. If you haven’t, you can read my roasting of Tom Bombadil here, under the header "Tom Motherf*cking Bombadil".
8. Gimli’s attempt to destroy the ring is an excellent addition. It does what Tolkien’s books often do not: showing instead of telling. The fact that the ring was not only completely undamaged by Gimli’s attack, but also shattered his axe in the process, sends a clear message that no mundane method of destruction will work here. It is admittedly a bit strange that Gimli has an axe at the ready during a council meeting and whips it out so thoughtlessly, but I can overlook that.
9. When the Fellowship fails to scale Caradhras, the not-so-natural hazards in their way are shown to be the work of Saruman. This is different from the books, where these hazards are implied to be caused by some other malevolent force, the spirit of Caradhras itself, which may or may not be influenced by Sauron. Like several other of the changes, this sacrifices some world-building in favour of a more tightly-wound story. I prefer this change because it turns Saruman into a more immediate adversary and creates a greater sense that the Enemy is out to stop them, something the book preaches but doesn’t show as clearly as I would’ve liked.
10. The fellowship’s stay in Lothlórien is strangely short in the movie, which I find quite a loss. This is an instance of world-building I’m sad to miss out on. Thankfully, the extended edition brings back the scenes in Lothlórien, including Galadriel’s gifts, which I find quite charming even if they are a bit frivolous. (See, my heart isn't totally made of stone.) Some of the gifts are altered from the book, probably to make them more practically applicable. Notably, Aragorn uses the dagger that he was gifted in his fight against Lurtz. I’m hoping that Sam’s elven rope and Merry and Pippin’s daggers will also be put to use in the later movies.
11. The end of the movie deviates from the structure of the books. The orc attack at the beginning of The Two Towers has been moved to the end of The Fellowship and made to coincide with Frodo’s decision to leave the group. This makes a lot of sense compared to the strange way that the story was split in the books. In the books, Boromir’s death is the very first thing that happens in The Two Towers. Two pages into the book, he’s dead. Orcs appear, Boromir dies. Not only does it feel jarring, but it’s a disruption of his character arc. Boromir’s death doesn’t come out of nowhere, it has an arc to it. He spends most of the story thinking he can control the ring and acting kind of douchey about it; then the ring takes control of him and causes him to betray Frodo; then when he comes to his senses, he repents by giving his life in an attempt to protect the hobbits against overwhelming odds. His arc has been building up to this moment from the start, which makes it all the stranger that Tolkien decided to save his death until the second book. Another improvement on the movie’s part.
Evidently, there are some trade-offs in the movie adaptation. But I think I’ve made it clear just how strongly the pros outweigh the cons, especially if you take the time to watch the extended edition. In my critique, I’ve rated the Fellowship novel with a dubious 7/10. I would rate both editions of the movie with a strong 9/10, with the extended version being slightly better. The main thing that keeps it from being a 10 (as close to perfect as reasonably possible) is that some of my issues with the Nazgûl still remain, particularly surrounding the attack on Amon Sûl, as detailed in the critique.
Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Are there any notable changes that I missed? Please let me know in the comments.