I am a biology student, aspiring fiction writer, and I frequently overanalyze content and situations.
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.
Jasper Martens (author) from The Netherlands on May 17, 2017:
North Wind, I hope you will! I intend to critique The Two Towers and Return of the King as well, and also revisit my thoughts on the story and setting as a whole once I've finished the trilogy. It's undeniably an important piece of fiction, so I want my opinion of it to be as well-defined as possible. But that's a while off still. I'll have a look at your hubs as well in the mean time. I hope to see you around!
North Wind from The World (for now) on May 17, 2017:
Agreed, Jasper Martens, it was a good discussion.I think I may just re-read the series after talking about it at length!If you did not guess, it is one of my favourites. I hope to read more of your book critiques in the future.
Jasper Martens (author) from The Netherlands on May 16, 2017:
Hi North Wind,
We actually agree on our assumptions of what Tom Bombadil’s purpose in the mythos is supposed to be. I didn’t think to go in detail about this in the critique (I probably should have), but I am fully aware of the ideology upon which Tolkien’s works are based, which I would phrase as: The universe at large is Good, while Evil is merely a taint that can and will be overcome. This concept is reflected in a few other aspects, but Bombadil certainly stands as a shining indicator of it.
And that’s exactly why I hate him. I hate the ideology he represents. This aspect of the mythos marginalizes the stakes of the story. If the actions of the characters are only meaningful because the Powers That Be have engineered the circumstances to be that way, are they still actually meaningful? You could certainly argue that they are, on a personal level, but I just don’t buy it that way. I would equate it to watching a rat navigating a maze. The outcome may seem important to him, but it’s a façade. A human put him into the maze for his own purposes and can take him out again at any time. The rat has no real agency.
I hate how pretentious this sounds, but I’m a starting writer myself, and (regardless of my real life beliefs) I always write my settings agnostically, specifically to avoid this implication. I want the story to be about the characters, the conflict to be real (not manufactured or surrounded by a safety net), and the chance for utter failure to exist. Not that I have a habit of placing the fate of the entire world upon my characters’ shoulders, but this thought-process extends to matters of smaller scale.
As an aside, your explanation of Bombadil’s motives (which I do think are correctly interpreted) raises some questions about his morality. His lack of interference may have done some good in the world, bringing out the heroism in people and unifying the peoples of Middle Earth, but it also led to the deaths of God-knows-how-many people during the War of the Ring. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Do the ends justify the means? I’m not entirely convinced that his actions are indicative of a “good” person.
Anyways, my opinion of Tolkien’s ideologies is probably what lies at the core of my criticism towards Lord of the Rings, and what causes me to be so critical of the way the conflict and threat are presented. My favourable stance on the movies also comes in large part from the fact that this ideology is less apparent in the adaptation. It’s kind of a shame I didn’t think to include this. Even so, I’ve kept most of my critique focussed on “objective” flaws (for lack of a better word) rather than purely matters of preference, so I would argue that much of my criticism stands regardless of one’s stance on Tolkien’s ideologies.
Even though we disagree on a pretty fundamental level, I appreciate you having this conversation with me. It’s always good to question the basis of your opinions by discussing them with other people. :)
North Wind from The World (for now) on May 15, 2017:
Hi again, Jasper Martens,
I'm back to explain about Tom Bombadil :) As you said, Tom Bombadil is good, and when I say good, I mean good. He is stronger than Sauron, the ring does not have any power over him and he can save the day if he wants to but yet he does not. I believe his character was crucially important to Tolkien for the sake of himself as well as his readers.
Bombadil could have become involved and dealt with the ring and Sauron. Middle Earth was in danger and yet Bombadil seems oblivious to it. Can one so good be so heartless? But it is not really heartlessness.
There are times when people need to see what they are made of and what they are fighting for.Bombadil leaving the job to the peoples of Middle Earth gives them an opportunity to do good and be good themselves. He is already good but this evil that arises from Sauron helps to bury deep grudges between groups (an elf and a dwarf become best friends which was previously unheard of because of the feud!) Hobbits, who were oblivious to others who had worries become appreciative of the life they have and begin to care about others in a way that was never possible.
Sauron's evil intentions are actually a great opportunity to bring about peace among the peoples and to definitively show who is on the side of evil and who is on the side of good. If Bombadil had intervened, Frodo would not have become what he becomes, Sam would not have become what he becomes and even Aragorn would not have pushed himself to fight the way that he does. This enemy brings out the best in them. Even Gandalf is tested as is Saruman (and we see how that turns out).
You might say, well yes, but all of this is still clear without Bombadil's presence.
I think not.Simply because the reader needs to know that there is a greater good and that even if there is failure all is not lost. As in life -all is never lost.
If Sauron did get the ring and rose mightly in power, of course Bombadil could have squashed him like a bug and would have squashed him but the state of Middle Earth at that time was not a time for him to do so. It was a time for them. He gave them opportunity and he showed them that there is always good somewhere and that evil can not defeat good. This was a foundational belief of Tolkien's and therefore what the book was built upon.
In our lives we have battles that are major but in the scope of time and history, how major are they? Yet there is someone who is often written as a minor character in people's lives who sees what is playing out and knows it will help to show our true colors.These battles help to refine us as silver and gold is refined but if and when the need arises and we can no longer fight, He will not be defeated. He cannot be. Good will win.
O.K. I rambled but I really appreciate Bombadil's presence.
Jasper Martens (author) from The Netherlands on May 15, 2017:
@North Wind, thank you for reading my critique and for your fairly-worded rebuttal.
I'm not sure if all the descriptions were helpful to the movie, since the bulk of time-consuming description is in the travel scenes that were cut from the adaptation anyways. Even so, I agree (as I said in the critique) that Tolkien built an excellent foundation upon which to base the movies.
I frankly don't really care about Arwen either way. I wouldn't mind if she was removed from both iterations, but if she's in the story anyways, I'd rather have her as a properly developed character than as this extension of Aragorn.
Could you explain why you consider Tom Bombadil an important character? He's implied to be an important part of the mythos, but he has no bearing on the actual story. Do you consider the mythos of Middle Earth to be better for having him in it?
I personally couldn't care less about the songs, but I didn't go into that because it's entirely personal, and their presence didn't bother me. It is true that the elves' departure from Middle Earth is rarely mentioned in the movie (not at all in the theatrical release, I believe), which is indeed a shame.
North Wind from The World (for now) on May 14, 2017:
I have to say that the movie was quite enjoyable but I would still pick the book over it any day. Since I read the books in order (the Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Fellowship etc.) Tolkien's style of writing (as you said - telling and not showing) was fine for me. Incidentally, this style of writing may have just helped Jackson to do the scenes where he showed things because Tolkien had provided him with so much information. It really has a historical sort of tone to it.
Gimli bringing the ax did not surprise me because of the relationship dwarves had with elves. I did not like all of the attention on Arwen (although I understand why it was done) because the love story between her and Aragon was not the main focus of the book in the first place. As a matter of fact Tolkien took more time to speak of Faramir and Eowyn's love which was only put in the Extended version of The Return of the King (and it was too short!)
As for Tom Bombadil, I missed him completely in the movie and wish he could have been in it but time and pace being a factor, again I understand it. He was, though, a very important character who was left out.
The fact that they left out all the songs it would have been a musical, then) and the elves constant yearning for the sea bothered me at first but again, I still loved the movie.
However!.....I love the book more. We will have to agree to disagree. I enjoyed your comparision as well as your critique (which I did read as well).