Classic Remarks: Changes from Book to Film in LotR

Tolkien Reading Event 2017

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

Discuss one of the changes Peter Jackson made from the book while adapting The Lord of the Rings.  What did this change add to or take away from the story?

Below are spoilers for The Lord of the Rings--book and films!

“But fear no more! I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.”  –Faramir, The Lord of the Rings

So Faramir, captain of Gondor, repudiates the One Ring and its tempting offer of unlimited power.  Faramir understands that he cannot clam for himself the ability to rule over others through force.  He understands that, even if he took up the One Ring for a noble cause, the unlimited power it offers would ultimately corrupt him.  And he understands that the ends cannot justify the means.

Faramir also understands he does not want to win a victory through gaining control over the minds of others and bending them to his will because such a victory would be empty.  What then would he have been fighting for?  He explains to Frodo that he does not, as Boromir does, delight in the arts of war for themselves: “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”  He defends the freedom of Minas Tirith and its people.  If he overthrew Sauron to save his city only to become the next Dark Lord and to subjugate his people to his will, then he would have won nothing.

In his book, J. R. R. Tolkien juxtaposes Faramir and his strong sense of morality with his brother Boromir, who initially falls to the lure of the One Ring, only to repent of it before he dies.  Boromir shows us the weakness of man–of every person, even though his failings have made many a reader dislike him–and how easy it is to be seduced by the prospect of power of control.  Boromir is not inherently a bad person.  He is a valiant man who cares about his city and wishes to relieve his people of the fear and the suffering they endure under the shadow of Sauron.  He desires the Ring for a noble cause.  He unfortunately allows that desire to consume him, and to lead him into dishonorable actions.  Readers are meant to identify on some level with Boromir, who wishes to do right but does wrong–but who can still acknowledge his guilt and seek forgiveness before the end.

But Faramir is not necessarily a character readers identify with–he is a character readers can look up to and admire, and hope to emulate.  Faramir shows the possibility of moral strength and integrity of character.  He shows that not all people are weak like Boromir, but that some can train themselves in discipline and in wisdom, and so pass the test when it comes to them.  Faramir and Boromir comment on each other and reflect two distinct paths individuals can take when confronted with temptation.  Faramir is, in many ways, what Boromir could have been, and should have been.

Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s story radically changes Faramir’s character, however, to make Faramir less admirable and more relatable.  His Faramir initially claims the Ring to bring to his father to save Minas Tirith.  His motivations are weak–he desires the approval of his father, who only ever had eyes for his more militant son Boromir.  And so movie-Faramir takes Frodo and Sam on a pointless and roundabout journey to Osgiliath only to realize there that he has taken on more than he can handle, that the Ring is bad, and that the Ring really ought to be destroyed.  So he release Sam and Frodo after taking them far out of their way and delaying their journey by some time.

Because movie-Faramir is acting much like book-Boromir, Jackson thus has to transform movie-Boromir into a more dislikable character.  In Jackson’s version, Boromir appears at the Council of Elrond as rather unintelligent and maybe bordering on the boorish.  He talks clearly out of turn to indicate his desire for the Ring, to insult those who are not fighting on the front lines, and to question Aragorn’s authority.  From the start he seems unwilling to accept the Council’s decision but joins the Fellowship to make sure his country is represented (either to gain glory in the history books or keep an eye on it–his motivations are somewhat ambiguous).

This depiction of the character is in contrast to the book where Boromir initially arrives to seek Elrond’s wisdom on the matter of a dream, does not initially respond to the revelation of Aragorn’s identity but later desires Aragorn’s help (though he is a little doubtful he is really seeing Elendil’s heir–which is hardly unwarranted as Aragorn himself seems to understand), graciously defends the valor of the men of Rohan, and judiciously asks for more information about the ring he is seeing (Galdor and Frodo agree more information is needed).  His eyes “glint” at the mention of the One Ring.  But it takes him awhile to suggest that the Council use the Ring and he does not claim it for himself or for Gondor: “Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!”  At this moment, he seems concerned about defeating Sauron and not himself, and perhaps as if he does not understand the Ring’s power fully or what is at stake with its use.  He also agrees to the Council’s final decision.  On the whole, book-Boromir is rather more restrained, more generous, and more noble.

But Jackson does not stop there with his transformation of Boromir.  In the extended films there is even a scene in which Boromir blithely picks up the shards of Narsil (the sword that cut the ring from Sauron’s hand) despite its being an ancient and honored artifact.  He then clumsily drops it when he notices Aragorn in the room.  There is also an added scene is which victorious military Boromir joins with Faramir in a nice brotherly moment while also seeming maybe a little too find of alcohol.  Jackson is building up the idea that audiences should not like Boromir, an apparently somewhat dumb military man, too much.

In making these changes, Peter Jackson’s films change the meaning of Boromir and Faramir’s presence in the story.  Faramir is no longer a character who gives us hope through his integrity but a man who chooses to do wrong because he lacks self-confidence thanks to his strained relationship with his father.  And Boromir is no longer a flawed human readers can recognize themselves in, but a somewhat distasteful one they may prefer to distance themselves from.  But not all characters are meant to be relatable.  Further, a relatable character need not be morally weak or unsure to be relatable (witness how Jackson also changes the character of Treebeard so that he does not initially support the overthrow of Saruman but must be tricked into it, and the character of Aragorn so that his doubts about taking up his responsibilities as king are highlighted throughout the films).  And not every flawed person must also be dislikable–the point is that we all have some room for improvement and that Boromir is not alone in sometimes being weak.  But neither is he alone in being capable of redemption.

Jackson’s changes suggest that unselfish motivations or sacrificial love are rare, perhaps present only in his story in the actions of the Hobbits rather than in a number of characters.  And his changes suggest that those who are weak and fail are not wholly deserving of our sympathy.  But Tolkien’s message is so much greater.  Tolkien’s story suggests that good people exist, that temptations can be overcome, and that the world is not wholly devoid of kindness and wisdom.  Tolkien’s story suggests that hope can be found in the unlikeliest of people and places.

Did you participate this week?  Leave your link in the comments below!

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9 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Changes from Book to Film in LotR

  1. Greg Hill says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Boromir is pretty unlikeable in the movie for me (Sean Bean notwithstanding) and is more nuanced in the book, as you say. Same w/ Faramir. I hated the changes Jackson made to Faramir. I remember as a kid growing up thinking why doesn’t Denethor like faramir more? I admired his discipline and his integrity, as you put it. Whereas in the movie I just wanted to close my eyes and be done with the Faramir/ Osgiliath sequences.

    Same with the Treebeard changes. But the other thing about Faramir is- I think you’re right, as readers we can look up to him because not EVERYONE falls sway to the Ring at first. Passing the test so to speak. By having Faramir that way (as Tolkien intended) we can see a glimpse of the nobility of Gondor. and since the Numenoreans were sort of uber- Men, and Gondorians are descended from them, it’s nice that some of that spark remains.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I do think Jackson’s films lose some of the important background details. Ones that are maybe not important to movie goers but that are important to fans of the books. It would have been nice to see that there is some of the nobility of Numenor left in Gondor (especially since Tolkien makes much of that lineage appearing in Faramir) and that the free peoples are fighting to preserve some of this goodness and nobility and what is has created and stands for. Gandalf seems disappointed Gondor has lost touch with its own history and stories, but Faramir shoes this isn’t wholly true–that there are some who still value Gondor’s wisdom and who will work to perpetuate it. Jackson’s changes obscure much of this larger reflection on the politics of Gondor and what the country’s current goals and values are.

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  2. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    These changes to Boromir and Faramir’s characters are an excellent example of some of what was lost in the adaptation. There’s only so much one can do in three films. I saw all the films before reading the books. I thought the story was incredible, but after reading the books, I realized how much had been stripped away. One of the significant changes for me (even if I understand why it was made) was the absence of the Scouring of the Shire.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think the ending in the Shire is extremely important to Tolkien’s conception of evil. That is, you can’t just swipe a sword at it and call your fight done. It will have repercussions that continue to spread. People have accused the book of having “multiple endings” but that’s the entire point–evil doesn’t just end. Still, I think that if I were adapting the book, I might have cut the Scouring of the Shire, too. Something usually has to go and that’s unfortunately a pretty easy cut to make and still have a clean and satisfying ending.

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