Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the full schedule of events by clicking here.
Currently, I’m co-hosting a readalong of The Lord of the Rings on Instagram and was interested to find out how many people had seen the movies but not read the books. I am not sure if there is a large group the other way around because, let’s face it, movies are easier to watch.
Especially these movies. They are gorgeously filmed, the casting is wonderful, and the attention to detail is exquisite. I recently acquired a copy of the The Sketchbook of Alan Lee, wherein he talks about the different ways they had to come up with set pieces, and how feverishly they had to work on such a tight schedule to make everything. There were calligraphers creating documents, model builders, painters and all types of other crafts people involved. And it shows.
That makes it easy on the eyes. But how faithful were the movies to the beloved books? (And for purposes of this article, I am treating them as three distinct books, and I will only touch on some of the differences that strike me the most.) The Fellowship of the Ring seems to have suffered the most as far as having bits left out. Some will forever moan about the exclusion of Tom Bombadil. But consider the extra work that would have entailed – sets and costumes and really, just the casting of the character of Tom Bombadil would have to have been perfect. This would have added quite a bit of work for scenes which ultimately would not carry the narrative forward enough to justify it. We even lose the Barrow-downs in the movie (and it is completely glossed over later when Merry stabs the Witch King as to where his blade has come from).
“So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dunedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.”The Return of the King, p120
There are certain changes which I felt were good. I loved Arwen being the “better rider” and carrying Frodo to the border of Rivendell where her people’s magic could help him. I loved that she was a bit more than a weepy lovelorn lass or a quiet Queen. She went looking for Aragorn, and this first meeting of theirs in the movie sets the tone for their relationship. In the book, the character of Glorfindel does not stick with me, and it seems kind of odd that he would just happen to meet Frodo and the gang on the road. And movie budgets being what they are, we cannot really cast a whole slew of Elves simply for the purpose of getting Frodo and company from the border of the Shire to Bree.
Speaking of which, Crickhollow has been completely sidestepped. There does not seem to be any attempt at subterfuge for Frodo leaving in the movie. He just goes. In the book, he takes months, and even sells Bag End! But in the movie, he’s off in the dark of night without a word to anyone. Imagine how that trashed his reputation.
Throughout the movies, there are small things that are blended together or otherwise changed – lines end up in another scene, or actually come from someone else’s mouth. Every now and then as I am reading, I catch one of these, and I can just about hear it in the movie, from some other character. Most of The Two Towers, being basically a walk through the countryside or marshes, did not suffer much in translation. But The Return of the King has been largely truncated, I think in part to move the action along faster. We get a lot less of the Rohirrim roving about the place, and in fact, Aragorn goes into Dunharrow with Theoden’s full knowledge. I think some of these changes were good. The one thing that I wish I could have seen more in the movie was the Houses of Healing. There is so much that happens there that is important to the story, including Aragorn using athelas as the legend says the king will be able to do, and we get another catchy bit of legend that talks about “the king’s healing hands.” Also, this is where Eowyn and Faramir meet. I think there is one scene in the extended version of The Return of the King movie where we see them at a window (I haven’t watched that yet this month), but it is not nearly as tender or gratifying as it is in the book. Their meeting gives us hope for the future, almost sure knowledge that Rohan will be all right, blended with the line of Stewards.
There are many other things that do not appear at all or appear differently in the books. Prince Imrahil is deleted, and instead of him rescuing Faramir, we get the very dramatic scene of Faramir being dragged back to the city by his horse. There are various times when someone is written to be in one place, but appears at another place in the movie. Ultimately, this can be seen as a way to be more efficient and use fewer characters and sets.
Then, finally, the end of the movie does not depict that final chapter, The Scouring of the Shire. Therefore, some deaths had to happen earlier, and the ending was more focused on Aragorn’s coronation. Recently I have seen some people find fault with the last chapter in the book, as it really does take away that fairytale ending that so many books strive for. We get the ‘after’ of what our heroes have to endure. They don’t just ride off into the sunset. Except in the movie, where they get on ships.
Certainly, books contain more than most movies could ever show. This is a problem as old as the industry. And when you are dealing with a book as iconic and well-loved as The Lord of the Rings, it has to be a bit unnerving to make these kinds of choices. I have barely touched on the differences here. I am overall a huge fan of the movies, and I even like some of the choices made by Peter Jackson and company better than what was in the book. I applaud the work that was done, and the more I read about the behind-the-scenes work, the more impressed I am.
But please. If you have only ever watched the movies, do yourself a favor, and read the books.
Titles and resources suggested for those wanting a behind-the-scenes look at the movies include The Sketchbook of Alan Lee, the book The Art of Lord of the Rings by Gary Russell, various issues of Newsweek’s special Tolkien editions, the websites www.theonering.com/ and www.lotr.fandom.com and others, as well as numerous online and print articles. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but the ones I know about. And the above is not a comprehensive list of changes, just the ones that struck me the most.
What is one thing you would have changed in any of the movies? Something you would have liked to have seen depicted or something that you didn’t like? Or what is your favorite change in the films? I would have liked to have seen the Barrow-downs, and I was very pleased with Arwen rescuing Frodo. I also loved the way the Dunharrow ghosts were depicted in the film.
A lifelong reader and long-time book collector, Linda is also a writer and worked in publishing for many years. She can be found on Instagram @lindabookmania where she loves to talk Tolkien, Agatha Christie, and all things bookish. She runs the blog BookManiaLife and is now revising her first novel. When not reading or writing, she might be gardening, hiking or dabbling in book arts and scrapbook journaling.