Directed by Peter Jackson, 2001
Lest you come to this post expecting a gushing review for the Fellowship of the Ring, be warned. Yes, I’ve previously said I’m a big fan of the Tolkien, that my favourite book is the Children of Hurin, and that we’ll even be conducting a chapter by chapter analysis of The Lord of the Rings on this blog sooner rather than later. Alas, dear reader, you would be mistaken if you take all that to mean that I am also positive with regards to the 2001, 2002 and 2003 Peter Jackson movie versions.
Unfortunately, au contraire. For years the phenomenon of so-called “moviephiles” (gushing lovers of the films) vs the so-called “purists” (these labels serve no purpose other than to vilify the other side) has fascinated me. On discussion boards like Minas Tirith Forums participants have debated and argued, and continue to argue, nearly ten years following the release of Fellowship, about the merits of the LOTR films. Most debates revolve around the films’ level of adherence to the books, although this argument is not as straightforward as it first may seem. The many misunderstandings around the reasons for the “purist outrage” have led to heated and at times personal attack, which inevitably leads to a vicious cycle of recrimination. Why, then, have these films generated such heated and, some would say, entirely inappropriate levels of argument? I’ve often wondered about this and I haven’t been able to come with a satisfactory explanation. But having just viewed, for the first time in a long time, the extended edition of the Fellowship of the Ring, I feel more satisfied about fielding an argument.
Both the books and the films have generated legions of fans, but often an individual fan will have greater allegiance to one form or the other. Book “purists” are troubled by this, because it implies that some fans are not, as it were, experiencing the “real thing.” If this sounds a tad elitist, it’s not. The basic contention of “purists” holds that the books are the central and legitimate “version” of the story; in many ways the only version of the story to date. What, you ask? Were there not a bunch of films released last decade with the name “Lord of the Rings”? Well yes, but a work of art is more than just a name. Many purists, myself included, contend that the movies stray so far from the books, not only in terms of plot but in terms of theme, logicality, character and tone that they can’t realistically be considered a faithful adaptation of the books. Many “moviephiles” argue that the films should be taken for what they are, and enjoyed in their capacity as films. But that excuse misses the point. Adaptation implies change, of course. No one is arguing change is undesirable. Instead, purists like myself argue that change, merely for the sake of itself, is unnecessary. Unecessary digression, whether in terms of character or plot, always has the effect of changing tone and atmosphere, and inevitably leads to further digression.
Take the character of Frodo Baggins, for instance. What struck me more than anything re-watching the film yesterday was the sheer pathetic nature of his characterisation. In the words of Archer from the Minas Tirith Forums:
However I have to say my biggest injury came very early on in these films when Frodo proved to be an utterly helpless, squealing, gaping, frightened child in need of constant rescuing. Frodo’s bravery and mature, solemn, and introspective nature are turned into an absurdly giggling idiot at Bilbo’s party, and a shameless coward who was the first to drop his sword and run like a girl on Weathertop. (And he can’t even manage it because he stumbles all over his two left feet–like he does over and over in these films. Sheesh! Hobbits were anything but this clumsy as Tolkien wrote them!) In the book, the scene at Weathertop, like the scene at the Ford of Bruinen, are extremely telling about the nature of Frodo’s true character. In both places he stands his ground very defiantly–even though he is nearly frozen with fear. He fights bravely to defend himself on Weathertop when the other hobbits crumble around him, and at the Ford, gravely ill and wounded, and in immeasurable pain, he defies the Black Riders even up to his last conscious breath. These incredible acts demonstrate why Elrond and Gandalf feels Frodo is a good choice as the ring-bearer, because he held out against the powers of Morder even when strong men would have failed. That these things are completely removed in the films–not just removed but completely inverted to make Frodo as helpless, weak, and in need of constant rescuing as possible–severely corrupts one of the most poignant element in the books: Frodo’s journey from being a strong, wise, and self-sufficient hobbit, to a person at the ends of the books who is irrevocably injured by the terrible force of the ring. He becomes a true sacrificial hero, because we know he has lost so much.
This is as good an overview as any with regards to the mischaracterization of Frodo, such a central character, in the films. The crucial line is this: [the film] severely corrupts one of the most poignant element in the books: Frodo’s journey from being a strong, wise, and self-sufficient hobbit, to a person at the ends of the books who is irrevocably injured by the terrible force of the ring. Thus, one change begets another. The very essence of Frodo’s character toward the end of the book (meaning the Lord of the Rings as one book, which is what it is) lies in his brokenness. To have him essentially begin that way, as weak and “in need of rescue” (Frodo is utterly infantalised: just think of the scene when Gandalf falls into the abyss and Frodo shouts a way too drawn out “nooooooo” before being carried away on Boromir’s shoulders like a big (little?) baby) utterly destroys the essence of his character ark, and severely lessens the psychological impact. Frodo is not Luke Skywalker: he is a grown hobbit when he leaves on his adventure, mature, a little overconfident, even already a little world-weary. He is older than Sam, certainly not a cosy buddy-buddy brotherly love thing. Sure, that happens, but it happens later on in the books. Sam is a trusty sidekick, a faithful servant, in many ways stupid and ignorant. This changes in the books as well; he becomes wise and weather worn, but the contrast between Frodo and Sam in the films is essentially lost. Like Mary and Pippin, they are almost interchangeable. A couple of lovey-dovey buddies setting out on a big adventure.
You might ask, what’s wrong with that? Won’t a film audience ‘relate’ to this version of Frodo and Sam more so than the ‘version’ of them found in the books? Perhaps, but as we’ve just seen, there is acceptable change, and there is unnecessary diversion. The difference is crucial. This is after all a film that purports to be “The Lord of the Rings” based on the book by JRR Tolkien, and as such it is expected that it bear some resemblance to the original text. But here, we see large swathes of original characterisation lost. Not only does this occur because the “mediums” change (that is an overused argument if ever there was one); it changes because the film makers didn’t like the idea that Frodo was a middle-aged, slightly antagonistic and, above all, supremely confident hobbit. In the words of writer Phillippa Boyens, Tolkien “went off on a tangent”. A tangent? Oh my, the writers have done some really effective close reading!
Characterisation isn’t the only problem with the film. Another quote from Minas Tirith Forums: Subtlety is seriously lacking in the films. Everything is dumbed-down and the audience is spoon-fed the plot. I can’t imagine I’ve ever gotten anything out of multiple viewings other than noticing details in costumes and sets. (White Gold Wielder) An example: The council of Elrond. Sure, this needed editing (for the film). It is the longest chapter in the Lord of the Rings; dense, intense and full of back story. Something like thirty characters speak, directly or through others. In the films it is short, brusque, bathetic, uninteresting and grating. The mischaracterized Elrond’s unshifting, dull intonations are only the first clue: the real zinger comes when Aragorn opens his mouth.
What do you think could be wrong with this quote from Aragorn at the council of Elrond, bearing in mind everything that we know about the ring. “The ring has no other master. It answers to Sauron alone.” Ok, fine, great. So what? This is the most crucial line in any of the films and severely underscores that sheer absurdity of the writers’ attempts to capture Tolkien’s story. This is an either an instance of the writers having completely misunderstood the ring, or, they have dumbed the idea of the ring down to such a degree that they cannot, or will not, engage the story on its own terms. In short, the whole point of the book, not just some random subplot, no, the whole point, is that the ring is a weapon that can be used (misused, to be sure) by anyone who has the will to do so. Hence, the temptation of Galadriel (which makes no sense in the movies. Why would she desire it if she couldn’t even use it!), the temptation of Gandalf, the Boromir subplot, and the absolute need to destroy it.
Thus, the film Fellowship completely subverts and dumbs down the entire premise of the book. The ring must be destroyed, yes, because it would be a disaster if Sauron should get it back, but more importantly, because its existence, in and of itself, is a danger to the world and all those who come into contact with it. Galadriel, as a “Queen, not dark but beautiful” would be just as bad as the disfigured Dark Lord of Barad-dur. All such subtly is lost on the writers, it would seem. The ring must be destroyed lest it fall into the hands of the “Wise”, lest it fall into the hands of the “good”. This is the premise of the Lord of the Rings, and it disappears in the film. It is like someone filming a version of the Narnia books, only to forget about Aslan.
This is why many purists cannot stomach the idea that these films deserve the title “Lord of the Rings”. They systematically mischaracterize, misquote, misunderstand, distort, divert and ultimately devise a mish mash of sequences that bear very little resemblance to the original.
Next up, a review of the Two Towers film, in which I’ll discuss the abomination of Faramir, the wrecking of Gimli, the pussification of the Ents, and the travesty of Helm’s Deep. Looking forward to it.