Classic Remarks is a meme hosted by Krysta and Brianna at Pages Unbound. Each week, they pose a question about classic works of literature in order for readers to engage in a continuing conversation about elements of classic literature, the literary ‘canon’, and the timelessness of story. If you’re interested in participating, you can find the schedule here.
This week’s Classic Remarks topic is actually “what is your favorite Roald Dahl novel?”, but I’ve never read Roal Dahl’s books, so I picked an earlier Classic Remark topic, because The Lord of the Rings.
It’s been nearly twenty years since The Fellowship of the Ring premiered. You can bet I was standing in line for a few hours on December 19, 2001, because after months of anticipation after the first teaser trailer came out, and after loving the books for years, I was ready. Anxious about the quality, but ready. Fortunately, New Line was right to trust Peter Jackson with this precious story, and The Fellowship of the Ring has been the first part of my favorite set of films ever since.
And yeah, there were changes. But I expected that, and overall I didn’t mind them. As there are so many changes from the film trilogy to the books, I’m going to break this up into three parts- one for each movie.
But first, let’s talk about cinematic adaptations. The number one complaint that readers have when it comes to film and television adaptations of their favorite books is this: “The book was better”. The book is more detailed, it doesn’t drop or combine characters, it has the complete plot, it contains all the little side quests and other little things that add depth to the world, etc., etc. But this ignores the fact that books and movies are very different art forms. Where a book is free to have all the details the author can think of (and that the editor will allow for), the nature of filmmaking requires that its storytelling be much more efficient. If you have an important character, you have to spend time introducing them, developing their character, and generally giving them a reason to be there. You have to introduce the plot and give everyone a reason for being there and going out to do the thing. When you’re working with a fantasy world, you have to introduce the world, the races (in this case: elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, wizards, ents, and Uruk-hai), the differences between the people of different countries (the Shire, Bree, Rivendell, Lothlorien, Rohan, Gondor, Mordor), and your McGuffin. That’s a lot to do, and so something has to give somewhere. And while your average Tolkien nerd can tell you why Glorfindel is awesome, why the song of Beren and Luthien that Aragorn sings in the extended version is important, and why the Eagles couldn’t take the Hobbits to Mordor, the director wasn’t making a film just for the Tolkien nerds. He was also making a film that Jeff and Phyllis in Fargo could enjoy without having to read the books. That’s the nature of these big budget spectacles. They’re not opaque art house films with a limited appeal. Studios invest vast amounts of money into blockbusters in the hopes that they’ll have a giant return on their investment. So they make them for the lowest common denominator, which means that when film adaptations come out– especially adaptations of something with as much detail as The Lord of the Rings— things get lost in translation. Remember, they’re made to appeal to both nerds and to Jeff and Phyllis from Fargo.
So a lot of detail from the book version of The Fellowship of the Ring was dropped to make the story a little more streamlined and have fewer characters that need to be introduced (and fewer actors that have to be cast, flown in, housed and fed, costumed, and credited). So there’s no Tom Bombadil or Goldberry, no Fatty Bolger, no Gaffer Gamgee, no Bob and Nob, and no Ted Sandyman. The Old Forest and Old Man Willow are out. The house at Crickhollow is gone, as is dinner at Farmer Maggot’s house (along with Farmer Maggot for the most part, and his entire family). We don’t get to meet Gildor Inglorion or Glorfindel. The encounter with the wight in the Barrow-downs is also gone. What remains is what is absolutely vital to the cinematic story (don’t @ me. Sure, Merry’s blade of Westernesse is vital to the book later on, but are you really going to be able to explain its ancient lineage in five seconds in a movie? No. No you’re not).
So here’s a list of some of the major things that were changed:
- Frodo’s age
Book Frodo is 52 when he sets out from Bag End. Movie Frodo is much, much younger. Elijah Wood was 17 when filming began. I’m fine with this change, personally. I’m sure legions of gay and female fans appreciated a pretty young face leading this ensemble cast.
I mean, they could have gotten someone like Gabriel Byrne to play Frodo, but….. It just wouldn’t have been the same.
2. Emo Aragorn
Book Aragorn is sure of himself, of his place in the world, his inheritance, who he’s going to marry, etc., etc. He’s the proud Heir of Elendil who proudly carries his broken sword around as an heirloom of his bloodline. He’s going to be king of Gondor and of the north one day, and when that day comes, he’s going to marry Arwen Undomiel. Book Aragorn has no doubts about his path in life.
Book Aragorn in also a little terrifying:
Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Anduril shone like a sudden flame as he swept it out. ‘Elendil!’ he cried. ‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dunadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!’– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
In this scene, Aragorn is ready to take on an entire band of the Rohirrim’s cavalry. By himself, if necessary. Here, Aragorn takes up the mantle of the Heroic Character, who is larger than life and was developed during a much, much earlier literary era. This is the sort of behavior you might expect to find in Anglo-Saxon poetry (like Beowulf) or in the Icelandic Sagas. Because of this, Book Aragorn often comes off as arrogant to the twenty-first century reader who doesn’t know the literary background Tolkien based Aragorn on. In the late twentieth and here in the early twenty-first century, we have heroes who are more conflicted about their leadership positions. Had Viggo Mortensen played Aragorn as a hero who is like, “Damned straight I’m going to be king of Gondor. Just get me there, and we’ll deal with those thousands of orcs. Just you wait and see”, then we probably wouldn’t have liked him as much. For Tolkien nerds, movie Aragorn’s emo tendencies grate on the nerves. But if you’re Jeff and Phyllis from Fargo, emo Aragorn is a good guy you want to root for, and you hope he ends up marrying that pretty Liv Tyler girl at the end.
But emo or not, Aragorn still gets one of the greatest introductory shots in film history.
3. Arwen, Warrior Princess
Book Arwen is in Rivendell for almost all of the book. She makes an appearance at dinner after Frodo arrives in Rivendell and… that’s about it, until the very end when she gives Frodo some jewelry (different jewelry), marries Aragorn, and has a sad good-bye when all the other Elves leave for Valinor. End of story for her, unless you read the Appendices, which tell more of this story, and it’s tragic. And sure, the love story between Arwen and Aragorn is a great motivator for Aragorn to go out and Do the Things, but it leaves Arwen with nothing to do aside from sit in Rivendell and work on her sewing project.
So Arwen’s character needed to be expanded if audiences weren’t going to be all, “What did you get the real Liv Tyler for when you could have had a carboard cutout of Liv Tyler just standing there?” Also, it’s the twenty-first century, and we expect women to have larger roles in films. So Peter Jackson and Co. gave Arwen more lines and expanded her role in general, sending her out past the Ford of Bruinen to look for the Hobbits instead of Glorfindel, thus giving a female character something to do and saving the film time and expense of having to introduce yet another character the audience would never see again. Remember, Jeff and Phyllis from Fargo don’t know Glorfindel’s history and what makes him awesome. To them, Glorfindel is just another blond elf whose name they wouldn’t remember.
And having Arwen summon the river to wash away the Ringwraiths saves them having to later explain how Elrond and Gandalf summoned the flood. Efficiency in storytelling!
Initially, Arwen was meant to show up at Helm’s Deep along with the elves from Lothlorien, but somehow the internet caught wind of that, derided the decision, and Peter Jackson and Co. changed their minds about it. Which was a good idea. There were enough shenanigans at Helm’s Deep without somehow getting Arwen there all the way from Rivendell and then… what? Have her trail along after Aragorn? Have her hang out at Edoras with Eowyn?
Having Arwen go out in search of Aragorn and the Hobbits isn’t entirely out of character for Book Elven Princesses, though, as Luthien Tinuviel went out in search of Beren when he got himself captured by Sauron way back in the First Age. Luthien had no trouble being a gorgeous, magical badass. So it works that Arwen got her chance to swing a sword and sling a spell.
4. Borormir Dies at the End
Because Sean Bean played him.
But seriously, Book Boromir dies at the beginning of The Two Towers, but we had enough of a cliff hanger going on at the end of the film, The Fellowship of the Ring with Merry and Pippin being carried off by the Uruk-hai while the remainder of the fellowship are scattered in the woods, and Frodo and Sam have taken one of the boats and sneaked away.
In the movie, Frodo goes off by himself to think about what to do next, and Boromir comes up to him, seeming friendly at first but growing angrier as the conversation goes on. He threatens Frodo and tries to take the Ring from him, and in so doing, Boromir falls from grace.
In the meantime, Frodo puts on the Ring, disappears, runs away, and runs into Aragorn, who seems threatening at first. But Aragorn is able to throw off the influence of the Ring because he’s awesome like that. Frodo says he’s going off alone and to try to explain his decision to the others. Aragorn bids him farewell, and then they realize that enemies are coming. He tells Frodo to run away, then proceeds to face down about twenty Uruk-hai by himself. Because he’s awesome like that.
Meanwhile, Boromir experiences a literal fall to go along with his fall from grace. He shakes himself off and realizes what he’s done. He apologizes to Frodo, but it’s too late. Frodo is gone by now, but Boromir still repents of his sins, and sets out to defend the Hobbits. He fends off another twenty or so Uruk-hai, but their boss shoots him with multiple arrows. Boromir collapses and the Hobbits are carried away.
Book Aragorn and Book Boromir meet again briefly at the beginning of The Two Towers. Boromir confesses to Aragorn that he tried to take the Ring, and that he failed to protect Merry and Pippin. He thinks he’s failed, but Aragorn’s all, “no, your triumph over the temptation of the Ring was the greatest success”, and then Boromir dies.
But in the movies… Oh, the movie.
We get a brilliant scene in which Boromir gets the ultimate redemption arc, and Aragorn’s kingly character blossoms.
See, during the Council of Elrond in the movie, Legolas stands and declares Aragorn’s heritage as heir to the throne of Gondor, to which Boromir snidely replies, “Gondor has no king. Gondor needs no king”. And through most of the rest of the movie, Boromir is all over Aragorn about his not wanting to take up the role of king, and how Gondor is so wonderful, and that his father is a noble man, and, and, and.
But in his last moments, after his fall and repentence Boromir finally admits that he was wrong all along– Aragorn is a good man and will make a strong king for the people of Gondor. He displays the kind of leadership that will make Gondor a place of light and joy again. Among Boromir’s last words are, “I would have followed you my brother, my captain, my king.”
Amazing for a proud man who scoffed at the Ranger from the north not so long ago.
This also gives Aragorn the chance to take on the mantle of king-in-waiting, a role that emo-Aragorn has been denying up until this point. It’s Boromir’s faith in him that helps him make the fateful promise: “I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you I will not see the white city fall, nor our people fail”. With these words, he puts aside the Ranger and decides to become the leader he was born to be. He takes Boromir’s bracers– which have the sigil of the white tree of Gondor on them– and finally takes up in truth the role of heir to the throne of Gondor.
As cinematic endings go, they don’t get much better than this. The audience is left with this heart wrending emotional climax with Aragorn and Boromir, and then we turn to Sam and Frodo’s friendship as the scene pulls into a wide shot to show the terrifying land they’re going into. We’ve watched Aragorn finally decide to be who he was always meant to be, seen Boromir’s fall from grace and redemption, and we’ve come back to one of the greatest friendships in literature: Frodo and Sam, together and heading into the great unknown.
Galadriel was always creepy.