The LOTR Movie Site
April 17, 2000

Changes For the Better?
Iian N.

Richard Purves in his article "Arwen, Bombadil, and the Role of Women" has made a number of pertinent and well-reasoned points regarding the supposed alterations that Lord of the Rings will be subjected to in cinematic incarnation. The reason I've cautiously circled around the word "supposed" is not so much to be pedantic, but to emphasize that what we really know about the final form the film will take would fill no more than a teaspoon. It's understandable, though, why many people are concerned about what they've been hearing through the internet rumour mill. After all, for those who really love this book the omission of Tom Bombadil - who provides not only a much needed relief after the oppressiveness of the Old Forest but also the first real suggestion we have of the sheer antiquity of this Middle Earth - does have an impact on some of the finer points of the story. Without their encounter with Bombadil, it is impossible to remain faithful to the scene with - and leading up to - the Barrow Wights. This leads me to wonder whether PJ intends to film those scenes at all. After all, it could be argued that introducing another cast of undead creatures into the film so early, and in such close proximity to the phantom menace of the Black Riders, would draw attention away from the threat of Sauron, his minions, and the One Ring itself. Of course, no one is arguing that the scenes with Bombadil or the Barrow Wights should be snipped out of the text. But we're not dealing with the text here.

Let's forget the details of Lord of the Rings for a minute, and consider the challenge that Peter Jackson is faced when transferring the story onto the big screen. Each book has one movie to itself. Each movie will be about two hours in length. In those two hours, The Fellowship of the Ring must introduce all of the main characters; the One Ring and its history; the Council of Elrond; the death of Gandalf in Moria and the flight to Lothlorien; the meeting with Galadriel and Celeborn and their bestowal of gifts upon the soon-to-be fractured Fellowship; another hike through the wilds pursued by orcs; the betrayal and redemption of Boromir; and the separation of Sam and Frodo from the Company.

But Peter Jackson is sure enough of his directorial craft to know that the heart of a movie is its story, and he has stated on the internet in the first questions and answers session that this is his primary focus. Thefirst drafts of the Lord of the Rings that came from his pen and his wife's blocked in the primary events that drive the novel. Successive revisions kept these events clearly delineated whilst exploring them in more detail. Mr Jackson would be a very poor director indeed if he were to bow to the demands of some of the fans and concentrate his attention of what is - comparitively speaking and within the context of cinema - mere trivia. He has sufficient grasp of his craft to know that The Shadow of the Past is a more important part of the story than the Barrow Wights or the encounter with Bombadil in the Old Forest. The reason for this is that the repurcussions of The Shadow of the Past can be felt all throughout the novel, repeated, developed, variegated, and finally built up into the great crescendo that is the destruction of the Ring. Omitting it from the story would be like cutting out the "da-da-da-DUM" from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

To give you another indication of the enormity of the task he's faced with, Peter Jackson must also attempt to introduce these characters in quick succession, with coherency and with enough depth of portrayal to be convincing to an audience that has never read the books. Here is a brief list of those characters that have direct bearing on the story: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Farmer Maggot, Butterbur, Tom Bombadil, the Sackville Bagginses, the Gaffer, the Black Riders, the Barrow Wights, Aragorn, Bill Ferny, Legolas, Arwen, Elrond, Bilbo, Boromir, Gimli, Saruman, Sauron, Gollum, Galadriel, and Celeborn. The more studious minded could undoubtedly swell this list. Now, compare this admittedly brief list of characters (who are encountered in one way or another in The Fellowship) with those who played a part in the original Star Wars movie, or the most recent one, "The Phantom Menace". To take examples from the original: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Obi wan Kenobi, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Grand Moff Tarkin. Most of the other characters are either Rebel or Imperial soldiers who have no direct bearing on the story, other than their group functions. And here is a list of characters from "The Phantom Menace": Obi wan Kenobi, Qui Gon Jinn, Anakin Skywalker, his mother, R2D2 and C3PO, Jar-Jar Binks, Queen Amidala, Lieutenant Tanaka (the black security guard), the junk dealer Watto, Yoda, Darth Maul and Darth Sidious. Other characters are comparatively less important in terms of screen of time and impact on the story. (The leader of the Jar-Jar Binks-type aliens should also be included.) Now, contrast this list with the abbreviated one I've given of the cast in The Fellowship. To satisfy the demands of the purists, Peter Jackson must, somehow, outline all of these characters to his audience, giving them enough screen time and presence to convey their characters and connection to the story; and he must do this within the space of two hours, whilst lavishing infinite pains upon all of the songs and the microscopic detail of their treks through the wilderness. If he were to attempt to do all of this, he would really need six hours just for the first book alone. And even then the blessed purists would cry out in horror that Gandalf's fingernails were too long, that the hair on Frodo's feet wasn't curly enough, nor was there quite enough moss on the heads of the petrified trolls. The brute fact is that true art is not a democracy and that these films won't suit the tastes of all palettes. As fans of Lord of the Rings we should be aware that no adaption can ever capture the intricasies and nuances of the original, but we should not allow that dampen our enthusiasm for what looks to be a rousing and remarkable attempt.

Before anyone starts to sneer, just ponder for a moment what might have happened had this film fallen into other hands. (Yeah, picture how it might have come out had Ralph Bashki directed it - it would probably have been in cartoon form and finished half way.) What kind of Lord of the Rings would we be served had George Lucas or Steven Spielberg secured the contract? For certain, we could expect the kitsch-value of the hobbits to be wrung to the uttermost pitiful dregs, and the grandiose sweep of its storyline would have been reduced to the dimensions of a comic book. We should be unutterably grateful that someone of Peter Jackson's seriousness of mind, his wizardry of technique, his genius of organisation, his empathy for his artists and actors, as well as his oft-stated respect for the fans of the professor and his determination to be as authentic as possible. If you think that Peter Jackson has made a botch of this film already, what do you think Spielberg or Lucas would have done to it. Our cherished conceptions of the film would probably be seared forever by cheaply and gaudily manufactured toys that come with every McDonalds meal deal. Peter Jackson has firmly stated that he doesn't want Lord of the Rings to be abused commercially in this way. To distill this point to its essentials: Whatever way you look at it, Peter Jackson is the best thing that could have happened to the Lord of the Rings movies. Here is a fan fighting for the fans, preserving the integrity of the novel in a foreign medium with its own laws and rules. I'd rather have him direct it than any one of us; and certainly more than any of the acclaimed Hollywood directors churning out manufactured mush at the moment. What's more, Peter Jackson has achieved the impossible by securing a contract and the funding to finish all three films, with a superlative team of computer graphics experts and a brilliant cast of conceptual artists, some of this generations most respected actors, as well as some of its most famous faces (who also look a whole darned lot like the general conception of the characters), filmed in some of the most glorious scenery in the world.

Folks, your reservations are quite understandable, and none of us would be true fans of this great book were we not to feel now and then at variance with Jackson's conception. And I don't want to come across as defending what may genuinely be lapses of judgement on the director's part. But the simple fact is that none of us knows the script, there haven't been any in-depth discussions of the script, and even much of the conceptual art we've seen on the internet is from the first efforts of the production team. In my opinion, what we've seen so far is spectacular, and some of the designs and art have surpassed anything that has come before. (I will staunchly stand by my belief that these new orcs are the best ever created. All other versions that I've come across look like childish goblins in comparison.)

Don't frustrate yourselves by demanding the impossible. And at least give folks like Peter Jackson and his team a break and the benefit of the doubt - if not your whole-hearted support. If you need any more convincing than that provided by the pictures on the internet and interviews and rumours already, then merely picture to yourself how badly this film has fared before and might have fared again.