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January 14, 2003

Unnecessary Changes to the Story
Steve L.

Some people respond to criticisms of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings by saying the critics are just overly picky, unrealistically expecting him to follow Tolkien’s story exactly. Some also claim the changes PJ made were “necessary” to present the story in the medium of film. A common “practical” argument related to this one is that changes had to be made for commercial reasons in order to make the movies appealing to a wide audience (including many who have NOT read the books). And then there’s the more general defense of the filmmakers that their work should not be compared at all with Tolkien’s novel because it is a separate, independent artistic creation. As far as I’m concerned, none of these arguments except the 2nd one can really be a meaningful response to criticisms. The first is a generalization that characterizes criticisms in an absurd way in order to dismiss them. And if the others were valid, then no one could ever judge how well a movie depicts the novel it’s based on and commercial interests would make all other value standards irrelevant anyway!

It is generally recognized by those who read books made into films that the books are superior. It’s practically even a cliché to say, “The book is better,” and the reasons are easy to see. Novels can be far richer in details, can take people right into the minds of the characters, and give huge license to each reader’s imagination in visualizing and interpreting the story. Moreover, there is no length limitation on a novel and you don’t have to read the whole thing at one sitting. Nevertheless, taking for granted that it’s impossible to represent a novel in film with perfect accuracy in all details, filmmakers should of course TRY to depict the story of a novel as accurately as they can—unless it is their purpose only to create an adaptation (such as the Coen brothers’ "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", based on "The Odyssey"). This is not just a matter of being faithful to the purposes of the writer, but of duplicating as far as possible the characters, actions, and range of meaning in a great story--the basic sense of what happens and why it happens.

So, I think the only important question is whether changes to Tolkien’s story were either necessary or beneficial for presenting it onscreen, resulting in better films than if Peter Jackson had aimed at greater accuracy. Turning now to some specific changes, I wonder if anyone can explain how these were either necessary or certainly an improvement upon the story.

1. The Ring is given the power to make anyone who wears it see the Eye of Sauron, and it also makes them immediately visible to him. Is it logical that it should have this power when Gollum and Bilbo possessed the Ring long without being found, and when Bilbo even uses it casually in FOTR without seeing the Eye? This might be explained by reasoning that the Ring has this power automatically only if the wearer knows that it belongs to Sauron, but no explanation is given. In the novel, Frodo asks Galadriel why he hasn’t seen the Eye and is told that he could only do so if he tried. Was this change either necessary or an improvement?

2. Aragorn is depicted not as the intrepid leader of the Dunedain, cousin of Elrond, and noble heir of the Kings of Numenor, but rather as merely the dispossessed heir of an ancient king (Isildur) famous for cutting the Ring from Sauron’s hand. We know nothing at all about how his family lost their kingdom unless we assume it happened when Isildur took the Ring and was betrayed by it to his death. Rather than being appropriately proud of his lineage with an awareness of his own power and destiny, he fears that he inherited the same “weakness” that made Isildur take the Ring. Instead of being comfortable with command and hopeful of regaining his kingdom, he lacks confidence in himself and Elrond says “he turned from that path long ago.” Considering Aragorn carries the blood of many of the most courageous and honorable figures in the histories of both Men and Elves, it seems absurd for him to be worried about having “the same blood” and “the same weakness” as Isildur! Moreover, what “weakness” exactly is Aragorn afraid of? Pride? Ambition? Weak will? Was it necessarily an improvement in the film to turn him into a character like Maverick in "Top Gun" who has to overcome a confidence problem? Many other changes in the story are probably connected to Aragorn’s altered character. These include the omission of the following: the re-forging of the Sword that was Broken; all the scenes in which he uses the Sword or reveals it; his plan to go with Boromir to Gondor to help in the war there; scenes in which he proudly declares himself to Boromir and Eomer (revealing the Sword); and the feelings of admiration and awe that Aragorn inspires (as with Eomer, Theoden, and Eowyn). All necessary or beneficial changes?

3. Saruman has been made a completely loyal servant of Sauron with no ambitions of his own to wield the Ring. How believable is this given the essential nature of the Ring that it tempts people with desire for the power it can confer? It is this character of the Ring that makes it necessary for a hobbit to bear it because hobbits are especially cheery, simple, and down-to-earth people--more inclined to dream of gardening or feasting than achieving wealth, glory, or power over others. Gandalf fears to bear the Ring because the temptation to use it would be too great. Galadriel “passes the test” by refusing it when Frodo offers the Ring freely. Boromir succumbs to the temptation for a while and tries to take the Ring by force. Yet, are we to believe that Saruman is somehow immune to this temptation and Sauron would trust him to deliver the Ring of Power?! Sauron probably could not trust anyone with the Ring unless that bearer were very weak (e.g., an Orc) or already enslaved to his will (e.g., a Nazgul). Saruman, however, is a being potentially as powerful as Sauron himself!

As a result of changes to Saruman, the depiction of the Orcs who capture Merry and Pippin is also changed. Instead of a mixed group of Isengarders and Orcs from Mordor whose leader wants to take the hobbits to Sauron, the movie shows only Uruk-hai. In Tolkien, the Orcs also have names and interesting characters. Ugluk is insufferably proud to be an Uruk-hai, while Grishnakh acts like a government agent and threatens to make a full report to Sauron. Instead of Grishnakh carrying the hobbits out of the Orc camp (where they are also safe from battle), Merry and Pippin try to run away when the orcs fight amongst themselves about eating them. Moreover, although the Orc-fight is about eating the hobbits, nobody notices them running away until they’ve had time to stop and cut their bonds on a rock! Which version is more interesting and plausible?

These are just a few examples of major changes that have been made to Tolkien’s story in these films. I don't see why any of them were either necessary for the medium of film or an improvement upon the original version.

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