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Arts & Letters

“The Lord of the Rings” and the Trials of Adaptation

By Patrick Diehl

Posted on Jan 9, 2004

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    In this preliminary assessment of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,”[1] I briefly describe my general opinion of the “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers” and then settle in for a close look at “The Return of the King” in the light of its predecessors, especially “The Two Towers.”


  First, like Tolkien’s FotR, Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Ring” is a true Hobbit feast: “rich, abundant, varied, and prolonged” [FotR I.1]. Discursive in structure, gathering momentum as it proceeds, it culminates in the Moria episode, deals honorably with the impossible task of conveying the intense, simple, inward magic of Lothlórien, and ends strongly, with the moving death of Boromir (hats off to the scriptwriters for Boromir’s stunning last line!), Frodo’s rescue of a drowning Sam that sets the seal on their friendship, and the expressive contrast between the rousing departure of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, at a run, hot on the orc-trail and the slow, almost meditative movement of Sam and Frodo toward the labyrinths of the Emyn Muil, with Mordor menacingly, and promisingly, visible in the distance.


  Second, in sharp distinction to the discursive, linear “Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” is constructed of two highly organized and contrasting dramatic wholes. West of the Great River, the organizing principle is the battle of Helm’s Deep, with the rapid events involving Saruman, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Théoden, Wormtongue, Éomer, Éowyn, and the people of Rohan all building toward it; partly because the main action is so much of a piece, the Merry/Pippin/Treebeard side-plot seems quite extraneous, though the fact that Isengard is the mustering-place for Saruman’s Uruk-hai army of course provides a basic connection between main action and side-plot. The battle of Helm’s Deep itself is a masterpiece of construction: each step up the staircase of violence is perfectly clear to the audience, and the intercutting between exterior scenes of battle, with their cast of thousands, and interior scenes, where we can focus closely on a small number of characters and their powerfully realized emotions, prevents us (and the film) from going numb. The final charge down the wall of Deeping Coomb, led by Gandalf and Éomer, is one of the great cathartic moments in all film: the Seventh Cavalry, as it were, died and gone to heaven. (See my review of “The Two Towers” for particulars.)


  East of the River, Gollum binds everything together, primarily through his interactions with Frodo and Sam, but also through the sustained tension created by his dialogues with himself. The picaresque, travelogue-like appeal of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” with its diversity of landscape and architecture, is not absent from the Gollum/Frodo/Sam story in “The Two Towers,” but the visual setting steadily recedes into the background as the audience enters more and more fully into the shifting emotions of the three hobbits. And yet, excellent as this essentially separate film is, it is overshadowed by the “Helm’s Deep” drama across the River. Only the strength of the characterizations of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, taken from Tolkien but enriched by the screenwriters, and of the acting (with the prize carried off by Gollum as played by Serkis and some amazing software), makes the competition between the two dramas equal enough for the film to retain at least a semblance of balance.


  The third film, “The Return of the King,” I have already discussed in some detail (see “`The Return of the King,’ or, Whatever Became of Saruman?”). I would like to step back now and consider it in relation to its two very impressive, but rather dissimilar, predecessors.


  As in “The Two Towers,” the action west of the River centers on a great battle, with various strands of the plot converging on Minas Tirith. East of the River, again, the main interest lies with the dynamics of the Frodo, Sam, and Gollum triad. On both sides of the River, the landscapes that we see have almost all been seen or at least glimpsed before. The main exception is Minas Morgul, the Straight Stair, and Spider Pass (Cirith Ungol), but these have more the quality of an acrophobic and then claustrophobic nightmare than an actual physical landscape. In any case, there is no room left for the “travelogue” pleasures of the first film, and the second film seems like the appropriate standard of comparison.


  Unfortunately, “The Return of the King” suffers from such a comparison.


  Measured against the Battle of Helm’s Deep, the Battle of Minas Tirith is a mess, though a mess on a very grand scale. To make matters worse, wherever we are reminded of something in “The Two Towers” (e.g., when the orcs and trolls are battering away at the last gate to the Citadel, as the Uruk-hai battered away at the gate of the Hornburg), the scene in Minas Tirith seems like a perfunctory recycling of a scene that was grippingly effective in Helm’s Deep. Even the charge of Rohan, though the aerial shots are very grand, does not provide the same emotional release as the charge down the side of Deeping Coomb or the same formidable weight as the arrival of the Uruk-hai before the walls of the fortress of Rohan.[2] All the marching pixels (more! more! more!), giant flaming steel wolf-heads, shrieking Nazgûl, pterodactyl-plesiosauroid Nazgûl mounts picking up knights (horses and all) or plucking away pieces of Minas Tirith, all the fluorescent green Dead flooding ectoplasmically to the city’s rescue, all the rampaging mûmakil with Éowyn slashing at their legs and Legolas ascending their cliff-like sides—all that eye-candy cannot hide the inner emptiness of great battle #2. Without Éowyn’s triumph over the Witch-King of Angmar, it would be pure spectacle, and zero drama.


  Even the episodes in the rising action, like Elrond’s interview with Aragorn or Aragorn’s encounter with the King of the Dead, rarely have the intensity of comparable episodes in “The Two Towers” (think of the dialogue between Elrond and Arwen, where Arwen is made to foresee Aragorn’s death and her own bereavement, on the one hand, or the jolting attack of the Wargs, on the other).[3]


  In contrast to “The Two Towers,” where the intimate Frodo/Sam/Gollum story provides a foil to the main theme of epic martial action, the relative weakness and heterogeneity of the action west of the River in “The Return of the King” means that the dramatic interest shifts east. This shift is abetted by the fact, far more apparent in “The Return of the King” than in the previous two films, that the destruction of the Ring is of infinitely greater moment, in the end, than the battles of Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith, and the Black Gate all put together. But the Frodo/Sam/Gollum action in “The Return of the King” is too frail and, as I have already argued,[4] too badly mishandled by the scriptwriters to support the weight that the emotional structure of the film puts on its shoulders. It not only comes off a poor second to its counterpart in “The Two Towers,” it ends in anti-climax—and if the destruction of the Ring is an anticlimax, as I believe it is, there is a real problem. It does not mend matters that both “The Two Towers” and Tolkien’s TT and RotK deliver catharses of wonderful power—in the case of “The Two Towers,” at Helm’s Deep and again in the visual repetition of the scenes of the final charge and of the Ents’ cleansing of Isengard that accompanies Sam’s hopeful words to Frodo about fighting for what is good in the world; in the case of Tolkien’s book, at Minas Tirith and at Mount Doom.


  Happily, the scene that follows the anticlimax at Mount Doom is a triumph—Frodo’s return to life in the Perfect Bedroom, I mean, with Gandalf standing at the foot of the bed, and, after Merry and Pippin romp with Frodo, the rest of Frodo’s Companions (save for Aragorn, and poor dead Boromir) entering the room, in the right order emotionally, each with the exact nuance of love on their face that expresses their particular nature, the camera lingering on each face for just the right amount of time, and Sam last, and most important, of all, with a look on his face, and an answering look on Frodo’s, that shows just how far they have come since they left the Shire, a little over 6 months ago.


  Despite the excessively warm sunset colors of the scene at the Grey Havens (Grey?!), I found the final farewells of hobbits, High Elves, and Wizard almost as satisfying as the reunion scene in Gondor. And even though the scenes in the Shire were all too short, the pleasure of seeing Sam transformed from tongue-tied yokel into confident man of action and of feeling the abiding love between Sam and Frodo was very great. But I am not sure how far the success of these scenes, for me, was due to the reflected glow of the same scenes in Tolkien’s book, rather than their own virtues. The response from those who have not read the book seems to be quite different, and much less favorable, than mine.


  Perhaps the relative literalness of the translation of these scenes to the screen allows people like myself to transfer our emotions rather too easily from our experience of the book to our experience of the film. Significant changes put us on our mettle—we may like or dislike a scene as changed, but at least we are forced to respond to it, and not bask in fond memories of beloved pages of prose.


  But that is only to say that I may be overpraising the final scenes in the film. I doubt that my disappointment with “The Return of the Ring” or my sense of the superiority of “The Two Towers” will diminish with time. There are several possible explanations (all of which probably apply) for why the earlier film is better. One is the fact that much of the force of RotK depends on the “pay-offs” that it delivers, and that those pay-offs in turn depend on long and careful preparation in the book (Merry’s sword and the death of the Witch-King is one good example). Cuts or lost dimensions of the story that did not significantly impair the dramatic force of the first two films come home to roost in “The Return of the King.”


  Another explanation resides in the strong similarities between the situations in “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.” In the book, these similarities are not a problem, because so much of the strength of the book lies in the variety, depth, and solidity of its characterizations and in the long-breathed unfolding of its themes. In the film, where the visual element necessarily predominates, and the emphasis on spectacular special effects increases that predominance (a choice in which commercial motives and Peter Jackson’s personal tastes are probably at one), the similarities are quite troublesome. It was not really possible to “outdo” Helm’s Deep—greater scale only means less impact. The sight of Gollum, so devastating in “The Two Towers,” has grown familiar by the time we watch “The Return of the King.” And (to reach back beyond “The Two Towers”) after we have seen the Balrog, we are unlikely to take more than a clinical interest in Shelob, when what gives the Shelob episode in RotK its power is not a purely physical horror, but the pause as the omniscient narrator recounts the spider’s wicked history, the direct experience that the narrator gives us of her gloating malice, and the intense feelings of the terrified and then triumphant hobbits, very little of which can be transferred to the screen.


  The most likely explanation for the greater success of the earlier film, however, is the simplest. It is the amount of the material that the screenwriters attempted to adapt in “The Two Towers,” on the one hand, and in “The Return of the King,” on the other. “The Two Towers” starts precisely at the start of TT and covers a total of about 245 pages (in my edition), stopping long before the end of both Book III and Book IV of TT. “The Return of the King” begins, of course, where “The Two Towers” leaves off, over 400 pages from the end of the story. In “The Two Towers,” there are no omissions of entire chapters; by contrast, in “The Return of the King” three full chapters of the original (VI.6-8), totaling 50 pages, are cut, and virtually no use is made of chapters V.8-9. Even with these deletions and compressions, however, the screenwriters were left with well over 330 pages of material to accommodate in “The Return of the King”—almost as many as for “The Fellowship of the Ring,” but distributed across a complex, many-stranded narrative structure that is far more resistant to compression than the straightforward, linear structure of FotR.


  The fact that “The Return of the King” runs more than 3 hours long is already a sign of trouble. There was simply too much plot to handle. The choice to end “The Two Towers” just over two-thirds of the way through TT meant that there was no need, in that film, for wholesale cuts. It also meant that there was breathing-room for the screenwriters’ imaginations—room to alter the story for dramatic reasons, rather than for lack of time; room even to make additions that add breadth to the physical dimension of the story and to its human dimension as well.[5] There is a sense of easy mastery in the handling of the story in “The Two Towers” that is missing from the relentless pelting of events in both “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Return of the King.”


  The decision to end “The Two Towers” long before the end of the volume of the same name meant, unhappily, that “The Return of the King,” despite its name, had to deal with much of TT as well as all of RotK. Wholesale cuts, with the damaging effects I have already described, were therefore necessary. Even the chapters that were not deleted often suffered an excessive compression—the journey from Cirith Ungol to Mount Doom is a major victim of this process, and careful comparison of the script of the movie to Tolkien’s novel will show that the battlefield of adaptation is strewn with other bodies. All of this havoc, which I believe is ultimately responsible for the repeated failure of crucial scenes in “The Return of the King” to have their proper effect in the theater, flows directly from the choice to handle less material in “The Two Towers.” Ironically, then, one could say that the artistic (and emotional) successes of “The Two Towers” were purchased at the price of the artistic (and emotional) failures of “The Return of the King.” Gandalf, who knew, and reminded anyone who would listen, that no victory is total or free of cost, would nod sagely at this point if he were here, and if he took an interest in film criticism, which is perhaps unlikely.


  In the end, though, despite the unevenness of these three films, the not infrequent lapses in judgment, the excessive reliance on spectacle, the repetitive resort to simulated physical violence, I think it would be very ungrateful and unreasonable not to emphasize what is good, and often excellent, about Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” rather than what is not so good. I never expected to see even a passable film version of LotR in my lifetime. If anyone had claimed just ten years ago that a version half as good as Peter Jackson’s would be standard fare on cable TV by the year 2004, I would have laughed in their face. And for all my criticisms, I still sat riveted to my seat through each of the films, laughing, cheering, and weeping along with my fellow mortals in the audience, and thrilling to the spectacle when (as in the battle at the foot of Mount Doom in the Prologue, in the Mines of Moria, in the armories and forges of Isengard; at the Gate of the Kings, the Black Gate, or Helm’s Deep; or as a galloping Shadowfax carries Gandalf and Pippin up the precipitous levels of Minas Tirith to the Citadel, seen from far above in an intoxicating sustained tracking shot, or as the beacon fires bring word of war to Rohan) the spectacle bore up the story as on the wings of eagles.


  So, I am in fact very happy, on the whole, with what the passion and dedication of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and thousands of other artists and craftspeople and software engineers, including a splendid cast of actors and actresses, have given us all.


  Strange as it may seem, though, I am also happy that what they have given us is NOT the definitive film version of Tolkien’s book. Instead, there will be room, one day (but probably after mine), when the expensive special effects of our day have become the common coin of the realm of cinema, and when new technologies have ended the tyranny of time that still constrains our movies, and LotR has entered the public domain, for other versions of the book, both more faithful and much less. When that happy day arrives, the Jackson films will still be held in honor as the pioneering works they are and watched, much as we now watch Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” for instance, with great admiration for what could be achieved in the primitive circumstances of the close of the Twentieth Century and the dawn of the Twenty-First.



[1] It is preliminary because I have only seen “The Return of the King” once and have yet to see the extended version of “The Two Towers” (or the extended version of “The Return of the King” that will no doubt be coming out in a few months), and because one needs more time than I have had to assimilate and reflect on nearly 10 hours of film before attempting a settled judgment.


[2] Readers of the book will note that in TT, Tolkien has Erkenbrand and his men charge on foot, not on horseback, down the side of the Coomb. Wise author! He knew better than to steal his own thunder by attempting two climactic cavalry charges in one story. Contrast Jackson’s films, where there are FIVE (count ‘em!) cavalry charges: 1) at Helm’s Deep; 2) by Faramir and his knights; 3) by Rohan; 4) by the Haradrim on the mûmakil; and 5) by the Dead. Jackson is guilty of a similar overkill in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” where we have a prolonged battle with the Watcher in the Water at the West Gate of Moria, a prolonged battle with a cave troll in the Chamber of Mazarbul, a  prolonged set of collapsing staircases, and then, finally, the fight with the Balrog (mercifully brief), which does not benefit from all the hullabaloo that precedes it.

[3] One exception is the parting of Merry and Pippin. Dismissed with a quip by Merry in TT III.11, it is an outstanding example of Jackson’s ability to create and communicate strong human emotion with virtually no preparation. Indeed, I herewith confer upon him the unofficial Gold Medal for the Emotional Standing Broad Jump. Yes, we have seen plenty of evidence in the films that Merry and Pippin have a jolly old time together, but nothing really prepared us for the poignancy of Pippin’s dismay as Gandalf prepares to spirit him off to Minas Tirith, or for Merry’s grim, grown-up insistence on the truth that they may never see each other again. Indeed, even as the screenwriters proceed to wreak havoc on major characters like Gandalf or Gollum or Denethor, they add a depth to Merry’s and Pippin’s characters and relationship that is not really there in the book (though for good reason, one should add). A similar thing happens with Legolas and Gimli, whose friendship feels a lot warmer and less distanced in “The Return of the King” than in RotK—but then, for Tolkien, these two characters must never step completely down from the heroic elevation that their status as Elf-warrior and Dwarf-warrior brings with it. The downside of Jackson’s gift for the Emotional Standing Broad Jump is that it can come to substitute for sound dramatic construction, where the emotional power of a scene rests on the scenes that have preceded it, instead of coming more or less out of nowhere.

[4] The first serious mistake affecting the Frodo/Sam/Gollum triad in the script, on the Straight Stair above Minas Morgul, has already gotten plenty of attention from me. Concerning the second, the compression of the long journey (in the book) from Cirith Ungol to Mount Doom into a few hurried film-minutes, I might add that the film-makers are right to have grasped that once Gollum temporarily drops out (so to speak) of the story at Cirith Ungol, it will be difficult to sustain the audience’s interest. But they should have paid more attention to Tolkien’s devices for keeping us aware that Gollum is still nearby, and also trusted the audience’s emotional involvement in the relationship between Frodo and Sam, even without Gollum there to mix it up with Sam.

[5] A good example is the scene where the Dunlendings attack the village in the Westfold and a mother sends her children away on the family horse, staying behind herself.

Copyright ©2003 by Patrick Diehl Patrick Diehl is a former medieval scholar, poet, translator of Dante, one-time academic, writer, and a peace and ecology activist. He lives in the Southwest although part of his heart is always in Middle-Earth. Visit his review of "The Two Towers," –– "The Matter of Middle-Earth" and other works at West By

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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