Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings have been lauded as cinematic achievements. The task of putting a series to film that was long considered unable to be adapted was daunting and if the first film failed, there was no hope for the following two. However, through a labor of love truly deserving of the cliché, Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) set the standard for film adaptations of epic fantasy.
The reason for the adaptation’s success is the amount of time that Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyens put into their screenplay tackling the challenges of converting Tolkien’s written word to visual storytelling. Due to this, the main plot points from the book take precedence over many of the smaller details of the book’s narrative. For example, the film doesn’t include the 17 years that are present in the book between Bilbo’s disappearance and the beginning of Frodo’s journey , mainly because of the time constraints of the medium. This allows the film to bring a higher level of tension early on as Gandalf races to and from Minas Tirith to discover the danger Frodo is now in.
In addition to minor events being cut out, so too were characters. Many of them are folded together into one person or their lines are given to those who are present in the film, which allows for better pacing in the film and keeps to the main action. One character many fans of the book noticed missing in the film is Tom Bombadil, whose wit and charm cast some hope in the dire situation of the hobbits. I personally don’t mind the exclusion of his scenes because they wouldn’t fit with the overall tone of the film series and could serve to undermine the seriousness of the Fellowship’s task. Though this might detract from the fidelity to the book, it helps to move our heroes along their path while keeping key lines and exchanges between characters intact.
However, along with cutting out some characters and smaller events, those present in the film are given more weight and sometimes drawn out longer because of their potential as visual entertainment. One of the best examples of extending a scene for cinematic effect is the cave troll sequence in Balin’s tomb. A scene that only takes up about a page and a half in book became a three minute and 30 second long sequence in the movie (I timed it and had to restrain myself from watching the rest of the film).
The film version makes for good tension but horrible reading – “Frodo goes behind the pillar. The troll peaks out from one side. Frodo moves to the other side of the pillar. The troll appears to go away. The troll pops his head around the corner and roars. Frodo falls down.” Not exactly worthy of Tolkien’s magnum opus.
As with any story that takes place in the fantasy genre, the world in which our characters exist needs to be built. Due to this, the first act of the film is a bit slow, but that is a screenwriting technique to better help the audience identify and emotionally invest in the characters in order to have more visceral reactions to the trials later in the story; things pick up quickly once Frodo and the gang set off. Imagine a truly direct version adapted from the 64 pages that happen before beginning their journey and suddenly the film’s opening act is less cumbersome.
The film’s prologue sets up the background in just seven minutes and 12 seconds (Once again, I timed it. You’re welcome). This sets up the audience for the epic adventure they are about to embark on and the following juxtaposition with the Shire further heightens the stakes. The Last Alliance and Sauron’s defeat isn’t mentioned until the Frodo and Gandalf share tea in the book; Jackson chose to include this conversation to further impress the danger of the task Frodo will undertake. Imagine (I need to stop asking you to do that. I’m starting to sound like John Lennon) the film without the prologue and with Gandalf simply stating the events like in the book; while this is a clever technique to hide exposition within dialogue, it is unnecessary thanks to the visual power of film.
Much of the book’s prologue deals with the social hierarchy of the Shire and while this enriches and brings credibility to the history of Middle Earth, it isn’t necessary for the overall story presented by the film. There is, however, an abridged version in the extended edition that is used to further contrast the war and violence of the prologue and the quaintness the Hobbits and their way of life.
The reason Jackson successfully filmed the “unfilmable” is his attention to the beats of visual storytelling, ability to cut out what wasn’t unnecessary to the story, and his love for the book. The sheer amount of detail that Tolkien put into his writing can easily be called overwhelming and while the visual teams and artists did a fantastic job, the true mastery of the work lies in the struggle of the Fellowship and their bond. Jackson’s adaptation is not direct and as such has done its job in order to tell a compelling tale that is faithful to the original while making the necessary changes to entertain and translate to the big screen.
So, what do you think? Did you enjoy Jackson’s adaptation and if not, what didn’t you like? What is your favorite book-to-movie adaptation? Feel free to comment below.