Before I start, I want to clarify that this is a review of the films only. I have read the books between 13-20 times (I lost count at 13) and seen the whole trilogy of films more than 20 times. I have also read The Hobbit 3 or 4 times, read the Silmarillion twice, The Book of Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales and The Children of Hurin, so I would say I am pretty familiar with Tolkien’s work. The films are a pretty good reflection of the books, but they are not an accurate rendering on screen, so if you really want to know and understand Tolkien, read the books; the man was a genius, so I can’t even attempt to do him justice in a review of his work. We are simply talking about Peter Jackson’s excellent movies here. I will attempt to outline what is good and bad about the movies and compare them with the books, as well as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, both of which it’s frequently compared to. This whole review is a spoiler, so if you don’t want to know what happens to the characters, don’t read this.
The Fellowship of the Ring
The three movies begin with the Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo Baggins is the nephew of the wealthy, respected (if only because of his wealth) and usually reserved Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo returned from an adventure some 70s years before with treasure that included a ring of invisibility. We needn’t concern ourselves with that story here; read The Hobbit for details of his adventure. Frodo is perplexed when Bilbo puts on the ring at his 111th Birthday disappears and then abruptly leaves the Shire, homeland of the diminutive race of hobbits. Only the wizard Gandalf, who has been a friend of the family since Bilbo’s adventure, has a clue what the ring is; it is the One Ring, a ring forged to control the races of men, dwarves and elves in ancient times by Sauron the Great, servant of the Lord of Darkness himself, Morgoth.
The film does well in worldbuilding; the shire is beautifully recreated in New Zealand along with almost all other landscapes in the movies, so that we have a sense of the fantasy being grounded in reality. The hobbits, elves and other races could have existed in some distant past, we feel. Jackson masterfully takes care of the size difference between hobbits and men with some tricky perspective work and any CGI is kept minimal and done with care. Until Frodo, who has now inherited the Ring, goes on the run with his sidekick Sam Gamgee, and reached the Prancing Pony inn in the nearby town of Bree, we are treated to a whimsical, almost picaresque journey through a pastoral paradise, lulling us into a false sense of security and serenity.
Here, Jackson diverts from Tolkien’s books, leaving out a key figure, Tom Bombadil, and Frodo Sam and some friends’ (two young hobbits, Merry and Pippin have joined by now) respite with him completely. One can see why Jackson did this; Bombadil seems an anachronism in this story and adds almost nothing to the plot. Moreover, Jackson must have felt the pressure to get as much into the 3-hour movie as possible, and there would simply have been too little time to develop Bombadil. And yet, Bombadil is in fact a figure from Middle Earth’s mythological creation, a being so old one might call him an Angel. He also, I believe, convinced Frodo that no matter how bad Sauron could be, good will triumph in the end. Without Bombadil, Jackson was forced to put more weight on Sam’s shoulders to give support and encouragement to Frodo later on, and this, in turn, made Sam more of an antagonist toward Gollum than I think Tolkien would have liked. But more of that problem later. For now, just be aware that if you read the books, you will not only get a beautiful glimpse of Middle Earth’s distant past, but perhaps also capture some of that glowing charm that permeates The Hobbit and underpins The Lord of the Rings. I read the trilogy while doing my GCSEs in the 70s, and that charm is the only thing that allowed me to sleep at night.
In Bree, the gang meet Strider, a ranger who leads them toward the Elven stronghold of Rivendell, but along the way Frodo is stabbed with a magical blade by one of the Nazgul, Sauron’s nine servants, who appear as black riders on black horses. We see something of the vampire in the Nazgul, because the blade gradually turns Frodo into a wraith, like them neither living nor dead. (Again, the movie watcher misses out here, because we are introduced to the cold evil of the ‘undead’ world in the Tom Bombadil chapter of the book, but it is missing here.)
By this time, we have begun to see that the Ring has a spirit itself, the spirit of Sauron, and that it has a will of its own, the will to return to its maker. But I believe the Ring is really a symbol of lust and in fact, sexual energy. Everybody wants it, nobody can completely control it and eventually, it reduces all who possess it to a kind of slavery in darkness; when Frodo puts on the ring by inserting his finger (symbolising the penis), he sees the spirit world and feels a strange power flowing through him, but it is gradually destroying not only all that he loves in the world but all in himself that is good.
The team eventually reach Rivendell in the movies, but only after Arwen, Strider’s crush since childhood, extracts the ailing Frodo on a white horse and manages to evade the black-horsed Nazgul. This is not in the books, but it’s useful in the movies, showing that women are a powerful element of the story.
There, the Fellowship is born, consisting of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Strider (who we now discover is heir to the throne of Gondor and in fact, named Aragorn), Boromir (Prince of Gondor), an elf called Legolas and a dwarf called Gimli. It’s interesting that in early stories by Tolkien (particularly the stories about Hurin in the Second Age of Middle Earth) dwarves are treacherous, loving gold almost more than friendships and family, and this reflects the character of dwarves in Germany’s Nibelungen myths and its derivative, Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In some ways, they can even be seen as the precursors to the character of Sauron, which was developed much later by Tolkien.
Just as an aside, the Ring itself is a device of genius for its simplicity and connotations of beauty and corruption, only surpassed by Tolkien with his creation of Gollum/Smeagol. There is a very ancient tale that underpins much of Western literature, from the time when men first settled the land, grew wheat in Denmark and became fabulously wealthy. Men said then that gold was so easy to find that if a golden ring was found on the road, it would be left there.
The Fellowship of the Ring ends with the group attacked above a giant waterfall, the place where they were to abandon their boats and head overland to destroy the Evil Ring in the fires of a volcano, Mount Doom. But Boromir dies protecting the hobbits from orc attack after trying to take the ring for himself.
Notice, I have not even mentioned Saruman in my commentary, and I very rarely will, for in the movies he is almost redundant, though definitely not in the books. He is the greatest wizard and almost finishes Gandalf several times. Notice also that the virtuous members of the Fellowship are trying to resist the Ring, trying not to indulge in the symbolic ‘sexual intercourse.’ The Lord of the Rings is notable these days for being popular and yet containing no sex scenes or even implications of sexual activity. The films do not do quite so well (I can’t forget Tolkien’s Arwen wearing a see-through dress while snogging Aragorn).
The Two Towers
Merry and Pippin are initially kidnapped by orcs, who are in turn defeated by riders from the pastoral land of Rohan, leaving the two hobbits to struggle to safety in the enchanted forest of Fangorn. Gandalf, killed by a balrog, one of Morgoth’s servants from the first age, in the first movie, returns as Gandalf the White, and leads Aragorn and the other survivors ride to King Theoden of Rohan’s stronghold, Meduseld, for help. Theoden’s orphaned niece, Eowyn, falls for Aragorn while Gandalf easily exorcises the bewitched Theoden. The whole part, minus Gandalf who rides off to recall Eowyn’s banished brother, Eomer, then marches to Helm’s Deep, where an attack of Saruman’s orcs and men aims to wipe them out, but at the last moment Gandalf returns with Eomer’s army and Merry and Pippin persuade the living trees of Fangorn to attack and destroy Saruman’s keep at Isengard. Helm’s deep is liberated.
Peter Jackson’s rendition of this section is pretty damned good, if you ask me. He handles the love triangle between Aragorn, Eowyn and Arwen with great sensitivity. The similarity between Eowyn and Arwen’s names are a problem for viewers, as they are for readers, but Jackson makes Eowyn a willowy blonde while Arwen is a voluptuous brunette.
I have only two problems with this movie. Firstly, there is the ‘fall’ of Aragorn off the cliff into the river during the battle with the warg riders. While Gandalf’s fall in the books echoes the fall of man and I think is necessary to show how Gandalf’s early hubris and/or naïvety is replaced by a deeper, darker wisdom, its use here is almost meaningless. It seems designed only to elevate Aragorn to a Christ-like figure through resurrection, which surely is not something in the books and not what Tolkien would have ever intended. It’s unnecessary unless simply to slow down the plot a little or create some extra suspense. Cheap trick really. Secondly, Arwen caving to her father and leaving Rivendell, only to change her mind and return implies that she is indecisive. From memory (I may be wrong here), I think she is the grand-niece of Galadriel, who is one of, if not the, wisest of Middle Earth and her bloodline is replete with the very accomplished and wise. In the books, Arwen never wavers from her commitment to Aragorn.
On the plus side, Jackson’s portrayal of Arwen as so dynamic and skilful goes one step further than I think Tolkien dared to go in the 1930s (when this chapter was first penned), and I approve of this. The death of Saruman doesn’t fit with the book and does a disservice to him, as I mentioned earlier.
The Return of the King
The movie opens with a beautiful exposition of Gollum’s backstory. It comes just after he is spared from death by Faramir and makes us appreciate more what the little guy has been through. The whole section in Minas Tirith, the Pelennor Fields battle and Merry’s struggle to save Faramir, are faithful to the books, as is the arrival of Theoden and his men, his death on the field of battle and Eowyn’s glorious defeat of the Witch King of Angmar.
We move on to Aragorn’s march at the head of an army to the final gambit at the Black Gates, while Frodo and Sam finally reach Mordor and Mount Doom, where Gollum falls into the fires with the Ring and the other two are saved by the eagles. The whole Fellowship dissolves after Gandalf is crowned King and marries Arwen. Finally, Frodo, Bilbo, Galadriel, Gandalf and Elrond take the last ship at the Grey Havens for Valinor, the Undying Lands, bringing Sam and us to tears as the film closes. Yes, Frodo has triumphed, but not without suffering and learning great lessons which make him a changed hobbit, a theme that suffuses all good stories. We too, feel changed and grown by watching the movies (or reading the books).
However, I have significant issues with the final film. I will lay them out as best I can. Every time I read the books, the most precious feelings I come away with are hope and pity. Hope is a theme that runs subtly through the books, and I believe Tolkien wanted to show that from despair, hope springs. While I think Peter Jackson does fairly well, communicating this in the movies, he falls down on the subject of pity, and here’s why.
Gollum is the most piteous of creatures. We are meant to pity him, because while he may have been a somewhat mean-spirited individual before he discovered the ring, he never stood a chance against its power. He was poorly educated and from a febrile tribe that merely tried to survive. A gold ring was wealth beyond his hope, and a magic ring was beyond his wildest imagination. What is more, there was little or no knowledge of Sauron and his evil ways in the small village by the river. Gollum’s 600 years with the ring further reduced him to a mere appendage to the ring. He could not live or function without it. In many ways, his love of the ring was akin to something like a heroin addiction. He loved and hated it, but he could never give it up. Gandalf, Aragorn and Elrond’s elves knew this and spared him when they could have killed him. They even hoped that one day he would recover, as evidenced by the third eagle in the rescue part that flies to Mount Doom after the Ring is destroyed.
And yet, because Jackson never makes use of Tom Bombadil in the first movie, he is forced to make Gollum more of a threat to Frodo than he is in the books. This, in turn, may be what forced Jackson to include that scene at Cirith Ungol, just before we meet Shelob, when Gollum implicates Sam in stealing the elven bread, making Frodo reject Sam’s help completely and send him home. This scene is not in the book, and frankly, I hate it. It leaves us hating Gollum totally, and I think unless you have read the book, you will lose your pity for him. This is a great shame. Tolkien meant us to pity Gollum, and indeed, I do. This is one of the best aspects of the book. But to make Gollum not only treacherous but decidedly evil is not fair to him. He really does have a faint chance of redemption, and though he fails, the battle is heroic. Even Sam’s stoic character suffers from this scene, making him appear completely unsympathetic at the end, which he is not in the original story. Frodo too appears fickler and weaker than his literary equivalent, and I believe Jackson even introduced more scenes to support these characteristics, such as the awful ‘chicken dance’ scene near Mount Doom.
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I feel sad, as I should, when Gollum falls into the lava, but not for his death but for the viewers who don’t appreciate the sacrifice of Gollum’s soul that is taking place.
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Gollum is possibly the greatest and most fascinating character in literary history, but he suffers a dilution in these movies. That scene is a cheap, cheap trick.
Finally, I would just like to note that one of my greatest pleasures reading the books was to experience the ‘real-time’ feel. One week reading the book is roughly equal to one week of lapsed time in the books. You can spend a few days sitting on the parapet of Minas Tirith if you wish, and indeed, I did. When Merry is given bread, cheese and wrinkly apples to eat there, I too found a love for sandwiches of cheese and sweet, wrinkly apples. You never feel this during the movies, which is a shame, though not Jackson’s fault. But I recommend reading the books if you can.
Comparisons with the Harry Potter series
Much has been written of J K Rowling’s possible influence by Tolkien, though she is reluctant to admit how much of it. I have only read the first book and watched the first three or four movies, but I feel I know enough to offer the following observations.
I am pretty sure it is a great deal, as Harry looks a lot like the description of Frodo, and we also have characters like Dobby (Gollum). But there is a critical difference; Tolkien’s world is akin to the Medieval and could be placed in roughly the 12th Century, if one were to look at weapons and armour (though of course, tea wasn’t present in Europe then). Harry Potter is clearly set in the late 20th Century. Moreover, I feel that The Lord of the Rings is what one might call ‘grounded fantasy;’ it uses real landscapes and can be imagined to actually exist. The same is probably true of Harry Potter’s world, but it takes no time to dwell on beauty and in fact, spends much time glorifying the gloominess, as if gloominess, itself, is somehow necessary for magic and myth.
Comparisons with Game of Thrones
I have only watched Series 1 of Game of Thrones, but the differences from The Lord of the Rings are obvious. George R R Martin, author of the literary source for the series, quite openly says that his biggest influence is Tolkien, as is mine, and he employs a similar period for his costuming, the 12th Century. But whereas Tolkien avoids sex and indeed, actually builds themes fundamental to the story which encourage a degree of control, if not abstinence from sex, Martin goes all out for a sexual version of The Lord of the Rings. You could say that Game of Thrones is The Lord of the Rings with sex, but that would be too simplistic. If you include heavy doses of sex, including the wild abandonment of orgies, in your stories, how are you going to keep the audience transfixed on deep themes of loyalty, honour, faith, hope and pity? And I think it’s obvious that the makers of Game of Thrones found it difficult to do so.
Find out more about Middle Earth on the official Tolkien bookshop website.