Comparison of the Main Characters in „The Lord of the Rings“, the Book and the Film

Bag_EndBag End, movie set
Foto: Rob Chandler via Wikimedia Commons

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“Art often takes on a life of its own, achieving far more than the artist could have imagined.”

— David Bruce about LotR

1. Introduction

It is for sure that Stanley Unwin, Tolkien’s publisher was not aware that he was going to publish one of the bestselling books of the century, when he asked Tolkien in 1937 for a sequel to his children’s book “The Hobbit”[1]. What he got was not a book for kids, but hundreds of pages of a story written for adults, which took Tolkien nearly 12 years to write and turned out to be well written literature that should become the beginning and archetype of modern fantasy writing. [2] It was not by chance that Tolkien had created such a marvellous story with such richness in detail. As a professor in Anglo Saxon and English language and literature, he had spent all his life studying poetry and literature and knew everything about words and putting them together.[3]

Tolkien had always said that his book is unsuitable for dramatization, because of its tremendous size and all its fantastic components.[4] Despite these regards his book was finally captured nearly 50 years later for the screen by director Peter Jackson and published by New Line Cinema.

The first part of the motion picture trilogy was released in 2001 and became a major success, not only among the fans of Tolkien’s work, but also in the popcorn cinema culture.[5] The viewers were amazed how good Peter Jackson had transferred the story to the medium of movie on the one hand, but had also created a great movie for the wide audience on the other. Although most of Tolkien’s original work has been transferred as nearly as possible from the book to the screen, there had to be made some minor and major changes. As Peter Jackson himself said in an interview: “While we are doing all the normal stuff to adapt a book, we did want to be as accurate as possible […] (to Tolkien’s novel).”[6] But a lot of fans and experts on Tolkien’s writing seem to disagree with Peter’s definition of accuracy and even Tolkien’s son Christopher strongly disapproves Peter Jackson’s version of the story.[7] As we will see, some changes were made for cinematic purposes, others just in favour of storytelling or the writers’ opinions. Below, this essay will focus mostly on the main characters’ appearances and their development throughout the movie. It will show some of the most significant changes and analyze their reason and purpose, to reflect why some of them were or had to be made by the director and screenplay writers.

2. No Strange New World – An overview why large parts of the film give the feeling to be amazingly similar to the novel.

Transferring a piece of literature to the screen without disapproving the fans is an almost impossible task. But there is a chance of doing it right, if you are a fan by yourself. And there is one thing Peter Jackson says about himself for sure, that he is a great fan of “The Lord of the Rings”[8] since childhood and he always thought that one day somebody should make a movie of it.[9] As he grew older and became a director by himself he decided to take this task into his own hands. He wrote the script together with his wife Fran Welsh and screenplay writer Philippa Boyens, both being even bigger fans than Peter.[10] The script writers having this kind of passion meant a lot for the project, because they had a lot of respect for Tolkien and his work, and cared a lot about how it would be transferred to the screen. It is even told that Philippa Boyens reads LotR once each year since her 16th birthday, which speaks for itself in the means of passion.[11]

Adapting the feeling of LotR was much easier to accomplish than someone might think at first, because there are already more than 40 years of drawings and models available.[12] Not only did they serve as a good blueprint for the film, but they did shape the appearance of places and main characters into a subconscious canon. I believe it is a common fact that each former painting of any kind serves the creation of those who are yet to come. Thus each painting or model, for example of the Balrog, shaped the next approach of another painter and during the last 40 years there developed one common way how the Balrog should look like. I think this even affected ourselves while reading the book and shaping our imaginations of it, accordingly to pictures we had already seen. Because LotR had been such successful, there exist hundreds of thousands of drawings from different creators. But it is mostly not Tolkien’s credit that they all look alike. In my opinion it is merely a credit to the creation of a collective canon way to draw the characters, which established during the decades.

It surprises that most characters are not described as detailed as we believe by Tolkien in the novel, because he was not very concerned with the looks of his characters, but cared about how they felt and acted. So there is for example no passage in the book that states how Arwen exactly looks like, beyond the fact that her hair is dark and her eyes bright, but the painters gave her the look we now accept as the canon of LotR.[13] Though it was never something stated by Tolkien himself, but only by those who adapted his work in some way. So it is not wondrous that the two most famous Tolkien illustrators of all time had been brought aboard to design the sketches for Middle-earth, to give the film an even more familiar face. Alan Lee and John Howe extended their already famous and accepted version of Tolkien’s world and some of their older paintings were even adapted not only in shape, but also their viewpoint was sometimes imitated in the movie.[14]

On the other hand Tolkien’s own dialogue was rarely utilised by the writers. Mostly it was made more straightforward and shorter, but still using Tolkien’s own vocabulary. Sometimes a line was shifted from one character to another, anyhow it stayed still Tolkien’s dialogue. Still recognition was made easy and very elegant by adapting some key phrases, which are most likely to be remembered.[15] An example for this is the famous Frodo line, when he declares to take the ring at Elrond’s council: “I will take the Ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way.” It is an important and unaltered piece of dialogue, while this kind of true transfer is rather rare.[16]

All this efforts in total lead to a very subconscious recognition of the book. Though the similarity of the film to the book is sometimes created artificially instead by just adapting truly what Tolkien had purported.

3. A Great Story needs Great Protagonists – An analysis of the adaption of the main characters and of their former and new role in the epic struggle.

At the very centre of every story are its characters, which are totally essential for its success.[17] So it appears naturally to focus on them in this paper. Most of the main characters of the fellowship were transferred to the screen merely without any very significant changes. Especially Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf and Boromir seem to be like we all had them imagined. But when the film departed from the novel some characters were changed, expanded or flattened and travestied for different reasons. In the following, the most remarkable changes will be shown and it will be interpreted why they were done.

3.1 Merry and Pippin – Or why humour is needed in Hollywood badly.

Merry and Pippin are even in the books quite indistinguishable and most of the time it seems, that at least one of them could have been spared. That was also suggested to Peter Jackson more than once during the writing of his script. Even though Merry seems a little bit more brave and Pippin has an increased affinity to foolishness, they could not only have been one character in the film, but in the novel, too.[18] It is not sure why Tolkien chose to create both of them, but I believe, maybe it was to give them a better chance to interact with each other, so the reader gets a better impression about what is going on.

To me the main difference between book and film regarding the two hobbits Merry and Pippin is their humorous appearance. Tolkien himself took his book and fantasy itself very seriously, so it is obvious that he did not include cheap humour in his story, just for a laugh from the audience.[19] Mostly foolishness, impulsiveness and their lack of responsibility defines Merry and Pippin in the movies. All these traits are introduced, in the moment the both of them make their first appearance in the movie at Bilbo’s Party.

The scene, where the two hobbits set off one of Gandalf’s Fireworks without permission, was regarded as a good way by the screenplay writers to introduce two additional main characters and showing us, the audience, immediately what these characters are up to.[20] In contradiction stands Tolkien’s writing, which in the beginning is cheerful about his childlike hobbits, but he is never seeking a cheap childish joke.[21] In fact, the scene about the fireworks is entirely the screenplay writer’s fictional addition. Although I believe it seems to be a good and elegant start for a movie, it definitely shows the characters in a facet Tolkien would not have approved, but was intended by Jackson’s team to initially show that the audience could await further nuisance caused by them.[22]

This kind of carefree childish humorousness follows Merry and Pippin till the middle of the trilogy and disappears when everything grows darker and they have to show courage. This turn occurs at the scene in which Merry and Pippin are forced to depart from each other in Edoras after Pippin had stolen the Palantir:[23]

It is also the second movie, when Gimli takes over their part and is disgraced by the same kind of jokes, but this matter will be discussed below.

3.2 Gimli and Legolas – Nobel princes, abused for audience’s joy?

Gimli and Legolas were those characters, which were not only altered in a drastic way, but flattened. For each of them an entirely different approach was taken in this matter and Peter Jackson did not only meddle with their personality, but also in their relationship to each other.

3.2.1 Gimli – Just humour and emotions?

Humour is something very important to Peter Jackson as he declared in the Extended-DVD of LotR:

“I have a sort of inherent dislike of things that take themselves too seriously and I just think there’s a sort of pompousness that I’m always trying to avoid.”[24]

This quote not only explains what had happened to Merry and Pippin, but also to the serious character of Gimli. This matter reduced him to over the top emotions and cheep humour, which seems even more misplaced for such a strong minded and serious character of the books.[25] A very good example for these inappropriate jokes is the “dwarf tossing” joke that was even utilised twice.[26] Here is to mention again how important the seriousness Tolkien applied is for high fantasy, because otherwise it damages itself. Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the most famous fantasy writers still alive, points it out clearly in an essay on the language of fantasy: “Humour in fantasy is both a lure and a pitfall to imitators.”[27] There is a type of comical fantasy, but it has nothing to do with Tolkien’s high fantasy.[28]

To picture a perfect example for over the top emotions it is best to review the Tomb of Balin scene in both the book and the film. In the book, this scene is very grim and Gimli’s only reaction to realize his inescapable apprehensions is to say:”I feared it was so.” And to cast his hood over his face.[29] On the other hand, in the movies Gimli cries out in tears and screams full of anger and mourn,[30] which for me seems quiet inappropriate for a serious character like him.

So Gimli might have been the most comical character of Tolkien, but has become a parody of itself in Jackson’s Film. [31]

3.2.2 Legolas – Just a supernatural fighter?

As we all know, action and movies proceed hand in hand, this is one of Hollywood’s greatest burdens. So a fantasy film like LotR was predestinated for serious sword fighting action and other styles of medieval combat. Therefore the fellowship is engaged in different encounters, but there is one member, who gets the most screen time of action among them.[32]

Legolas is not only an immortal elf, but he seems to have enhanced agility, higher strength, more accurate eyes and ears than everyone else and most of the time he appears even to defy the laws of physics while he is fighting. We might be used to that kind of action spectacle from other Hollywood movies in the past, but it somehow seems like a travesty in a movie like LotR, that focuses most of its time on something called fantastic realism. This means, while including a few fantastic components, like walking trees (ents), beastlike men (orcs) and wizards, it mostly tries to emulate traditional european medieval times as accurate as possible (or at least as accurate as we like to imagine).[33] This even would include medieval combat which is described briefly and very detached by Tolkien in the novel. But this did not stop Peter Jackson from very long and exaggerated fighting scenes, especially when Legolas is involved.[34]

Having Legolas surfing down the stairs of Helms Deep on top of an orc shield, while shooting three orcs in the head seems like an awesome stunt from Orlando Blooms point of view,[35] but if viewed with the critical eye, it only looks hilarious. This is just one example of how exaggerated Legolas’ combat skills are presented and when compared with the overall level of fantastic realism of LotR, I believe it just alienates the viewer.

Also his relationship to Gimli is a different one. Instead of evolving from ancient distrust to lifelong friendship like Tolkien wrote, Jackson presents them as something that is in Hollywood widely known as the “Buddy Cops”. One of them (Legolas) is straight-laced and serious, while the other one (Gimli) is impulsive and incapable of taking anything seriously. This totally agrees with what has been said before, about Gimli being the emotional and humorous character.[36]

3.3 Aragorn and Arwen – Because there is no Hollywood story without love.

While Aragorn, the second most important hero next to Frodo, became somehow more modern in the movies, Arwen got a stronger appearance. An additional importance she might have always deserved.

3.3.1 Returning the King – Aragorn’s lost confidence.

Tolkien’s Aragorn is the classic hero from myth, self confident, heroic and chosen by destiny. He himself knows that he is the heir of the Crown of Gondor and is proclaimed to return one day. It is uncertain when and how, but he himself knows that it will happen, due to the fact that he got Isildur’s blood in his veins. He does not only know that, but also has accepted it.[37] In stark contrast to this stands Jackson’s Aragorn who has a lack of confidence and is a character who has a strong development during the film. In Jackson’s film he is not only the hidden king, but has chosen exile by himself, because he distrusts his own blood and fears to fail in his predestined return.[38] He does not even speak up for himself at Elrond’s Council and it is left for Legolas to stick up for him.[39] Aragorn knows the weakness in men and projects this on himself, which becomes especially revealed as he speaks to Arwen in Rivendell:

Arwen: “Why do you fear the past, you are Isildur’s heir, not Isildur himself. You are not bound to his faith.”

Aragorn: “The same blood flows in my veins. The same weakness.”[40]

In contrast, the book is not clear about why Aragorn has not decided to return any time sooner. Tolkien introduces the old Arthurian legend about the sword which fulfils a destiny, but he fails to capitalise on this idea.[41] So to point it out clearly, it is only Jackson, who uses one of Tolkien’s ideas and expands and deepens it understandable for everyone. The change is in fact small, but significant as Greg Wright states: “For Tolkien, Aragorn is heroic because he is a hero. For Jackson, Aragorn is a hero because he becomes one.”[42] This kind of view has its seeds in modern story telling, where heroes have become more human, have become more like ourselves, with all our doubts, fears and hopes that can deceive us. This kind of modern hero touches us, because he tells us that everybody can become a hero himself under the “wrong” circumstances.[43] Toward the end of the movie, as courage is shown and the decisions, which have to be made are faced, Aragorn becomes the hero, Tolkien had intended him to be already from the beginning.

3.3.2 Luthien’s Choice – Arwen as a main character.

Everything what had been said before about Aragorn links very strongly to Arwen, the additional main character. It turned out that she should play a much more important role in the movie than Tolkien had ever written for her. The main reason for strengthening her character was the need for a love story, something movie audiences would expect and react to.[44] Although it is sometimes proclaimed that this was a poor choice Peter Jackson made, it was in fact just expanded from Tolkien’s work.[45] Even though Arwen is not a great part of the main body of the story, she was so important to Tolkien, that he created an appendix about Arwen and her relationship to Aragorn. This appendix appears to be something that Tolkien was not able to integrate into the main body of the story, but still wanted to include in the novel.[46] Therefore Peter Jackson did nothing, except of integrating this romance from the end of the book, directly into the story with his own words. Which was his only choice other than removing it from the film entirely.[47]

So it becomes just natural that she replaces Glorfindel in a strong scene, an otherwise unimportant character to the story, to be introduced by rescuing Frodo and bringing him to Rivendell safely.[48] I believe all this together makes Arwen a strong and worthy character, Tolkien would have appreciated, because he always regarded her appendix as the most important one.[49] So Arwen is a perfect example for changing details without departing from the book’s essentials, which sometimes appears necessary.

4. Conclusion

But to put it in a nutshell, we all know that a book cannot be transferred to the screen without any trace of change. A different medium always means a different kind of approach to a story and how it will be told. Even Tolkien himself had seen that when he sold his rights and wrote: “Can a tale […] be dramatized – unless the dramatizer is given or takes liberties, as an independent person?”[50] Therefore changes were not only impossible to avoid, but also in Tolkien’s favour, in contradiction to what a lot of Tolkien purists proclaim.

Any kind of art, literal or visual, must be reprocessed for different media. This is something these purists have to realize, because not everything survives time, but is just stylized by nostalgia. A great man who realized this early for example was Douglas Adams, who loved the idea of rehashing his world bestseller “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for every medium available.[51] By being open to change his own story each time, he was able to create different approaches to his material with sometimes quite different outcomes. It is a pity that he did not live long enough to see his movie script realized, but in the end, he devised the world a very unique opportunity. The potential for everyone to find his own best version of his story, let it be audio, video, computer game or text. All of them approved by its very own author. This is a luxury Tolkien cannot provide. All he created during his lifetime was a book. So it was left for those who were to come to create different interpretations of his work. This is why it seems so easy to criticise, because it is very alluring for us to claim that Tolkien would not have approved this new creation or that it was not within his spirit. But this logic is flawed, because we just do not know. Maybe Tolkien would have loved the film, or he could have hated it or it even could have been only different (not better) if he still would be alive. But these assumptions are luxuries we do not have. We either have to appreciate what Jackson created, or revert to the book, which cannot be truer to Tolkien than anything else.

Maybe one day, someone else will create another movie based on LotR, though it is quite improbable during our lifetime. Despite all efforts that might be taken then, it still will never be Tolkien’s film. It will always stay the film of his own creator, an art of its own. Like the current movie is the interpretation of Jackson and his co-writers, though he himself claims otherwise on the Bonus-DVDs:

“We thought we should take what Tolkien cared about clearly, […] and put it into the film. This should be Tolkien’s film, it shouldn’t be ours.”[52]

If Jackson believes what he said, it would be unfair to judge him as harsh as it is done by his critics. Despite that they sometimes might be right, when instead of staying true in line of a decent story, the characters are abandoned in favour of new technology, action, humour or showcasting.

 

Bibliography:

1. CROFT Janet Brennan: Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, United States of America, The Mythopoeic Press, 1. edition, 2004

2. GAIMAN Neil: Keine Panik!, Germany, Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, 2. edition , 2003

3. JACKSON, Peter: The Lord of the Rings – Special Extended DVD Edition, New Line Cinema, 2001

4. SMITH Jim, Matthews J Clive: The Lord of the Rings – The Films, The Books, The Radio Series, Great Britain, Virgin Books Ltd, 1. edition, 2004

5. TOLKIEN John Ronald Reuel: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship oft he Ring, Great Britain, HarperCollinsPublishers, 5. edition, 1993

6. WIKIPEDIA the free encyclopedia, articles: The Lord of the Rings (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings); J.R.R. Tolkien (http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tolkien); The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings_film_trilogy); date of downloads 18.06.08

7. WRIGHT Greg: Peter Jackson in Perspective – The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings, United States of America, Hollywood Jesus Books, 1. edition, 2004

 

[1] JACKSON, Peter: The Lord of the Rings – Special Extended DVD Edition, New Line Cinema, 2001, Die Anhänge Teil 3: Die Reise geht weiter… – J.R.R. Tolkien Origins of Middle-earth.

[2] WIKIPEDIA the free encyclopedia, article: The Lord of the Rings, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings, p.1ff. (18.06.08)

[3] ibid. article: J.R.R. Tolkien, http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tolkien, p.1. (18.06.08)

[4] CROFT Janet Brennan: Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, United States of America, The Mythopoeic Press, 1. edition, 2004 , p. 40.

[5] WIKIPEDIA, article: The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings_film_trilogy, p.1. (18.06.08)

[6] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil I Vom Buch Zur Vision – From Book to Script.

[7]WIKIPEDIA, loco citato, article: The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, p.6-7.

[8] In the following shorted as „LotR“.

[9] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil 1 Vom Buch zur Vision – From Book to Script.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil 1 Vom Buch zur Vision – Designing Middle-earth.

[13] SMITH Jim, Matthews J Clive, The Lord of the Rings – The Films, The Books, The Radio Series, Great Britain, Virgin Books Ltd, 1. edition, 2004, p.119.

[14] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil 1 Vom Buch zur Vision – Gestaltung und Aufbau Mittelerdes – Designing Middle-earth.

[15] SMITH, loco citato, p.100.

[16] ibid., p.122.

[17] CROFT, loco citato, p.103.

[18] cf. SMITH, loco citato, p.140-141.

[19] CROFT, loco citato, p.74-75.

[20] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil 1 – Vom Buch Zur Vision – From Book to Script.

[21] cf. SMITH, loco citato, p.102-106.

[22] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil 1 – Vom Buch Zur Vision – From Book to Script.

[23] WRIGHT, loco citato, p.126.

[24] CROFT, loco citato, p.75.

[25] ibid., p.76.

[26] ibid., p.75.

[27] CROFT, loco citato, p.74.

[28] ibid, p.74.

[29] TOLKIEN John Ronald Reuel: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship oft he Ring, Great Britain, HarperCollinsPublishers, 5. edition, 1993, p. 312.

[30] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Gefährten – Balins Grab

[31] cf. CROFT, loco citato, p.75

[32] SMITH, loco citato, cf. p. 124-125

[33] CROFT, loco citato, p. 75.

[34] Ibid., p.29-30.

[35] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil 4: Die Schlacht um Mittelerde beginnt – Die Dreharbeiten zu „Die zwei Türme“ – Cameras in Middle-earth.

[36] SMITH, loco citato, p.124.

[37] WRIGHT Greg: Peter Jackson in Perspective – The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings, United States of America, Hollywood Jesus Books, 1. edition, 2004, p.32.

[38] ibid., p.31.

[39] SMITH, loco citato, p.123.

[40] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Gefährten – Das Zerbrochene Schwert

[41] SMITH, loco citato, p.151f.

[42] WRIGHT, loco citato, p.58.

[43] WRIGHT, loco citato, p.32.

[44] SMITH, loco citato, p. 25.

[45] ibid., p.154.

[46] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil 5: Der Krieg um den Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-earth.

[47] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil 3: Die Reise geht weiter…, From Book to Script – Finding the Story.

[48] SMITH, loco citato, p. 121.

[49] CROFT, loco citato, p.178.

[50] CROFT, loco citato, p.28.

[51] GAIMAN Neil: Keine Panik!, Germany, Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, 2. edition ,2003 , cf. p. 288-295.

[52] JACKSON, loco citato, Die Anhänge Teil 1 Vom Buch zur Vision – J.R.R. Tolkien Creator of Middle-earth.

 

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