LOTR: Of Hobbits, Rings, and Book to Film Adaptations

(Originally posted on i-Pocalypse.com on 2-13-02) 

I freely admit I got caught up in the hype. Before I saw it for the fourth time I reread the books – something I haven’t done since Junior High School. I will see Fellowship of the Ring many more times in the theater I am sure (I mean, I saw The Phantom Menace in the theater five times when it was released and I didn’t even like it), but the film is not the book.

I read The Hobbit when I was in fourth grade. I read Lord of the Rings when I was in sixth grade. The library in the Elementary School which I attended did not have them, so I had to go to the local Public Library in scenic Clearfield, Utah, on my own and convince the Librarian there that I was a strong and mature enough reader to handle them.

This wasn’t a new experience for me, since I had already gone through the same thing to read Lloyd Alexander’s High King series of books. The school library only had the first book, and the School Librarian referred me to the public library to get the rest. That was the beginning of my solitary cross-town public transit bus journeys to find worthy reading material in hard back form.

I look back now on my childhood, spent mostly nascosted in my little windowless basement bedroom reading, and I realize what a formative role that Lord of the Rings had on me as a person. I remember clearly my older brother, Sam, sitting down with me after I read The Hobbit for the second or third time and helping me decipher the runes based on the clues given in the prologue and forward, together with the accompanying art work, so that I could have a serviceable code for note passing during class.

I, also, remember that same said brother, after joining the LDS Church (the Mormons) and preparing to go on a mission, encouraging me to read The Book of Mormon, and I countering that I had The Silmarillion and that would be good enough for me. I remember being unsure of whether or not I should like the Ralph Bakshi animated adaptation, because Wizards was a far better film, but Lord of the Rings was Lord of the Rings.

I remember, as a high schooler, quickly falling into the thrall of Dungeons and Dragons and spending endless weekends and dollars playing in an empty storefront next to a model store. I remember, as well, that the other geeks didn’t like to play with me and my friend, Scott, because we would always try to get away with stuff by arguing over the nuance of language rather than relying on the fickle roll of a pair of ten-sided dice.

I still spell “grey” with an “e”, instead of an “a”, because he was called Gandalf the Grey, not Gandalf the Gray. This, naturally, screws with my spell check.

I went through a real brief but intense flirtation with any and all Fantasy Book series. Everything had to be a trilogy. However, I quickly lost interest towards the end of my Junior High School career. At that point, my pubescent sensibilities soundly offended by the shallowness of the genre, my reading tastes turned sharply from Sword and Sorcery to Pulp Action: Doc Savage, The Avenger, The Spider, The Shadow and so forth.

Underneath it all, I was always enthralled by Lord of the Rings. The only book that came close to living up to it in my heart was Watership Down by Richard Adams, which I read once a year from eighth grade through to my mission for the LDS Church when I was nineteen.

I have been waiting on this particular film adaptation since it was first announced that Peter Jackson was going to tackle it and he had a green light. While we shared office space together working in Corporate IT sales, my friend, Jamie, and I obsessed about every little detail we could find on the internet. Jamie started reading the first book to his two oldest kids. (It took him almost two years to get through it. He finished about a week before the movie opened. Now he has to get through the second book by Thanksgiving.)

We argued over the various casting rumours as they popped up. I wanted Tom Baker, the guy who played Dr. Who, for Gandalf. The On-Line Geek Contingent wanted Sean Connery, but he was never an option in my mind, since he seemed to be too much himself. In my mind, Gandalf was always a tall, lanky, hunched over, bearded old man, with hidden fire deep inside. I just cannot imagine Sean Connery hunched over or soft spoken and he is anything but tall and lanky. The only thing I knew Ian McKellan from was Of Gods and Monsters, and I really wasn’t sure if he could bring Gandalf to life for me.

Elijah Wood seemed to be brilliant casting. The role of Frodo needed an actor that could show the innocence and wonder of someone’s first day at school and at the same time carry the weight of the world in his eyes. Truthfully, I was heartened that the hobbit and dwarf roles were going to be cast with normal sized actors. As much as I pull for all those little people to get work whenever they can, I just couldn’t see the filmmakers getting together five or six midgets of similar size and build that could act and carry the emotional weight of this very complex and dark story without looking like a bunch of depressed Munchkins or goth Oompa Loompas.

I felt the other Hobbits were well cast as well. They all have a certain look that makes you feel like they do come from a relatively sheltered society. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippen (Billy Boyd) were given a chance to come to life since, in the books, I always saw them as rather interchangeable characters until the very end.  In the movie they definitely hold their own place in the events that transpire. Merry shows a little bit of the steel that becomes more evident in him later on. Pippen shows that he is a bit lost and impulsive, but willing to do what is right in the long run for those he loves.

Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee, has a tough road ahead of him, though. It will be interesting to see how the character dynamic between Frodo and Samwise plays out. In the books, there is a certain closeness that develops between these two characters that is truly representative of the time and place from which Tolkien came. A devotion of one man to his superior, and the superior to his charge, that, read in our more enlightened times, tends to play out with a certain amount of homosexual subtext. It will be a difficult thing to maintain that dynamic that is so important to the resolution of the quest and moral of the story and yet not generate giggles from the younger audience members.

As for the rest of the Fellowship, they all worked for me on a visual level, except for maybe Viggo Mortenson as Stryder/Aragorn. I always saw Stryder as an imposing man – aloof and standoffish from the rest, tall and coiled with hidden authority. Viggo was good, but a little too new-agey, sensitive, touchyfeely for me. And his voice was not commanding at all. Still, overall, he wasn’t a terrible distraction, just not who I imagined as a child.

Boromir (Sean Bean) was noble but flawed and, ultimately, heartbreaking. Something that I really didn’t get from the books until later on in the second book after his brother, Faramir, is introduced.

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) were a bit of a let down. Not their performances, they looked and acted like I had always imagined their races would but their character arcs had been greatly reduced. In the books, Elves and Dwarves are, to say the least, pretty distrustful of each other.  The movie paid a little bit of lip service to this but not to the extent where it was of importance for anything other than comic relief.

Throughout the first book Legolas and Gimli were at each others throats like the Montagues and Capulets up until they reached Lothlorien and spent some time with Galadriel (Kate Blanchett). After their stay there, their character arcs through to the end had them slowly work through their differences and mutual prejudices to become more like Felix and Oscar.

The movie rushed the stay of the Fellowship in Lothlorien – more so than it rushed anything else from the first book save the exodus of the hobbits from the Shire. I can understand this decision and, honestly, I do not fault it. The process of adapting a book to film cannot be an easy task. And even more so with a book like this, that is massive in its scope. The decision to pace the story as a race against time made a lot of the editorial choices in what should stay in and what should go fairly easy to make, I am sure – such as the excisement of Tom Bombadil.

I was a little saddened that we didn’t get a chance to spend more time in the Shire. To get a feel for what it was that Frodo was willing to risk everything.

With the reduced time allotted for Lothlorien some hard choices had to be made. The ring had to be shown as something of great power and temptation to creatures of great power and great wisdom. I am not sure if the temptation of Galadriel is exactly how I would have done it, but it is a moot point. There wasn’t enough time to spend building the inner turmoil of her character over the temptation to take the ring.

I am excited to see how the next two movies turn out. Fellowship, to me, is the slowest of the three books. Two Towers, with the Fellowship broken, is the proverbial journey in the wilderness with all of the main characters trying to find their place in the massive story unfolding before them, and Return of the King is when they all stand or fall based upon their own convictions and strength of heart.

There are four or five parts that sting my eyes a little every time I see them and Ian McKellan as Gandalf is in most of them. He should receive the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in this movie even though he is only nominated for best supporting actor. He is totally lost to me as anyone else.

I think, ultimately, this movie, this film, respected a genre that I have loved since I was a little boy watching high flying Kung Fu movies with my mom at the local Air Base Theater. The vast majority of them have been just plain junk. The Beastmasters and the Dungeons and Dragons have beaten us about the head convincing us that the problem isn’t with Hollywood but with the genre. However, the simple problem has always been that they were being made by people that did not understand the plain fact that dressing up in leathers and battle armor is not an excuse to put on a show and does not cover up the absence of a compelling story.

The filmmakers treated the genre and source material with respect and skill, and deserve to go to the head of the class. So far a position held pretty much solely by a select few. A quickly put together top five list of genre favorites would include, firstly, Dragonslayer, Conan the Barbarian (sure, there were some drawbacks to it, mainly budgetary, but its heart was in the right place), Excalibur (if only for Nicol Williamson’s take on Merlin the Magician), and Willow (the half with Val Kilmer and JoAnne Whaley).

I had thought about spending some time contrasting the Star Wars films, primarily The Phantom Menace with Fellowship of the Ring, but, as my dear MickiMuse so sweetly pointed out to me, I only wanted to do it solely for the sake of being contrary. And to be truthful, she had a point (she always does). But, I will say this: the internal conflict I had with The Phantom Menace was that there really wasn’t anything at stake for me, nothing to get caught up in and worry about. The embargo of trade routes might be an emotional issue to some people, but to those of us without licensable properties to protect, it just doesn’t do it. I wish, I wish, I wish there had been something to grab me and drag me in. But there just wasn’t.

In the Lord of the Rings, in the books, and hopefully in the movies, everything is at stake; big and small, good and bad, pure and soiled.  And it is up to one small person, with only the help of his trusted friend and servant to walk the long walk and hope they have what it takes to see it through to the end.

3 thoughts on “LOTR: Of Hobbits, Rings, and Book to Film Adaptations

  1. It’s really, well, cool (is the only word I can think of) to be reading this ten years after you wrote it. How do you feel about the movies now? Do you think Jackson did Tolkien justice? I grew up with my father reading the Lord of the Rings to me and my brother. I loved your remark about the Silmarillion being your bible because that’s exactly how my father’s friends describe his view of the Lord of the Rings when he was young. He passed on his love. These books and movies are such a big part of my heart. Whenever I feel sad, I watch one of the movies. They’re my comfort blanket.
    I once said that if I had to explain the human race to a recently landed alien, I’d give it a copy of the Lord of the Rings. Though they’re set in a fantasy universe (as much as I like to think of it as the history of our world) they contain, in essence, everything that’s important about us.

    • It is funny, I decided to post this right after I read your latest post.

      I think my feelings as described here hold up pretty well over all. I did miss the razing of the Shire in the Return of the King, and I didn’t completely agree with how they handled Faramir in the Two Towers. But, over all I don’t think we could have expected a more faithful and masterful adaptation of the books. The Harry Potter movies (with the exception of Prisoner of Azkaban) are probably more faithful adaptations, however, I think they lack the full artistry and soul on display in the LOTR films.

      I need to buckle down and read Game of Thrones though – I love the TV series too.

    • So true. I’d rather Lord of the Rings represent our species, rather than the Iliad or Aeneid. LOR, was opposed to the other epics, is in the parlance of our time. And it exemplifies the goodness in people, rather then just their passions and their flaws. We will need LOR for evidence when the recently landed aliens discover how horrifying humans can be.
      Peter Jackson captured the best underdog story of this age with more aplomb than I thought was possible. When I heard about the films, I was in middle school and still in the middle of the series. I will always be grateful the films turned out well, and I am looking forward to Jackson’s treatment of The Hobbit- http://cgsiggins.com/2012/01/09/mass-media-recap-2011-all-hail-hypnotoad/

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