Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy: Will it be True to Tolkien?

By Steven D. Greydanus

Not so long ago, movie adaptations from books began to employ the conceit of sticking the original author’s name in the film title: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Bram Stoker’s Dracula; William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet; Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

It was an idle boast: None of the above films were particularly faithful to their source material — nor, incidentally, were they particularly good films. Things were perhaps clearer in the past, when everyone knew that Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, though classic films, were not L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

Yet neither Baum nor even Mitchell ever quite generated the level of intensely passionate fan devotion inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings. This is a fact not lost on New Zealand director Peter Jackson, whose ambitious, unprecedented back-to-back three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings launches this December with The Fellowship of the Ring.

Jackson is so concerned not to be seen as trying to create J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring that in 1998 he went so far as to tell readers of Harry Knowles’s Ain’t It Cool News, a website of film reportage and rumor-mongering: "You shouldn’t think of these movies as being The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is, and always will be… one of the greatest [stories] ever written. Any films will only ever be an interpretation of the book. In this case my interpretation."

That’s not to say, though, that Jackson isn’t trying to be true to Tolkien’s vision. Jackson also told Knowles’s AICN website:

I guess if I was making the movies for anyone else [other than me], it would be Professor Tolkien himself. I will never know what he would think of the films we are about to make, but by being faithful to his themes, his characters and the things he clearly cared about, I can at least feel I’m honouring his wonderful imagination in the best way I know how.

The fidelity of the film project to its source material has also been touted by other production members besides Jackson. The screenplay was described as "perhaps the most faithful screenplay ever adapted from a long novel" by Gandalf actor Ian McKellen ("Magneto" from X-Men) in a Q & A on his website; and several cast members have voiced astonishment at the incredibly detailed sets and props and ground-breaking special effects being used to bring Middle-earth to life.

However well the films ultimately realize Tolkien’s vision, the outcome — like the great quest the books themselves describe — has often been in doubt.

When Jackson first began pursuing the possibility of a Lord of the Rings movie project, he started out with a deal for a two-movie version with Miramax Pictures. Later, Miramax decided that the project should be condensed into just one medium-length picture.

But then New Line Cinema stepped in with an offer of a much more expansive three-film production. The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, is expected to have a longer running time than Miramax was ultimately willing to allot for the whole saga.

Of course, running time alone is no guarantee of faithful interpretation; and even Jackson has more than once tacitly admitted that the production hasn’t always aimed for the level of fidelity the project currently claims. As the director last year told The New Zealand Herald:

Way back at the beginning we thought there is quite a bit of this we are going to have to alter or change, do things to turn the book into a film but the more we got into it… we’ve gone further and further back to the books again. So a lot of our so called clever ideas at the beginning we’ve long since abandoned and Tolkien hopefully has a fairly clear voice in the film.

Tolkien fans may be gratified by this suggestion that it was the power of the books themselves that inspired this increasing fidelity to the source material. There is, however, at least some question whether another force may have been a factor in the filmmakers’ decisions: namely, fan pressure, especially in online venues.

Certainly the risk of fan disappointment is formidable. In the fifty or so years since its completion, Tolkien’s great saga has appealed to a vast, almost comically diverse audience, encompassing Oxford literati in the 1950s, tie-dyed flower children in the 1960s, teenaged role-playing gamers in the 1970s, conservative Catholics and other Christians in every decade, and countless more besides.

In the last decade or so, representatives or heirs of practically all these groups have taken to the Internet in droves, establishing hundreds of websites, web-rings, chat groups, and other online fora and communities devoted to Tolkien’s writings.

The level of often-obsessive interest and attention to minutiae often found in these venues is comparable only to what goes on in the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars fandom. Burning issues such as whether Balrogs have wings, who or what Tom Bombadil might be, and whether the Nine Rings are worn by the Nazgûl or by Sauron have been endlessly discussed and debated by enthusiasts sometimes capable of carrying on these discussions in one or more of the languages of Middle-earth created by Tolkien himself.

Yet contrary to common media stereotypes, most Tolkien readers are not geeky "fanboys" or obsessive nerds. Rather, they are people who have encountered in The Lord of the Rings an unforgettable vision of glory and truth and tragedy and loss. The poetry and mythopoeia of Middle-earth, the "beauties that pierce like swords or burn like cold iron" (as C. S. Lewis put it) — this is what matters to most readers.

It is this mythopoeic quality, this elusive sense of something Tolkien called "faerie," that many readers feel has so often been lost whenever Tolkien’s world is imaginatively transposed into other media. Consider the dismal, generic sword-and-sorcery art that graces (or disgraces) the covers of many cheap paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien-themed calendars, and the like. Or take (please) the 1970s animated versions: the Rankin-Bass Hobbit and the highly truncated Lord of the Rings from animator Ralph Bakshi (Cool World).

The problem actually runs deeper than poor reimaginings of Tolkien: The whole style of Western epic mythopoeia that Tolkien represents hasn’t fared well in translation, especially to the big screen. When was there ever a truly good film of the type of mythic fantasy adventure involving wizards and dragons, dwarves and elves, warriors and princesses? From Willow and Legend to Dragonslayer and Dragonheart, from Excalibur and Camelot to Conan and Kull, the best of them have been merely adequate.

In fact, tongue-in-cheek parodies like The Princess Bride and Shrek have been far more successful than attempts at the real thing (just as Cervantes’ Don Quixote all but eclipsed the real chivalric literature of the Middle Ages). It’s a sobering thought that, to date, the closest thing to a successful cinematic Western mythic epic fantasy adventure may be the science-fiction mythology of George Lucas’s Star Wars films.

Clearly, Peter Jackson (The Frighteners) has his work cut out for him. To his credit, he well appreciates the monumental significance of his task. "Every film genre," Jackson told AICN, "has been done well over the last 100 years, but not this type of fantasy story. If we get it right, it will be the first time. No film maker could ask for a greater challenge than that."

But Jackson has also faced another challenge: dealing with Web-based rumors, reports, and controversies ranging from worrisome to wearisome. Some online sources claimed that hobbit Sam Gamgee would be transmogrified by the film into a girl, or that Sam’s relationship with Frodo would be depicted in homosexual terms. Other reports alleged that the Elven princess Arwen would be reinvented as a Xena-like "warrior princess," and perhaps be added to the all-male Fellowship of the Ring.

Likewise, a garbled press account about the Fellowship supposedly being freed by Galadriel from the clutches of her nonexistent "evil sister Queen Beruthiel" must have come as a nasty shock to some fans (apparently the reporter mistook as fact a mischievous Web page offering a humorously inaccurate "summary" of Tolkien for lazy students).

All of these rumors have been debunked by Jackson and others. Yet at least some Web observers believe that the production may have backed off on at least some planned revisionism as a result of online fury.

"I think [fan concerns] played a large part" in shaping the films, says Australian Garth Franklin of Dark Horizons, a film site similar to AICN. "Jackson himself interacted with movie webmasters and fans on a regular basis throughout the production to get feedback. He’s extremely aware of fans and is making these films with them in mind."

Franklin gives particular credit to his U.S. counterpart, Harry Knowles of AICN. According to Franklin, Knowles has "been the key player" on the Internet pushing the film project to be as faithful as possible. Others give partial credit to a petition on a major Tolkien fandom site, Tolkien Online, that collected over 16,000 signatures urging Jackson not to subvert Tolkien’s vision.

But other Web observers disagree. "I don’t think fan response would influence this project," says Michael Regina, webmaster of The One Ring, another Tolkien fandom site. "Absolutely not… I think [the filmmakers have been] very curious about our reaction to certain things… but Peter Jackson, being the professional director that he is, brings a real passion to his work, and I don’t think he would be influenced by anyone’s opinion but his own."

It’s true that Jackson comes across as a man with his own vision for the films. And fan pressure is hardly an irresistible force: Another Web-based petition by fans of the Marvel super-hero Spider-Man gathered over 5,000 signatures but failed to persuade Sam Raimi, director of next year’s Spider-Man film, not to replace their beloved hero’s traditional mechanical web-shooting devices with spinneret-like organs in his wrists.

Whatever the impact of the online fan presence on the production of the films, it’s undeniably played a major role, as Regina implied, in the publicity and PR strategy. In addition to repeated online statements and Q & A sessions from Jackson and others, the studio released the first "teaser" trailer exclusively via the Web, and prominent webmasters were invited to a preview of footage at Cannes.

As for fans who want to know for sure that they’ve made a mark on the films, however small, membership in the official "Lord of the Rings" movie fan club carries the privilege of having one’s name listed on one or all three of the films’ credits in DVD release.

In the end, how faithful will the movies really be? Clearly the requirements of a film trilogy demand some departures from the book. For example, the adventures in Tom Bombadil’s land, while of great imaginative interest, delay the plot rather than advancing it, and Jackson reasonably chose to omit this passage.

Other characters and events have of necessity been eliminated; while some characters, such as Arwen, have for dramatic reasons been given more substantial roles. (A document at Tolkien Online lists reported changes along with arguments pro and con in each case.)

Yet great effort has been made to preserve, not only the key events in Tolkien’s story, but also the flavor of Tolkien’s narrative and of his world. Jackson has repeatedly said that much of the dialogue is drawn straight from the books — including some dialogue (subtitled in the film) in the languages Tolkien invented for his Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and other races.

The design of the film’s props and sets has been guided by two of the few artists to achieve some respectability in interpreting Tolkien’s world, Alan Lee and John Howe. Building on Tolkien’s own etchings, Lee and Howe have fleshed out a world of painstaking detail and authenticity. Elven runes grace swords and other artifacts, buckles bear the coat of arms of the wearer’s army, and the hobbit-ness and wizard-ness of characters like Frodo and Sam and Gandalf and Saruman have been subtly enhanced by undetectable but effective prosthetics.

The New Zealand landscape, too, has provided for every type of terrain and vista found in Middle-earth, from the cheerful valleys of the Shire, to the forbidding peaks of the Lonely Mountains, to the intimidating forests of Lothlórien and Fangorn. Several of the British cast members have described New Zealand as being very much like the British landscape that inspired Tolkien, but larger, younger, wilder: the ideal setting for Tolkien’s primeval history.

So there is some reason for hope that Ian McKellen may be right when he says that Tolkien’s work has been adapted with exceptional fidelity. However it has come about, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings may turn out to be — if not J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — at any rate a worthy tribute and an evocative interpretation. Perhaps even a truly great film.

Tags: All Things Tolkien, Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings

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