In the long, fascinating history of book adaptations, none have won my heart over quite like Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies. The fantasy epics rank among the best in film history in just about every category: storytelling, visuals, special effects, acting, music and action.
Of course, Jackson had plenty of help in making these films so great, not just from the hundreds of people working behind the scenes, but from J.R.R. Tolkien, the legendary author who wrote the source material. It is nothing short of amazing the level of intricacy placed into every last detail about the land of Middle-earth and the ultimate quest to vanquish evil.
With Part 1 of 3 of “The Hobbit” coming out Dec. 14, I thought it only fitting to pit these two extraordinary works against each other to see which reigns supreme. I’ll tackle one installment per month,with “The Two Towers” coming in October and “The Return of the King” in November leading up to the new movie. Before diving into this, I’d like to make one thing perfectly clear: I absolutely love both versions. In most cases, which one is better really just comes down to personal preference, but it is undeniable that both the books and the movies are great. That said, let’s take a look at “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
This one is the most similar between the two versions. None of the major plot points change: Mild-mannered hobbit Frodo Baggins (played by Elijah Wood) inherits his uncle’s magic ring, which, it turns out, is actually the Ring of Power, containing all of the might of the Dark Lord Sauron, who is trying to resurrect his former power and take over Middle-earth. With help from a whole host of characters from several mystical races, Frodo sets off on his quest to Mordor to destroy the Ring and therefore Sauron.
There are three significant divergences the movie made from the book. First, the book allows for much more time to pass. In the film, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor) leaves Frodo at his home in the Shire to go seeking answers about the Ring and returns in an indeterminate but presumably short time. The book, though, shows that 20 years pass between the opening events and the true beginning of the plot. Second, while the movie’s nearly 3-hour run time (3 and a half on the extended version) lets it cover almost every event in the book, it leaves out the hobbits’ encounter with a magical being of the forest named Tom Bombadil. But as these three chapters are inconsequential to the rest of the story, it is not missed at all in the film.
The third difference is pivotal to the film series. Arwen (Liv Tyler) sees her part expanded in the film, carrying a wounded Frodo safely into Rivendell and giving the symbol of her elven immortality to Aragorn, destined to be king of the besieged kingdom of Gondor. The book merely introduces readers to her character and states her unequaled beauty. This is largely done because Tolkien’s works did not include many female characters. In “Fellowship,” there are only about five women, and only one, the elf Galadriel, really has any impact on the story. Arwen plays a larger, though still stunted, role in the later movies, something done in an attempt to even out the gender balance. Though at times forced, the change is welcome.
Tolkien’s writing style is forgivable in this aspect because, while other male-dominated stories come off as one-dimensional, his is anything but. The characters are complex and intriguing, and the descriptions of the cultures, histories, settings and people are astoundingly thorough. The book comes to life in the reader’s hands, so with a hundred-million-dollar budget, it was relatively easy for Jackson’s team to translate it into film.
One general grievance against Tolkien’s style is his long-winded explanations and set-ups, and at times, lines of great impact can be buried amid the biblical prose. But this just serves as a sign that Tolkien respected his audience and trusted his readers to figure out the important things that were going on. While the movie does a brilliant job in clearing his story up, reading the book makes for a much more rewarding experience.
That said, the majority of the important points of the book take place over the course of two chapters: “The Shadow of the Past,” in which Gandalf returns to tell Frodo all about the entire, long history of the Ring and what must be done with it, and “The Council of Elrond,” in which the representatives from all over Middle-earth gather to discuss all that is happening around the world and decide what ultimately will be done with the Ring. These events are paced more evenly throughout the film, and instead of just recanting them, such as Saruman’s betrayal of Gandalf, the movie shows the audience the events as they happen.
A big thing Tolkien could never have provided, though, was the fantastic score. Howard Shore deserves to be placed right up alongside John Williams among popular composers for his work on the “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack. Music is a key part of the culture in Tolkien’s works, and Shore encapsulates that tone and style so effortlessly that it takes the movies to a whole new level. Without his music, the movies would still have been good, but they would not have been the masterpieces they have become.
Ultimately, I think the movie wins out in this case, though very, very narrowly. Everything in the film comes together too perfectly for even Tolkien’s genius writing to win the day. Does this hold true for the rest of the series? Find out when I look at “The Two Towers” next month!