Thursday, January 29, 2015

5 Reasons Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” Was Better Than Tolkien’s Original

For the past few years, my daughter and I have been slowly making our way through J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings (this is the third time for myself, the first for her). After we’d finish a part of the trilogy, we followed it up by watching the movie version by Peter Jackson. In many ways, I believe Jackson improved on Tolkien’s original. Here’s my take on the first part of the story, The Fellowship of the Ring.

As I wrote several months ago in my post on Rediscovering Vintage Fantasy Fiction, the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954 helped revive fantasy fiction as a literary genre. It’s probably the single most influential fantasy work ever published. For that reason alone, it’s a must read for anyone interested in the genre and should probably reside on the top shelf of every fantasy lover’s collection. That said, Tolkien’s trilogy was written more than a half-century ago and storytelling in the genre has evolved considerably since then. As a result, it’s not too surprising that a gifted director like Peter Jackson was able to tell the story better. Here are five ways in which he accomplished that task.

Here's the  vintage cover from my first edition!

1. Jackson Trimed the Fat from the Story’s First Act

In the film, the initial scenes with the Black Riders were intense. In the book, not so much. 

After the first scene with a Black Rider trying to catch the Hobbits’ scent, Frodo and his companions encounter a group of elves. They decide to eat dinner with their new elven friends (why not, they’re only be hunted by a Nazgul) and learn that the elves’ leader, named Gildor, has spent time with good ‘ole Bilbo. Then, after another brief Black Rider sighting, they wander onto Farmer Maggot’s farm, where they stay for another dinner and bit of ale, only to learn that the Black Riders are looking for a “Baggins.” (Through these many encounters, they learn bits and pieces of what Gandalf tells Frodo in the film about the Black Riders before he and Sam ever set off on their journey.) Instead of racing to Buckleberry Ferry with the Nazgul in fast pursuit, Farmer Maggot gives them a ride, and when they think a Black Rider may be following them, it turns out to be Merry riding a pony (Pippin, in the book, is with Sam and Frodo the whole way). 

Upon bidding farewell to Farmer Maggot, the hobbits spend time with a fifth hobbit, Fatty Bolger, in Frodo’s new home at Crickhollow. (In the book, he sells Bag End before embarking on his journey; but the fact he had time to close this real estate transaction just shows how little tension Tolkien infused into the first part of the tale.) Next, the four of them (sans Fatty) decide to travel through the Old Forest, where they fall victim to Old Man Willow (a hobbit-eating tree), only to be saved by the quirky Tom Bombadil. At Tom’s house, they get dinner with good ‘ole Bombadil and his pretty wife Goldberry. Only then does the story get interesting again, when they encounter the Barrow-wights before being saved by Bombadil and his animal friends. 

Jackson was smart to cut out these scenes and make the Black Rider encounters more of a harrowing and frantic chase. These cuts are one of the reasons the first book could fit into a three-hour film. Without them, the movie would have lasted and extra hour or more and half the audience would be asleep before Frodo and Sam reached Bree. And while the book’s barrow-wight scene is a good one, it’s not central to the plot and would only have interrupted the heart-pounding pursuit of the Nazgul.

This was well done in the film!

2. Jackson’s Scenes With the Nazgul Were Way More Intense

Even the scene with the Nazgul at Weathertop, which kicks the film up a whole other notch, is far less dramatic in the book. Instead of building tension, Tolkien has Aragorn recite a two-page poem about some elven woman, followed by a page-long info dump that looks as if it was plucked right out of the Silmarillion and dropped in here to diffuse any inkling of dramatic tension. I realize that readers were more patient back in 1954, but writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard wrote tales decades earlier with far more dramatic energy and conflict. Peter Jackson, by contrast, vastly improved on this scene, making it one of the most intense in the film until the characters are deep within the Mines of Moria. 

The last two pages of the first “book” (the first half of the The Fellowship of the Ring) involves the race to Rivendell and the pursuit of the Nine, ending with their devastation at the river. This scene is fast paced and accurately portrayed in the film, except that the relatively pointless character of Glorfindel was wisely replaced by the character of Arwen in Peter Jackson’s take. 

The movie's scenes with Gandalf were better!

3. Gandalf’s Scenes Were Superior in the Film

The film featured an exciting scene where Saruman betrays Gandalf and imprisons him at the top of Orthanc. In the book, this entire story is told by Gandalf at the Council of the Ring, which deprives it of almost every ounce of tension and suspense since we already know that Gandalf survives. So too must we wait until the Council scene to learn that Gollum had been captured in Mordor and tortured until he betrayed the words “Baggins! Shire!” Jackson, however, reveals this information before the Black Riders even arrive, giving much more logic to their purpose and creating much more tension up front both for the viewer and Frodo.

We felt what Frodo felt when Gandalf fell.

4. The Emotional Element is Far Stronger in Jackson’s Film.

In the book, once the Fellowship gets on its way, the story starts to hum. The scenes in Moria are exciting and even fast-paced, especially the scene with the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum. Jackson makes these even better on film (seriously the cave troll scene is one of the best in the movie), but Tolkien gave him a ton to work with. Even Gandalf’s dialogue is straight out of the book: “Fly, you fools!” The game-changer for me, however, was when Gandalf falls at Moria.

Tolkien gives us no emotional reaction from Frodo’s viewpoint—or any of the hobbits. Instead he gives us a stilted speech by Aragorn. Jackson, by contrast, makes this one of the most emotional scenes in the entire film. You almost shed a tear when Frodo does, and the hobbits are so distraught, Aragorn orders Boromir and the others to carry them.

The film brought Boromir's tale full circle!

5. The Ending Is Much Better

The Fellowship of the Ring ends with Frodo and Sam setting off alone to Mordor. The attack by the Urak-hai, the capture of Merry and Pippin, and the death of Boromir actually take place in the first chapter of the second book, The Two Towers. Jackson, however, was wise to include that scene at the end of the first film.

For one, it completes Boromir’s personal journey, from his temptation for the ring, to his dark moment when he tries to take it from Frodo, to his heroic redemption in the battle against the Uruk-hai to save Merry and Pippin. Tolkien, by contrast, ends Boromir’s tale as almost an afterthought by moving it into the second book. 

Secondly, including Boromir’s death in the first installment creates a more exciting climax for the first film. Without this scene, which Jackson infuses with plenty of emotion, the movie would have ended on a bit of a whimper. While it’s great to see Sam loyally following Frodo at the end, this scene has more weight when it’s played against the death of Boromir, emphasizing the true danger posed by the Dark Lord and his servants. This only adds to the gravitas of Frodo’s quest and it sets up everything perfectly for the next film.

But these are just my thoughts – I’m curious to know yours. Do you think Peter Jackson improved on Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring?

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