The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Fellowship movie re-watch

The first time I saw the movie The Fellowship of the Ring, I literally jumped up and down in the lobby after, saying, “When is the next one coming out?!” Even now, years after the first flush of excitement, I still have a hard time not watching it if I channel-surf past it on TV, and it’s the one I like best of all.

I re-watched the theatrical edition for three reasons: because of that happy memory; because I think the additions to the extended edition were properly left out (they seem to me “hey, cool, we can put this back in and the fans will like it,” rather than “this is how we envisioned the film all along”); and because movie-watching time is about as scarce as hen’s teeth just now. You can find a list of the additions to the extended edition at the IMDB; if anyone has a more detailed link, please leave it in comments.

After the jump, discussion of the movie Fellowship in light of the re-read of the book Fellowship, with spoilers for all the books and movies.

Okay, a few lists to start, of things I don’t feel the need to discuss at length (don’t let that stop you, though):

Things that I consider an improvement over the book:

  1. Boromir.

Things that enhance my enjoyment of the book:

  1. Locations, sets, and character designs. I am not a visual reader and having these available as mental reference is very useful. Similarly, fighting styles (*pauses to contemplate Aragorn in motion*).

  2. Sounds, sometimes. The voices of the actors I like (not necessarily their phrasings) and some sound effects (I am helplessly fond of *balrog* as a indicator similar to *snarl*, TM Sarah Monette).

Things that I am willing to roll with because of differences in the media:

  1. The front-loading of historical exposition into a prologue-y thing. (Well, I prefer this prologue-y thing to the actual Prologue, but I doubt that I’d want it there in the book.)

  2. The excision of the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-downs from the first half. (Though I wish that a more elegant way of getting the hobbits their swords could have been contrived.)

  3. Making Saruman a much more central antagonist.

  4. Shifting Boromir’s death into this movie.

  5. Making the Ring scarier and more immediately tempting. (Though this does lead to ramifications down the road, and I may change my mind when we get to that.)

Worst miscastings:

  1. Elrond. Should not be sinister. (“Mis-ter Baggins, it seems you’ve been leading a double life . . . ”)

  2. Arwen. Should not be breathy and vapid.

  3. Celeborn. Should not be that useless.

* * *

Aaaand let’s get this out of the way early too:

In the text, the Uruk-hai are “swart(y)” and “slant-eyed” (III.3, “The Uruk-Hai”). I am not sure of the connotations of “swarthy” to an Englishman in the 1940s, but to me it conveys brown skin, as you might find in southern Europe along the Mediterranean.

When we first saw Orcs in the movie, they are the garden-variety type, and have ashy gray skin. “Great,” I thought, “ducking the issue entirely by giving orcs a non-human skin color.”

And then I saw the Uruk-hai. Who are not only very dark-skinned, much darker than “swarthy” to me, but have long twisted hair that often comes close to looking like dreadlocks (picture).

This is really not cool.

Very important, read this before commenting!

No, I am not accusing Peter Jackson et al. of being consciously racist, bad people, etc. I imagine they went through an entirely logical conscious thought process that included wanting to strongly differentiate the Uruk-hai from the older orcs, but that was also subconsciously influenced by the racist attitudes that permeate Western culture to the effect that large dark-skinned men are scary and violent, which made it easy to differentiate the Uruk-hai by making them dark-skinned. But regardless of how they got there, they changed an entire race of creatures away from both the source material’s description and their own decision to give other orcs non-human skin colors, into walking stereotypes of large scary violent dark-skinned men, and with a hair style that is strongly linked to Africans and people of African descent, to boot. And then no-one saw a problem with that, which I attribute to the fact that the people making these decisions were overwhelmingly white (based on the DVD extras, though I haven’t re-watched them recently), which means that racism isn’t constantly shoved in their faces the way it is for non-white people, which means they have the luxury of not thinking about race, which means that they can perpetuate racist stereotypes without even noticing.

And thus, I say: this is a perpetuation of racist stereotypes, and it is really not cool.

(By the way: yes, I know it’s just a movie. Please don’t feel it necessary to point that out to me.)

* * *

And now for the longest section, “Things that I am not willing to roll with because of differences in the media.” We can divide this into three categories: character arcs; magic; and humor.

To take them in reverse order:

Poor Gimli, all your eloquent love of Moria in the book is transformed into a demonstration of how stupid you are to not notice that you’re walking through the remains of a battlefield. And your relegation to the comic relief only gets worse from here. (The hobbit comic relief isn’t as bad, but still has the effect of dumbing them down.)

As for magic, well, I understand that things need to be more visual, but I hate that “more visual” apparently equals “loud, flashy, and violent.” The wizard-fu battle of Gandalf and Saruman, the absurd Temptation of Galadriel, Sauron’s fighting the Last Alliance: it’s all just stupid.

(I like the magical critters, though, the Watcher in the Water and the Balrog.)

Finally, character arcs.

The worst of these is Aragorn’s. I hadn’t realized just how massive a revision this was until now, so there’s a benefit of the re-read. It seems to me, here at the end of Fellowship the book, that Aragorn is much bleaker than I’d remembered, seeing no real hope for a defeat of Sauron but grimly fighting on all the same. And I don’t remember if this changes to the extent that you can call it an “arc” in the book, but regardless, his reaction to external events from this perspective strikes me as sufficient to the purpose—except that this is fairly subtle and requires a lot of inference and back-filling (since some of his history doesn’t come out until the Appendices, for goodness’ sake). But going from that to someone who rejects trying for the kingship because he fears inherited weakness of character . . . ?

Bullshit.

Now, I do like that Aragorn deliberately chooses to let Frodo go to Mordor alone, because I like that recognition of his choice and that last moment of connection between them. But I think you could have had that without these changes to Aragorn.

(Relatedly, I hadn’t realized until now that the movie takes off the table the possibility of the Company going to Minas Tirith first, or maybe splitting up. I think I’m neutral on this: it is a little hard to believe that any of the characters would actually abandon Frodo if he chose Mordor, and it simplifies things. On the other hand, the possibility that Frodo might choose Minas Tirith—but then doesn’t—is another stressor on Boromir that nudges him toward trying to take the Ring. This is replaced by the Ring being more attractive as an object than in the books. So, six of one, I think.)

And then there’s the wimping up (down?) of Frodo. I’m putting this under “character arcs” because otherwise I can’t figure out what it’s doing in the movie. Instead of stabbing at the Nazgûl at Weathertop, he lies there quaking; and instead of making a desperate last stand after crossing the Ford, he’s dead weight. And it’s annoying. But I’m not really sure it works to give him an arc into bravery, since he’d already opened the movie by deciding to take the Ring, so setting out alone into Mordor doesn’t feel like a progression.

Admittedly there’s not much in the way of character growth and development contained within the first volume. The biggest instances of that in the book as a whole are Éowyn and the hobbits, and those don’t culminate until the third volume. However, I think the movie could have simply used Boromir for its standalone character arc and started laying the groundwork for the hobbits. Or it could have not made Gimli the damn comic relief and started showing his friendship with Legolas earlier, though admittedly this means bringing back the gifts scene into the theatrical edition.

But I really do love this movie, honest. What do you all think?


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