So the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy has won Tor.com’s Best Movies of the Decade poll, and though I’ve written extensively about each of the movies (Fellowship, TT, RotK) after re-reading the relevant volume, this seemed like a good time to do a (much) shorter overview of the movies specifically in relation to the book. After the jump, I discuss how the movies have improved my understanding of the book and enriched my reading experience, and what I observed about other people’s reactions during the re-read. Spoilers, naturally.
For me, the interactions between the movies and the book fall into two categories, sensory and analytic.
For sensory, I’m not the kind of reader who experiences strong visual or auditory impressions while reading. When I’m absorbed in a book, I fall through the page, in Stephen King’s term, but generally into some indescribable space that’s neither words nor images but somewhere in-between.
However, if I’ve heard a book read or seen images associated with it, those are imported into my reading experience. With audiobooks, this tends to happen even if I don’t agree with the narrator’s choices, which is why I’m ridiculously picky about audiobooks. But for some reason, with Lord of the Rings, I’ve found that I only “hear” the actors and line readings that I liked and agreed with, perhaps because I knew the text so well already. And my reading is improved by hearing Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, and many of the other actors.
This is even more so with the visuals of the movie. I’m a really poor spatial thinker, and while I put effort into imagining the layout of battles and such, I generally don’t with less plot-intensive things like landscapes and buildings. Even when I do, it tends not to stick. (I also have trouble visualizing characters’ faces, but I think that’s less a spatial thing and more, well, I’m not sure what; lack of imagination?) I’m thus delighted to have the sets and landscapes of the movies, many of which are stunning in their own right (Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul are two of the things that make RotK worth existing just by themselves) and almost all of which feel “right” to me, much more so than the casting. In fact, the only one that jumps to mind as wrong is the Paths of the Dead, and that’s inextricably intertwined with my other problems with that sequence.
Which brings me neatly to the other effect the movies have had on my experience of the book, the analytic. The movies made a bunch of characterization and plot choices that I didn’t agree with (see, for instance, basically all of The Two Towers). But thinking about why I disagreed helped me better understand what I valued about the book and the interesting things Tolkien did. To go back to the Paths of the Dead, I regard the movie’s versions, both theatrical and extended, as regrettable schlock horror. But that gives me new appreciation of the book’s restrained creepiness, reducing sturdy sensible (non-comic-relief) Gimli to stumbling horror, and the admirable way that chapter ends, with each successive independent clause building the tension:
They passed Tarlang’s Neck and came into Lamedon; and the Shadow Host pressed behind and fear went on before them, until they came to Calembel upon Ciril, and the sun went down like blood behind Pinnath Gelin away in the West behind them. The township and the fords of Ciril they found deserted, for many men had gone away to war, and all that were left fled to the hills at the rumour of the coming of the King of the Dead. But the next day there came no dawn, and the Grey Company passed on into the darkness of the Storm of Mordor and were lost to mortal sight; but the Dead followed them.
“But the Dead followed them.” Even with all those place names, isn’t that a great way to end the chapter?
On a broader scale, the movie’s changes sometimes pointed out things that I thought were suboptimal in the book, not that I always thought the movie’s solution was preferable. The two examples that jump to mind are Boromir and Aragorn. I’d never had a particular opinion of Boromir in the book before, but Sean Bean’s terrific performance and the extra interactions Boromir has with the hobbits made him much more rounded to me and increased my emotional investment in his fate. The book does have a brief comment that Pippin liked Boromir from the first, but well after Boromir dies (Book V, Chapter 4); before then I’d never have known it, and now I feel that as a lack.
As for Aragorn, I don’t like the character arc the movies gave him. But it does highlight the very peculiar choice the book made to put almost all of his character development in an Appendix, which the further I got into the re-read read the more I disliked. (Some people don’t read the Appendices! I know this was probably unthinkable to Tolkien but someone should really have pointed the possibility out to him.)
Overall, I unquestionably have a lot of problems with the movies. But I literally jumped up and down in glee in the theater lobby after watching Fellowship for the first time, and there are half-a-dozen moments in RotK that, as far as I’m concerned, justify the entire existence of all three movies. And, somewhat to my surprise, the movies have only improved my experience of the books: I’ve had no trouble separating interpretations or casting choices I disagree with from those I like.
I’m aware this isn’t true for everyone. I remember at least one person saying somewhere in comments that they hadn’t been able to re-read the book because of some hash the movie had made of Frodo’s characterization. But I think, judging by comments, that such reactions are in the minority by far. Most people seem not only willing but eager to discuss the book and the movies as separate things and defend each against criticisms based in the other.
And there are people who commented on the re-read who only read the book after seeing the movies. Which I think is pretty awesome, because at the end of the day, I like the book better and think it’s really worth reading if the story interests you. So not only are the movies a net benefit to me, I do think that they’re a net benefit overall by getting even a few people to pick the book up who wouldn’t have otherwise.
So, I’ll conclude by saying three things to anyone considering reading the book for the first time. First, start with Chapter 1. Do not read any of the other stuff before Chapter 1. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it later. Second, keep in mind that while the start is a bit leisurely, the pace does pick up; see if you can make it through, oh, Tom Bombadil, before giving up.
Third, come back here or to the re-read and let us know how it went. I look forward to hearing what you thought!
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, feeling nostalgic for the re-read, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.