May 23 2011 12:15pm

The Lord of the Rings Movies: A Book-Related Appreciation

The Lord of the Rings moviesSo the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy has won’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.

This article is part of Decade's Best SFF Movies Viewer's Poll: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Genevieve Williams
1. welltemperedwriter
I tend to read similarly to you, I think, which is why I'll usually read a book before seeing the film adaptation since otherwise the film inevitably affects my perception of the story while reading. That said, I have a hard time imagining not reading (or re-reading) a book because I didn't like something about the film's interpretation.

On the other hand, I also don't re-read a book right before the movie comes out; inevitably, I'll get distracted by the changes. I think such changes are almost always necessary; parts of LotR are unfilmable as written and, while I don't always agree with the filmmakers' choices (with you 100% on the Paths of the Dead, it just didn't work for me at all), I can usually see why they did them. But this is why I haven't re-read Game of Thrones. I'm enjoying the TV series immensely in part because I can't exactly remember how the books go.
2. Jamsco
I would say that the first time reader should try to make it to Bree before giving up.
Chris Meadows
3. Robotech_Master
Incidentally, Fathom Events is going to be putting on a one-night-only theatrical showing of the extended version of each of the three movies in June. For those who like the films, this is probably the best way you'll have the chance to experience them any time soon.
4. JT Austin
It's interesting to hear you describe how you read, or process reading at least, somewhere between words and images. I hadn't really thought of it before, but I guess I kind of do the same. And I still struggle with audiobooks to some extent - much better for books I've already read and am interested in re-reading than things I've never read before.

Going to go back and read your movie reviews individually now, but this was a good overview of the whole production. I had re-read the books not long before Fellowship, but not between the movies, so the differences weren't as fresh in my mind. I agree that the Path of the Dead never realy felt right.

Like welltemperedwriter said, there are obviously some things that are unfilmable as written, and some things that just wouldn't make the same impact in visual form. I remember being somewhat upset at the time that they omitted Tom Bombadil - I thought the discussions about him even more than his actual presence, the fact that he would be untouched by the ring's influence but at the same time could never be impressed by its importance, added a lot to the knowledge of what the ring really was and how the world of Middle-earth worked - but I'm not sure how well he would've worked on screen, or how much it truly could have added to the movie.

I always kind of felt the change that I had the biggest problem with was the beginning of Fellowship. The book was, as you warned here, a bit slow out of the gate, but it also provided a sense of how large the world was, and how great and time-consuming the trek to Rivendell was. In the movie, it just seemed like Shire to Rivendell was a short journey to the neighboring town.

Love the books. Love the movies. For different reasons each. The movies provide a much quicker revisit to the world, and are great on their own, but I'm not sure I'll ever find them truly as enjoyable as reading through the books again.
j p
5. sps49
Aragorn's development is mostly long past, but not legendary!popular. I would prefer it was in th ebook, too, but I don't know how it should've been done better.

Seeing visuals first almost always poisons my mind's eye against anything else. I still see Rankin-Bass Bilbo with Bakshi Frodo when I read. Bleh.

Kate, I hope you are going to be doing something else for us to read; I think you notice a lot that I miss (or get only subliminally) and express it in writing really well.
John Massey
6. subwoofer
Hi Kate, with you 100% in regards to the visualization aspects- especially Minas Tirith, I saw it on film and went back and read the part in the book describing it and it was like- "oh yeah, like the bow of a battleship", perfect.

I have seen some purists scoff at the movies made and called it a bastardization of the books, but I am grateful that they made it to film, did a very respectable job of it- God bless Peter Jackson for his vision- and introduced a whole new generation to a classic in our literary history.

Some of the stuff in the books I glossed over, when they get into the songs and things like that my eyes glaze over and I find myself skipping pages as I just want to get to the good stuff. They didn't get into the other rings, like the one Gandalf had or talk about his sword etc. but I came out none the worse for wear because of it.

IMHO they did the Balrog well too.

... and no dogs were harmed in the making of the movie:)

7. darms
You had a problem w/Tom Bombadil in the FotR book? I for one really liked the "Barrow-downs" in the book, was sorry to not see it in the first movie but understand why Jackson had to omit it. What I missed the most in the movies, however, was the "Scouring of the Shire" in RotK, the final appearance of Saruman & Wormtounge were IMHO very powerful (and sorely missed).
8. Doug M.
Okay, I think I have to link to Patton Oswalt's review of the movie (aka HOBBIT-MAN 3: THE KING RETURNS) now.

This was Oswalt writing in his assumed role of Neil Cumpston, who is... actually, I can't easily describe Neil Cumpston.

But anyway, NSFW.

Doug M.
Wesley Parish
9. Aladdin_Sane
I found I enjoyed the movies as well as the books; one substitution I felt was wholly in line with the mythos was Arwen for Glorfindel at the approach to Rivendell. She was the descendant of one of the most powerful elven women of the First Age, after all; Luthien Tinuviel who together with Beren had won the Silmarillion from Morgoth. So seeing Luthien's great-great-granddaughter (Luthien -> Dior Eluchil -> Elwing -> Elrond -> Arwen Undomiel) active in the fight against the Ringwraiths made quite a lot of sense to me.

Perhaps if Isildur's surrender to the allure of the Ring, and his subsequent obsession with it, had been brought out more fully, Aragorn's uneasiness (in the film) about stepping into his place would have made more sense. Also the Ringwraith's hunt in the Shire was a trifle bit dramatic - I would have preferred a much tenser, slower, more nerve-wracking built-up.
Ed Rafferty
10. BigBoy57
I often wonder if I had read TFotR first whether I would have got through it. I was 12 and in my first year of high school when I found the last two books on the shelf of the school library - could I wait for the first volume to come back before reading the last two books?

Hah! Not a chance - off home and after reading the page and a half re-cap of volume one, away I went, chasing orcs with the three hunters.

It was weeks before the first book came back and I was ready for more LotR action no matter what was offered.

After almost forty years of reading and re-reading the books I found it very easy to keep the films and the books seperate - I was eager to see how PJ adapted the tale but the film characterisations do not intrude into the book when I read it again.
11. Deepali
The whole visualization of the movie location really brought the books to a new level for me - I hadn't been able to imagine such huge vistas of color and paradise before I saw the movies.

Liked when you advised getting through the beginning for new readers.
I would say skip the 30+ pages mentioning Tom
Bombadil, if you are having a tough time reading LoTR. The pace is slow, and the poetry terrible.

P.S. For examples of outstanding poetry by a 'prose' author, read The Name of the Wind.
Kate Nepveu
12. katenepveu
welltemperedwriter @ #1, yeah, I deliberately avoided re-reading the books before the movies, and for a while after, to give them as much space as possible in my mind. And I'm thinking I might do better to avoid re-reading _The Hobbit_ for the same reason, though I last read that much more recently.

Jamsco @ #2, I was figuring the Barrow-downs ought to be enough for the first-time reader.

JT Austin @ #4, my opinion is that Bombadil is so distracting in terms of the "Frodo, walking all that way, is that really the best you can do?" discussion even in the book, that trying to get that across on screen would be perhaps irretrievably derailing. I can just imagine my reaction as someone new to the story: "wait, there's this guy who isn't affected by this SCAAARYYY thing, when even Gandalf doesn't dare touch it . . . and he's going to be a selfish bastard with the fate of the entire _world_ at stake and just sit at home? Are you serious?" And then I think I would lose ten minutes at least of movie time fuming on what a jerk he was and, then, over why did the writers create him in at all, just to generate artifical suspense as to whether Frodo would really have to do it . . .

sps49 @ #5, Bilbo, Gandalf (less likely, I admit) and later the Rangers who come to Rohan strike me as natural sources of information about Aragorn.

Also, you are very kind. Nothing has presented itself, but I admit the prospect sits in the back of my head, because it was a lot of fun and I do miss it. And then I crawl into bed past midnight from all my other commitments and I put the thought away for another day. =>

subwoofer @ #6, Balrog! Wow, that was so great.

(This is a cute kid anecdote. Feel free to skip.

(We were out for a walk with SteelyKid (2.75 years), and she picked up a stick that was about the size of a staff for her and was waving it around. Chad told her to say "You . . . shall . . . not . . . pass!" And she gave him a look which she has already perfected, the "Daddy is weird" look. But a few houses later, I heard her quietly muttering to herself, "shall not pass, shall not pass, shall not pass," which she kept up for most of the rest of the walk.)

darms @ #7, I didn't have a problem with Bombadil exactly, but I can see that he might be difficult for people finding the beginning slow.

I wish the Scouring was includable, but I think that the really weird pacing of _RotK_ as a book (they destroy the Ring in chapter THREE!) would be incredibly difficult to translate onto screen. I know I have a mental "how much time do we have left in this?" clock going when I watch something, and I'm sure many other people do as well.

Doug M. @ #8, sorry, I stopped after the first three sentences, because the circumstances under which I will read for entertainment something with that many anti-gay slurs are exceedingly limited. Yes, even when it's under a persona.

Aladdin_Sane @ #9, yes, and Arwen's Galadriel's granddaughter too, and I wish they had done a better job carrying that more active vibrant personality through the rest of the movies.

BigBoy57 @ #10, better volumes 2 & 3 than 1 & 2! But how did it compare, after that?

Deepali @ #11, I have little ability to judge poetry, which is just another way that I'm not Tolkien's ideal reader. But I agree that it's worth telling people that the section isn't typical of the entire book.
13. JMS
Kate, you did a nice job looking at how the movies affect your appreciation of the books. There was so much right about the movies that it's easy to overlook their shortcomings. However, I think many of the ones pointed out by commenters here are inevitable given the history of the book and the differences between a book and films. The first book of FOTR that takes us to Rivendell is best looked at, IMO, as a "bridge" between The Hobbit and LOTR. This true both in writing style, and in historical context, as explained in the History of the Lord of the Rings series. The pacing is very slow, and the literary style gives you no idea of the scope of the story to follow while you are reading it. The writing style is much closer to The Hobbit, than to the rest of the book after Rivendell. This transition in style is part of what gives the series the impression that you've watched the characters growing up during their adventures, which is exactly what gave the "Scouring of the Shire" chapter it's power in the books. When reading this, you realize just how much the characters have matured to the point where they are perfectly capable of solving problems they find in the Shire, without any outside help . Since there was no way for the movie to duplicate the change of writing style, I don't think there was any way the Scouring chapter could have ever fit in to the movie without seeming like a ridiculously easy epilogue. Also, although I miss the fact that the first part of the book conveyed how large the outside world was to our young travelers, I just don't know if there was any way to convey that on screen in the early part of the book. The epic scope of the Misty Mountains scenes probably took care of that just fine later on, so I'm fine with the film's handling of these chapters..

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