Director: Peter Jackson
First, let me start by saying this is definitely the best film adaptation of the novel. Peter’s an excellent director and what his team has accomplished here is impressive. Visually the film is amazing, everything you’d expect in a modern epic. However, that’s also the problem: expectations on a technical level are so high these days that one loses a sense of wonder and astonishment at the achievement. You gaze at a real Hobbit village and go, “Yeah. Looks real. Neat.” What that means is that the story must captivate you; unfortunately, even with three hours to tell it, the story gets short shrift. Jackson wants to explain everything, including a great deal of backstory that isn’t openly explained in the trilogy but told in Tolkien’s notes and other works, and the result is multiple movies within a movie. It’s not confusing, per se — he does an excellent job — but it is distracting from the main film. Part of the problem isn’t the director’s fault: LOTR isn’t a true trilogy (where each book stands on it’s own) but one epic story: the films, like the books, are best viewed sequentially. I’m sure I will like this much better when I can sit down (for nine hours) and watch all three films in a row. Meanwhile, this film on its own, while excellent, feels both overwhelming (too much info) and too brief (it ends as the adventure’s beginning).
Finally, I must protest at the script. Why the arbitrary changes? The writers and producers took years to write the three films and I’m sure there were rational reasons for the choices they made and if we were in a room together debating the issues, they might be able to convince me that they made the right decisions, but as a viewer and reader of the novel, I found their choices odd, puzzling, and occasionally distasteful. Why leave out the first adventures of the Hobbits in the Barrow-Downs and the characters of Bombadil and Goldberry? I always found those adventures critical in forming the partnership of the four Hobbits and establishing their ability to survive hardship: it preps them for the future, much more challenging difficulties. Now it’s not a huge thing, but it’s significant, and I don’t understand why, if the movie’s a rendering of the book, it can’t be done faithfully. Why do it all if you’re just going to change it? There are many other variations, along with some obvious mistakes. For instance, we’re treated with a battle with a troll in the Mines of Moria sequence: a troll is mentioned, but never fought in the novel. Why include that elaborate battle scene? And they left out the attack of the wolves before that, something I found exciting and terrifying in the book and looked forward to in the fillm. Perhaps, you say, they just didn’t have time to include everything, and I might agree except that the film often took time to include other scenes of less critical nature that wasted a great deal of time. For instance, the bit where Gandalf faces the three doorways and must decide which to take. They actually show him brooding for an extended period just like in the book: to me that’s exposition and has little place in the film.
Which brings up the whole issue of time, something I felt the film struggled with. In the novels, it’s never very clear when things happened throughout the history of Middle-Earth: events are refered to as being “long ago” or in the “Elder Days” and compared with other historical events that happened at a similar time, but you have to go to Tolkien’s notes to really understand the entire history of Middle-Earth, in sequence. Jackson does a good job of explaining this in the film’s prologue, which details the history of Ring, but then he plays fast and loose with time when it comes to the story itself: years pass between Biblo Baggin’s birthday party and Gandalf’s return to test the Ring by fire, yet in the film it’s just minutes. In the book, it takes Frodo a year to prepare and leave the Shire, but in the film he leaves on the spur of the moment as the Black Riders approach. I’m not sure what the point of that change was: perhaps the idea was to make everything more exciting and time critical, but showing that time has passed wouldn’t change that. To me that’s an extremely important part of Middle-Earth: the concept that travel takes months of hard toil. After all, LOTR is all about travel — the story’s essentially a quest, and 70% of the text is about the difficulties of the journey. In the film, those difficulties are tossed aside. Jackson initially shows a sequence of the Hobbits traveling out of the Shire in a near series of shots of them in various locals giving the impression that they’ve walked a long distance — but then he destroys that by having Sam pause and say that if he takes “one more step” he’ll be the furthest away from home he’s ever been! Obviously, they haven’t gone very far. And then they run into Pippen and Merry, who were at the birthday party, so they haven’t gone far at all! The key problem with this is that when the travel does take a long time — such as the journey from Bree to Rivendell — Jackson doesn’t even bother to show us such a montage of walking, but just has the characters there. For me, that destroys a core element of the novels, and throws out one of the main difficulties with life in Middle-Earth (travel without modern transportation). Just think about what home-bodies most of us would be if it took months of hard work to travel the next state! Since a montage of three or four or five scenes of walking just takes a few seconds, why not include it? It would enhance the epicness of the tale, be more accurate to the book, and reveal to the audience the difficulties of the journeys. Yet Jackson rarely does this, especially compared to the trilogy, where Tolkien is extremely careful to be consistent with the lengths of journies (from a writer’s perspective, it would be so much easier to just put down, “And after a fortnight’s walk, they arrived at…” but Tolkien does it the hard way, detailing everything that happens along the way).
While in general, I felt the characters were extremely well done and faithful, and I really liked many things Jackson and the actors did, there were a few ocasions where the characters were substantially changed and for no good reason that I could see. For instance, Mr. Butterbur, the innkeeper in Bree, was a good friend of Gandalf’s in the book he feigns difficulty remembering him: “Oh, tall fellow in grey with a beard? I remember him!” Now why do that? Why not just have him shrug and say, “I haven’t seen Gandalf in months.” Even if you don’t include the other scenes of Butterbur that are in the novel (where he absent-mindedly neglected to send Gandalf’s letter to Frodo and thus Frodo didn’t set out on his journey as early as he should have), why completely distort his character? Pippen and Merry are also made to look like complete fools: in the books they are foolish, but not dolts. The same goes for Gimli, the Dwarf, who bellows and blusters for comic relief, but we rarely get to see his intelligence. Perhaps some of those omissions will be corrected in the future films (with respect to characters that continue on in the series), but at least within this film, I found a few things odd.
There are also a host of silly mistakes in the film, from continuity errors to strange things that don’t correspond with the books. For instance, Frodo always calls Aragorn by the name of Strider, which is the name he first learned for the man. Yet in the film, when attacked, he calls out in desperation for Aragon to help him: odd considering that would be the time he’d likely use the name most familiar to him, Strider. I also found the “race to the ford” sequence confusing: the distance shots of Frodo on the horse show him ten to twenty feet in front of the Black Riders, but the intercut close-ups, the iron-clad hands of the Riders are grasping at his cloak! Very bizarre and childish error if you ask me.
Overall, however, this is an excellent film. I’m being nitpicky, of course, but readers of Tolkien know that he was the nitpickiest of us all. (In one rewrite he went through his novels and changed all references to tobacco to “pipe-weed” because he belatedly realized that the word “tobacco” hadn’t been invented at the time the story took place! That’s a stickler for detail.) Anyway, people who haven’t read the book recently will probably find it excellent and not miss a single thing, but of course since I’m almost finished reading Fellowship of the Ring, I was painfully aware of all the omissions and changes. That was my decision: I’d debated for the past year of whether or not I should read the book before I saw the movie or afterward, and I knew that if I waited I’d probably like the movie more, but in the end I decided I wanted to refresh Tolkien’s vision first, then see what Jackson had in mind. Overall I’m pleased, but a little disappointed, especially because there’s no explanation for why he changed so much (90% of my gripes could have been solved without adding any length to the film because I’d trim scenes he didn’t, and I wouldn’t include silly made-up scenes like battles with trolls that didn’t exist). Oh well. It’s a shame, because after this epic movie-making adventure, no one will ever attempt to do another version of LOTR (though I hold out hope that someone might do The Hobbit). This was the one shot to do it accurately and Jackson failed. He did produce a good movie, and I guess that’s good, but hardcore fans of the series will have mixed emotions because Jackson tampered with a masterpiece. Why he couldn’t do it right I guess we’ll never know, but it’s a bit sad to put in all that effort and still fall short.