Donald T. Williams, PhD
P.O. Box #800807
Toccoa Falls, GA. 30598

Peter Jackson's Betrayal of J. R. R. Tolkien's Vision in The Two Towers and The Return of the King

“If therefore they say to you, ‘Behold, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go forth, or, ‘Behold, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them.”  (Mat. 24:26)


All of us who have had small children and have read or told them stories know that their appetite for hearing a favorite one again is nearly insatiable, far more insatiable, usually, than our appetite for telling it.  So we have all come to that moment when we felt that any variation at all from the familiar pattern would be a blessed relief.  So Goldilocks, after her disappointment with the first two bowls of porridge, gives up and leaves the third bowl untasted.  But we never get to the wonderfully creative new tangent this omission has made possible, for we are interrupted by the plaintive cry, "You're not telling it right!" 

Are our children hidebound purists who wish to squelch our creativity?  No.  They know the difference between making up our own story and telling one that has already been established, and they will appreciate that creativity when we exercise it in its proper sphere.  And they may not know, but they sense, that there is a good reason why Goldilocks needs to sample that third bowl, for the violation of the original pattern cannot be expected to produce really satisfactory results.  So perhaps the great tragedy of Peter Jackson's second and third installments of his film version of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is that his own children were too young to have yet read the original work for themselves.


In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in the trilogy, most of the changes from Tolkien's original tale can be defended as necessary simplifications required by the translation of the richer medium, books, into the more limited one, movies.  (I say that the book is a richer medium because it engages the reader's imagination to help create the images rather than supplying them ready made, and because it can move at a more leisurely pace, making greater detail in the realization of the story possible.)  But, starting with the second installment, Jackson's departures from the original story become increasingly more difficult to justify.

The problem with these movies is that Peter Jackson has done so many things so very well.  The orcs are the first I've seen who actually look like what they are, the twisted and deformed descendants of ruined elves.  The landscapes are mostly magnificent in their appropriateness.  The battles are well realized, if not entirely accurate. The Ents' bodies are well portrayed, even if their character lacks the full depth that lay behind Treebeard's eyes.  Sam Gamgee's character, on the other hand, is drawn as perfectly as one could ask for (until one unfortunate scene in The Return of the King, of which more anon). Gollum moves, and acts (mostly), like Gollum.  Meduseld is Meduseld, Orthanc is Orthanc, Minas Tirith is Minas Tirith, and Barad Dur is Barad Dur.  The acting (with the unfortunate but crucial exception of Elijah Wood's Frodo) is mostly tolerable to good. All this is in fact done so well, at such expense, and with such profit, that it is hard to imagine that anybody will ever be given the chance to do another, more faithful version of The Lord of the Rings. So you can't just hate it and be done with it, the way you could, say, Bakshi's version from the '70's. Unfortunately, this means that our hatred of Jackson's betrayals (of Faramir, Arwen, and Denethor, and through them of Tolkien) must therefore be all the more intense.

We must be content to see the story simplified.  That is unavoidable when making any long and rich book into a movie, even a nine hour epic. So I didn't mind Tom Bombadil disappearing or even Arwen replacing Glorfindel in the first installment. Thus, I don't think I am being an unreasonable "purist" when I say that to change the basic nature, personality, and motivation of a major character is just unacceptable, and that to do so and still claim to be making a movie of LOTR is simply dishonest.


Some of the changes in The Two Towers are mere irritations. Having the Ents not make the right decision about Saruman so they have to be tricked into it by Merry and Pippin (who, according to the movie itself, could not have known about the devastation they show Treebeard because they had not passed through that part of Fangorn) was a wholly unnecessary "plothole."  The stupid "exorcism" of Theoden (who "youthens" way too much as a result, by the way--he should still be an old man afterwards), rather than Tolkien's more subtle scene is an irritation.  I would much rather have seen the Huorns at Helm's Deep than to have Eomer (who was already supposed to be there) come charging up with his army, but I suppose I can live with the battle we were offered.

But some of the changes are neither credible, nor acceptable, nor even tolerable. The worst sins in The Two Towers are as follows.  The first is having Arwen head off to the Grey Havens (and Aragorn believe that she is doing so), thus setting up a much deeper entanglement between Aragorn and Eowyn than Tolkien ever intended or would have tolerated.  Elrond is much too wise to try to escape his fate, however costly, and to interfere with a union that is necessary for the future of Middle Earth, through such a self serving argument.  And the idea of Arwen even considering going back on her oath to Aragorn, no matter what the cost, is just plain sickening, as is the idea that he assumes she would.  That is not the woman the king of men loved; that is not the king of men.

The second is losing the clear contrast between the characters of Boromir and Faramir--the original of whom said he "wouldn't have picked this thing [the Ring] up if I found it lying in the road."  Not exactly "Tell my father Faramir sends him a powerful weapon."  Uncomplicated nobility is apparently beyond anything Jackson can imagine.  But Tolkien understood the importance of imagining it, the need for images of goodness to contrast with images of evil.

 The third problem is Gollum's too easy "conversion." It goes much farther than Tolkien ever allowed.  This is also a serious flaw, because it makes the mortal will seem much more autonomous than it is in reality.  Tolkien had a more profound vision of both good and evil than Jackson is apparently capable of. All these changes gin up superfluous dramatic conflict by sacrificing both credibility and faithfulness.


The pre-release internet buzz was that Peter Jackson's third installment of his version of the Tolkien trilogy stayed closer to the book than his The Two Towers.  That is true only in a very gross and superficial sense.  There were no new big departures from the original plot, just the inevitable workings out of the disastrous big departures made in "The Two Towers."  But there were a thousand little changes, which, like Chinese water torture, made it almost impossible to enjoy the good things (i.e., one of the best artistic renderings of Minas Tirith ever).  These little changes also reveal, as clearly as the major departures in the second movie, the shallowness of Jackson's understanding of Tolkien's  Christian world view and therefore of his epic.

Once again, I say nothing here against the omissions and conflations of plot elements, as much as we would all have liked to see the scouring of the Shire.  Some simplification has to be expected in an adaptation, and anyone who won't accept that just shouldn't watch movies based on books.  What bothered me were the thousand and one little gratuitous changes to the original that served no good purpose.  No doubt, again, they were intended to make things more dramatic on screen and/or to bring out elements of the conflict as Jackson sees them.  But almost every one of these unnecessary changes is either a clumsy and heavy-handed treatment of themes Tolkien showed us with much greater skill and subtlety, is just plain pointless and stupid, or betrays an appalling lack of understanding of what Tolkien was doing (and why) when he wrote the story the way he did.

A few typical examples of these gratuitous changes to the plot in The Return of the King will have to suffice; no doubt you can think of many more.  One thinks of Gandalf punching out Denethor with his staff, which was simply demeaning to both characters.   The movie Denethor has none of the nobility that made his fall tragic in the book; he is just a dottering and despicable old fool.  Second, Sam beating the snot out of a supine and passive Gollum is absurd on two counts.   Not only would he have been physically incapable of this—it took both Frodo and Sam to subdue Gollum, and then only with the threat of Sting and the influence of the Ring—but, knowing that Gollum was under Frodo's protection, it is just not something Sam would have done, no matter how strong his feelings.  It was completely out of character.   Finally,  Frodo pushing Gollum off the cliff at Sammath Naur rather than having him fall by “accident” during his celebratory dance after having retaken the Ring seriously diminishes Tolkien's emphasis on the role of Providence (or, to use his own words, “Luck, if luck you call it”).


Why does Peter Jackson do it? You would expect him to simplify the story--the switch to the medium of film demands that--but Jackson actually gratuitously complicates things! Two fundamental problems seem to me to lie behind these changes. First is Jackson's failure to grasp the depths of Tolkien's Christian world view. He cannot comprehend the depths of the hold that sin has on us--hence Smeagol telling Gollum to "leave and never come back." Too easy, too simple, a clumsy handling of what Tolkien does much more believably and subtly in portraying the same inner conflict.  Gollum's hand hesitantly reaching out to caress Frodo is more subtle, more believable (because it does not necessarily imply that Slinker and Stinker are as neatly separable as the movie's version makes them), and, as interrupted by the misunderstanding Sam, more tragic.  Why?  Because Tolkien understood the biblical doctrine of sin too well to imagine that one can even temporarily banish one's evil side by simply telling it to get lost.

Ironically, the failure to appreciate the true depths of evil also makes it impossible for Jackson to believe in the real potential human beings have on the other side, for heroism and integrity. One's ability to appreciate sin and grace inevitably go hand in hand. So good characters like Faramir (or Aragorn, or Arwen) are felt to be too good to be believable, and hence have to be "complicated."  So we have an Aragorn who, instead of faithfully pursuing his calling, is resisting the kingship because he fears he will repeat the tragic error of Isildur.  And we have a Faramir who initially is much more like his brother than the one in the book.  As a result, the movie Faramir, like the movie Gollum, also has (ironically) a cheap and unmotivated conversion. What is it about the attack of the Nazgul at Osgiliath that suddenly makes him think it is a good idea to send Frodo and Sam off into Mordor alone?  That is a decision Tolkien's Faramir could make in Tolkien's scene, but not one that this Faramir can make believably in Jackson's scene.

The second underlying problem is sheer Directorial Arrogance. Here we have a book twice independently voted the book of the century, which has for more than fifty years now been loved more intensely by more readers than any other work of fiction ever written.  "So, obviously, I, Peter Jackson, have a better idea about what makes a good story and good motivations for the characters than its author did!" It's a good thing the Greek gods don't actually exist.  They would surely have noticed the egregious hubris in that assumption by now and be plotting a rather nasty reversal for the career of this particularly ridiculous mortal.

Yet I must admit that, despite all these serious complaints, I am strangely gratified by the movies' popularity and talk of the third being the best picture of the year, even as I am disgusted by the same phenomena for the sake of those who will only see them and not read the book and hence have a false view of many things. For there is an ironic testimony here:  Even in such an inexcusably distorted form, much of the power of Tolkien's story still comes through. My favorite comment overheard in the theater was from two theater employees on their way in to clean up after the showing of The Two Towers. They had both apparently neither seen the films nor read the books, but commented thus: "This must be a movie that makes people think. Everybody always comes out of it very solemn."

And yet . . . and yet . . . they could and should have been so much better!  All it would have taken was a little more faithfulness, a little more trust in Tolkien's work.  In an attempt to summarize what went wrong and what was at stake, I can do no better than to offer the following sonnet:

(What Lewis and Tolkien Knew, And Peter Jackson Does Not)
Sonnet CI
Snaking out across the vast expanse
 Of History and Legend lies a trail,
The footing treacherous, the markings pale,
And peril lies in wait for those who chance
To travel it.  But if they can advance,
And if their luck and courage does not fail,
 They may emerge into a mystic vale
And reach the magic realm of fair Romance.
The landscape's always changing.  There is no
Map that can be trusted once you swerve
Aside; your only compass is your quest.
If, true to friend, implacable to foe,
You're faithful to the Vision that you serve,
You'll find that Country which the Muse has blessed.

One might have hoped, in other words, that Peter Jackson would have had the humility to see himself as the servant of Tolkien's vision.  He shows us that, had he done so, he could have created a worthy adaptation that would have been a true masterpiece.  Instead, he had the arrogance—yea, hubris--to make up his own vision and think it better, while outwardly claiming to give us Tolkien's.


Updated 02/15/2004