Now that I've had a couple weeks to think since having seen the third episode in Peter Jackson's visualization of the best novel in history (Tolkien saw it as one novel), I've finally put together my thoughts on the overall project. I haven't seen every extended scene in The Two Towers extended edition yet (but have seen all the completely new scenes), and the final version of The Return of the King isn't done yet, but here's what I've come up with.
I should say that almost all of what I say in this is a critical evaluation of what I didn't like, focusing on the more deep and meaningful things Jackson left out or ruined. I haven't focused as much on things I did like (which I should probably do at some point just for balance, though that sort of thing is much harder for an ISTJ inspector/troubleshooter), so it might be easy to get the impression that I didn't like these movies. That would be a mistake. I enjoyed them thoroughly. The Two Towers was the most disappointing of them all, and I still look forward to going through the special features of the extended edition with a fine-toothed comb when I get it, as I did with The Fellowship of the Ring.
I also haven't bothered as much with things I was just disappointed not to see. The important stuff that really should have been there is my focus in these reflections, including significant character-twisting, huge Tolkien themes that were ignored or contradicted, and major plot points that were dismissed as unimportant but were in fact crucial to the storyline. As always, feedback and evaluation are welcome.
I have to say that I very much enjoyed Peter Jackson's take on The Lord of the Rings, and I think he did an excellent job capturing the feel of most of the books. The casting was largely excellent, the look of Middle-Earth was far better than I could have imagined, and the visual effects, of course, were stunning.
What I've been wanting to write up for a while are the things that disappointed me. These fall along a few different axes, with some of them more important than others, and I wanted to compare how Jackson did with the different films in terms of how devastating his changes were to the story and the world of Tolkien. Some of them were downright awful, and others were just annoying. I should say before I start that I am a Tolkien purist in the sense that Tolkien created an entire world, with the relations between the races, the character of each character, and the events throughout the story all contributing to grander themes and what might be called the over-story to the whole epic. Any change that sacrifices on that gets my condemnation. Any change irrelevant to that is merely an annoyance at missing a fun component of the story, sometimes a particularly endearing piece.
The Fellowship of the Ring had few sacrifices of the sort that really bothered me. The replacement of Glorfindel with Arwen had two elements I disliked. Glorfindel was this ancient elf, appearing in The Silmarillion, and he was perhaps the second or third most powerful elf still in Middle-Earth. That he was the one sent out by Elrond to protect the hobbits was significant. Now Arwen is Elrond's daughter, and the difference is only important to those who know the backstory, but that's a slight annoyance.
The second thing about this that bothered me was that Arwen was never portrayed as a warrior. This was purely a 21st century imposition onto Tolkien's worldview, an attempt to create what Jackson saw as stronger women. (I will later discuss how he did the same thing with Eowyn.) In my view, this involves a false sense of what it is to be a strong woman. The only way a woman can be strong, as Jackson apparently sees it, is for her to be just like a man. Therefore, if Arwen doesn't go out and fight, she's not a strong woman. If the only time she appears is in diplomatic, childrearing, romantic, and public political settings, then she must not be a strong woman. So Jackson has to force her into a masculine role, in effect denying the significance of real femininity, as if what women have traditionally done and been very good at, e.g. raising children, something crucial to the development and continuing of society, is not as valuable as what men have traditionally done. I'll say more on this with Eowyn below.
A couple minor annoyances in terms of what was left out added up to creating a negative effect. Fatty Bolger, Farmer Maggot, Tom Bombadil, the Old Forest, and the Barrow-Downs were important events in the journey to Rivendell. The journey to Bree seemed to take a much shorter time with far fewer obstacles in the movie. That's hard to avoid, however, with only three movies. What felt mostly left out here was the sense of wonder and the early presentation of dangers that are just there in the world, not directly created by Sauron's current attempts to find the ring but a long-term effect of his influence in the world. This is unfortunate. Bill Ferny at Bree and the wolves from Book II were also in this category. Along similar lines, I found the relationships were far less developed in the movie, particularly between the hobbits and why Merry and Pippin were there, between Legolas and Gimli (which only got marginally better in the later movies due to Gimli's relegation to comic humor), and between Aragorn and his closest friends (Halbarad, Elrohir, Elladan) who weren't even in the movies. Finally, the Council of Elrond seemed totally in the wrong direction at times. Forgetting the dumbing-down of Gimli, the movies ignored so many of the political goings-on for why this council was taking place, why people were disagreeing (thought the disagreements themselves were present), and in some places even the tone of the proceedings. This, as with each of the others in this list, is a minor annoyance in terms of the first movie. As I'll explain later, it adds up with other problems on the same level to create a big problem in Jackson's lack of faithfulness to Tolkien's world and the state of the relations between countries and races, which was a major theme for the end of the Third Age.
In the place of those things, we got a depreciated value of femininity, comic humor with no depth from Pippin and Gimli, more active pursuit by Nazgul much earlier (an impossibility given Tolkien's description of the Black Riders, who would have easily caught them if they'd found them so soon), a cave troll that was really cool and, as with the Nazgul differences, was justified by the argument that they needed more action (as if the wolves, Old Man Willow, and the Barrow Wights wouldn't have done so).
The Saruman changes were mostly good. I understand the desire to put things in proper order for a movie, though I do think Jackson could have done the flashback thing, as Tolkien did. He did it with Faramir and Denethor in the extended Two Towers, with Aragorn and Arwen throughout, and with Smeagol and Deagol at the beginning of The Return of the King. What disappointed me most about Saruman was the fight scene with Gandalf that seemed much more like what Tolkien developed wizards not to be. The Istari had power, but they were sent on a mission to organize the free peoples against Sauron and explicitly told not to match power with power. I've seen numerous complaints that Gandalf didn't get to show off during the movies, but that's true to Tolkien. Most of the uses of Gandalf's power in the books were extremely subtle, including his final confrontation with Saruman, which most of the people present knew was going on but couldn't perceive. Why would Jackson turn the earlier conflict into a fight of magic out of Dungeons and Dragons? It seemed to me to be not only dumbing it down and appealing to lower brow conceptions of magic, which Tolkien deliberately avoided by not using the word except in terms of how hobbits would misunderstand the natural abilities of non-humans. It also seemed really cheesy. A conflict of mind would have been far more demonstrative of the unseen realities in the battle between good and evil that Tolkien was so fond of portraying (e.g. the ring's ability to allow someone to see in the unseen realm, the Nazguls' difficulty seeing in the seen realm, the elves' simultaneous perception of both realms). Finally, having Saruman control the crows rather than Sauron was a mistake. It gave him more of a role, which was nice for the actor, but the crows showed how far Sauron's perception extended, and Gandalf's hesitation to use Narya the ring of fire to warm the fellowship in the snow, simply because Sauron would detect it, was another sign of this that we only got a hint of in the movie.
The attitude of the Ents was a real problem in The Two Towers. In the book they were opposed to hastiness, but once they made their decision they carried it out with just enough time. The huorns at Helm's Deep were included in the extended edition, as I had expected, so at least they didn't totally ruin that part, but the decision not to help was just out of nowhere. The only reasons I can think of that Jackson would need Pippin to bring Treebeard to see the desolation are (1) to show it firsthand, which they could have done either earlier when it happened or as the Ents rushed in and (2) to make Pippin into a schemer who could manipulate people as wise and old as the Ents, something Tolkien may have frowned on but certainly wouldn't have needed, since the Ents weren't ignorant of the desolation, which Jackson even acknowledges earlier in the movie. They knew full well, and Treebeard didn't need to be brought there to see it. This makes the Ents, the tree-herders, completely ignorant of the forest they shepherd. At that, Tolkien would certainly be shocked. It's true that some of them had gotten sleepy, but Treebeard wasn't one of them, and he was able to convince them in the book. So Treebeard was made either ignorant or fickle, and in both cases the Ents would have been very hasty to have acted as they did in the movie.
An annoyance for me was the arrival of the elves at Helm's Deep. On its own this seemed just an excuse to show elven archers, though that could have been better done by showing the orcs and three Nazgul attacking Lorien during the final battle (which incidentally would have kept those three Nazgul from being at Minas Tirith as they all seemed to be in the movie). However, there's a deeper issue. Jackson was undermining the notion that the elves had been growing isolationist in the time since the last great alliance against Sauron in the Second Age. At this point they were consigning humanity to their doom, leaving gradually in ships throughout the Third Age (and not all at once as the movie suggests). Arwen had been asked to leave much earlier (though not during the war, since she'd already made her decision, and Aragorn knew it, making his tolerance of Eowyn's advances in the movie at odds with his true moral character of ignoring them in the book due to his clear allegiance to another). The Fourth Age would the age of men, and Tolkien clearly presented the events leading up to that by having Legolas, Elrohir, and Elladan as the only elves to come to the aid of the men in the south. (Legolas' father, King Thranduil in northern Mirkwood, did come to the aid of the dwarves and men in the Iron Hills, the Lonely Mountain, and Dale, but that was right next to his own realm, and Galadriel and Celeborn did lead their own elves, including Haldir who in the movie was at Helm's Deep, in defending Lorien. Elrond, notably, did nothing except lead the council and send the fellowship off.) This is a major theme in Tolkien's work, and it gets contradicted in Jackson's presentation, though still showing up in inappropriate places such as the concocted Arwen story.
Faramir's character is probably the worst thing Jackson did in all the movies. He was supposed to be what Boromir wasn't. Boromir was submissive to Gandalf and Aragorn's leadership (except in his ring-inspired moment of weakness) but a powerful and too-proud warrior and more enamored of glory in battle than of careful thought and wise council. Faramir, on the other hand, was a good warrior but liked less by Denethor because he wasn't as proud and glory-seeking as Boromir. He was well versed in lore and wise council, and he knew and respected Gandalf, much to his father's chagrin. He was never tempted by the ring and more suspicious of Frodo simply because he was unsure if Frodo had been responsible for his brother's death. In the end he did the right thing (and not the wrong thing, as in the movie, which I believe was done just to have a ridiculous face-off between Frodo and a Nazgul, who would then have known where the ring was, ending the whole gambit Gandalf and Aragorn had been conceiving). Faramir is one of my favorite characters in the books, and Jackson absolutely ruined him. The scene in the extended edition that's supposed to help does nothing to undo this damage. Leaving out the houses of healing and his entry into Eowyn's life to replace her pipe dreams of being a man and marrying a man who was already taken just made it worse. Showing nothing of his willing service to the king that his father would have hated and brother might have resented (despite Jackson's beautiful and moving speech to the contrary in the first movie that the Boromir of the book may not have been able to bring himself say) was the final straw.
In The Return of the King, Frodo's rejection of Sam's offer to take the ring was a nice sign in the book of the influence the ring was taking over him. Jackson made it a flat-out rejection of Sam's companionship altogether and not as a direct influence of the ring but out of some sort of identification with Gollum and a gullibility for Gollum's treacherous framing of Sam for eating up the elf-bread (which in the book was necessary for getting them across Mordor, which took days in the book with a few further adventures that got shortened into a matter of minutes, or perhaps hours, in the movie).
Aragorn's reluctance to take his rightful role of king during the time it wasn't needed became an inability to do so when needed until Elrond (who magically traveled from Rivendell to Rohan instantly) showed up and almost forced him to do so for the sake of Arwen, who alone of all the elves was inexplicably dying quickly because of Sauron's spreading evil. Aragorn's actual decision to face his destiny was more gradual in the book He reforged the sword himself at Rivendell before leaving with the fellowship, expecting that he would eventually have to assume the throne. His use of the Palantir, which he alone as rightful king had the full right to do (though Denethor as steward had some right but couldn't stand up to Sauron as Aragorn did), was an important turning point in the book. He willingly and deliberately, according to Gandalf's advice (and not as a last-minute change in plan merely foreshadowed by Gandalf, as in the movie) led the sons of Elrond (Sirs Not-Appearing-in-this-Film, the Dunedain Rangers of the north also ignored), Gimli, and Legolas through the paths of the dead to hold the undead oathbreakers to fulfill their vow and gain peace. Then he held them to defeating the Corsairs of Umbar, and he went on with his Rangers, the sons of Elrond, and Gimli and Legolas to meet up with Prince Imrahil (also Sir Not-Appearing-in-this film) and all the troops mustering toward Minas Tirith to lead a living army to turn the tide in the wake of Theoden's arrival. The almost-magical army of dead who actually swarmed through Sauron's armies at Minas Tirith bore no resemblance to Tolkien's account.
Some of these problems were just story adaptations for the sake of showy and cheesy effects, while others were deep character issues that ignored the main storyline of Book V, the distraction of Sauron to allow Frodo and Sam to progress toward Mount Doom. The point of looking into the Palantir was to inform Sauron that there was an heir to the one who had originally stolen his ring. This was to give Sauron the idea that Aragorn had the ring and intended to use it against him. That was why Sauron would even care that Aragorn had approached the Black Gate and why he would send the Mouth of Sauron to parley with him (who somehow got cut, given that he was mentioned in the casting list). As it was, the meager forces at the gate hardly merited sending the Nazgul from where Sauron knew the ring was, at Mount Doom. These changes made no sense and destroyed one of the most crucial elements of the whole Return of the King plot. As it was, the Palantir was merely a device to get Pippin to go to Gondor, more serving the non-personality of comic relief given to Pippin in these movies. Most of the heroism Pippin displayed in service of Gondor was also ignored, with two key exceptions, though one was severely weakened. (Merry's service to Rohan was even more diminished, though at least they kept the strike against the Lord of the Nazgul, even if they ignored the dire consequences for him and Eowyn in the houses of healing, lowering the value of his bravery).
On the pacing of the battle at Minas Tirith, see the insightful comments by Tim Burke. He says better what I've only emphasized some important aspects of here. One thing he fails to mention is the leaving out of Ghan-Buri-Ghan and the Woses, who helped secure the fact that the journey of the Rohirrim was not only long but also dangerous, with need of secrecy, something very hard for a large army. It was an endearing moment that got left out with some significance, but it wasn't as bad as some of the other things.
Denethor was flatter and more clearly an idiotic sap in the movie. In the book he was a complicated man, originally mostly good and wanting to see Gondor thrive, somewhat suspicious of Gandalf and especially proud, as his eldest son was. When he used the Palantir, which he only had partial right to use, according to Tolkien in the Unfinished Tales, Sauron corrupted him. The corruption was only partial, however, and it became only a fear and hopelessness for the most part, with some jealousy of the throne against any possible pretender, with a significant degree of temptation to want the ring for his own use against Sauron.
Penultimately, I should return to the issue of Eowyn as a woman. In the book she's a feminist ahead of her time who wants to have be male, denying any legitimacy to femininity. Tolkien deliberately portrayed her this way, and many people have missed his point. Eventually she marries Faramir and discovers that motherhood and not battle is her true place. In the houses of healing she realizes that her desire to be a just like any man and face glory on the battlefield was a denial of who she is as a woman. In the end this affirms the value of traditionally female pursuits as not inferior to traditionally male pursuits. While I probably wouldn't agree with Tolkien about which such traits are valuable and which are societally imposed but not so good, I agree with his general premise and applaud his efforts to make such a point in a time when early 20th century feminism might not have agreed. Jackson won't have any of this, of course, so he has Eowyn triumph in the end with no consequences. Her bravery is certainly commended in Tolkien, but the consequences were also important for him, as testified to by the houses of healing scenes and her eventual love for Faramir, abandonment of her former desires, and acceptance of her own true desires that she had been ignoring. Political correctness here triumphs over true character development, something people say Tolkien didn't do enough of, particularly with women, but Jackson is the one guilty of that here, not Tolkien.
Finally, the scouring of the Shire, the death of Saruman, and the character changes in hobbits seen at the end of the books were all missing. The scouring of the Shire would have taken much time, but lots of other things included were unnecessary. It's such a fun moment in the book that it's a shame to leave it out, but it's not as central for its own sake, though it does give the resolution to Saruman and Wormtongue (which I have heard they will include in the extended edition but at the wrong time), and it shows that Sauron's death doesn't leave the world with no evil effects remaining. The character changes in all the hobbits are the biggest blank spot. After the war, Frodo is withdrawn and hardly the hero he once was. The other three hobbits lead the way in the retaking of the Shire. Sam shows the traits that lead him to becoming mayor, Pippin shows the leadership that eventually makes him a great Thain, and Merry continues the heroism shown in the battle of Minas Tirith. The difference between how people once viewed them and how they now view them is great enough that I don't think they should have left this sequence out entirely.
In the end I enjoyed all the movies, and I will eventually own all of the extended editions on DVD. I will enjoy continuing to watch them, though I'll be frustrated at these things each time. This was far better than I as a child had hoped would ever come during my lifetime, and I can only hope that some time down the line someone will come along to do even better a job now that it's clear that it can be done. If someone could get away with doing a 5 or 6 movie series, filling in more of the gaps and developing the characters more, that would be wonderful. The success of these movies has made that possibility more likely. I still don't think it will happen in my lifetime, but you never know.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.