The Mines of Moria: ‘Anticipation’ and ‘Flattening’ in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring

 By Janet Brennan Croft

As presented at the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association Conference, Albuquerque, February 2003


1. Book to Script: “Here is a book very unsuitable for dramatic [...] representation”

 Although J.R.R. Tolkien sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings several years after it was published, he considered it “very unsuitable for dramatic […] representation” (Letters 255) .  Ralph Bakshi, director of the 1978 animated version, reportedly said in an interview that it’s “impossible to do Tolkien […] to get the brilliance of what Tolkien wrote about,” and did not have much hope for the Peter Jackson project: “I can’t do it, and the next guy’s not going to do it, even in a million movies” (Bauer 8) .  In spite of this, there have been a number of optimistic attempts to make the work into a movie.

In 1955, shortly after the third volume of The Lord of the Rings came out in print, Tolkien’s publisher warned him that he would probably soon receive offers for the dramatic rights.  Tolkien had made it clear in his essay “On Fairy-stories” that he thought fantasy was highly unsuitable for presentation in a visual medium, particularly drama, which he felt was “naturally hostile to Fantasy” ("On Fairy-Stories" 49) . However, as an Oxford professor with a family to feed, Tolkien decided at that point that he would sell the rights for either “cash or kudos,” as his publisher put it (Carpenter 226) .  Tolkien expected “either very profitable terms indeed; or absolute author’s veto on objectionable features or alterations” (Tolkien, Letters 261) .  He told his publisher he would “welcome the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization,” feeling he would find “vulgarization less painful than the sillification achieved by the B.B.C.” in their 1956 radio adaptation (Letters 257) 1. 

At the end of 1957 Tolkien received a proposal for an animated motion picture scripted by Forrest J. Ackerman, Morton Grady Zimmerman, and Al Brodax (Carpenter 226) .  Tolkien told his publisher he was “quite prepared to play ball, if they are open to advice” (Letters 261) . He thought the pictures he had been shown were “really astonishingly good,” reminiscent of Arthur Rackham rather than Walt Disney (Letters 261) , for whose works Tolkien had a “heartfelt loathing” (Letters 17) . But Tolkien found this adaptation unsatisfactory (or as he called it, “hasty, insensitive, and impertinent” (Letters 266) ) and it would have brought in very little cash for the author, so he turned it down (Carpenter 226) .  Tolkien wrote a detailed response to this screenplay, parts of which are reproduced in his Letters, and which I will discuss later in this presentation.

Tolkien sold the film and merchandise rights in 1958 (Davis 129) , a year before his retirement, supposedly to set up a trust for his grandchildren (Boorman 21) . Sometime after 1967, when the Beatles founded Apple Films, they considered doing a film of The Lord of the Rings, casting John Lennon as Gollum, Paul McCartney as Frodo, George Harrison as Gandalf, and Ringo Starr as Sam; however, they weren’t able to purchase the film rights and the project fell through (Foster 82) 2.

In 1970, United Artists owned the rights.  They asked John Boorman, later known as the director of Excalibur and The Emerald Forest, to make The Lord of the Rings, and he began trying to condense the work to a single two and a half hour film.  However, by the time Boorman had finished the script, the executive who had asked him to take on the project was no longer with U.A., and the new management was unfamiliar with the book.  “They were baffled by a script that, for most of them, was their first contact with Middle Earth [sic],” and rejected it (Boorman 21) .  Boorman tried taking the script to other studios, including Disney, but with no success.  He eventually used some of the special-effects techniques and locations developed for The Lord of the Rings in other films, notably Zardoz and Excalibur.  Boorman actually corresponded with Tolkien during this process, and reassured him that he planned a live action version.  United Artists later gave the project to animator Ralph Bakshi (Boorman 21) . In 1976 the Saul Zaentz Company acquired the film and stage rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as licensing rights to names, characters, and places in Middle-earth (Who We Are) . They are the current owners (Davis 129) .

In 1978, five years after Tolkien’s death, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass made an animated version of The Hobbit.  One critic says:

Ultimately this production fails of greatness despite all of its genuinely good qualities because its producers never seem to have taken seriously the inner journey of Bilbo […].  [A]t the most crucial point of the inner narrative of the story they sent [Bilbo] over Gollum’s head and down the tunnel to freedom with a flippant ‘Ta-ta!’ (Hardy 140)

Rather than feeling compassionate and conflicted about deceiving Gollum, as in the book, Bilbo is made to “succumb to the temptation to taunt his fallen enemy” (Hardy 140) , an unfortunate coarsening of his character.

Bakshi’s uneven 1978 The Lord of the Rings was much reviled by many Tolkien fans, primarily for his clumsy animation technique called rotoscoping, or drawing over film of live actors.  However, there are also many viewers who praise Bakshi for staying close to the spirit of Tolkien’s characters.  Bakshi offers a different perspective on how he came to be involved with the project rather than Boorman:

I approached United Artists and told them the film should be made in animation, and it should be made in three parts, because there’s no way you can take the three books and condense them into one film.  It’s a physical impossibility.  And here comes the horror story, right?  They said fine, because Boorman handed in this 700-page script […].  ‘[H]e’s changed a lot of the characters, and he’s added characters. He’s got some sneakers he’s merchandising in the middle.  […]  [W]e don’t understand a word Boorman wrote.  We never read the books.’ (Robinson 4)

The film ends abruptly with the Battle of Helm’s Deep, and Bakshi was unable to get studio backing to complete the second part.  However, Rankin and Bass made a “quickie” Return of the King for television in 1980 (Newman 5) .


2. The Peter Jackson Films: “The Lord of the Rings cannot be garbled like that”

No other attempt had been made to film The Lord of the Rings until director Peter Jackson began working on a script in 1997 with his partner, Fran Walsh. Jackson got his start making low-budget horror movies in his native New Zealand in the late 1980s (Bauer 6) .   In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, he said he had read The Lord of the Rings once at the age of 18, and never looked at it again until “the whole idea of doing the film came up seventeen years later” (Bauer 6) . His ambition was to make a fantasy film, not necessarily The Lord of the Rings, and he wanted to move away from horror and take advantage of modern computer special effects (Bauer 8) . Co-writer Philippa Boyens was more immersed in the story, having had “a childhood obsession” with The Lord of the Rings, but had never worked on a screenplay before being asked by Jackson and Walsh to collaborate with them (Smith 4) .

The publicity build-up for the first film was incredible, and it opened to (mostly) rave reviews on December 19, 2001.  However, not everyone praised Jackson’s vision.  Viewer opinion is remarkably polarized about these films.  Many long-time readers of Tolkien were deeply disappointed, after the wonders promised, to see how far Jackson deviated from Tolkien’s creation, and even more so after the second film was released in December 2002.  Earlier attempts to film Tolkien also evoked the same response.  Why were Tolkien’s fans so upset?  As one reviewer, writing about the Bakshi film, suggested, “the point is that we have been there; we can say “Yes, that’s just how it was,” or “No, no, no, that’s all wrong” (Ziegler 37) .  A reviewer of the Rankin and Bass Hobbit said, “The original as it has become familiar to its audience stands in judgment of the imitation” (Hardy 137) .  What they see, to quote a critique of the Bakshi film which is entirely appropriate to the Jackson films as well, is “gems scattered amidst dross, set inappropriately, scarred and miscut” (Ziegler 37) .  There are moments close to perfection in the Jackson films, but they are unfortunately outweighed by moments where those familiar with the books can see no compelling cinematic reason for Jackson’s egregious changes to the original text.  It often seems that two completely separate crews worked on this film – one, caring deeply about Tolkien’s vision, on the sets, costumes, and locations, and another, interested only in entertaining a mass audience, on the script.

Noted Tolkien scholar Wayne G. Hammond has this to say:

In the moments in which the films succeed, they do so by staying close to what Tolkien so carefully wrote; where they fail, it tends to be where they diverge from him […].  [T]he filmmakers sacrifice the richness of Tolkien's story and characters, not to mention common sense, for violence, cheap humor, and cheaper thrills.  (Kirst 2)

Another respected Tolkien critic, Jane Chance, reviewed The Fellowship of the Ring for Literature/ Film Quarterly:

Unfortunately, Jackson’s version of The Fellowship of the Ring is overall a flashy, high-tech adventure film that rewrites Tolkien’s epic narrative […].  Such rewriting is not wholly unexpected on the part of […] horror-film-specialist Jackson […] Jackson reduces The Fellowship of the Ring to an action film in which the important complex thematic meanings and characterizations are discarded or subordinated to the sentimental […], the frightening […], and the romantic.  (Chance 80)

Chance also comments on the “infantilization” of several key characters (Chance 81) ; as Hammond has pointed out, “Most of the characters in the films are mere shadows of those in the books, weak and diminished (notably Frodo) or insulting caricatures (Pippin, Merry, and Gimli)” (Kirst 2) . Carl Hostetter notes the “systematic removal of all traces of nobility and faith from the most noble and faithful characters, and the concomitant angstifying [of Aragorn] and wimpifying [of Frodo]“ (Hostetter) .  Was this sheer misunderstanding of the original on Jackson’s part?  Is there any excuse, with the great variety of thoughtful scholarship available on Tolkien, for such misunderstanding?


3. Problems of Adaptation “No evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about”

Tolkien’s extensive commentary on the Zimmerman script is especially interesting now that we have seen two of the three Jackson films.  Tolkien’s introductory comments ask the screenwriters to

make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about.  (Letters 270)  

Jackson and his co-authors may not have added a “fairy castle” to Lórien, or had characters traveling everywhere on giant eagles, but they did fall prey to the temptation to add “incantations, blue lights, and some irrelevant magic” (Letters 271) . They are certainly guilty, in many places, of altering the original’s “characteristic and peculiar tone” and “showing a preference for fights” (Letters 271) .  As Tom Shippey has pointed out, in reference to the Zimmerman script, “What ruined everything for [Tolkien] was an endemic carelessness over detail, coupled with a probably unconscious urge to standardize everything in Middle-earth toward suburban norms” ("Temptations" 16) . Jackson is guilty of something very similar, in his case standardizing the characters and action scenes to Hollywood fantasy norms.

Two concepts Tolkien mentions in his criticism of the script are ‘anticipation’ and ‘flattening’.  Tolkien defines them this way: “One of [Zimmerman’s] chief faults is his tendency to anticipate scenes or devices used later, thereby flattening the tale out” (Letters 271) . For example, Zimmerman has Eagles landing in the Shire before the hobbits’ journey begins, thus reducing the surprise factor of the Eagle rescuing Gandalf from Orthanc, as well as ruining the folkloric “third time pays for all” aspect of the climactic rescue of Sam and Frodo.  Over-using this device throughout the script makes it stale and predictable.  ‘Flattening’ can also describe what happens to a character arc when a writer ‘anticipates’ later character traits in earlier scenes.

For an example of ‘anticipation’ and ‘flattening’ from the Jackson films, consider the hobbits’ first encounter with the Black Rider in the woods near Hobbiton.  In the book, Frodo’s only conscious desire is to make himself disappear, primarily out of annoyance at being followed, and his hand barely touches the chain the Ring hangs from before the Rider turns away (Tolkien, Fellowship 84) .  In the movie, however, Frodo is seized by an uncontrollable urge to put on the Ring; his eyes roll back in his head and he appears nauseated, and Sam reaches out to stop his hand just before Merry throws the bag of mushrooms to distract the Rider (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scene 10) .  In the book, Tolkien subtly and slowly strengthens Frodo’s compulsion to put on the Ring.  When the Ringwraiths are close by, or as Frodo gets closer to Mordor and grows physically weaker, the temptation builds.  Sam does not have to help him resist it until they are on the slopes of Mount Doom itself (Tolkien, Return 220) .  By anticipating the Ring’s later effect on Frodo, Jackson has left himself no room to build up to this later pivotal scene.

Also, consider the hobbits’ first glimpses of Bree and The Prancing Pony.  In the book, it is a clear, starry night, and Merry’s family at least is familiar with the town and its inn.  Unsophisticated Sam is nervous about the height of the buildings, but Frodo reassures him that the inn comes highly recommended.  From the outside, the inn “looked a pleasant house,” and there are lights shining through the windows.  They can hear singing inside, and they get a friendly welcome from the innkeeper and the hobbits who work for him.  The first hint of anything sinister is Frodo’s glimpse of Aragorn smoking quietly in a corner with his hood concealing his face (Fellowship 168) .  Aragorn’s revelations and the later attack by the Black Riders are all the more frightening for happening in such a seemingly safe and comfortable place; this contrast is important to Frodo’s decision to accept Aragorn’s guidance.  In Jackson’s movie, however, Bree is threatening from the start.  It is pouring rain when the travelers reach town; tall Men jostle them in the streets and a cart nearly runs them down.  There is harsh laughter in the bar, and an intimidatingly tall reception desk.  The customers are unpleasantly dirty, and sloppy drinkers to boot.  And when the Ring slips onto Frodo’s finger, we get the “Ring effect” of blue light and rushing wind, along with Sauron’s searching Eye (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scene 12) . In the book the Ring has absolutely no effect in this scene but to make Frodo disappear from sight (Fellowship 172-3) . Again, this anticipates Frodo’s experience of the Ring’s effects on Weathertop and his vision of Sauron’s Eye in Galadriel’s mirror, making their later use stale and repetitive rather than startling and new.

In some places, Zimmerman and Jackson treat the same incident in similar ways.  The Weathertop scene is a major example.  There is no grand battle on the hilltop in the original; the only blows struck are Frodo’s at the hem of the Witch-king’s robe, and his in return at Frodo’s shoulder.  Aragorn drives them back with fire alone.  At this point Aragorn should not even have a sword, as Tolkien points out.  But both Zimmerman and Jackson create an extended swordfight scene out of the encounter.  Tolkien felt that presenting it the way it was written “would seem to me far more impressive than yet one more scene of screams and rather meaningless slashings” (Letters 273) . And indeed, it would have made the primarily non-physical nature of the menace of the Ringwraiths at this point in the story more apparent, if it had been presented this way.

Another change both Zimmerman and Jackson made was to intercut the two parallel stories in The Two Towers.  Intercutting may seem appropriate at first glance.  In an interview, scriptwriter Fran Walsh said:

I often wondered […] what kind of movie it'd be if you played out one story, and then the other.  But it's a narrative structure that lends itself to literature much more than film.  When Tolkien was writing this book, intercutting wasn't something that was so prevalent in literature -- though it is starting to be now, and partly I think because of the influence of film.  (Verini 37) .

However, Tolkien is adamant about this point: “It is essential that these two branches should each be treated in coherent sequence.  Both to render them intelligible as a story, and because they are totally different in tone and scenery.  Jumbling them together entirely destroys these things” (Letters 275; original italics) .  In addition to the objections Tolkien raises, there is also the fact that intercutting the two books lessens their suspense and dramatic irony.  The characters we follow in Book III – Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Merry, and Pippin – all build suspense by voicing their concerns about Frodo and Sam.  The reader is repeatedly reminded that their fate after leaving the Company is unknown.  Then in Book IV, the reader experiences the dramatic irony of knowing what happened to the rest of the Company every time Frodo and Sam worry about them.  This subtle contrast of tension and release is lost when the stories are intercut.

It is somewhat surprising to see an exact duplication of some of what Tolkien considered Zimmerman’s scriptwriting mistakes in the Jackson films.  I myself saw co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens look up a quotation in Tolkien’s Letters at a conference I attended; she was familiar enough with them to page very quickly to the one she wanted (for another account, see Kelley 6) , so she must have been familiar with Tolkien’s criticisms of the Zimmerman script.  Of course, an author unacquainted with the specialized techniques of writing for film may not know the best way to adapt his own work for the medium.  Tolkien only wrote one dramatic work, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son,” a quite competent short verse play which has been produced several times in England.  He readily admitted his ignorance of filmmaking and scriptwriting, but had some ideas of his own about translating text into dramatic form.  For example, he suggested “the older art of reading ‘mime’” for a radio script (Letters 255) , and “abridgement” of events rather than “compression” for a film (Letters 261) .  As Tolkien observed,

The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.  (Letters 270)

4.  The Mines of Moria: “[He] may think he knows more about Balrogs than I do, but he cannot expect me to agree with him”

 A close study of the Mines of Moria sequence illustrates the above problems further, and shows how Jackson’s preference for horror and fight scenes actually reduces tension and suspense.  These two chapters, “A Journey in the Dark” and “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm,” are brilliantly written.  Tom Shippey comments on the “increasing tension” and “relative understatement” of this section of The Fellowship of the Ring: 

Unlike many of his imitators, Tolkien had realized that tension was dissipated by constant thrill-creation.  Accordingly the dangers of Moria build up slowly:  from the first reluctance of Aragorn, ‘the memory is very evil’ (never enlarged on), to the ominous knocking from the deep that answers Pippin’s stone (was it a hammer, as Gimli says? – we never learn), to Gandalf’s mention of Durin’s Bane.  The Balrog is also hinted at several times before it appears:  the orcs hang back as if they are afraid of something on their own side, Gandalf contests with it and concedes ‘I have met my match’ before it is ever seen, and again the orcs and trolls fall back as it comes up to cross the bridge of Khazad-dûm.  Even when it does come into focus, the focus is blurred […].  What Tolkien does in such passages is to satisfy the urge to know more […], while retaining and even intensifying the counterbalancing pleasure of seeming always on the edge of further discovery, looking into a world that seems far fuller than the little at present known.  (Shippey, Century 86-7)

 When Jackson tries to increase the horror factor of a scene, he tends to destroy Tolkien’s subtleties and instead ‘anticipates’ future events.  For example, the way the Watcher in the Water grabs at Frodo’s ankle in the book is an understated foreshadowing of the way the Balrog’s whip snakes around Gandalf’s foot and pulls him off the bridge (Fellowship 322, 45) .  But in the movie, the Watcher pulls Frodo out over the water and dangles him over his beaky mouth (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scene 27) .  This shot from above repeats almost exactly the shot of Gandalf falling into the pit, which opens the second movie.  When the two scenes are viewed within a few hours of each other instead of a year apart, the repetition is obvious, and the first scene detracts from the later one.

 One of the most incomprehensible changes Jackson makes is that he immediately reveals the fate of Balin and his companions, thus eliminating one major aspect of the tension of the journey through Moria.  As Chance puts it,  “The prolific dead bodies and severed heads littering the floor of the Mines of Moria from the time the door opens constitute more of the usual Jackson grotesquerie” (Chance 84) .  Moria is no longer the haunted and disquieting scene of a dwarf-colony’s mysterious disappearance; it’s just a rather prosaically bloodstained killing ground.  Why would any director waste such a good opportunity for creating an eerie, ghostly effect?  Echoes and cobwebs would have been far more intriguing and suspenseful than scattered bits of armor and bone (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Scene 28) .

 The flattening of dialogue is also troublesome in this sequence.  As one reviewer points out, “Tolkien’s dialogue was always very carefully crafted – he had a delicate ear for nuance – hitting the tone just right with impressive consistency.  The screenwriters are clumsy by comparison.  […]  I don’t think Jackson has much faith in words” (Russell 2) . Gimli’s invented speeches about dwarf hospitality are rather painfully forced: “Soon, Mister Elf, you will enjoy the hospitality of the Dwarves – roaring fires, malt beer, red meat off the bone” (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scene 27) . That doesn’t sound quite right for Tolkien’s “tough, thrawn [and] secretive” Dwarves (Return 410) . Gandalf’s original lines at the point the Company is lost are precise and in character: “I do not like the smell of the left-hand way; there is foul air down there, or I am no guide” (Fellowship 328) . It is grating to hear this reduced to Jackson’s colloquial “When in doubt, always follow your nose” (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scene 28) .  It makes Gandalf sound like Toucan Sam™ chasing after Froot Loops™; perhaps his prosthetic nose inspired this piece of deathless dialogue.  It is only when the screenwriters use Tolkien’s own words, even shifted many chapters away from their origin, that the script comes close to soaring.  Gandalf and Frodo’s conversation about pity and mercy, the fate of Gollum, and how Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, though displaced far from its source in the early chapter “The Shadow of the Past” and much rearranged, is more effective and moving than anything else Jackson has added to this scene.

 The battle in the Chamber of Mazarbul is another sequence Jackson rewrote drastically in order to add both horror and comic elements.  As one reviewer put it,  “[T]he Fellowship’s fight with the Orcs and the cave Troll is a flurry of cuts and laboured humour” (Fuller 19) .  Instead of Pippin dropping a pebble in a well two days earlier, so that the Company forgets the drumming and tapping noises until it is too late, Pippin’s pebble is changed into a full skeleton in armor, and the drumming and attack are an immediate response to it.  There is not actually a cave-troll in the battle in the book – it is simply an early speculation as to why the orcs are hanging back, and it turns out to be the Balrog that is frightening them.  Aragorn’s grim “We shall make them fear the Chamber of Mazarbul” (Fellowship 338) is transformed to Gimli’s over-the-top “Let them come!  There is one Dwarf left in Moria who still draws breath!” (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scene 29) .  Frodo does not hang back behind the other hobbits or hide behind a pillar as in the movie; in fact, he stabs at the foot of the first orc who tries to force the doors.  Sam isn’t a comic figure wielding a skillet; instead, he fells an orc with “a sturdy thrust with his Barrow-blade” (Fellowship 339) .  Jackson takes time to linger lovingly on Frodo’s agony after the spear-thrust from the cave-troll for nearly fifteen seconds all told; in the book, Frodo says “I am bruised and in pain, but it is not too bad” (Fellowship 342) . 

Another problem Jackson shares with Bakshi is a predilection for over-using new and unproven special effects.  Commenting on Bakshi’s rotoscoping, one reviewer said, “[T]his constant intrusion of technique draws the attention away from what is being presented to how it is being presented” (Ziegler 37) .  The battle with the cave troll is supposed to be a wonder of computer-generated imagery, but it frequently looks ridiculous, and the “forced perspective” technique used to make the hobbits and dwarves appear shorter is not always seamless.  It is especially intrusive in the “group portrait” at the end of the Council of Elrond.  When technique becomes obvious, the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief fails and is difficult to recover. 

 Jackson’s interpretation of this sequence is also affected by his sense of humor.  Tolkien’s books are not without their humorous moments, but the kind of crude comedy Jackson adds works against the tension of highly serious scenes.  Ursula K. LeGuin’s influential essay on the language of fantasy, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” included this observation: “humor in fantasy is both a lure and a pitfall to imitators” (LeGuin 81) .  It is fatal to introduce contemporary humor, like Jackson’s dwarf tossing joke, to high fantasy.  There is a type of comic fantasy, of which Terry Pratchett is the master, that can sometimes shade into high fantasy; but pure high fantasy takes itself seriously and cannot shade back into the comic without serious damage to its themes.  LeGuin’s words about another writer apply as well to Tolkien: “He never lets his creation down in order to make a joke, and he never shows a tin ear for tone” (LeGuin 82) .  Jackson unfortunately does show a tin ear for tone, particularly in Moria but also at other key moments.  When Jackson adds a comic sequence not in the original, like Merry and Pippin’s misadventure with Gandalf’s firecrackers, or inserts some banal dialogue based on nothing in the books, the viewer is “jerked back and forth between Elfland and Poughkeepsie” (LeGuin 81) . 

 The dwarf-tossing joke, repeated in the second movie, is especially egregious.  Tom Shippey calls it an “error of tone […].  One sees the joke, and the […] audience laughed, but it is an anachronism beyond anything Tolkien allowed” ("Temptations" 16) . As another reviewer observed,  “Gimli was, in the books, somewhat comical, but never the parody he has become in the films” (Russell 2) .  Jackson was known for “corny in-joke[s]” (Davis 120) and a “taste for schlock horror” (Fuller 19) in his earlier movies, but they are out of place in high fantasy. This is another fault he shares with Bakshi: one critic observed, “The grotesque, the homely, and the comic are in easy reach of Bakshi’s grasp” (Ziegler 37) . Jackson said in one interview, “I have a sort of inherent dislike of things that take themselves too seriously and I just think there’s a sort of pompousness that I’m always trying to avoid’ (Bauer 10) . It seems he thought Tolkien a bit too pompous and in need of puncturing. That is not a crime when the clear intent is satire; the Harvard Lampoon’s hilarious 1969 parody Bored of the Rings is a case in point.  However, Jackson said repeatedly that he was making a film as true to Tolkien as possible, and to do this properly he should have maintained Tolkien’s tone of high seriousness.  As one reviewer pointed out,

There is a simple truth that film-makers miss: fantasy works best when it’s played straight.  It was one of Tolkien’s great contributions to the genre: he applied the methods of realism to a novel of the fantastic.  Film-makers don’t seem to be able to do it without feeling they must make it comic, or mock the genre.  (Russell 1)

 There are other errors in emotional tone in the Moria sequence as well.  Gandalf’s treatment of Pippin is disturbing, and it will be interesting to see how their relationship is portrayed in the third movie, when they travel to Minas Tirith together.  Chance points out that “the critical, abusive behavior of Gandalf toward Pippin” is alien to Tolkien’s text (Chance 83) . Gandalf calls the young hobbit “Fool of a Took!” quite frequently, but all his rebukes to Pippin in the book have a kindly, almost avuncular feel to them.  In the movie, after Pippin knocks the skeleton into the well, Gandalf cruelly sneers, “Throw yourself in next time and rid us of your stupidity,” snatching his hat and staff back from the chagrined young hobbit (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scene 29) . The original “Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be no further nuisance” (Fellowship 327) is somewhat less harsh and not as personally insulting, particularly as it is preceded by a slightly humorous line and followed shortly after by kind words and Gandalf admitting he was not his usual self.

 The portrayal of Gimli throughout the movie is terribly off the mark, but this sequence especially is difficult to take.  The grim, serious dwarf is made to talk gloatingly of the hospitality they will soon receive in Moria (in the sort of hubristic speech that always presages disaster in the movies), and then cries out in anguish when Gandalf’s light reveals the dead bodies in the caves.  This ‘anticipates’ and ‘flattens’ his later reaction at the tomb of Balin, where “he sobs horribly in a most un-Tolkienian moment of grief.  In actuality Gimli merely ‘cast his hood over his face’” (Chance 84) .  Surely, seeing all the dead dwarves lying about, he ought to have concluded that Balin was dead as well, and not been so shocked to see his tomb.  In any case, Gimli is not only made into the butt of cheap humor, but must play the overly emotional sidekick as well.

 Jackson has been justifiably praised for allowing his male characters to show the emotion and unselfconscious physical affection for each other they reveal in the books.  But he does at times go overboard, dwelling on a character’s pain too long and disrupting the rhythm of a scene.  For example, “When Gandalf falls in battle with the Balrog at the Mines of Moria, Frodo tearfully hugs Aragorn like a child needing comfort from his father.  Yet the Hobbit hero weeps in Tolkien’s novel only as he runs” (Chance 81) . The surviving Companions were fleeing for their lives and did not have time to stop and mourn until they were well out of the caves.  Dwelling on Frodo’s anguished face for just a beat or two too long makes all the difference to the pacing of the scene, just as dwelling on his injury did in the cave-troll scene and at Weathertop.

 Perhaps a director better known for suspense, rather than horror, would have handled this scene better.  Imagine Alfred Hitchcock directing the Moria sequence, perhaps even in black-and-white: the spooky emptiness of the vast corridors and stairs, the slow building of tension, the half-seen shadows out of the corner of the eye, the ominous sounds in the dark (a hammer, or a drum in the depths? a patter of feet, or merely an echo?), the silent forcing of the door to the Chamber of Mazarbul and the frightening, bewildering battle in the dim dusty light, the headlong race to the gates and the Balrog a menacing unfocused shadow…  It could have been so much truer to the book.


5. Conclusion: “Sighing for something quite different – a moon no doubt” 

In one of the notes to his well-known essay “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien recalls taking a group of children to see A.A. Milne’s stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows.  As David Bratman has pointed out (Bratman) , his comments are oddly appropriate to the Jackson films:

[A] perceptive admirer (as distinct from a great admirer) of the book would never have attempted to dramatize it.  […]  The play is, on the lower level of drama, tolerably good fun, especially for those who have not read the book, but some children […] brought away as their chief memory nausea […] [T]hey preferred their recollection of the book.  ("On Fairy-Stories" 76)

Bratman adds, “Whether Tolkien would actually have said this about the Jackson film must remain unanswerable – I think he’d be nowhere near as good-humored about it” (Bratman) .

 What many readers worry about is that “mass exploitation […] is likely to have a detrimental effect on Tolkien’s literary status, shaky enough by dint of his ever-expanding popularity” (Fuller 20) . Hammond says, "I wouldn't give [the movie] much thought except that so many of its reviewers have praised it as faithful to the book, or even superior to it, all of which adds insult to injury and is demonstrably wrong" (Kirst 2) .  We are “sighing for something quite different – a moon no doubt,” as Tolkien commented after reading the 1956 B.B.C. radio script (Letters 255) .

 An early reviewer of the Bakshi movie stated, “The mind of the initiate to Middle-earth is likely to fix on Bakshi’s relatively limited images before his imagination has a chance to move through Tolkien’s depth and complexity.  […]  Bakshi’s movie may leave future readers free to see only what Bakshi saw” (Walker 36) .  Shippey says of the Jackson film, “It imposes alien visuals on the mind […].  Jackson will replace Tolkien, even erase him; this is the fear of some of Tolkien’s defenders” ("Temptations" 16) .  Fortunately, few people seem to carry the Bakshi images in their heads any longer.  Perhaps Jackson’s mistakes will fade from our memories as well, leaving only memories of the images and scenes that were miraculously right.

 It is unlikely, but not impossible, that we will see another attempt to film The Lord of the Rings in our lifetimes. We can only hope that next director who tackles Tolkien will take note of the critics of the Bakshi and Jackson films and the Zimmerman script, and create an adaptation truer to the spirit of the book and less attuned to the tastes of Hollywood’s hypothetical mass audience.




  1. Tolkien was first approached with a radio script for B.B.C. Third Programme in 1956 (Letters 254; Hammond 138) , which he considered unsatisfactory, but which was produced in spite of his misgivings.  The main problems were the severe condensation needed to present the story in three short episodes, and the fact that it was presented as dramatic dialogue, with the narrative background mostly removed.  The B.B.C. did a much longer radio adaptation in 1981, which is available on CD and considered to be quite good by many listeners (Hammond 138) .  An American version, by The Mind’s Eye, is not nearly as well reviewed.
  2. Foster points out how similar the plot of the Beatles’ film Help! is to the plot of The Lord of the Rings in this article.


Works Cited


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