J. Bradford DeLong
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

December 2001


I'm sick and tired of reading about how the Lord of the Rings movie is different from the book and hence inferior, so I thought I would start keeping a list of elements in Peter Jackson's movie that I think (and that others think) are clearly superior to their counterparts in Tolkien's book:

Improvement in the Logic of the Plot: Galadriel's opening, explaining just how it happens to be that the ring is still around--just why Isildur did not wish to/could not destroy it: "But the hearts of men are easily corrupted. And the ring has a will of its own."

Improvement in Characterization: Gandalf's panic when he discovers that it is indeed the One Ring that Frodo possesses, and Gandalf's desperate desire to seek help, especially the help of his friend, mentor, and leader Saruman, for "he is both wise and powerful. He will know what to do."

Major Plot Hole Closed: Recall what happens in the book when Gandalf discovers that Frodo has the One Ring. Gandalf keeps the news a secret, and tells Frodo, "Hang out in the Shire for six months or so, and then we will all mosey on off toward Rivendell." This makes no sense. Gandalf's first reaction to learning the identity of the ring should be to get it to a safe location. His second reaction should be to seek help. As long as Gandalf is ignorant of the Treason of Isengard, he should immediately inform the other Maia- and near-Maia-class good guys in Middle Earth--Saruman, Rhadagast, the Blue Wizards, Cirdan, Elrond, Glorfindel, and Galadriel--of what is going on. Instead, in the book he tells nothing to anyone save Aragorn. The only reason that Elrond has scouts out is that Gildor Inglorion of the House of Finrod sends back a message that Frodo is bearing a "great burden without guidance"--but I do not believe that Gildor knows what the burden is. By contrast, in the movie Gandalf's reaction to discovering the identity of the Ring is to immediately try to mobilize the White Council, and get the Wise thinking about what needs to be done. He rides to Isengard to tell Saruman what he has learned and get help. In the book, it genuinely does seem as if, as Saruman tells Gandalf, "your love of the halfling's leaf has clouded your mind."

(Adrian Hon) Improvement in Characterization: The excission of Tom Bombadil.

Improvement in Characterization: The replacement of Glorfindel by Arwen in the "flight to the ford" sequence. Given how powerful Glorfindel is said to be in the book, his failure to play any role at all in the rest of the trilogy is a big puzzle: this is, after all, the same guy who fought Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs, to a standstill during the fall of Gondolin.

Improvement in Characterization: Elrond's view of human "weakness" as revealed by his comments about men and his detailed memories of Isildur's unwillingness to/inability to destroy the ring.

Improvement in Plot: The byplay between Elrond and Gandalf, in which Gandalf says that the hobbits have already done much more than could possibly be asked of them, and that they deserve to return to the Shire. Elrond responds that with the treason of Isengard "the list of our allies grows thin," and that the Wise need to use every weapon they have--and the stubborn resistance of hobbits to the ring's evil is one of those weapons.

Improvement in Characterization: Aragorn's fear in Rivendell that he will prove too weak, just as his ancestor Isildur proved too weak when the test came.

(Dian Tarb) Improvement in Characterization: Aragorn's visible reluctance to be king and uncertainty about whether he was worthy to be king added depth to the character.

Improvement in Characterization: The sharpening of the Aragorn-Boromir conflict: "Gondor has no king. Gondor needs no king."

(Jane Falconer) Improvement in Characterization: The added depth provided by the scenes in Rivendell to Frodo's decision to volunteer to take the ring to Mordor.

(Dian Tarb) Improvement in Plot: The details of the treason of Isengard, the creation of the Uruk-Hai, and the ecological devastation wrought by Saruman. Thus the appearance of the Uruk-Hai and the Ents in the Two Towers will not come as such a surprise: In the book Tolkien makes almost no effort to prepare us for either.

(Adrian Hon) Improvement in Characterization: The transformation of Isengard into a war city is extremely well done.

Improvement in Plot: Saruman casting his spells from the tower of Orthanc to affect the weather on Caradhras.

(Adrian Hon) Improvement in Plot: The Moria scenes.

Major Plot Hole Closed: In the book Gandalf does not know what it is he faces in Moria until the Bridge of Khazad-Dum itself. He says things like "its power was terrible." But it doesn't seem to occur to him that it is the--well-known to both Gimli and Legolas as Durin's Bane--balrog. Are we really expected to believe that Olorin the Maia does not recognize the feel of the power of another Maia? In the movie, it is pretty clear that both Saruman and Gandalf know well what lurks at the bottom of Moria--and thus why Gandalf is so reluctant to take the Moria road. The plot hangs together better if Gandalf knows that inside the Mines of Moria is one of the other Maia-class beings in Middle-Earth, knows that it is one of the very few things in Middle-Earth that might well be able to kill him, and thus knows what he is getting into when he enters the Black Pit.

Improvement in Plot: Galadriel's warning that the ring is beginning to work its corrupting effect on all the big people in the fellowship--that the whole thing (not just Boromir) is beginning to break. The result is a much clearer motivation of Frodo's decision to strike off for Mordor on his own.

Improvement in Plot: Galadriel's message to Samwise: that there is still hope as long as he, Samwise, remains true to Frodo.

(Jane Falconer) Improvement in Characterization: Boromir's death as the moment when Aragorn realizes that he cannot avoid taking on the burden of kingship: even though he fears it, it is his burden to try to bear.

Improvement in Characterization: Boromir's death sequence, and his swearing allegiance to Aragorn as "my brother, my captain, and my king"; coupled with Aragorn's oath not to let the White City fall.

Major Plot Hole Closed: In the book, why doesn't Aragorn follow Frodo and Sam when they strike out for Mordor? Destroying the ring is job 1. Thus helping the ringbearer is job 1.1. Aragorn's sword might well make the difference, so he should be following them as they strike out from Anduin for Mordor (if only to protect them from Gollum). In the movie, however, Frodo explicitly tells Aragorn that he can be of no further help: men are weak, and the one thing Aragorn cannot protect Frodo against is a ring-maddened Aragorn. Thus the best thing that Aragorn can do is get out of the zone of influence of the ring so it cannot corrupt him. In addition, in the movie Aragorn swears to Boromir as Boromir dies that Aragorn will not let the White City (of Minas Tirith) fall. Thus there are two powerful and explicit reasons for Aragorn to let Frodo go. By contrast, in the book this decision is not well motivated at all: I remember that when I first read the Two Towers, my reaction to learning at its beginning that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli were heading *away* from the ring at full speed was "huh?"


Other Nice Movie Touches:

Merry and Pippin in the Prancing Pony: "This, my friend, is a pint." "They come in pints?"

Saruman: "Your love of the halfling's leaf has clouded your mind."

Aragorn: "Let's hunt some orc."

Gimli: "Nobody tosses a dwarf."

The Nine were much more terrifying than I had imagined they could be on film--and their twin weaknesses to fire and water were well-done as well.

Hobbiton was much better done than I had imagined could be done on film.