Book Adaptations: What Peter Jackson Made Better in ‘The Lord of the Rings’

Screenshot of Liv Tyler as Arwen in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’. Copyright goes to New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company, and the Tolkien Estate.

Hey! Hallie here!

We’ve mentioned LOTR on this blog a few times, but we never fully dedicated a post to it. Recently I’ve been feeling particularly passionate about this series, so I figured it was time to rectify that. Mainly, I’m really tired of the discourse over ‘Rings of Power’ that’s been going on non-stop for the last few years now. When the series was announced, suddenly everyone became an expert on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ books and what Tolkien intended for the world he wrote. Any changes to canon were condemned, racism and sexism became rampant, and “book purists” started picking apart everything about the series to convince others that anything not aligned with the books was immediately invalid. And yet, somehow, Peter Jackson’s original trilogy is still beloved amongst these fans. I hate to tell these toxic fans this, but Peter Jackson changed some major things within his movies. Some of these things have received their own criticisms, but many of them I’ve seen book purists wrongfully attribute to Tolkien because of how seamlessly his changes fit into the story of Middle Earth. In my opinion, I think Jackson’s changes in these adaptations have elevated his movies even beyond the books. So let’s get into what Peter Jackson did better in his LOTR films.

Women in Middle Earth:

I’m starting off with something I see toxic fans and non-toxic fans alike complain about. Peter Jackson has made a habit of writing in female characters to break up the meat fest that Tolkien originally wrote. Some of these characters are present in the books but have their stories elongated or modified, such as Galadriel and Eowyn. Some of these characters are briefly mentioned but never given personality, such as Arwen. And others were created entirely from scratch, such as Tauriel. Obviously, there are male fans who complain about Peter Jackson’s attempts at giving us more female representation simply because they’re sexist. But some complain about these women from a narrative perspective. Arwen gets complaints because she replaced a fan-favorite elf from the books, Glorfindel. But what Arwen gives to the plot is so much more than what Glorfindel ever provided. Glorfindel was an elf who appeared only the once in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. His past is mentioned in ‘The Silmarillion’, which is why people like him so much, but he holds no relevance to Frodo’s story at all. Meanwhile, Arwen, while also providing a badass woman for little girls to look up to, also has a meaningful relationship with Aragorn that deeply effects him throughout his entire character arc. For that reason, narratively, expanding her character is far more satisfying and makes a lot more sense.

Tauriel gets complaints for her side-story with Kili being unnecessary. But her story with Kili actually gives him personality where, in the book, he had none. Not to mention that the Mirkwood elves in the book play a tiny role in the story but were one of the most interesting elements of ‘The Hobbit’ to readers. It makes sense to give us a Mirkwood elf for us to attach ourselves to, and let’s be honest, it wasn’t going to be Thranduil (As much as I do love him). Eowyn and Galadriel are the only two female characters whose narrative purpose stays mostly the same between books and movies because they were two of three rare female characters that Tolkien wrote well (The third being Luthien from ‘The Silmarillion’). But Tolkien still wrote them both with a hefty dose of sexism that Peter Jackson fixed. Galadriel, in Jackson’s films, is given a larger amount of power and takes a more personal role in taking down Sauron. Meanwhile, Eowyn doesn’t get a stupid ending where Faramir “tames” her and she never fights again. No matter how you look at it, Jackson does far more justice with the female characters in ‘Lord of the Rings’ than Tolkien ever did.

Fleshing Out Characters:

I already talked a little bit about this above, but this whole topic deserves its own section. Tolkien was an excellent writer who will forever be known for his world building. But many of the characters outside of the Hobbit characters feel a bit underdeveloped. Legolas gets absolutely nothing in the books, especially when comparing him to the rest of the Fellowship. Aragorn is the stern, honorable, and confident sort of man you’d expect from a character who will end up as king, and not much more. Gandalf is mysterious and disappears for a good chunk of every single book. Many of the beloved character traits we love from these characters came from Jackson’s movies. Legolas’s sass and witty back-and-forth with Gimli is far more explored in the movies, and his presence overall is stronger. Aragorn gets an entire character arc about trying to balance his responsibilities with not wanting to leave Arwen, fearing he will succumb to the ring and turn out like his ancestor, and finding within himself the self confidence to be king. All of which makes his character far more interesting of a protagonist to follow and makes his success all the more emotional. And Gandalf gets the time to be just as big of a main character as everyone else. When he leaves we actually get to see where he goes off to, making his sacrifices and struggles while there much more impactful to the audience. And his sternness and confidence is sometimes replaced with a humble, silly, gentle man who I’d personally like to know even more than the Gandalf from the books.

Then there’s the characters that Peter Jackson created lore for that is sometimes mistaken for Tolkien’s own writings. The biggest example is Thranduil, who I keep seeing book purists criticize for not being as tragic of a character in the movies as he is in the book. But Thranduil isn’t a tragic character in the book. Sure, Tolkien did write of the battle where Thranduil lost his father, but it’s not a major story that goes into the impact this loss had on Thranduil. It’s a small battle written in passing that isn’t even mentioned in ‘The Hobbit’. You want to know what else isn’t mentioned in ‘The Hobbit’ book? Thranduil’s wife or child. Yes, we know Legolas is his son, but that information doesn’t come from ‘The Hobbit’ book. Thranduil’s name isn’t even given in the book. He’s only referred to as “Elvenking”. The tragic backstory of Thranduil, where he loses his wife, distances himself from his son, and remains in perpetual mourning, is all Peter Jackson’s films. The fact that the treasure he’s searching for in the Lonely Mountain is actually a necklace once belonging to his late wife is also a plot line only introduced in Peter Jackson’s films, though the scene that blatantly states this never made it into the final cut. In the book, Thranduil is described as greedy and legitimately just wants to see if he can get something valuable from the dragon hoard. Tolkien’s strong point isn’t his character development, and while it isn’t bad, it’s definitely made better in Jackson’s movies.

Cutting Out the Excess:

It’s funny to see how many people will criticize Peter Jackson’s adaptations for throwing in “too many extra plot lines” when Tolkien did this so many times in his own books. Tom Bombadil is an entirely unnecessary character that breaks up the entire plot. Not only do Frodo and his friends spend too much time in his household, but the fact that they meet a man who is not even the slightest bit tempted by the ring so early in the story removes the stakes. We have all this setup describing how dangerous the ring is because of how irresistible it is to everyone, including Gandalf, and yet suddenly we get some random guy who undoes this build up while the story is still getting going. There’s also the amount of time Tolkien dedicates to world building. I’m not sure there’s any side plot as unnecessary as the entire chapter that’s dedicated to Pippin being shown around Gondor. And I’m not sure there really needed to be so many parts of Frodo’s journey where he’s stuck in a forest for several weeks on end with nothing but pretty descriptions of trees to pass the time. This is not to say that what Tolkien wrote is bad. I love these books and the amount of description within them. But there’s no way I’d want to see any of these things on screen and I’m grateful Peter Jackson avoided it.

Once again, this post isn’t a dunk on Tolkien. I’m a huge fan of the books and movies. But toxic fans need to remember what adaptations of Tolkien’s writings have added to the fandom. I don’t think anyone would appreciate these characters and these stories as much as we do if not for some of Peter Jackson’s tweaking. We would still have a deep love for the characters and world Tolkien made, but the closeness we feel to it all is very much aided by what Peter Jackson’s films did. And the same might be true of ‘Rings of Power’ in the future. While I may not have loved season one, I do already think it deserves praise for actually showing racial diversity within its cast. Just like Jackson’s development of female characters, it’s a necessary step forward that is long overdue. (Tolkien also wrote that the Harfoots were “browner of skin” so get out of here racist fans.) And I think the show has the opportunity to keep breaking boundaries and making strides forward if the creators listen to some of the criticisms surrounding the first season’s structure. There’s no reason to hate on it for being different from the books or diverging a little from canon. ‘Lord of the Rings’ has benefited majorly from it before and it certainly will again.

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!


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