Journey Through Middle-Earth Media: A Fork in the Road

When J.R.R. Tolkien first published The Fellowship of the Ring, it not only took England by storm, but the world. Already being an established author from his first book, The Hobbit, Middle-Earth swept the world off its feet, making it one of the best selling books of all time as well as redefining the core elements of the fantasy genre. So you can see why Peter Jackson had such a heavy burden on his shoulders when he had plans to turn it into a film in 1999. Luckily, Jackson knew from the start that the book and his film had to be two different entities.

J.R.R. Tolkien is infamous for his prosaic paragraphs, detailing the mountains and lakes of Middle Earth that take up 2 to 3 pages worth of the book (an exaggeration but still). Of course, he wanted his reader to really get a feel of Middle-Earth, to truly see that it isn’t just words on paper, but a living breathing world. This is why the books take their time to tell the story and progress the plot. The books are about the journey, rather than the plot or story. Tolkien is more concerned with you believing this world exists rather than wanting your heart pacing from the action and these books are by no means easy to read. Reading them are a journey of its own, but when you finish one of the books, you feel as if you lived on Middle Earth yourself, and suddenly you’re in the mood for not only the second book, but a second breakfast. Reading even just one of the books is a long and arduous journey, but the reward for finishing makes it all worth it, and isn’t that the quest Sam and Frodo take on?

If we are to be honest, all of those beautiful books that changed the lives of so many people came to be because Tolkien needed a place to store his “nonsense fairy language” (that description of his language can be found on page 8, Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien). If we look at one of his MANY letters sent to various people (Letter 180) we see he is replying to a reader of his books, and explains to the fan on the origins of his stories “I began with language” (231). So it wasn’t the chicken or the egg first, it was the “caw!” Because of this Tolkien wanted to flesh out a whole entire world for his creative language and a good world needs good stories. We can use this as a pin for our analysis. Book = journey and movie = action.

BUT I try to separate the authors outside of the published text, so I don’t want to use outside information to give meaning to the text. So think of that as an anecdote. It is important to know but not important for this particular analysis. Let’s jump into what is published.   

There is an outcry of how much is taken out of movie from the book. And a solution to these problems, some people believe, is not having the movies exist at all. But Peter Jackson’s biggest priority for the movie was having a living, breathing world, the exact same priority Tolkien had while writing his books. This time, Jackson had the privilege of enabling visual imagery instead of imaginative imagery. Finally, people can see the world Tolkien had to explain in long paragraphs. In our previous post, we wrote about action and urgency being the focus for the movie which was not the case for the novel. The first sort of proof we have of this is the introduction to the book AND movie.

We are greeted with one of the most powerful introductions to a movie, a whisper flows through a black screen, then a soft and angelic voice fills the void with the words: “The world is changing, I can feel it in the water…”, then a beautiful orchestral piece rolls into the title screen. We hear the angelic voice explain the forging of the rings: three for the Elves, seven for the Dwarves, nine for Men, and One Ring to rule them all. We see a battle against the Dark Lord himself and we see his fall. We see the fall of man and that beautiful symbolic fall of the Ring.

Cue the light hearted Hobbit music!

This intro is perfect for setting up the focus of the entire movie and what will be the focus of the next two. The Ring is now the catalyst for the action and urgency of the movie. But in the book, there is no such catalyst…just yet. The prologue of the book is titled “Concerning Hobbits” and this gives a background for readers who may have missed The Hobbit or may have forgotten their Hobbit lore. It is a very interesting history text and this becomes the big focus of the book. Lord of the Rings is about Hobbits, Hobbits that break from their traditions and non-adventurous demeanor. In particular, the Hobbits that grew up hearing the tales of Bilbo Baggins and the tales that planted the seeds of exploration and wonder within them.

However there is an additional intro to the extended edition for the movies that include “Concerning Hobbits” which should give everyone more incentive to watch the extended editions always. Listen, if writers tell you the important thing of writing is it read then you should listen to the Lord of the Rings fans that tell you to always watch the extended editions.

So now we have our perfect introductions for each medium. The movie gets the catalyst of the danger, the book gets a history lesson. Let’s get into the meat!

In the book, Gandalf The Grey and Bilbo Baggins cooperate to pull a trick on Bilbo’s 111th Birthday. They create a disappearing act with the magic ring that was found previously by Bilbo on his way to the Lonely Mountain. This action took place in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, so we won’t get too far into that. The point being, Bilbo uses the magic ring to disappear as sparks fly around him from Gandalf. Afterwords, Gandalf and Bilbo go back to Bag End and laugh over their joke. In Jackson’s movie, there are no special effects. We see that Gandalf is aware of Bilbo’s leaving but did not know he would use the “magic ring” to do so. Sir Ian Mckellen expresses this through the shock and surprise Gandalf has along with the rest of Bilbo’s guests. Later, in both book and film, Gandalf gives the ring to Frodo for safekeeping and goes off to do research. This is the moment book and film separate into the different entities we spoke about.

In the movie we see Gandalf venture off to research that magic ring after seeing Bilbo’s reaction to giving it to Frodo. He finds the documents that recall the great battle with Sauron and he notices a ring documented with an inscription on it.  He travels back to Frodo with great haste to check if the ring he is holding turns out to be the One Ring. They both discover that it is and now Frodo must go travel to Rivendell to seek council for what to do next. Here we have the start of the urgency and immediate danger. Frodo must get the ring to Rivendell before he is caught by Sauron’s Wraiths which begin to pursue him more consistently when he leaves the Shire.

In the books, Gandalf leaves Frodo for 17 years before coming back with news that the ring might be an evil relic, warning Frodo to leave as quietly and quickly as possible. Frodo decides to wait a couple months before he sets out to Rivendell. Tolkien makes the audience aware how hard it is for Frodo to get up and go, despite the danger that could come from it, and the danger wasn’t clear for Frodo or Gandalf at first. Urgency and danger come into the limelight towards the very end of Fellowship, when the stakes are higher than ever. The movie has to make these two things immediate, and so those slow moments in the book fit the particular medium and would not do well for a movie.

But if the book is about the journey and the world itself then shouldn’t the movie be about that too!?

Yes and it is!

Let’s fast forward a little in the movie. Now Frodo and Sam are on their way out of the Shire. This is where all that long prose about the fields and valleys of Middle-Earth can be turned into a beautiful scenery shots that also push the narrative. Our focus during these shots is the world and during these shots we see the characters walk across fields and down hills. They are brief enough to not take away from the action but long enough to take in how beautiful the scenery (the world) is. It gives the audience a sense of foreignness and mystique but it fills our hearts with adventure. These are the moments throughout all three movies that Jackson implements to pay homage to Tolkien’s original intentions: to create a real life world. There are plenty of them and it works for the film medium. We have to know where we are in the story, so all these wide shots of the mountains and lakes work for the narrative and work for Lord of the Rings as a whole.

Some differences in book and movie at this point: In the movie Sam and Frodo run into Merry and Pippin in a field as they travel to Rivendell. In the books, Sam and Frodo travel with Pippin to go and stay with Merry for a night. On their journey they’ve seen Black Riders, spent a night at Farmer Maggots place, witness Elves migrate (which is a small scene in the extended edition) then finally arrive at Merrys who we find out has known about the Ring along with Pippin and plan on going to Rivendell with Frodo. As you can see this slows the pacing of the book intensely, and Jackson was smart to exclude most of this from the films.

For our next post, we get into one of the most controversial characters in Tolkien’s Legendarium and why some people were either happy they left him out of the movie or were furious they’d cut such an awesome and integral character. If you know who I’m referring to don’t spoil it! We will discuss more next time.

As for how these posts will go on from here on, I think I will be dividing Fellowship into a lot more parts than just 2….I’m thinking we can do either 3 or 4 but I’m up for not rushing if you are! I just don’t want to make these posts sooooooo overtly long and arduous.  

I hope you enjoyed this corner of the bookshelf! Because this corner certainly enjoys your company.

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