Peter Jackson's film trilogy based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is one of the most successful franchises of all time: it was critically acclaimed, and all three films are among the top 100 highest grossing movies of all time. Despite this success, these films ultimately fail as adaptations, as Jackson is unable to adapt major elements of Tolkien's style. The films are not a complete failure: they are visually extraordinary, and the sets and props allow the viewer to be transported to Middle Earth, effectively "enchanting" them. However, Jackson's approach to Tolkien's language is ultimately disappointing. By stripping the text of its mixture of prose and poetry, as well as by failing to distinguish between the languages of Middle Earth and falling into the pitfalls of irony, Jackson's films remove many of the stylistic elements that characterize Tolkien's style, and therefore characterize The Lord of the Rings.
In his analysis of the Council of Elrond, Tom Shippey details how Tolkien separates the voices of characters such as Gloin, Elrond, Boromir, and Gandalf. Each of these characters are members of the different races of Middle Earth and have their own personalities, and Shippey claims that Tolkien distinguishes them through their speech, citing his "unusual ability to suggest cultural variation by differences in modes of speech" (Shippey, 69). In the films, the Council of Elrond is shortened, so many of Shippey's examples are omitted altogether. However, by comparing dialogue from the books and the films, it becomes clear that the cultural variation conveyed by Tolkien's language is not present in Jackson's films.
An example of this would be Gandalf's justification of his use of the Black Speech of Mordor. In the book, Gandalf says:
"Nonetheless I do not ask your pardon, Master Elrond. For if that tongue is not soon to be heard in every corner of the West, then let all put doubt aside that this thing is indeed what the West have declared: the treasure of the Enemy, fraught with all his malice" (Book I, Chapter 6)
In the film, Gandalf says:
"I do not ask your pardon, Master Elrond, for the Black Speech of Mordor may yet be heard in every corner of the West. The Ring is altogether evil."
One of the main differences between the two is Tolkien's use of the conditional sentence. The conditional, while not necessarily "archaic", contributes to the image of Gandalf as wise - one of the traits associated with wizards. The lack of the conditional does not take anything away from the films, but it is clear that Tolkien's Gandalf is more wizard-like than his movie counterpart. His description of the Ring differs from Jackson's version as well: "altogether evil" is an oversimplification of "fraught with malice". For one, the qualities of sound in Tolkien's description - the hard "t" of fraught coupled with the sibilance of malice - create a more spellbinding sentence. "Fraught" is a more interesting adjective than "evil", and it is the transformative qualities of adjectives that, according to Tolkien, create magic (Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories"). Therefore Tolkien's language more successfully captures Gandalf's wizardry.
Ultimately Jackson has pared down Tolkien's dialogue, dialogue which Tolkien himself crafted to convey the cultures of each of the races of Middle Earth: "hobbits indeed spoke for the most part a rustic dialect, whereas in Gondor and Rohan a more antique language was used, more formal and more terse" (Appendix F). Jackson uses accents to convey these differences instead. These accents help enchant the viewer by immersing them in the sounds of Middle Earth, but these accents do not correspond to Tolkien's linguistic choices, which is why Jackson's dialogue fails to represent Tolkien's style.
Another staple of Tolkien's style in The Lord of the Rings is his combination of poetry and prose. The use of the two mimics the styles of sermo gravis and sermo humilus. Usually these two styles were meant to be kept apart, yet they merge in Tolkien. Similarly, they are mixed in Christian literature (Auerbach, 151). Therefore, Tolkien's style mirrors a Christian style. The poems serve another purpose as well: like the dialogue, the poems distinguish the different races of Middle Earth. The hobbits' poems read like nursery rhymes, whereas the elves composed lays like "The Lays of Beleriand". These styles demonstrate the qualities of each race: the hobbits are more rustic and folksy, whereas the elves appear as the more sophisticated and epic of the two.
However, verse is very rarely present in Jackson's movies, meaning that poetry's roles as a link to Christianity and as a world building tool are not explored on film. The incorporation of verse is a conscious decision on Tolkien's part; it is a key element of his style. By not incorporating verse into the movies, Jackson is doing his adaptation a large disservice. The closest the movies come to exploring the verse and musicality of The Lord of the Rings is the score itself. Howard Shore composed distinct music for the different groups of Middle Earth: for example, the hobbits's theme is clearly distinguishable from the elves' theme. In short, the music does some of the work of the poetry, in that it provides a clear background for the different characters and races of Middle Earth. The music is, like the visuals, a form of enchantment exclusive to the film version of The Lord of the Rings, and, although it is not the most successful way to transfer Tolkien's style to the screen, it still makes an effort to faithfully portray the original text's musicality.
One element of the films that is completely different from the books is the fact that irony is present. Tolkien operates on four out of the five of Northrop Frye's fictional types: myth, romance, high mimesis, and low mimesis. However, he never operates on an ironic level, meaning that he never makes fun of another character. The movies, on the other hand, take multiple breaks to laugh at characters, mainly Merry, Pippin, or Gimli. A notable example is when Pippin, after begging to join the Fellowship, asks "where are we going?" This cheapens the moment, as well as Pippin's character. The Lord of the Rings did have some humorous moments, but Tolkien never poked direct fun at the characters. Therefore, the addition of irony to the movies is among the largest failures of Jackson's adaptation, as it disregards a key element of the book's style.
According to Ursula Le Guin "style is, of course, the book... if you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot" (Le Guin, 90). While Jackson's movies are in no way close to a synopsis, they are failures when it comes to adapting Tolkien's style. The visuals and music provide sensory enchantment, but the exclusion of verse and the different dialects lessen the meaning of Tolkien's work. Jackson has created an epic movie series, but Tolkien created an entire legendarium with the help of his style, and, without it, the movies lose the historical impact of The Lord of the Rings.
- B. E.