Tuesday, April 11, 2017

How Peter Jackson's Movies Fail to Adapt Tolkien's Style

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. 


  1. Very nice analysis of the way Jackson's script changes Gandalf's character! I would have liked to hear more about the way the accents do not do the same kind of work as the style of speech--could you give a specific example? Nice differentiation between the poetry and Shore's musical score--I think Tolkien would have appreciated Shore's effort to mark the different peoples with different themes. It is curious that Jackson did not incorporate more of the songs (songs are there, but they play a different role than in the book). Why modern audiences seem to need to laugh at the characters is another question altogether--we seem to *need* irony, even if it breaks the enchantment. RLFB

  2. Note: I had to post this as two different comments because of character limits.

    What if Peter Jackson’s stripped down of Tolkien’s text was an attempt to strike a balance between style and accessibility? As enjoyable as the style of The Lord of the Rings is, one cannot deny that the book itself is rather dense for a movie industry that tends to shy away from dialogue-heavy fantasy. Yes, Jackson did pare down the amount of poetry present in the films, but poetry is by no means absent. Below is a (non-comprehensive) list of various instances when Tolkien’s original poetry and prose appeared in Jackson’s LotR movies:

    • “The road goes ever on and on” I.3 – sung by Gandalf in FotR,
    • “To the bottle I go” I.4 – sung by Merry and Pippin in FotR
    • “Song of Beren and Lúthien” I.11 (in Common Speech) – sung in Sindarin by Aragorn in FotR EE
    • “A Elbereth Gilthoniel” II.1 – sung by the elves in FotR
    • “Upon the hearth the fire is red” I.3 – sung by Pippin in RotK
    • “All that is gold does not glitter”I.10 – recited by Arwen in RotK
    • “Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien Sinome Maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-Metta” VI.5 (spoken) – sung by Aragorn in RotK
    • “Arise, arise Riders of Theoden” V.5 – spoken by Theoden in RotK

    While poetry and song in the films are not always as noticeable as in the book, Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens (the film screenwriters) retained quite a bit of Tolkien’s original poetry and prose, ensuring that the literary and cultural styles of the people of Middle-earth was carried onto the screen.

    In addition, I would argue that Howard Shore did far more than just compose “distinct music” for the various peoples of Middle Earth. The creation of the musical soundtrack for the Lord of the Rings films was a massive effort that involved 3 ensembles, 6 languages, and over 20 instrumental and vocal soloists, including members of the films’ cast. Shore composed over 90 leitmotifs to represent the various characters, locations, and events in The Lord of the Rings.

    One significant leitmotif that Shore deftly weaves and develops throughout The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King is the leitmotif for the Shire. Life in the Shire is rustic and tranquil, filled with quiet days, sunny weather, and plenty of good pipe-weed. To evoke the homey rural atmosphere of the Shire, Shore turned to traditional Celtic instruments, including the fiddle, bodhrán, penny whistle, and musette. The Shire motif makes an unobtrusive debut in The Fellowship of the Ring with gentle strings before reappearing, played by the sprightly fiddle and accompanied by the bodhrán. Together, the fiddle and bodhrán convey the feeling of the Shire as a rustic tucked-away paradise. Appearing soon after, the joyful pennywhistle evokes the hobbits’ simple, serene lives. Unfortunately, trouble soon comes to the Shire, causing these cheerful Celtic-flavored sounds of a more peaceful time to disappear.

    Sam and Frodo, two hobbits who have lived in the Shire all their lives, have been tasked with removing the One Ring from the Shire. While crossing through an unremarkable cornfield, Sam suddenly stops, telling Frodo, “If I take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been” (FotR). Following this proclamation, the Shire leitmotif appears, played by the French horn. The muted tone of the French horn is somber, channeling the sadness that Sam feels in leaving home behind, and is a marked contrast to earlier brightly toned fiddle and pennywhistle versions of the leitmotif. At the same time though, the humble but steady tone of the French horn also imparts the bravery of Sam and Frodo’s willingness to adventure into the unknown, leaving the listener with a hopeful feeling for the journey ahead.

  3. Sam and Frodo travel on, gaining fellow hobbits Merry and Pippin and the mysterious Strider as companions as they continue on towards the elven stronghold of Rivendell. It will not be until Frodo and Bilbo are reunited at Rivendell that the Shire theme is heard again. The clarinet playing the theme is cheerful but calm, reflecting both Frodo’s joy at seeing Bilbo and the dignified, serene atmosphere of Rivendell that Frodo now finds himself in. At the Council of Elrond, Frodo volunteers to take monumental burden of carrying the One Ring to Mordor, and listeners once again hear the clarinet playing the Shire theme, but this time the clarinet is joined and backed by the strings, paralleling Sam’s, Pippin’s, and Merry’s loyal rush into the courtyard to join Frodo in his quest. At this point, the Shire theme merges into a new Fellowship theme, and the Fellowship of the Ring is complete.

    In The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo are far from the comforts of the Shire, and as their burden increases, the Shire leitmotif begins to struggle. Once again the clarinet carries the melody, but it is slower and more deliberate, fighting to retain optimism in the face of the bleakness encompassing Middle-Earth. Throughout The Two Towers, as Sam & Frodo and Merry & Pippin pursue their separate paths, the occasional appearances of the Shire leitmotif are a reminder of hope and home. For all the grand desires and dreams surrounding the quest to destroy the One Ring, a much simpler motive drives these four humble hobbits: save the Shire.

    Against overwhelming odds, in The Return of the King the scattered Fellowship has succeeded in destroying the Ring and defeating Sauron. Frodo awakens in the Houses of Healing to the happy sight of the wizard Gandalf, who he thought had perished in Moria. A joyful reunification of the Fellowship follows, along with the reemergence of the Shire theme, this time rendered by soft, gentle flute. Sam appears with a smile, and the four friends are finally together again once more. Aragorn is crowned king, but when Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin bow to Aragorn he tells them solemnly, “My friends, you bow to no one” (RotK) and instead kneels before them, causing all of Gondor to follow in tribute. At this point, the Shire theme is as grand as it will ever be, backed by the splendor of the full symphonic ensemble. Their quest is complete, and the hobbits return to the Shire. Once again, just as when the Shire was introduced, the whistle appears playing the Shire theme – the four have succeeded, the Shire is as they left it so many months ago, and all is well. However, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin soon find that while the Shire is unchanged, they themselves are no longer the same. For Frodo in particular, the changes caused by carrying the One Ring have left scars that run too deep. No longer able to call the Shire home, Frodo will leave Middle-Earth and journey to the Undying Lands. As Sam, Merry, and Pippin tearfully bid Frodo farewell, the Shire theme sounds one last time. In this final appearance, the simple joy of the melody line is tempered by a slow tempo and the softer tones of the strings and the flute – it is a bittersweet farewell to the Fellowship and the Third Age, with only Gandalf’s parting words for comfort: “Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil” (RotK).

    In short, Shore’s epic LotR soundtrack goes far beyond just being a musical nametag for each character and is in fact essential for infusing Tolkien’s original vision into the style of the LotR films.

    Abbreviations and Sources
    LotR = The Lord of the Rings
    FotR = The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (film)
    RotK = The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (film)
    EE = extended edition

    Doug Adams, “The Lord of the Rings Symphony.” Howard Shore, 2015. Web
    The Lord of the Rings. Dir. Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2001-2003. Film.
    J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.


  4. I have to disagree with your assertion that Jackson’s movies fail as an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. While you are certainly correct in the points you made about the films not capturing the differences in dialogue that Tolkien worked in to set apart the characters and not including as much poetry and song, I don’t think that means that the films fail. Rather, I think that they are necessary for the success of the films. With respect to your example of The Council of Elrond, I think that attempting to work in characters using a bunch of different sorts of speech patterns would become clumsy in a film setting. We don’t need to hear the words Elrond uses to differentiate his ancientness and grandeur in the text, we have a visual representation of him in front of us. Having him speak in a very archaic manner would just be distracting. Additionally, it would be nearly impossible to put the same emphasis on song and poetry in the film that Tolkien puts on it in the text. This is because the nature of a film is that things happen simultaneously, whereas in text only one thing can happen at a time. To put as much emphasis on song and poetry in the films that Tolkien puts on it in the text would require at times the film equivalent of multiple pages of text dedicated only to said song or poetry. You would have instances of a minute or two of sitting there listening to someone speak or sing in Elvish with nothing else going on. This would be quite cumbersome to work with indeed.