Few classic novels—the kinds of works hailed as backbones of entire genres of literature—are ever graced with film adaptations that are unabashedly beloved by both the general public and the devotees of an author. It’s much more common that an adaptation pleases one or the other—it becomes either a faithful story that fails to reach a wider audience, or a pop-cultural sensation that is decried by the incensed, geeky fans of the original work. This is an extremely delicate line to walk, between stuffy, fastidious faithfulness to a text, and clumsy oversimplification in pursuit of box office grosses. Almost no one gets it just right.
Except Peter Jackson, and The Lord of the Rings, that is. We’ve written previously about the sheer improbability of Jackson’s vision coming together as both a critical and populist triumph in the early 2000s, and the many pitfalls that should have in all likelihood doomed the series’ production many times over. But one aspect of Jackson’s LOTR series that doesn’t always receive the recognition it deserves is the delicate work done by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair in shaping Tolkien’s often unwieldy novels into a trio of screenplays that could truly function as individual blockbuster films. In the process, they not only found a way to put Tolkien’s story on screen, but they made contributions of their own that now feel indispensable to the story of LOTR in the eyes of millions. In doing so, they arguably—and I know this is sacrilege—improved on Tolkien’s story in some key ways, at least when it comes to how that story would function on screen.
So in honor of the two decades that the LOTR trilogy has spent as a go-to response for “What’s the best-adapted film series of all time?”, let’s really explore some of those important choices that Jackson and co. made as they translated Tolkien for the screen.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a trilogy of long, expressive books that don’t always display the kind of narrative focus that translates well to the screen—there are frequent sidetracks, diversions, a plethora of minor characters and a rather inconsistent tone when you pull back far enough to observe the series as a whole. The latter is hardly surprising, given the amount of time it ultimately took Tolkien to write LOTR—12 years or more, during which time the author’s worldview evolved significantly during the Second World War and its aftermath. Suffice to say, the Tolkien who began laboring on these stories in the 1930s was a significantly different man than the author who finished them in the late 1940s, carrying a weight of bitterness that steadily morphs the friendly tone of the early sections of Fellowship of the Ring into the dour trudge to Mordor in Return of the King.
When Jackson and co. approached these texts, they must quickly have begun to identify scenes and entire segments that simply wouldn’t have worked on screen for one reason or another. The most prominent in Fellowship of the Ring is likely the hobbits’ entire sojourn into the Shire’s Old Forest, which culminates in their meeting with the colorfully cheerful but enigmatic Tom Bombadil, who both saves them several times and practically breaks the stakes of the narrative by demonstrating that he’s completely unaffected by the The One Ring.
There’s little doubt that the screenwriters made the right call in choosing to streamline the leaving of the Shire, which would ultimately leave any depiction of Bombadil on the cutting room floor. He’s a character whose presence would no doubt have confused audiences on some level—implied to be impossibly ancient and phenomenally powerful, but disinterested in the story at large. If Bombadil had been included, viewers would no doubt have expected the character to then reappear and play some greater role in the trilogy, but in Tolkien’s novels he’s almost entirely unmentioned in The Two Towers and The Return of the King. To introduce such an outlandish character and then not utilize him in a more prominent way runs counter to good screenwriting sense. Likewise, his casual disregard for the power of the Ring would have undercut the world-threatening menace that Sauron’s evil empire was meant to project.
Just as importantly, though, an added dalliance in the Old Forest, and enough material with Bombadil to make his inclusion feel justified, would have both stretched the runtime of Fellowship of the Ring to unsustainable highs and also postponed the introduction of Aragorn in a way that ultimately wouldn’t serve his importance to the overall narrative. Consider this: There is already so much exposition, character building and whimsy in the existing extended cut of Fellowship of the Ring that it takes a full hour for the Hobbits to leave the borders of the Shire and reach the small town of Bree, where they meet Aragorn. With the inclusion of Bombadil, you might be looking at 80 or 90 minutes before Strider ever enters the scene, and that would unnecessarily minimize the character who ultimately goes on to become the second most important protagonist of the series.
So too did Jackson and co. know where to prune smaller bits of plot that were ultimately unnecessary to depict, such as the meeting of the Rohirrim with tribal chieftain Ghân-buri-Ghân, who helps to lead them by secret paths to the siege of Minas Tirith. Although Ghân would have been an interesting character to see depicted, albeit briefly, his inclusion would have functioned to solve a narrative problem (“how do the Rohirrim get to Gondor?”) that simply didn’t need to exist in the screenplay in the first place. Not only can the audience assume that the journey of the Rohirrim is happening without seeing the bumps in their road, but by keeping them off the screen in transit, Jackson was able to enhance the triumphant dawning of hope in their arrival to the battlefield.
One of the slickest ways that Jackson goes about preserving Tolkien’s beautiful dialog, in fact, is to repurpose turns of phrase from these types of scenes that were left out of the screenplay, and then insert that dialog into the mouths of other characters. Occasionally, this serves to change the meaning of a soliloquy—Wormtongue has some lines that are designed to mock Eowyn in the film version of The Two Towers, which were actually spoken about her in a much more empathetic way in Return of the King—but the Tolkien geek in the audience understands the purpose is to venerate the beautiful language the author wrote by including it in any way possible, potentially discovering new meaning in the process.
For all his virtues as a fantasist, poet, etymologist and beyond, one aspect of Tolkien’s novels that has often been perceived as lacking is in his approach to egalitarianism, especially when it comes to gender. It’s no secret that the author didn’t seem particularly interested in writing for women, or seemingly felt uncomfortable doing so, with the one notable exception of Eowyn, who is thematically made to carry the weight of all of Middle Earth’s women on her back. Suffice to say, there is no version of LOTR that will pass the Bechdel Test.
Eowyn truly is the only consequential female character of all three books, because even the likes of Galadriel are difficult to truly describe as “women,” in a human sense. Galadriel, as a character, possesses an otherworldly presence that exists in some tier beyond the mundane human conception/depiction of gender, and modern efforts to turn her into some sort of feminist symbol tend to fall flat as a result. To describe Galadriel as “a woman” is like differentiating whether an angel or demon appears to be classically male or female in appearance; she’s a celestial being in this story more than a flesh and blood one. Arwen, meanwhile, has extremely limited visibility in Tolkien’s novels, with only a few lines of dialog to her name—never do we truly get any sense of her character, capabilities or the history of her relationship with Aragorn.
Therefore, it fell to Jackson and co. to do what they could for the representation of women in their film trilogy, expanding where it seemed appropriate without falling into the trap, later observed in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, of creating a new composite character designed to placate the audience and inject studio-friendly “romance.” They did this in a few ways—by faithfully featuring Eowyn in the story’s one objectively strong female role, and giving her a respectful amount of screen time, but perhaps more notably by expanding the role of Arwen significantly in order to make her a more genuine participant in the War of the Ring. Without the latter, The Fellowship of the Ring would be almost entirely bereft of any female presence, save for the already mentioned ethereal nature of Galadriel.
Nor does the expansion of Arwen’s role remove anything important from Tolkien’s work—having the hobbits and Aragorn saved by her, rather than the elf Glorfindel as they are in the book, simply makes Aragorn’s betrothed that much more interesting, capable and magical a character, which she likely should be if the future king of Gondor is in love with her. Much more is likewise made in the films about the choice of Arwen to either leave for the Undying Lands of the Valar across the sea, or remain in Middle Earth and renounce her immortality for a chance to live a mortal life with Aragorn. In the novel, these things are only hinted at in an oblique way, with the full ramifications of such a decision never discussed with any of the viewpoint characters. The films, in contrast, allow us to be there with Arwen and Elrond as they argue about the full emotional brunt of Arwen’s potential choice. We’re given the opportunity to thus see Arwen as much more of a living, breathing being than the likes of Galadriel, whose innate gracefulness shields her from the petty concerns of the flesh.
Ultimately, every decision that Jackson, Walsh and Boyens made concerning the character of Arwen simply enriches the story as a whole, greatly benefiting Aragorn’s character in particular because we have a much more detailed conception of the personal stakes involved in his portion of the quest.
After watching the Lord of the Rings film trilogy countless times, it honestly becomes difficult to extricate the character of Aragorn from the compassionate, weathered and pitch-perfect portrayal afforded to him by Viggo Mortensen. The truth, though, is that the Aragorn of Tolkien’s novels is a significantly different character, one who likely wouldn’t have worked nearly as well on screen as he did on the page in the 1950s. Peter Jackson and his fellow writers subtly reshaped the personality and nature of Aragorn from the ground up, and found the perfect avatar in Mortensen to project both wisdom and fierceness for their uncrowned king.
The Aragorn of Tolkien’s novels is a stern, serious, somewhat stiff-sounding man who radiates gravitas and a kingly disposition from very early in the story. As soon as the characters are filled in on his history and birthright, this version of Aragorn seems completely determined and indeed consumed by the ambition to reclaim the throne of Gondor. Never once does he seem to be filled with doubt regarding his own self-worth, or his worthiness to take up the Sword That Was Broken, or wear the crown of Gondor. Instead, he views these things as his birthright, and has a much more visible claim to nobility about him. He sounds and speaks like a man who has gone throughout his long life with the certainty that he will one day take back the things that belong to him. He is, in short, a bit entitled.
In fact, at times in Tolkien’s novels, Aragorn can seem almost haughty in his surety of the strength of his claim—he will suffer no one to question his lineage, and he sticks to formalities in his interactions with other citizens of Gondor. There’s much debate, for instance, over the fact that Aragorn doesn’t want to officially enter Minas Tirith until he’s entering it as the king, having the crown and scepter turned over. He eventually does enter the city earlier, in order to aid in healing the sick and wounded following the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but he seems to do so unwillingly, as if some part of his plan to officially accept the kingship has been compromised.
Compare that attitude to the humble and doubtful Aragorn of Peter Jackson’s film series, and it sounds like a significantly different individual. This Aragorn is forever doubtful of his worthiness to be counted among an ancient lineage, and more obviously feels the pressure of history bearing down on him. He’s also wise enough to fear his own weakness—he knows that Isildur couldn’t resist the temptation of the ring, and he’s terrified in his heart that the same corruption could turn him against everything he holds dear. He’s a wistful character, a man who likely wishes he could simply run away to live a quiet life with his beloved, but must instead face a road that will almost certainly end in his demise. He makes it clear, however, that he’s ready to sacrifice everything—including his life, his love and his lineage—to protect the ring bearer. In short, he’s a hero the audience can much more easily admire and identify with.
This version of Aragorn is not the living embodiment of a king carved from stone, but a dirty and thoroughly human man full of weakness and fear, but also strength and resolve. The subtly elitist overtones of Tolkien’s Aragorn have been dropped entirely, in order to present him as a figure of both empathy and enlightenment. It’s perhaps the most essential aspect of the job that Jackson and co. did in reimagining The Lord of the Rings as a series of screenplays, and it changed Aragorn in such a subtle way that many fans barely seemed to even take note of it. Indeed, Mortensen’s performance as the conflicted, doubtful Aragorn has now arguably become the defining version of the character; the rare example of a famous literary character becoming more associated with their filmed version than the one on the page.
None of it could have happened without the work of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair. They were handed a classic of Western literature, and they turned it into a classic of populist Hollywood filmmaking. The impressive nature of that achievement should never be forgotten.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.