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Tolkien vs. Jackson: Differences Between Story and Screenplay

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Justification of (Some) Changes

The director and writers of the motion pictures faced some significant challenges in bringing Tolkien's work to the big screen. Not the least of these was the enormous scale of the story. The Lord of the Rings is a very lengthy story that was, itself, derived from a fictional universe of prodigious dimensions. In it, an entirely original world of the author's manufacture forms the backdrop of a story with multiple intelligent races (Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Ents and Men), their many languages and dialects, a highly developed historical narrative, and a minutely detailed geography of the world that had, itself, changed significantly over time. The result of all this is a level of complexity that is very difficult to apprehend in a screenplay. How does one go about presenting, for example, the historical background of a story that spans an enormous period of history that is outside the scope of the movie to be filmed? The difficulties the writers faced were innumerable, and many compromises to the story were required to successfully adapt it to the medium of film.

Soon after the release of the first movie, controversy began to arise over deviations in the screenplay from Tolkien's own story. Key characters such as Glorfindel and Tom Bombadil were absent, and substantial parts of the story were completely missing. Moreover, characters that were present, such as Elrond, Aragorn, and Gandalf, were substantially altered. The release of The Two Towers took this even further with deviations in character development and major plot elements becoming more significant. Finally, with the release of The Return of the King, more differences appeared and critical plot conclusions were either reduced or removed. The overall effect of the entire movie series was that it told a story that was recognizably that of Tolkien's, but it did so with major thematic and other differences that tended to disappoint his fans. These differences were not, however, of any importance to the movie's target audience— the enormous worldwide movie going public most of whom knew nothing of the story. Despite the differences, The Lord of the Rings motion pictures are beautiful and stunning epic movies that tell a great story in their own right.

The fact that the movies are a great achievement of movie-making is due, in part, to some of the changes that were required for screen adaptation. The most understandable differences in the screenplay from the story are those that were required to contract the duration of the film and keep up its pace. Even with substantial portions of the story excised in the screenplay, the three, extended-edition movies have a combined running time of well over eleven hours, and there is arguably enough material not filmed to make a fourth, extended-length motion picture. Considering the relative unimportance— to general audiences— of the missing material, it was probably a wise decision to not include it. Another important consideration in filming a motion picture is the pace at which the story moves. For example, the Council of Elrond is a lengthy episode in Tolkien's book, The Fellowship of the Ring, in which much historical material and explanations of off-camera events are provided. If this episode had been filmed as written, it probably would have run on over an hour and lost many viewers. Instead, the material was presented in a different way that kept the pace of the movie going along as was required for the medium.

Some differences between the story and the screenplay, however, are less easy to justify. Characters in the screenplay were developed very differently to those in the story, and they were made to do things that seemed contrary to their personalities. Moreover, major differences of theme exist— differences that do not seem to make sense or be entirely necessary for film adaption. For example, the result of the Entmoot in the movie was that the Ents decided not to go to war, but then the writers used what seems to be (in some peoples opinion) a silly and irrational emotional manipulation to get them to do so anyway. It is fair to ask why they could not have just agreed to go to war in the film as they had in the book. Such differences, though unnoticeable to those who had never read the story, tended to disappoint those who had and vitiate their movie going experience. On the other hand, the film's creators stated that the scene had been added to make Merry and Pippin more than just baggage, and indeed it does do a good deal to improve their role in the storyline.

Story Background

The Lord of the Rings is a story about an epic conflict between good and evil powers that is set in the land then known as Middle-earth. The struggle, which had begun even before the First Age of Middle-earth, had continued for thousands of years through to the end of the Third Age at which time it reached its final climax and was resolved. The three ages of Middle-earth that had then passed had seen many great battles, and one of the greatest of these was the Battle of Dagorlad in which the Dark Lord, Sauron, was defeated by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Following the battle, Isildur, the son of Elendil, King of Gondor, cut the Ring of Power from the hand of Sauron and took it to be an heirloom of his house. That he did not destroy it as had been advised by Elrond and Círdan setup the historical background of The Lord of the Rings.

The hot and cold wars that were continually underway between the powers of Middle-earth were, themselves, part of a greater struggle between the Valar and Sauron, and Morgoth before him. Those wars, though never welcome, were understood to be the appointed task of the lords of Middle-earth, and in their support, the Valar had sent the five Istari, or wizards, from among the lesser powers known as Maiar. The lords of the people of Middle-earth who stood against Sauron were the heads of the various houses of Elves and the wizards. The Elf-lords were Elrond, Galadriel, and Cirdan, and the wizards were Saruman the White, Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, and the Blue Wizards, Alatar, and Pallando. As a result of corruptions and debasements of the various wizards, the only one, in the end, that stood with the Elf-lords was Gandalf, and consequently, he became the chief mover of the events of that time.

The story of The Lord of the Rings is that of the final War of the Ring that was fought at the end of the Third Age. This war would have been unnecessary had Isildur destroyed the Ruling Ring instead of taking it for his own, but the persistence of the ring meant the persistence of its master, Sauron. It was the task of the lords of Middle-earth to take council on how finally to destroy Sauron and then to effect that destruction. Their decision was to send the Ring to the Fire, and a group was formed, called the Fellowship of the Ring, to see it done. The path before them was unclear, however, and they were soon turned from their way. Over time, the Fellowship was divided with the Ring-bearer taking his journey to Mordor with his faithful companion while the others were dispersed, by fate it would seem, to other tasks. As the Ring-bearer made his way in secret, diversionary battles had to be fought to prevent the destruction of the various peoples and to hold the gaze of the Dark Lord away from his own lands. Thus was the destruction of Sauron achieved. The Ring was finally cast into the Cracks of Doom destroying both it and its master, and the West was liberated from the oppression of the Dark Lord. Once Sauron had been destroyed, the king could take up his throne in Gondor and also restore the northern kingdom of Arnor.

Major Differences

Major thematic and character differences exist between the movie screenplay and the written story. These differences are presented in the article linked below.

Differences by Movie

In addition to the major thematic differences described in the article above, a number of other differences exist of varying degrees and significance, and these are related in the articles linked below.

The one ring animated Lord of the Rings Wiki Featured articles The one ring animated
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Locations: Gondor · Mordor · Middle-earth · Rohan
Other: Mithril · The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game · The Fellowship of the Ring (novel) · Works inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien · The Lord of the Rings · The Lord of the Rings (1978 film) · Ainulindalë · Tolkien vs. Jackson · Tengwar · Quenya

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