Peter Jackson vs Tolkien: Five Things the Films Did Better Than the Books
If you have been reading my stuff on REO for any time at all, it is no surprise that I am a big J.R.R. Tolkien fan. The Lord of the Rings is my favorite book of all time. I’ve read it more times than I can remember at this point. But it’s not just The Lord of the Rings. I love everything of his I have read: The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, and many others. I am also a huge fan of the Peter Jackson film adaptations that first came to the big screen in late 2001. In most circles where Tolkien is revered, it is blasphemous to say that Peter Jackson improved upon anything Tolkien wrote, but that is exactly what I am here to do. I’m pitting Peter Jackson vs Tolkien.
Before we jump into the five things, I want to be clear about something upfront. When I write Peter Jackson, I am including all the other wonderful and talented people who helped make the films possible. That includes, but is not limited to: actors, writers, make-up, special effects, cinematographer, music, stunts, etc… I am simply using Peter Jackson as shorthand.
Also, as much as I love the films, there are dozens of things I could write about that Tolkien handled better than Jackson and company. This list does not diminish what Tolkien accomplished. It simply serves to illustrate what a masterful job Jackson did in adapting this amazing story for the screen.
Enough with the prelude. I give you Peter Jackson vs Tolkien: Five Things the Films Did Better Than the Books.
In the books, we see very little of Boromir’s noble side. It’s there, but it is buried deep. He often comes across as the “bad guy” even when he is not being bad. Boromir is argumentative and disgruntled, and he spends most of his time complaining or questioning the plan. He does have some bright moments of heroism but they don’t do enough to truly redeem his character.
Contrast that with how Jackson and company present the character. Played with grace and a sense of honor by Sean Bean, film Boromir is a revelation. Yes, he is flawed and he succumbs to the temptation of the ring, but he is also heroic, charmingly protective of the Hobbits, and selfless. All of this character building makes his eventual sacrifice mean much more than it ever did in the books. And let’s be honest, is there a better death scene in any movie? Who wouldn’t want to die with a sword in their hand and their king weeping over them?
I’ll go ahead and say it: book Thorin is a bore. He is grumpy, one-note, and barely distinguishable from the other dwarves. That is not really a knock on the book, mind you. The dwarves are supposed to be fairly one-dimensional in their laziness and murmuring.
Film Thorin is a full-fledged, three-dimensional character. He is complicated and flawed. Heroic and petty. Brave and cowardly. Loyal and self-serving. Thorin is played to perfection by Richard Armitage and it is a shame that in all our haste to condemn the “greedy and bloated” Hobbit films, we missed some incredibly powerful performances.
The Choices of Samwise Gamgee
I want to be clear this is not a Book Sam versus Movie Sam conversation. This is about one specific moment that occurs in both the book and the film. The scene when Frodo leaves the Fellowship and Sam’s actions in response to Frodo’s decision.
I love the internal dialogue we get from Sam in the book during the breaking of the fellowship. I love how he talks to himself; getting upset at his stupidity or blindness. It is a lot of fun to see how Tolkien gets Sam to his choice – the thought process involved. All of this is perfect and handled masterfully.
Jackson doesn’t give us much if any of this. He takes it for granted that Sam would figure out what Frodo was up to. Jackson chooses to bypass the decision-making and cut straight to Sam finding Frodo already paddling away in the Elven boat. In a way that Jackson mastered throughout the films, he finds the emotional core of a scene and he hits it hard. Sam has promised to stay with Frodo, to not “leave him.” He sticks to that promise and this scene at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring is the first true glimpse of how far Sam will go to honor that promise.
Bard Takes on Smaug
In the book, Bard the bowsman (basically a complete unknown up to that point) kills the great dragon Smaug in a sort of flashback, if you will. It’s told in retrospect. I’m fine with that for the book. But, for a film, you cannot make that choice. Something that big and that important has to occur in present time and it has to include characters we know and care about.
Which is why Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the scene is so important. He not only keeps some of the book’s details of the scene, but he adds flair, tension, and emotional weight. It is easily one of my favorite action beats in any of the Middle Earth films and once again, it got lost in the “The Hobbit movies are the worst things ever!” noise.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep
I’ve saved the most difficult for last.
I love the Helm’s Deep chapter in the book. Tolkien does a wonderful job of laying out the geography, the stakes, and the players involved. The battle is more spread out – both in space and time. The people involved are mostly the same, though a few get moved around for the film version. And at least one hero (Erkenbrand) is completely omitted in the film version.
Perhaps my favorite moment from the book is when Aragorn goes out to the wall to look for the sunrise. He has a brief parley with the orcs and wildmen who are attacking the fortress. He faces them down and warns them of their coming death if they do not surrender. I love that Tolkien gives us a heroic ideal that does not involve swords, spears, and bloodshed with that moment. Aragorn is heroic and noble. Full stop. Not because of how many orcs he can kill – though he kills many. But because at his very core, he embodies everything it means to be a hero.
So why would I say the film does a better job with The Battle of Helm’s Deep? Simply put, I believe the film version is the greatest battle scene ever put on film. It’s gorgeously lit and shot by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie. It is expertly staged in design, build-up, and execution. It is a master class in handling large battle sequences yet still retaining perfectly timed character beats and hero moments. From the first shots of the Uruk Hai army to the final shots of Gandalf, Eomer, and the riders of Rohan charging down the slope towards a terrified and overwhelmed enemy, every detail is filmmaking perfection and without peer.
Peter Jackson vs Tolkien: Final Thoughts
Agree or disagree? Do you want to kick me out of the Tolkien fan-club? Question my sanity? Pat me on the back? Let us know in the comment sections below.
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8 thoughts on “Peter Jackson vs Tolkien: Five Things the Films Did Better Than the Books”
I agree completely with all of these. And, believe me, I tried to find fault in your choices…
I’m sure you did!
Glad we could agree on these. I would hate to see what would happen if we disagreed…
I can’t find anything to really disagree with in this article. I am looking forward to your follow up on areas where Peter Jackson totally blew it! It is coming, right?
Don’t hold your breath. I have very few complaints about the Middle Earth films – particularly the Rings trilogy. I could probably come up with Five Disappointments from the films, though. I’ll start brainstorming now for that one.
I agree with you about Boromir, Thorin, and Bard. I definitely don’t agree about Sam. He is unforgettable throughout and excellently depicted in the narrative and via his inner and outer dialogue.
I am undecided about the Battle of Helms Deep.
Perhaps I could have been more clear about Samwise. I am not saying that the film version (in its entirety) is better than the book version (in its entirety). I am strictly referring to that one section at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring – that moment he has to figure out what Frodo is doing and decide how he is going to respond. Book Sam is amazing. Film Sam is amazing. They are probably my favorite characters in their respective mediums.
Excellent, Phill, excellent! You write with knowledge and passion. I’m not knowledgeable enough about either the books or the films to critique your calls here. Generally, I think books are better than movies (Gone With the Wind, The Robe, Christy), but I’m guessing that Forrest Gump the movie surpasses the book. In the LOTR series, I’ll call it a tie. But the examples you give are compelling, documented, and well-supported.
I had never intended to champion Jackson after seeing Legolas skateboarding his way to archer glory but here it is. Yes, I have to agree, Boromir was done well. I don’t think Tolkien had much empathy for the character at all. And even Bakshi’s Frodo was a stand-up sort of Hobbit. Giving his brave moments to Arwen?! or even his poor showing on Weathertop took from him. But my favorite changes in the movies involved the pacing. After Bilbo leaves, as Bakshi’s version said, “17 years passed sleepily in the Shire…” in the movie, it had immediacy, and you felt the danger. I also thought the dialogue about Bilbo’s pity toward Gollum had more impact in the ruins of Moria. There! I said two good things!