From Book to Script: An exercise in adaptation - A purist tries his hand at translating a pivotal scene from "Fellowship of the Ring"

Drawn by merciless desire..
In the ongoing discussion/debate over Peter Jackson’s mammoth film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, much of the disputes have been over how faithful an adaptation can be while serving the necessities and strengths of the cinematic medium. At times, critics of Peter Jackson have been challenged to do a better job. The following is my attempt to respond to that challenge.

For this excerpt I have chosen the Weathertop sequence from “A Knife in the Dark” as my material, since I believe it is one of the strongest and most compelling portions from Book One. This could be considered taking the easiest work, but I have found that each moment of (re)telling the story involves multiple decisions of how to shape the action, few of them easy or simple. It is a serious challenge, make no mistake about it, and requires respect for the task and the material. I admit up front that what I’ve completed here is only a particle of the work Peter Jackson and his co-adaptors had to cope with. However, I believe I have included enough material to convey some sense of flow and pacing over a longer sequence of events. Without further ado…


ES- PAN RIGHT as ARAGORN reaches the end of the path at the summit of Weathertop. FRODO and MERRY climb up wearily behind him, trying to catch their breath. ARAGORN cautiously approaches a gap in the ruins of a stone wall, overhung with bramble.

MCU- ARAGORN enters the gap, peering within the circle of the ruins.

MWS- PAN RIGHT across the scorched turf inside the ring of Amon Sul.

MLS- The hobbits follow ARAGORN as he approaches a cairn-like pile of scorched and blackened stones. ARAGORN is intently scanning the burned turf around the pile.

MCU- MERRY stops, along with FRODO, and looks around, astonished.
MERRY: What in Middle-earth has happened up here?

MS- ARAGORN picks up a flat, pale stone from the top of the cairn. He examines it closely. He then motions the hobbits closer.
ARAGORN: This may hold the answer. Frodo, come look at these marks.

FRODO approaches, and ARAGORN stoops down with the stone. MERRY follows behind FRODO.

MCU- ARAGORN holds out the stone for the hobbits to examine.
ARAGORN: Well, Frodo, what do you think?
FRODO: I’m not sure, but perhaps someone tried to scratch a message on the stone. What it might say, I can’t tell.

CU- The stone in ARAGORN’s hand. ARAGORN points at the marks.
ARAGORN: The stroke on the left might be a G-rune, with its thin branches. It may be a sign left by Gandalf, though I cannot be certain. The scratches are fine, and they certainly look fresh.

MCU- ARAGORN muses over the marks. MERRY turns to ask a question.
MERRY: What could they mean, even if Gandalf made them?
ARAGORN: I should say, that they stood for G3, to tell us that Gandalf was here on October the third, three days ago. These other signs show he was in peril up here, and had no time to attempt a longer or plainer message. If so, we must be very watchful.

MCU- FRODO looks with concern at ARAGORN
FRODO: I wish we could be more sure that he made these marks, whatever they may mean. Where could he have gone in such haste?

MCU- ARAGORN muses, still holding the stone.
ARAGORN: I myself believe Gandalf was here, and in danger. This scorching up here- it recalls to my mind the light we saw in the eastern sky three nights ago. I guess that he was attacked on this hilltop, but with what result, I cannot say. He could not wait for us, so we must not wait for him. We must go on to Rivendell as swiftly as we can.

MS- MERRY and FRODO stand enxiously by ARAGORN. MERRY looks around, and peers out toward the westward mountains.
MERRY: How much further is Rivendell?

MS-ARAGORN glances to the west, turns toward the hobbits.
ARAGORN: I don’t know if the Road has ever been measured east of Bree. But, I know how long it would take me on my own feet, with fair weather and good fortune: twelve days from here to the Ford of Bruinen, where the Road crosses the Loudwater that runs out of Rivendell. It likely will take us longer, for the Road itself will not be safe for us.

MCU- FRODO turns to ARAGORN in shock.
FRODO: Twelve days! Much could happen in that time.

MS-ARAGORN’s eyes narrow as he responds to FRODO.
ARAGORN: It could. [PAN as ARAGORN walks across, calling to MERRY] Merry, come back from there. We must leave this place.

MS- MERRY is standing near some of the ancient stonework, the remnants of Amon Sul. He is touching the stone as he turns to ARAGORN.
MERRY: I’m coming.
MERRY glances back at the stonework, then refocuses on something below. He gives an involuntary cry as ARAGORN comes up. MERRY points downward, gives a hoarse shout
MERRY: Look!

ARAGORN flings himself down behind the stonework, and pulls MERRY down beside him.

MLS- FRODO crouches reflexively. He calls in an urgent whisper as he stumbles hastily towards them.
FRODO: What is it?

MS- ARAGORN crouches behind the stonework. MERRY sits gripping his knees.
ARAGORN: I do not know, but I fear the worst.

MCU- ARAGORN creeps to an opening in the ruins, and peers through

WS- Below them on the Road, black shapes slowly approach each other.

MCU- TILT UP on the boot of a Rider, waiting as another approaches. They speak in menacing undertones.

CU- ARAGORN turns back; his face tightens in a grimace.
ARAGORN: Yes. The enemy is here.

CUT TO: MS- SAM brings a stick of firewood with him as ARAGORN, FRODO, and MERRY approach

SAM: Look Mr. Strider- fresh cut firewood, it seems. Maybe Gandalf did make it here before us.

ARAGORN: Where did this come from, Sam? Where did you find it?

SAM: Just yonder, behind them rocks. All stacked up a-purpose. What’s Strider anxious about, Mr. Frodo? What did you see up there?

FRODO: Well, Sam, it’s the Riders. We saw some of them down on the road.

MS- ARAGORN returns from his explorations.

ARAGORN: And I’m afraid they’ve already been here, Sam. I’ve found heavy bootprints in the dell, a day or two old. It was Rangers that left the firewood here, though their tracks are much older. We will have to fend for ourselves tonight.

CU- SAM looks up anxiously at ARAGORN.

SAM: Hadn’t we better clear our quick, Mr. Strider? It’ll be night soon- shouldn’t we go someplace safer?

MCU- ARAGORN looks about pensively.

ARAGORN: Yes, we must decide what to do at once.... Well, Sam- I do not like this place, either, but I cannot think of any spot safer than this that we could reach before nightfall. We’re out of their sight now, and we would likely be spotted the moment we tried to move. There is little to conceal us, whatever way we went.


MERRY: Can the Riders actually see us? They’ve always seemed to be smelling for us, if that’s the right word.

MCU- ARAGORN answers.

ARAGORN: We risked too much standing on Weathertop so long. Their horses can see, and they can use other creatures as their spies. They do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys, and in the dark they perceive many things that are hidden from us. At all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring it and hating it. [whispering] Also, the Ring draws them.

MCU- FRODO looks around wildly.

FRODO: Is there no escape then? If I move, I shall be seen and hunted! If I stay, I draw them to me!

MS- ARAGORN lays a comforting hand on FRODO’s shoulder.

ARAGORN: There is still hope. You are not alone. Let us take this wood that is set ready as a sign. There is little for shelter or defense here, but a fire will serve for both. These Riders do not love it, and they fear those who wield it. Fire will be our friend. Come, Merry, let’s get started.

SAM comes up beside FRODO.

SAM: [whispering] Might be a friend- also as good a way to say ‘here we are,’ bar shouting.

DISSOLVE TO: MS- Moonrise over the Weather Hills.

MWS- ARAGORN and the hobbits huddle around their fire at the bottom of the dell, finishing a frugal supper.

MCU- FRODO turns to speak to ARAGORN.

FRODO: I don’t see how our food can be made to last. We’ve been careful with it, and this supper was no feast, but we’ve already used more than we ought, with two weeks or more still to go.

ARAGORN: There is food here in the wild- berry, root, and herb, and I have skill as a hunter at need. But, gathering and hunting take time, and we need haste. So tighten your belts, and think with hope of the tables of Elrond’s house!

MCU- MERRY sits silent beside PIPPIN for a moment, then turns to ARAGORN.

MERRY: Tell us more of Gil-Galad. Do you know more of the old lay that you spoke of?


ARAGORN: I do, and so does Frodo, for it concerns us closely.

CU- FRODO hesitates.
FRODO: I only know the little Gandalf has told me- Gil-Galad was the last of the great Elf kings of Middle-earth, during the last alliance of Elves and Men. With Elendil, the Elf-friend, he journeyed to the land of-

MCU-ARAGORN interrupts.
ARAGORN: No, Frodo- that tale should not be told, not now with the servants of the enemy near at hand. Once we win through to the fair house of Elrond, you may hear it told aright.

CU- SAM interjects.
SAM: Then tell us some other tale of the old days. I should dearly like to hear more of the Elves and all their glory- the dark seems to press round so close.

MCU- ARAGORN responds.
ARAGORN: I will tell you the tale of Tinuviel, in brief- for it is a long tale of which the end is not known. It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.

ARAGORN looks down, and closes his eyes in deep thought.

MS- FRODO and SAM look on expectantly.

CU- ARAGORN begins slowly to chant.

ARAGORN: The leaves were long, the grass was green/
The hemlock umbrels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.

MS- dissolve to vision of Arwen dancing in the forest glade.
ARAGORN(V.O.):Tinuviel was dancing there
to music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.

MS- ARWEN turns to ARAGORN, who approaches her.

ARWEN: Who are you? And why do you call me Tinuviel?

ARAGORN: Because it was she of whom I was singing- and you are not she, you walk in her likeness.

ARWEN: So many others have said. But who are you?

MCU- ARAGORN responds haltingly

ARAGORN: I? I am often called Estel, yet my name is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur’s heir, and Lord of the Dunedain.

MS- ARWEN laughs merrily in recognition.

ARWEN: Then we are kin from afar. For I am Arwen, daughter of Elrond, also named Undomiel.

ARAGORN: Undomiel... the Evenstar.

ARWEN: Yes- for we Eldar are now the people of the Twilight. But you are the hope of your people. My father has put great trust in you against the terror of our Enemy.

V/O (ARAGORN): Enchantment healed his weary feet...

MCU- ARAGORN, chanting.

ARAGORN: That over hills were doomed to roam;
And forth he hastened, strong and fleet,
And grasped at moonbeams glistening...

His chanting falters, and he raises his head. He looks up toward the top of the hill.

MLS- Revealed against the glimmer of moonlight, a dark shape appears against the top of the hill.

CU- FRODO looks up, turns anxiously toward ARAGORN

FRODO: What?...

CU- ARAGORN peers intently at the silhouette above.

ARAGORN: Something...

MS- MERRY and SAM get up, head toward the back of the dell.

MS- FRODO turns toward them as ARAGORN hisses a warning.

ARAGORN: Wait! Stay near the fire!

MCU- MERRY backs up from the edge with SAM, as ARAGORN comes up from behind.

MERRY: I see something moving... coming this way.

ARAGORN leads the hobbits quickly back toward the fire.

ARAGORN: Keep close to the fire, with your faces outward! Get some of the longer sticks ready in your hands!

MS- FRODO and PIPPIN are hastily grabbing lengths of firewood off the ground, as ARAGORN and the other hobbits rush back.

MCU- SAM bumps into FRODO, who recoils nervously, his eyes wide, breathing a shuddering sigh.

MS- ARAGORN motions to the hobbits to remain still, and scans the dark for signs of movement.

MCU- MERRY stares around wildly.

CU- FRODO utters a choked moan.

CU- ARAGORN turns toward FRODO


CU- PIPPIN mouth drops in shock.

PIPPIN: Th-there!

MLS- Three dark shapes gradually become clear at the lip of the dell. They slowly advance.

CU- A booted foot falls on the short grass of the slope.

MCU- ARAGORN thrusts his branch into the fire.

ARAGORN: Stay close!

MS- Their forms become clearer, but they stay just beyond the reach of the firelight.

MCU- PIPPIN retreats, terrified, and throws himself flat on the ground.

MCU- FRODO with SAM at his side retreat to one side, quaking with terror. He clutches the Ring with one hand.

FRODO: Nooo...

MCU- ARAGORN, aware of their movement, calls in a hoarse shout.

ARAGORN: Frodo! Stay with me!

MCU- A black robed figure advances into the firelight, breathing a venomous hiss.

CU- FRODO grimaces. His eyes close as he struggles desperately with his will.

CU- FRODO’s left hand remains clamped over the Ring, covered by the right. Suddenly, the left hand lets go, and the right reaches into his pocket, bringing out the Ring on its chain.

CU- ARAGORN turns, and sees what FRODO is doing.


CU- FRODO, staring at the wraiths, places the Ring on his left hand, and blinks out of sight.

MCU- SAM turns to see that FRODO has vanished.

SAM: Mr. Frodo!

CU- Depressions in the grass from FRODO’s unseen steps, then a crushing impact into some leaves, as FRODO stumbles.

MS- FRODO’s POV, in a dim, misty view, looking up from the ground. He sees, clearly revealed, five wraiths, helmed, with swords drawn. Their eyes turn and fix on him with cold and merciless desire as they rush forward.

MS- FRODO as seen by the wraiths, rises, drawing his sword.

MCU- Angmar advances in front of his comrades with sword and knife, uttering a blood-curdling cry.

MCU-ARAGORN runs toward the sound.

MCU- FRODO as seen by Angmar, dives toward the ground, slashing out with his sword

FRODO: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!

CU- FRODO’s POV, Angmar strikes downward with the knife.

MCU- ARAGORN charges in, swinging his torch like a sword.

MCU- Angmar withdraws, his arm on fire, he drops the knife as he retreats.

CU- FRODO appears on the ground, the Ring removed from his left hand, closing it tightly in his right.

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