Hobbit-Forming: Adapting The Lord of the Rings – Scr(i)pt Magazine

by Nov 23, 2001Lord of the Rings (Movies)

Scr(i)pt Magazine.
Turning the beloved series by J.R.R. Tolkien into a film was a daunting task – especially writing all three scripts and filming the stories within the same time period. How do you keep the integrity of the core group of characters that are well-known and loved by millions and yet also write for an audience not familiar with the Trilogy? Co-writer’s Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, along with co-writer and director Peter Jackson accepted the challenge.

Here is a lengthy excerpt from scr(i)pt’s interview. The full version can be found in the current issue.

There was a major question in scr(i)pt’s mind as we spoke at length with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, co-screenwriters with Jackson of the screenplay: How the heck did you get it [Tolkien’s story] all in? Their approach to writing three full-length films to be shot simultaneously as one, and their candid reflections on the choices they made, and the reasoning behind those choices, she light not only on this much-anticipated project but also on the adaptation of well-known literature in general…

What did the screenwriters choose as their spine? And how was it maintained through three separate yet completely interrelated motion pictures?

“It was an exercise in will and determination, a little bit like the journey Frodo and Sam go through. We certainly did identify with them by the end,” Boyens says. She explains that “it became clearer and clearer that each of the three films has its own character.

The Fellowship of the Ring begins the great journey, thus it contains a lot of exposition which sets up the backstory and the world. It plays like a road movie – it hits the road running. With The Two Towers, we found that the introduction of The World of Men came very much to the forefront, it became more about bringing ourselves into the story. The Return of the King, which we’re still in the process of reworking, was the one that required the least revision, because all the themes and events are played out in that climatic story. This epic tale which began in this little place with these little people, ends where it was going to end, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. What I really love about the third film is that as the story gets bigger and the stakes get higher, the personal struggle gets tighter and smaller, until you end up with these two little hobbits literally on their hands and knees, struggling to defeat this enormous evil.”

Throughout the process, Peter Jackson’s vision kept the writers on course. Boyens explains, “I think Peter, as a writer, had quite a strong identification with the story of this ordinary young hobbit, Frodo Baggins, and the friendship which lies between Frodo and Sam [Sean Astin]. It is a simple and yet profound illustration of the bonds of loyalty and friendship. We all related to that very strongly. So Frodo’s story and his epic journey were, and remain the spine of the film.

“In terms of that epic nature of that journey, one of the things I’ve always loved is Tolkien’s sense of history catching up with the present. We drew extensively on that theme that the world has been changed by a single unnoticed event, the Ring passing to Bilbo [Frodo’s adoptive Uncle, played by Ian Holm]. History can be forgotten, an age can pass, and an entire culture (the Elves) can be lost. Not just a culture or a language or lore, but values and beliefs and knowledge are lost in that passing. He explored the possibilities of what a new world would be, and described those changes in The Lord of the Rings at a moment in time when the real world was in fact changing.”

Walsh picks up the idea of theme: “It’s the humanity of the characters that rewards the reader. And we hope we’ve been able to translate that for the audience.

“When Gandalf says to Frodo early on, `Do not be so eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.’ This became for us a resonating theme – in forgiveness there is redemption.” `The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.'”

Walsh approaches the interplay of character and theme from yet another angle, that of the racial and species differences of which Tolkien makes use of again and again. “In a sense The Fellowship of the Ring is about understanding that in spite of our differences there is value in standing together.”

Agrees Boyens, “It’s playing to the humanity of the novel. [The treatment of races in the book] is a leveler – all people are faced with the same challenges, and must find a means of unification, a common purpose and a common cause. So we weren’t just pointing out the differences in their situation, but the similarities as well.

A Work in Progress

The writers’ working conditions suggest that there’s no one way to craft and epic film but that it can take shape in all manner of conditions. “We worked literally all over the world,” says Boyens, “In hotel rooms; over congealing plates of egg for breakfast; we’ve written late, really really late into the night… We’ve written on the sides of volcanoes, down by lakes, getting bitten by sandflies…” They began with a 90-page outline of the three books and, says Walsh rewrote it “again and again and again, until the essence of the story revealed itself. “It’s about finding an economy and simplicity in the storytelling which does not compromise the complex themes in the book.”

Revisions continued once filming began near Wellington, New Zealand. You’d think that the team might choose to work to some appropriate music – Wagner or Grieg or Elgar – for inspiration. But as Walsh tells it, “most of it was done in the unbelievable mayhem of an office at home – it was phone calls, kids coming in which pictures they’d just drawn, shopping being delivered, dogs escaping out the gate, strange spiders appearing on the balcony… Anything to avoid the pressing deadlines of work!”

“We used to tell Peter outrageous falsehoods about how much writing we’d done, ” Boyens adds, admitting that after playing hooky or a quick shopping trip, “we’d say, `Ran into a story snag here — having trouble with this scene – got a few leads though.’ He’d look bewildered, but I don’t think he ever really believed us.” (They both laugh.)

But they all killed themselves, it’s clear. “We found a metaphor that sort of sets out our process of getting the film made,” Walsh says, “which was: laying the tracks as the train is bearing down on you. You’re laying them as fast as you can as it storms up behind you, and it’s about to run you over. That’s what the production felt like – this huge machine that could not or would not be stopped, chewing through enormous amounts of money every day. So it all went by in kind of a blur, really.”

Boyens adds, “I remember you saying it wasn’t so much that the train was going to hit us; it was that we were going to have to stop and watch it derail.”

“Well, that too,” concedes Walsh. “[Peter] was pretty brutal with us, you develop a lot of stamina and a pretty thick skin by the end. You had to. It was a case of, you signed on for this, we’ve got to get through this, we’ve got make it work.”

Boyens states, “Peter and Fran started writing in April of ’97, or maybe March, and I came on in August.” And the work went on – and on – for years. “Each of the first drafts of the three films came in at 130 pages. But they sort of grew a little. Then they shrunk, and they grew again. There were an incredible number of drafts of each. And once production began we had a sort of `final draft’ that was in constant revision.” [The filming ran for fourteen months with one week-long production “holiday” midway.] [Actually, it was a month-long break – David]

“Fran kept telling me, `Once we get the first draft done, it’s gonna get easier.’ And then later it was `Once we get into filming, the revision process will get easier.’ We kept holding onto this notion that things would get easier and now we’ve stopped saying that, haven’t we?”

“We have,” agrees Walsh. “And the tragedy is that I believed it for about two years. I did always think that there would be a time when this period of pressure and stress would end and things would get easier, and it’s never happened.” When asked how much they dealt with pages done the previous day, or the previous week, Boyens replied quickly, “We didn’t have time. I’m so serious! It was done. It was shot. Move on.”

“We were churning out revisions every day,” Walsh says, “trying to make it as good as it could be. So the script revision would be delivered late at night, slid guiltily under hotel room doors… and the actors were incredibly tolerant of that… We loved all of them, but sometimes you’d see them walking towards you the following morning clutching the book, and you just knew! You dreaded it!”

Both are hilarious now. Boyens: “In fact, once I floated the idea that we should confiscate all the books from the actors! But I have to say, in fairness, often they came with wonderful ideas. Fran said, rightly, `No one cares about the characters more than the actors playing them.’ And they would pint to something in the book and we’d say, yeah, you’re right… put it in the scene.”

“Everybody understood that in an ideal situation, this process would’ve happened over a year. But we didn’t have that time. So we had to take it on the run…”

“…and we never really did get too far ahead,” Boyens continues. Both agree that the worst feeling when a scene just wasn’t playing. “it’s one of the great sinking feelings… draining and depressing. But often we’d have to step back – and usually it was Fran, though she won’t admit it – and say, this isn’t working, let’s stop and fix it.

“That’s one of your strengths, Fran, that you could just step aside… And you just have to be brave, something else I learned from Fran as a writer. You have to admit it’s not working and go whoa, stop, something’s wrong here. As much as you want to cross your fingers and hope that the actors and director will save you, you can’t do that. You have to face it and work at it, really hard.

“Fran, or maybe it was one of the actors, said to me, `In some ways this is not the way that you make a movie. But it’s the way this movie had to be made.’ The creative process revealed itself, and that’s what we had to follow.”

Unavoidable Major Changes

As everyone knows, in a screenplay, structure is everything. And in crafting a masterful, fast-moving, varied tale of suspense and romance that would appeal to readers of all ages, what Tolkien wrote is as complex structurally as any novel of the past century. So several hard structural decisions had to be made early on.

In the second and third volumes, for instance, the breakup of the Fellowship leads to the unfolding of separate stories. The action of The Two Towers‘ Book Three is simultaneous with the action in Book Four yet each involves different central characters, with each group unaware that the other group is even still alive. The Return of the King ends the same way as the Fellowship is reunited only in the final chapters. In the films, the stories will be intercut. “I often wondered,” Walsh says, “what kind of movie it’d be if you played out one story, and then the other. But it’s a narrative structure that lends itself to literature much more than film. When Tolkien was writing this book, intercutting wasn’t something that was son prevalent in literature – though it is starting to be now, and partly I think because of the influence of film.”

Readers may also object to he omission of the marvelous `coda’ with which Tolkien ends The Return of the King, when Frodo returns from his battle with the Dark Lord to find that his beloved bucolic Shire has been taken over by the evil wizard Saruman.

Boyens: “Unfortunately, as wonderful and brilliant as that last chapter is, it’s not something that we believe our film could sustain. You can’t have a huge climax that you main characters have been striving for, for three films, and then start the story up again and play out an episodic ending. An audience sitting in a cinema just wouldn’t go with it.”

The writers are certainly proud of what they were able to incorporate – the songs, for instance, many of which says Walsh “had a personal resonance. The Walking Song… `The Road goes ever on,’ it’s bittersweet, it’s beautiful, it tells us that we all have to `leave the road’ sometime. And it follows through in all three books, no matter who is singing it. To me, it’s the most personal of the songs, and it is in the film, as are some others.”

Boyens notes that Tolkien’s exacting pronunciation guides were followed and monitored by three academic advisors and two on-set dialect coaches. Tolkien’s love of language is respected, too, in the inclusion of the Dwarvish and Elvish languages where appropriate to the story. (Conventionally for the filmmakers, the characters mostly speak in what Tolkien called the “Common Tongue”) She also points out that they were able to dramatize things that in the book are only ever told in reportage. She sites the key confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman. “Film allows us to be a fly on that wall and to observe these two powerful wizards.”

“And certainly Gollum, one of our favorites, was probably expanded rather than limited. I think when you see the film, what will be interesting is how huge his role will be when it’s played out in the movie. Because as strong a presence as he is in the book, he is much more so in the movie. You can imagine a hobbit as a small person. You can imagine Gandalf, but the creation of Gollum is going to be a revelation.”

In the end, though, just as the theme comes down to the interplay of character, a central issue for Tolkien fans will be the question of which of the hundreds of vivid characters will make the final cut. This is especially important to the first film, Fellowship, in which dozens of pages of important backstory must be conveyed and a score of races and individual characters introduced before the Fellowship can be sent on its way. The backstory will be folded into a dramatized prologue, but here’s Boyens on the character choices:

“I prefer to say it’s not so much that they never happened, as that those parts of the story just aren’t told in this film version.” A key character in Fellowship, for instance, Tom Bombadil, is gone; but he is part of “several false starts in Frodo’s journey, and you cannot have things happening quite so episodically; that’s not what film storytelling is all about.” She insists that to the actors and director, meeting with such characters as Bombadil surely took place. “We just don’t meet them.

“It’s not so much a case as dropping incidents or characters, as it is focusing: focussing on Frodo and Sam and the saga of the Ring.”

One is minded of the experience of fans of the movie Gone with the Wind, who are amazed to turn to the novel and find an additional husband for Scarlett and tow extra children, that the film utterly ignores. It’s disheartening only until you recognized that those characters could (and do, in one’s imagination) easily live within the movie’s vivid world. We simply, well, “just don’t meet them,” and one’s enjoyment is not compromised. Walsh and Boyens clearly hope that Tolkien fans will react the same way to the character elusions in their film.

The Studio and the Purists

Any discussion on the making of The Lord of the Rings of necessity brings up its studio. The film was originally to be done as two epic films (and was write that way) for Miramax. But New Line Cinema insisted that it be done as three films, a remarkable decision and an enormous gamble, as over $200 million has been spent on the series. With all that cash on the line, it’s an extraordinary thing to consider that the second and third are already in the can without anyone knowing what the success of the first will be.

The writers play tribute to the studio’s courage, with special gratitude to Mark Ordesky, “a totally supportive creative executive and executive producer, and most importantly, a mad fan of the book. And New Line has been nothing but supportive, all the way down the line.

“I would’ve thought they’d try to exercise all sorts of controls on us, but they haven’t, they’ve totally trusted us,” Walsh says proudly, “And hopefully that will result in better storytelling.”

And yet there is no question that a significant group has been, and continues to be, looking over their shoulder. Research reveals no previous instance of anyone’s making three separate yet continuous films, simultaneously with the same cast. Cleopatra (1963) was, in its creators’ minds, mean to be released as two separate films but after critical bashing and studio fear, it was whittled down to less than one. In 1973 the starts of Richard Lester’s 1974 The Three Musketeers woke up and realized to their astonishment that they’d actually also completed 1975’s The Four Musketeers. But never have three films – and never a set of films based on a work so well known and loved, even venerated – been attempted.

When the Musketeers ruse led to anger and considerable litigation, the only objections threatening The Lord of the Rings would be from angry rabid fans of the book who, like very young children, may fiercely take exception to even minor changes made in a familiar story. Yet one finds oneself hoping Walsh and Boyens, who have spent almost half a decade adapting what to many is a sacred text, will be spared that kind of overreaction. Do the filmmakers care about how “purists” will react? Boyens replies, as ever, promptly and directly,: “Yeh. You have to care.”

Walsh agrees: “Yeh.” (You have to hear both women’s “Yeh” in that delightful, drawn-out Aussie/New Zealand drawl that so enlivens their discussions of work and complements their eagerness to laugh.) “but I don’t so much care as hope – I really do. And after meeting with a lot of people at conventions, and Tolkien scholars and so on – I had a real sense that they understood that this is a reading of the book, just as Shakespeare’s plays have been interpreted many times in many ways. And our culture is greater for those explorations.

“I think that what they’re looking for is the tone and the feel and the underlying truth [of the novel], that they are no transgressed, and I don’t believe we’ve done that. So I have a hope that anyone who comes to the film will engage with it, and, as you do in the book, fall into the world that Tolkien has created… which is, by the way, or world.

“To me, the part I didn’t expect was having to get to know the book that well. I thought I knew it, and I didn’t. It still reveals things. And you say, If I’d only had that insight a year ago! So my respect and love for the book has grown and grown and grown, because part of its greatness is that it’s always giving more things to you when you come to it… But in terms of adapting it, that task too has been endless; there’s no one point when you can say `I know it all.’ I don’t think that journey can ever be finished, as I think it never ended for Tolkien, either. But it will find a finite form.” Boyens sums it all up: “It’s been a great privilege.”

Frodo lives!


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