Give the Hobbit a Break
By Gina R. Dalfonzo
NationalReview.com – December 22, 2003
Poor Frodo Baggins. He just can’t catch a break.
It’s not bad enough that many literary critics and readers of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are always elevating one supporting character or another to the position of hero, completely overlooking the gentle, unassuming hobbit at the heart of the story, the one who has to carry an evil, burdensome, corrupting ring to be destroyed. To add insult to injury, whenever a dramatic adaptation is made of The Lord of the Rings, the adapters can’t seem to resist the urge to tamper with the character.
It happened years ago with the BBC’s prestigious radio dramatization. Ian Holm — who, by the way, plays Bilbo Baggins in the current film adaptations — gave a strong performance as Frodo, at least at the beginning. But by the time they got to the halfway point, whether at the behest of the writer or the director, he was as snappish as if he’d somehow picked up a bad case of PMS along with the ring.
Now, much the same thing has happened again with Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations. Though I’ve enjoyed these three films, I have a bone to pick with the director and his team, a weakness that many other viewers have observed as well. Let me put it this way: Jackson never errs in the direction of making any character nobler. So while watching the second movie in the series, The Two Towers, I started to worry about what they were doing with Frodo, one of my favorite literary characters. I hadn’t a fault to find with Elijah Wood’s performance; he’s been consistently good throughout the films (and, it now turns out, extraordinarily good in the latest installment, The Return of the King. Wood communicates so effectively with his eyes in certain scenes that I’m inclined to think he made an extensive study of Jimmy Stewart’s famous wheelchair-bound performance in Rear Window). Again, it was the adapters who just couldn’t keep their hands off the character. Though the ring Frodo carries is notorious for driving people crazy, it seemed to me he was going crazy too early and too often.
So I wasn’t surprised when, in The Return of the King, Jackson and company added a scene that completely deviated from the book. Here Frodo’s mind is so addled by the ring that he believes the lies of Gollum, his monstrous, corrupt guide, about Sam, his faithful servant and friend, and sends Sam home. Jackson has said that his intent was to punch up the “psychological drama” of the story, a phrase ominously reminiscent of a Lifetime Channel movie. And the scene is dramatic, all right. But it not only weakens the portrayal of one of the strongest, most trusting friendships in literature; it also diminishes Frodo’s character. It’s no wonder that many viewers are thinking of Sam — who follows Frodo at a distance and (as in the book) eventually saves his life — as the real hero of the piece.
The need for psychological drama may also be the reason why Jackson repeatedly stresses the possibility that Frodo might become as possessed by the malevolent ring as Gollum is, whereas Tolkien only provided the occasional intriguing hint in that direction. The story goes that Jackson even shot a scene where Faramir, the young captain who helps Frodo (and whose own sterling character undergoes some shoddy treatment in The Two Towers), has a vision of Frodo turning into a Gollum-like creature. In the end, Jackson left the scene out for fear of confusing the audience, but it hints at another reason for the liberties he took with the story: It may be that he finds evil more fascinating than good.
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