Transgressions against Tolkien – Adaptational problems of Jackson’s Return of the King

by Jan 1, 2004Reviews

Yesterday I saw RoTK for the second time. This is the first film where the visual spectacle was so incredibly overwhelming that I felt I needed to see it twice in order to be able to give a decent refelection of my feelings about it. For my part, I’ve never seen anything like it. I adore films with impressive battles, films like Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans and Gladiator are among my favorites, I enjoy military history books, and knowing PJ’s preferences, the battles should be right up my alley (and for a very large part, they are). Because the story of the LoTR appeals so much to me, there was never any doubt that it had a good chance of being the best film of the year. And it seemed as everything in this film happened on a grander scale than any film before. The CGI, the locations, the casting (overall very good, but a few miscasts in Aragorn, Theoden and Celeborn), all very impressive. A film in short, which should rank among my top three.

Except for one thing, which is that I had already read the books, the story which this film aspires to display on the silver screen. Watching the absolutely spectacular RoTK, one thing was unfortunately always foremost on my mind: why in the world are there so many transgressions against Tolkien, again and again, at virtually every scene? I just don’t see what the mindset of the director is. It is astounding to me that a book that is so incredibly succesful and well-loved, with so many marvellous cinematic scenes and archetypical characters, needs to be changed at every turn. I can understand that things needs to be changed, it seems to me perfectly natural to delete from a film version events like Tom Bombadil, The Scouring of the Shire (which never ever would have worked and would always have felt tacked on), or even something like the romance between Faramir and Eowyn. That Sam and Frodo’s journey to Mordor would have to be compressed is something that goes without saying. That many things simply cannot make it into the film has always been clear to me, but honesty demands that I admit that as time went by and I saw the films, I had to adjust to see that even less could be fitted in to the three hours per film than I initially thought. However, what I am talking about are the numerous deliberate transgressions against Tolkien’s story, not the omissions because of cinematic time constraints.

First thing’s first, the omission of the Voice of Saruman. Undoubtedly there are those who feel that the film gives sufficient closure to Saruman. I can only disagree strongly. It seems to me that this scene, which by all means should have been in TTT theatrical, is absolutely necessary to establish the downfall of the prime villain of the past two films. There is no closure for him, and that s very disappointing. Treebeard even says that there still is a wizard to be managed in his tower, but even that flash of hope is trampled when Gandalf incorrectly (in terms of booklore) states that Saruman’s power has already gone. I know that it hasn’t, and to hear this be said is irritating. So, there is no closure for Saruman, no ascendancy for Gandalf (something which is indicative of PJ’s treatment of Gandalf in RoTK). Instead, suddenly there lies in the water a Palantir. Saruman’s Palantir. Remarkable, since the Tower in which it was kept is still standing as upright as it ever did. How in the world did it get there?

I’m thinking that one or tow lines from perhaps Treebeard might have illuminated how the seeing stone got there. I mean, no one noticed it fall from the tower? And why did it fall in the first place? This just makes me even more eager to find out about what happened to Saruman!

All of this aside, Gandalf vs Saruman is simply one of the most memorable scenes in the books and would have been one of the most memorable in the films. PJ did himself no favours here, faithfulness to the book aside. From a storytelling POV, you need to have the VoS at the end of TTT. But since the trilogy also has value as a whole, it should at least have been at the start of RoTK. Saruman and Grima’s fate is now unresolved. What are they going to do, stay in the tower forever? To learn that it has been cut for reasons of pacing is something that is understandable in theory but to then find the extremely glacially paced flashback of Gollum in it’s very place is still somewhat mindboggling.

Which leads me to the Pippin-Palantir scene. I thought this worked well, but far less succesful is the little chat afterwards, in Theoden’s hall, where Gandalf summarizes a few things,some of which are in fact correct. First, he states that because of Pippin, they have now learned that Sauron will attack Minas Tirith. In other words, the encounter has actually been beneficial for the West. This is strange to me, because they already know that Minas Tirith will be the first to be attacked. Secondly, Gandalf speaks of Sauron’s defeat at HD, emphasizing yet again that Saruman is a mere puppet of Sauron. We’ve had plenty of discussions about this and some have maintained that perhaps at the last Saruman would regain some thre-dimensionality and it would be revealed that he was duping Sauron as well, but alas, we now learn that the Uruks were in fact Sauron’s. Needless to say, in the books it is primarily Saruman who is defeated at HD. Consistent with the previous two films yes, but still I feel that Saruman’s character has suffered because of it.

Thirdly, King Theoden again, with his vindictive “why should we aid Gondor”. This whole thread annoys me to no end because it is directly opposite to Tolkien’s story. Gondor and Rohan do not think of each other this way, nor are it’s leaders such petty men. Gandalf attempts ro do what he was sent to Middle-earth for, unite the peoples, and Theoden stuns him with his questions. To me this diminished an already disappointing film Theoden even further.

But this is all minor material. One of the structural failures of Jackson’s RoTK is his unfortunate tendency to start a subplot and then abandon it wholesale. Let me give three examples that stood out to me at first viewing.

1. Sauron believes Pippin has the Ring

Apparantly, Jackson felt that Pippin’s story needed to be spiced up and so apart from him seeing Sauron, we now have an addendum, which is that Sauron is said to believe Pippin is in possesion of the Ring. A-ha. We already knew this was going to happen months in advance, so I wasn’t surprised or annoyed by the change. However it does make me wonder abnout two things: first off, does Jackson care about possible plotholes in his story? After all, haven’t we seen in TTT, in yet another invented scene I might add, that Frodo succombed to the pull of the Ring and went up the ruins, held out his hands and held it out to one of the appearing Nazgul? Yes, we did. Frodo’s mission was saved by Faramir and Sam, and led to the rather abrupt realization on Faramir’s part that he understood Frodo perfectly. The Ring then, has been spotted by the Nazgul, at Osgiliath, east of Minas Tirith. Now, when Gandalf arrives with Pippin at MT, he encounters Faramir, who relates that he saw Frodo& Sam only two days ago. So Pippin’s encounter with Sauron in the Palantir, in Rohan, would have happened roughly at the same time. How in the world is it possible then, for Sauron to believe that Pippin has the Ring, in Rohan, at virtually the same time?

It doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, this plot thread is never followed up on. What does it add to the story that Sauron believes Pippin has the Ring? Does it make Sauron come to Edoras to challenge him for it? Nope. In fact, we learn that Sauron is heading for Minas Tirith anyway! Is the fact that Sauron believes Sauron has the Ring returned to at any other point in the film, is anything made of this new and invented subplot at all? No. It is simply stated once, and never again heard from. No servant of the enemy seeks out Pippin at Minas Tirith, and we also have no indication that Sauron has sent anyone to Rohan to inquire about Pippin there. Subplot dropped.

It seems to me that they should have simply had Aragorn face Sauron in a Palantir duel here. That way Sauron would really have known that the Heir of Elendil had arisen, that way we would know why he would attack Minas Tirith, and we would have had a chance to see the stuff Aragorn Elessar was made of, the future king of Gondor and Arnor. But no.

2. Gandalf vs the Witch King

Prior the film, I had gathered from Marty that Gandalf vs the Witch King had been cut. A blow to me, because this is one of my three favoirte scenes in the trilogy. When the film began, I had already vented my anger at this on the board, simply because I cannot understand why a scene which has cinematic gold written all over it, was axed. I was and still am nonplussed.

But ok, here we go into this film, knowing this. Yet, when I see the film, I am actually thinking that Marty made a mistake. He must have missed it I thought, because they keep building up to the moment. First, there is Pippin and Gandalf on the balcony at MT. Pippin says that “but we have the White Wizard, that’s got to count for something”, after which Gandalf frowns, and actually looks somewhat afraid when he goes on to say that Sauron has yet to release his most deadlies servant, the Witch King of Angmar. We then see the Witch King of Angmar in armour. Looks like a set-up between the two most powerful individuals of both sides to me.

Secondly, we see our leper Orc commander in communication with the Witch King. The captain wonders, “what of the wizard”. The Witch King says that he will break him. Set up number two.

Having seen the trailer, and the film sofar, one could be forgiven to think that we are soon to see Gandalf vs the Witch King in an awesome showdown. Alas. Like with Saruman, it all peters out into nothingness. There is no encounter at the Gates, nor one at the Fourth Ring, let alone actual combat which PJ seems to have had in mind (Witch King breaking Gandalf’s staff, which is indeed absent afterwards).

Of course, I hapen to know that all the build-up is there for a reason. The scene really was shot, but it was simply cut for the film. 99% of the audience wouldn’t know thsi though. I suspect that we may see the film on the wildly expensive EE a year later, but that doesn’t help this film at all. The lack of any confrontation between these two is really disappointing to me, especially since The Lord of the Nazgul is at this point far more powerful than he was at the start of the story (for instance at Bruinen), and according to Tolkien “now has an added demonic power”. The Witch King at this point is basically Sauron pooring much of his power into his most lethal servant, especially so close Mordor.

3. Arwen’s mysterious connection to the Land of Middle-earth

I don’t really want to say too much on this because it is al so blatant. Not only does it not jive with any of Tolkien’s ideas (unless Arwen Undomiel is suddenly Morgoth Bauglir and has invested her being in Middle-earth in order to soil it forever, see HoMe X)), it has no function within the film. I wonder if Jackson even knows why this was put in. I mean, where does this come from? She’s suddenly dying? Why, because giving up immortality means that you die instantly? No, that can’t be it. Because she is tied to the land of Middle-earth and the influence of the Ring, says Elrond. OK, so why does that manifest itself only now? She was fine a few weeks earlier. How is she tied to the land of Middle-earth? How is that related to the power of the Evenstar waning Master Elrond? Is this all fancy gobbledegook to mesmerize the viewer?

This scene raises some serious questions, to my mind anyway. Nothing is indicated as to how she is suddenly in direct bonding with the land and the Ring. But most of all, this is never followed up on, yet another subplot dropped like a hot potatoe.

To be quite honest, Film Arwen as a character is a total mess. Let me say that I have nothing against the idea of making her more of a character than she is in the books (where indeed she hardly gets mention at all, though the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen tells much more), and I really love Liv Tyler, but the way it was done, it’s just so…….incomplete.

I mean, look at her. First she catches Fake Aragorn off his guard. Already she has stolen Asfaloth, but now she also takes Glorfindel’s role. It wouldn’t have been my choice, I always loved the encounter with the great Noldorin lord but then, I love the Silmarillion and knowing what Glorfindel is does help. One might imagine why they cut his character, and put Arwen in his stead, but why in the world is her horse named Asfaloth? Is this kind of in-joke among the cast and crew? They couldn’t have thought of another name? This is just weird. Personally I would have given her some extra scenes at Rivendell to set up the character, in the manner of the bridge sequence that PJ had.

Still, all of this can be overlooked if the character if developed afterwards. But after she comes on stage shining like the High Elf that she isn’t, mutters something about grace passing away from her, she neevr actually becomes someone. Superficially I think the Arwen scenes in Rivendell are some of the best in the trilogy, a wonderful breath of fresh air in a magnificent Rivendell which is rank with the melancholy that you would expect from it. Truly a job well done, and teh same applies to all of the set designs in this film, beyond comparison. But if you actually look at the character, nothing has changed in terms of importance, though the dynamics of their relationship has changed from Tolkien’s Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, substantially in fact. Instead of doing what they actyallu specifically said they would do, which was incorperate the Tale of A&A into the main story, they have instead elected to conceive of entirely new scenes, and new concepts as well. It is nothing like Tolkien’s Tale of A&A, so any claims that that was incorperated need quickly be swallowed. It’s one thing to not incorperate it, but to then say that you have is something that makes me feel like they think we’re all morons.

Anyway, I get off track. Looking at Arwen, she is still only the most minor of the support character, but look at the mess that’s been made. In TTT, we get a flashback of her and New Age-Agorn, in which the latter once again informs us that he has no idea what the future holds for him, in which he is again reluctant, in which the Evenstar encourages him etc etc. We see that Tolkien’s love across the stars, teh unbreakable Third Age version of Beren and Luthien, is in fact broken. Aragorn breaks up with her. I really should check those appendices again. It seems that Aragorn is truly a man who desires ntothing, no kingships, no leadership positions and certainly no Elven princess. Arwen then, after conversations with Mr. Bitter, who in another invented scene, shows her visions of the Future which do not at all stroke with the lore of Tolkien’s Middle-earth (though admittedly the sequence of Aragorn in the future and Arwen at his grave was very touching), decides to leave M-e. Why does she leave? Well, Aragorn has broken up with her, and now she is leaving Middle-earth. Wild speculation follows at this board as to what will happen next, obviously the sequence was inserted to make viewe believe that all was lost and that their love is over forever, a romantic cliffhanger. Of course we bookies know this cannot possibly stay this way and she will probably return. But how? Well in an invented scene she has a vision of her son, a vision her father also had but withheld from her (entirely in keeping with his film character) and she returns to M-e. I have to say that because Jackson breaks the love between these two, it loses something special. Aragorn breaks up with her, that’s one thing, but for her to actually leave, well that’s the total breaking of a band which was ever so strong. It kind of reminds me of, well, of Film Frodo and Sam actually, abandoning each other when they need each other most (though in both cases it is only temporary, upping the ante at every possible point and all).

But she returns, and then of course, the filmmakers have a problem. What now? In comes her mysterious “I’m dying because I’m tied to the Land” concept. I actually would have liked that idea a lot, had it not been a complete transgression against the creator of this story or if it had actually been properly explained.

To cap it all off, we get a coronation scene in which Aragorn is completely surprised that she is there. Come on! I thought she was dying. What happened? Why didn’t I get to see anything from her point of view, like with a real character? Suddenly she’s up and running again. And no one has informed Aragorn that she still lives? Since he still as visions and dreams of her even after he dumped her, you would think he’d be curious. After all, in yet another completely invented scene in which Elrond comes to Rohan, Aragorn is told that she is still here! Ah well. Either I have another plothole on my hands or Film Aragorn is still a weenie, even post-coronation.

I would have had no problems with an Arwen expansion that works within Tolkien’s world, but in this case I think it would have been advisable if the character had been deleted. Their love is reduced, Arwen’s actions make no sense (she’s here, she’s gone, she’s back again, oh wait now she’s dead, oh no she’s at the wedding) and it’s still only a very minor narrative thread.

A few other severe disappointments with this film

1. No Palantir duel.

I have already referenced to the lack of VoS, or any kind of confrontation between Gandalf & the Lord of the Nazgul, but where is Aragorn’s Palantir duel? Banned to the EE again? A thrilling moment in which Aragorn establishes himself as the heir of Elendil and Sauron’s prime adversary. Granted, granted, it would have been entirely out of character for our reluctant buddy on the silver screen to do so, but the scene itself could be our best insight into Sauron yet, something I’m always told the cinematic medium requires (show, don’t tell etc). I had already gathered that the scene would not take place in Rohan but rather post-Pelennor, prior to the battle of the Black Gates, a scene in which Sauron would now show Aragorn that Arwen was dying, in which the Evenstar will break, and where Aragorn will reveal to Sauron Narsil reforged. But even their own version was cut. And what a shame. Because they could have elaborated on the bizarre notion of Arwen dying, and deflect Sauron’s attention at the same time. Not to mention that a battle of wills between Sauron and the rightful heir of the Palantir would be quite interesting. Alas.

What do we get though, when Film Aragorn actually touches the Palantir after Pippin’s encounter? Instead of engaging Sauron in a battle of wills for that which is his, he goes out cold in two seconds. You can’t even blame him for his lack of faith.

2. No Mouth of Sauron.

Again, I don’t see why this was cut because we are talking cinematic gold again. Where is the parley to end all parleys? The Mouth of Sauron, the ultimate taunter, holding Frodo’s mailshirt before the Captains of the West, revellling in their despair. At last we would be shown, not told, that the quest was only a fool’s hope, we would see despair at it’s pique. It seems the scene has been filmed, so this may again appear at the EE. And again, this doesn’t help the definitive and theatrical edition of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King not one bit.

3. Denethor.

A shambles. Totally one-sided (like Saruman, but even more severe here). Except for Aragorn he might be the character that’s been botched up the most. From his disgusting eating habbits to his command to abandon Minas Tirith, from his unwillingness to light the beacons to his jump off the tower, he is just awful. No redeeming qualities whatsoever, 0 stars out of a possible 10 for PJ and team.

4. Gandalf.

My favourite character from all of Tolkien’s books. Excluding a few strange and deliberate mi (in and around Moria) he was adequately represented as the Grey. He got short shrift in TTT but at least when he was in, he was himself. I expected much from him in RoTK, but with his duel with Saruman and consequently the duel with the Witch King erased, he is left to establish himself by beating up Denethor at three different occasions. To say that this is somewhat out of character strikes me as one of the year’s bigger euphemisms.

More strikingly, the Aragorn syndrome raises it’s most ugly head again. Apparently Jackson simply isn’t able (or willing) to show the ascendancy of one character without diminishing an other at every turn). In TTT, Theoden King suffers radical revisions because of Jackson’s need to entertain himself with Aragorn’s character arc. The man is but a pale shadow of his book counterpart. Yet Aragorn ascends, and this stands out becasue Theoden relies on him so strongly ( something which Theoden in fact echoes in RoTK, in his talk with Eowyn at the feast). In film three, it is Gandalf who must suffer. Gandalf has no shining ascendancy himself with Saruman, is presented by Jackson as the weaker of the two parties involved in the Gandalf vs WiKi fight (where the Witch King shows confidence Gandalf shows reluctance and even a look of fear), but more importantly, it is now Gandalf who needs to be reassured. Various times thoughout the film in fact. What in the world is going on? From the cliched “what does your heart tell you” to his losing hope at the throne room of Gondor (“I’ve sent Frodo to his death” to Aragorn being the one who suggest the plan to distract Sauron by going to the Blach Gates (which is in fact Gandalf’s plan in the book), it seems that whenever the two are together it is Gandalf who relies on Aragorn.

All of the above is not very significant for Gandalf’s character on it’s own, but combined it gives a pretty different Gandalf than what I read about, or for that matter, what I saw in the previous two films. It might be more digestable if Film Aragorn ever actually comes into his own and becomes Tolkien’s Aragorn, but since he never does so ( he is in fact the last to have any faith in himself or his race, even when ultra-pessimist Elrond proclaims that he has hope for mankind), it is very hard to take indeed.

5. Sam and Frodo

It’s only a short moment really, but I thought that Frodo being duped by Gollum into sending Sam away was really sad and the first real step away from Tolkien’s characterization where these two were concerned'(though admittedly Frodo doesn’t really get his due at Weathertop or at the Ford of Bruinen either). I wish they hadn’t done it, it detracts from Frodo’s character even more.

6. Eomer

In TTT I missed him because a few people walked right in front of me, probably heading for the toilet. Unfortunate, seeing as Karl Urban’s Eomer looks the part, and unlike Mortensen’s Aragorn (who does the brooding Aragorn very well but isn’t strong in the leading role of Aragorn as a commander of men), he has the voice and stature t pull his role of with great confidence. In RoTK, I do recall rubbing my eyes once or twice, maybe that’s why I missed him?

Yes, I mock, I mock because I think Eomer is at his best when it comes to his friendship with Aragorn, the two future leaders who are both made of sterner stuff than most and they know it. A great friendship in the books is non-existent in both TTT and RoTK. I haven’t seen his reactions to finding Eowyn, or the death of Theoden, or his proclamation of King of Rohan. While I fully realize that in films, supporting characters must suffer, is there any particular reason why all of Eomer’s most poignant moments were deleted?


7. Sauron’s fall

Underwhelming. As Leo posted in another thread, where is the great arm of shadow strecthing out over the Captains of the West, reaching for them in it’s malice only to vapourize in it’s impotence? Instead, there is the electriic eye. I t actually seems Jackson think that Sauron *is* the Eye.

8. Soundtrack

I can’t embrace it. Strange yes, I know many like it. I have some really favorite parts, for instance I enjoy all the songs which deal with the Elves and Arwen in particular, melancholy, beautifully done. This is subtlety, this is playinng into and adding to what is on screen. There are such parts in RoTK as well (Grey Havens for one), but most of the time it’s all so incredibly bombastic. Perhaps that is to be expected for a film with so much war in it, but I don’t like the bombastic tracks that Shore composed. Simply won’t appeal to me.

It also seems as if the music is sometimes so overblown at times when it really doesn’t need to be. I realize I’m no composer and that music is so subjective, but it just seems so Hollywoodish to me taht when Aragorn gets Anduril from Elrond, there has to be this loud Ta-Da-Da-Da music, to really hammer home that this is an important moment. This may seem like nitpicking but such overly sentimental music really pulls me out of the experience. A bit more understated would be nice, I didn’t come out of a cocoon so I can see that Aragorn getting Anduril is an important moment.

Similar thing with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli arriving at the port. The Orcs expect assistance. They see Aragorn. Naturally tehy are surprised, I can see and understand this. As I see it I’m just waiting for the bombastic and sentimental soundtrack to step in and my Lord does it come. The camera focuses in Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli and it holds them, holds them longer, and longer, and the soundtrack moves in to tell us that yes, the Orcs really are surprised, and yes, the Heroes have come.

Perhaps it’s just me. I just don’t understand why so many important moments have to be overblown, instead of supported by, the soundtrack.

Things I loved

Yes, they exist

I thought Gandalf saving Faramir’s party was miraculous, as someone else already said, right out of a painting. It makes me yearn even more for the absent Gandalf moments, but onm it’s sheer pleasure.

The Eagles coming in to challenge the Nazgul. The Eagles are magnificent in these films and I cherish their appearances. I do love my birds of prey.

Shelob stinging and cocooning Frodo.

The Siege of Pelennor as a whole was phenomenal, I actually found the intercutting to Frodo’s story annoying as I just didn’t want to leave. The Rohirrim shattering the Orc vanguard was great, just sweeping over it. I wish I rode in that army (though I’d like to think I would have had the presence of mind to actually hold my shield in front of me when I rode into the Orc arrows, seeing as it was on my back and all). The huge helmed trolls coming through the Gates just when Gandalf ordered to hold the line, that was great fun. The trebuchets as well, and Grond. All superbly done.

Gollum. I could never have visualized him in this way and I loved everything about him. Vicious, meancing, conniving. Excellent CGI.

The horns of Rohan. I love this stuff. One of my favorite moments in TTT is when Gimli sounds Helm’s horn. The Rohirrim horns were another highlight of this film.

Minas Morgul lighting up. That was impressive.

The Grey Havens. It would have been the perfect place to end the film, yet another fade-out to Sam was unneeded. This was already a great moment (though my general distaste for Jackson’s characterization made sure that I was left cold even here). Great set piece, all looked very impressive and as a bonus it was pretty much as per book (though I don’t think that Celeborn was on the ship )


I’m not a fan of these films. I really would like to close off with an upbeat note and say it all turned out pretty good after all. To my mind, given the enormous budget, the fantastic location, a great cast and such a special effects studio, the potentail was there to make the ultimate Lord of the Rings films. I don’t think anyone will ever give it a shot again, certainly not in the foreseeable future. The potential was there, but it wasn’t lived up to because of the choices of the director and team. I thank Peter Jackson, I genuinely do, for the fantastic images he gave me, I am still stunned by their wondrous interpretation of Rivendell, Hobbiton, Lorien, Minas Tirith, the Rohirrim halls, Minas Morgul,Moria, you name it, all of this was beyond expectation. But the story, the start and the finish is pretty much the same but the way towards it is so different, and so inferior. They should have remained far closer to Tolkien when it comes to telling the story of the War of the Ring, not deviate at virtally every turn. It’s always risky to speak in such generalizations, but I believe that whenever Jackson has strayed from Tolkien’s path on anything other than simple time compressions, the story has suffered for it. Characterization has been the supreme low point of these films, from a self-exiled Aragorn to a bitter Elrond with an axe to grind, from a one-dimensional Saruman to a weak and unconvincing Theoden, from FaraThug in TTT to the Shards of Denethor in ROTK, from a screaming, malicious Galadriel in FoTR to an Eomer robbed of every single one of his poignant moments. The ideas that these scriptwriters had on Tolkien and his characters have been most dissatisfying. It has basically ruined these films for me, because if characterization had been up to par, the many other gratuitous changes would have been so much more palatable. And there are the things which don’t make sense, the scenes where you wonder why they cahnged a scene into something inferior and why it had to changed in the first place.

I think it comes down to this: I was under the impression that I would be seeing Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings on the silver screen. What I got was The Lord of the Rings as Jackson would have liked Tolkien to have written it.


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Found in Home 5 Reading Room 5 Reviews 5 Transgressions against Tolkien – Adaptational problems of Jackson’s Return of the King

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