A woman looks at the different characters from the film "The Lord of the Rings" at an exhibition in Potsdam, Germany, on Jan. 30, 2007. (Michael Urban /DDP/AFP via Getty Images)
“The Lord of the Rings” books by J.R.R. Tolkien were originally published in 1954 and 1955. The trilogy was the sequel to his whimsical children’s book “The Hobbit,” which was very well received in 1937. The books gained a loyal following during the 1960s, so they were made into a few cartoon adaptations. However, the literary fame has been completely eclipsed in the last twenty years by the Peter Jackson movie trilogy. These three epic films have become the standard for the story, so it’s likely that no other film version could be taken seriously.
My family never watched the movies together, since we don’t partake in films made so recently. Although I had extensive literature courses in my school curriculum, none of Tolkien’s writings were included. As a result, the title “Lord of the Rings” meant nothing to me before a year and a half ago; it was just another famous title, like “Game of Thrones” or “Lord of the Flies.” I became aware of the films last spring when my sister, Rebekah, developed an interest in actor Elijah Wood, who stars in them. While she became a fan through the film clips and interviews she saw, I remained staunchly determined to not let her drag me into watching and liking these films, as she had done with “Star Wars.” From the few clips I’d seen, the blue tone of the cinematography bothered me, since it looked too much like a current science fiction film.
However, as I learned more about the books on which these films were based, I realized they aren’t just another movie franchise. The books are classic literature, and J.R.R. Tolkien was a Christian patriot and a brilliant scholar. I eventually agreed to listen to Rebekah read the first book, “Fellowship of the Ring,” during long, barefoot walks around our rural neighborhood. I immediately was captivated by the beautiful literary style and charming story, realizing that Tolkien’s writings about Middle-earth were part of the inspiration for the fairy stories I loved as a little girl. Having now read the first book and watched the movies, I have some thoughts on how the movies missed the spirit of the books and why we were inspired to do our own take on the story.
What the Movies Achieved
Many people today were introduced to the story by the movies, so they don’t bother reading the books. That’s understandable, since, while long, the extended editions of the movies include 11 hours of total runtime, while each book is dozens of meandering chapters. There also is “The Hobbit” to read, of course, plus “The Silmarillion” and other extended Middle-earth lore Tolkien penned, which was published after his death. I appreciate that the films have familiarized many people who didn’t read the books with the story, encouraging many to tackle the novels. However, the unfortunate flipside is that many people who might have read the books otherwise don’t feel the need to because they saw the movies.
A popular meme which I frequently see posted on “Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) Facebook fan pages says, “3 Films. 0 Sex Scenes. 0 ugly words. 17 Oscars.” Every time I see it, I think that this is an excellent point. Although all three movies are rated PG-13, they don’t include the nudity, suggestive dialogue, risqueity, and profanity which one finds in the other popular franchises. This was in keeping with the spirit of the books, which are timelessly classic.
Galadriel meets with Frodo in a scene from "The Lord of the Rings." (New Line Cinema)
What the Movies Missed
Long before I agreed to watch the films, I really enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes footage from the filming in New Zealand. As a performer, I know from firsthand experience that being in a production, whether that’s a stage show or a movie set, can be a joyous experience or a miserable one. It’s very clear from footage of downtime on the set, the interviews right after filming, and countless interviews the cast members have done since, that making the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was the experience of a lifetime. Spending a year and a half living and working together in New Zealand to film the three movies all at once, the actors, particularly those in the main fellowship of nine, formed deep bonds and friendships, which are still strong twenty years later. You can tell from their fond recollections today that they would all go back to Middle-earth in a minute if they had the chance, because it was such a joyous, fun experience of fellowship.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that spirit of camaraderie, playfulness, and fun made it into the movies. The spirit of the books is warm, merry, and charming, especially the opening scenes in the Shire. The happy opening offers a strong contrast from the later perils of the quest to Mordor, although the hobbits in the book still find time for a bit of fun, singing, and occasional feasting during the journey. In the movies, there isn’t as much contrast, since the mood is much darker in the very brief opening Shire sequence. Also, the prologue telling the story of the One Ring adds a sinister flavor to the opening. In addition to the dark color scheme, Frodo’s underlying sadness in the first scenes gives him less room for character development as the Ring possesses him.
A collection of Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and its sequel "The Lord of the Rings," including first edition Hobbit book, "The Hobbit: or There and Back Again" from 1937. (Eeli Purola/Shutterstock)
Modern vs. Classic Inspiration
Ironically, while the movies are darker, they also are on a lower intellectual plane. Many of the films’ famous lines and scenarios were reworded from the books for dramatic effect, but in the process, the simple strength of Tolkien’s thoughts was swapped for Hollywood sensationalism. Also, the grotesque characters, such as the Orcs, Balrog, and Uruk-hai, look disgustingly monstrous, making more of an impact with their horrific appearance than their significance to the story. The battle scenes and other violent action are what earned this film its PG-13 rating, but I think the action could have been depicted just as convincingly with less gore, as in war films made during the Motion Picture Production Code’s years of influence (1934-1954).
In contrast, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), the two younger hobbits in the fellowship, were made even sillier. Some modern humor involving these characters was added for juvenile audiences, such as Pippin’s burping after eating too much Elven waybread. Would “Fellowship of the Rings” have been a less enjoyable film without that?
After reading just a few chapters of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Rebekah and I agreed that it was a beautifully written story from an age long before its time of writing. Like all classic tales, it exists in the artistic realm of timeless thoughts, where literature, art, music, and dance share common loveliness. As such, it demands interpretation through ballet and classical singing. We were inspired to do our own take on “Lord of the Rings” called “Lady of the Ring,” featuring an original ballet, an opera compiled of fitting English art songs, Tolkienesque narration, and a fellowship of nine cast members. It may not earn seventeen Oscars, but we hope it will transport the guests who join us at the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon, California, on Sept. 22.