Tolkien on a film adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

I picked up The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien again last night (the blurb on the back says, “J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific letter writers.” How could they possibly know this?) and came across some interesting stuff regarding an American film adaptation that was in the works in the late 1950s. Tolkien was given a treatment of the film to read. His comments are scathing and more or less completely disapproving.

A few simple words stood out to me: “He [the film writer] has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights…”(271). As good as Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings were, I’ve always thought that they included far too much fighting, too many battle scenes. As I recall, in the books the details of battle are generally limited and implied. The films focus quite a bit on battle heroics (and in The Hobbit Jackson went to far as to make warrior-heroes out of character who had no business being such), but as I suspected, Tolkien would likely not have approved. (And on a personal note, I’ve always found those portions of the films to be the most dull.) I believe in The Hobbit we don’t really see any of the battle up close at all, but see everything from Bilbo’s vantage point away from the fray. I suspect we won’t get that from Jackson’s third Hobbit instalment. “Showing a preference for fights,” indeed.

Something else of note: the Black Riders’ signature ‘screams’ as heard in the films, are unnecessary. From the same letter: “The Black Riders do not scream but keep a more terrifying silence” (273).

Fans were miffed when they discovered that there would be no Scouring of the Shire in Jackson’s adaptation. It seems that was omitted from the 1950s proposal, too, but Jackson may have followed Tolkien’s advice in this case (I assume Jackson and his team would have read at least those letters that were relevant to making a film version):

[The writer] has cut out the end of the book, including Saruman’s proper death.In that case I can see no good reason for making him die. Saruman would never have committed suicide: to cling to life to its basest dregs is the way of the sort of person he had become. If [the writer] wants Saruman tidied up…Gandalf should say something to this effect: as Saruman collapses under the excommunication: “Since you will not come out and aid us, here in Orthanc you shall stay till you rot, Saruman. Let the Ents look to it!” (277)

This is, if memory serves, more or less what Jackson did.

4 thoughts on “Tolkien on a film adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

  1. Andrew

    Interesting. I’ve been disappointed with the Hobbit movie approach. A single, 3 hour movie could’ve perfectly captured the book, I think. Cut the lengthy fighting scenes back, do away with the new, non-book material and pare it down to a solid film. I’m sure some enterprising youtuber will do just that, once the third movie is out.

  2. JeremyOK

    This reference to “a preference for fights” rings so true. I did enjoy the LOTR movies despite their departures from the text, but remember finding Two Towers tedious — the battle of Helm’s Deep is endlessly exhausting. The problem I always have with the additions and departures in the movies is more about opportunity costs — knowing what they chose to leave out (often parts I dearly loved) in order to fit in all the extra Hollywood junk. With the Hobbit movies so far, the ratio of Hollywood junk seems to have expanded to at least half of the total running time. Agreed strongly with Andrew’s comment.

    In the extended version of Return of the King, we do see the demise of Saruman (stabbed by Wormtongue). Not at all pleasing, and they should have stuck with Tolkien’s advice.

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