In the latest issue of National exam magazine, I have a retrospective essay marking the 20th anniversary of the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first entry in the Peter Jackson film adaptation by JRR Tolkien The Lord of the Rings. I took this anniversary to reflect on the difficult journey of Jackson’s film trilogy onscreen (at one point, it was almost forced into one movie, directed by Quentin Tarantino); weigh the merits of Jackson’s films (mostly excellent); and to assess the fidelity of Jackson’s adaptation to Tolkien’s work (on which the score is more mixed, but all in all positive).
Some of Jackson’s changes are noticeable, especially as dictated by the differences between film and literature. Changes to some characters, however, are less defensible. You can find more details about this in the essay. But here I would like to focus on a character that I haven’t explicitly mentioned here: Frodo Baggins, the hobbit in charge of the One Ring and in charge of its destruction.
The first important thing to note about the differences between Tolkien’s Frodo and Jackson is their respective ages. In the novel, Frodo receives the Ring from his uncle, Bilbo, at the age of 33. Then, after a 17-year gap (one aspect of Tolkien Jackson’s aptly compressed account), his quest begins. Jackson, however, chose Elijah Wood, in his late teens at the start of filming, as Frodo. He’s doing a good job, that’s for sure. But this changes the essence of Frodo’s character. And it also changes the relationship between Frodo and Samwise Gamgee, his companion to Mount Doom. Although Sean Astin plays a great Sam, he is ten years older than Wood and had just had his first child when filming began; he admitted that this had led him to treat Wood like Frodo in a more fatherly way. While in Tolkien, Sam is actually twelve younger than Frodo. And the relationship between the two is more brotherly, with Frodo as the elder brother. This difference does not in any way ruin Jackson’s trilogy. But it creates a relationship that is distinct from that of the novel.
The second important thing to note about the differences between Tolkien’s Frodo and Jackson comes near the end of Frodo’s quest. When Frodo and Sam (and a “special guest”: the mischievous creature Gollum) finally arrive at Mount Doom to throw the Ring into its fires, Frodo fails: he puts on the Ring. Gollum then finds him, despite the Ring making Frodo invisible, bites him on Frodo’s finger and takes him to himself. The book and the film show more or less this same sequence of events. Here, however, they diverge. The novel has what to an uneducated reader may seem a somewhat disappointing resolution:
“Precious, precious, precious! Cried Gollum. ‘My precious! O my Precious! And with that, even as his eyes were lifted to gloat over his prize, he stepped too far, tipped over, wobbled for a moment on the brink, then with a scream he fell. From the depths came her last moan Precious, and he was gone.
Avoiding such an apparent anticlimax, Jackson shows us a dramatic action-movie-style struggle between a bloodied Frodo and a delusional Gollum, ending with the two falling off the edge of a cliff, though Frodo clings to the edge and be helped by Sam while Gollum collapses below. It may seem, at first glance, to be more satisfying, and for a typical movie buff, it probably is. But this discrepancy is one of the reasons why films are “too violent and have too much action without focusing enough on the philosophical elements of the books,” as Tolkien expert Brad Birzer put it. (Although in describing Frodo’s encounter with the Ringwraiths at the ford of Bruinen, Jackson makes Frodo less impressive than Tolkien; in the film, it is Arwen who stands against the Ringwraiths with an injured Frodo in tow, while in Tolkien Frodo stands alone before the waters of the Ford, led by Elrond and Gandalf, defeat the specters.) But Gollum’s fall is no mere accident. It is the unfolding of a providential purpose on the part of Eru Illuvatar, the omnipotent divinity of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. As Tolkien put it in a letter:
Frodo deserved all the honors because he spent every drop of his will and body power, and that was just enough to get him to the point he intended, and no further. Few others, perhaps none of his time, would have gone so far. The Other Power then took over: the Author of History (by which I do not mean myself), “this omnipresent Person who is never absent and never named” (as one critical).
Jackson leaves in the providential design hints: Gandalf’s suspicion that Gollum would have a role to play in the destruction of the Ring, Frodo’s pity for the creature (until the end), etc. But the action movie-style climax makes things a little less subtle than Tolkien would have them. I had thought for many years that the fall of Gollum was a direct intervention by Eru Ilúvatar in the physical world – of which there are few examples after his creation, one being the resurrection of Gandalf – but I have recently encountered a more subtle interpretation that throws that of Gollum – and that of the Ring – destruction as the self-erasing of evil by its own failure to abide by the rules of the created universe. Either way, that nuance is lost in Jackson’s adaptation. And thus diluting somewhat what Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has called the “philosophical core” of the author’s work:
. . . the whole structure of The Lord of the Rings indicates that decision and persistence can be rewarded beyond hope. . . . [Tolkien] believes in the workings of Providence – the Providence that “fired” Gandalf and “meant” that Frodo would have the Ring. . . . But this Providence does not override free will, for it only works through the actions and decisions of the characters. In Tolkien, there is no chance, no coincidence. The characters’ perception of events as chance or coincidence is only the result of their inability to see how actions connect. . .
Yet, whatever the shortcomings of Jackson’s adaptation, I find it to be a laudable effort to capture Tolkien’s vision – and a highly revolving vision that deserves its praise and cultural endurance.