Tolkien vs Peter Jackson: Five Things the Books Did Better Than the Films

A little over two months ago, I dared suggest that The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films improved upon Tolkien’s legendary tales in a few ways. You can read that bit of controversy right here. Today, I hope to regain my standing as a true Tolkien fan by discussing five ways the books were better than the films. Again, this list is not exhaustive. I’m sure that if I tried really hard, I could come up with many more things to be included. Today, I give you Tolkien vs Peter Jackson – Part Two!

Before we dive into the list, a disclaimer: Most of the things I have written below are about The Lord of the Rings. At this point, there are very few people in the world who believe The Hobbit films improved upon anything the book did. From what I can tell, most fans of the book are not huge fans of the trilogy. I figure The Hobbit films are low-hanging fruit and we would all be better served by focusing on the greater of the two stories – both book and film versions.

Frodo

Illustration by Allan Lee

I think Elijah Wood did exactly what Peter Jackson wanted him to do. He plays the role as well as it could have been played based on how the character was conceived for the film. But, he is not the book Frodo. Not even close.

Book Frodo is not a passive observer. Book Frodo is not weak and mostly helpless. I realize the filmmakers wanted to present the character as being fully consumed with his internal battle with the Ring. I can understand that and still vastly prefer the Frodo we find in Tolkien’s books.

Frodo from the books stands up to the Black Riders at Weathertop and at the Ford of Bruinen. He is wise, converses with Elves, and actively chooses his next steps, instead of just allowing things to happen to him. I feel as if I could write an entire thesis on the differences and still barely scratch the surface.

If you only know Frodo as portrayed in the films, you don’t really know Frodo.   

Faramir

Tolkien vs Peter Jackson: Faramir
Illustration by Ted Nasmith

For adaptation purposes, the filmmakers envisioned the ring to be a different thing than it was in the books. In the film, it is an all-consuming temptation to everyone who comes in contact with it. It cannot be touched or wielded by anyone without it corrupting their hearts. It is “altogether evil” as Gandalf puts it.

This, of course, changed how people interact with it and how the story develops characters around it. You cannot have an all-powerful ring that is irresistible be resisted by multiple characters throughout the film. It undermines the threat as the filmmakers intended. And that is why Faramir responds in the manner he does.

With all that said, I like film Faramir. He is tempted but he is able to make the right choice in the end. He is able to do what his brother Boromir could not do. My issue with this portrayal is not that it is bad, but that I prefer the book version. The book version is tempted, but only a little. He is wise, gracious, kind, and gentle with Sam and Frodo. We clearly see Gandalf’s influence on him, something the film barely even hints at. So, while I get the story choices the filmmakers made, I still wish we had seen more of book Faramir on screen.

Sam and Frodo vs Shelob

Tolkien vs Peter Jackson: Shelob
Illustration by John Howe

Peter Jackson did a great job with the Shelob sequence. It’s intense, creepy, and exciting. All the players (Frodo, Sam, Gollum, and Shelob) do exactly what they should. It is one of the highlights of the final film in the trilogy. And the music by Howard Shore is perfect, enhancing the horror and action elements effortlessly.

But Tolkien’s version kicks its butt. There are dozens of great passages in the books. Dozens of wonderful conversations, action moments, and wildly descriptive paragraphs. Yet, there are few as well put together as this one. Tolkien takes his time building the suspense. He ratchets up the tension a little at a time. And when he finally decides to release all the pent up energy, he gives us one of the most iconic fights ever captured on the page.

The first time I read this I was a Freshman in college. I had borrowed the book from my good friend and fellow Rambling Ever On writer, Ben Plunkett. I could not put the book down. This section, at the end of The Two Towers (in the film it occurs in The Return of the King) floored me. Sam’s brave and crazy fight with an enemy too big and powerful for a little Hobbit. Frodo’s courage and determination. Gollum’s treachery. All of it was there and I soaked it all in. I still get chills thinking about it.

Gandalf vs the Witch King

Tolkien vs Peter Jackson: Gandalf and the Witch King
Illustration by Angus McBride

There are very few things about The Lord of the Rings films that I dislike. I recognize my bias, but to me, they are nearly flawless. In the battle between Tolkien vs Peter Jackson, this is one of the flaws of the films and it pains me every time I see it.

In the book, Gandalf’s confrontation with the Witch King in The Return of the King mostly ends in a stalemate. (Before the true fight can occur, they are both pulled away by other matters.) It is a moment as epic as the faceoff with the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf, all alone, faces Sauron’s greatest servant and he defies him at the gates of Minas Tirith. It is awe-inspiring stuff.

Once again, the filmmakers chose to change the scene and I understand their reasons. First, they didn’t want it to feel like Balrog Fight Part Two. The uninitiated would feel as if the film was simply cashing in on one of the trilogies most iconic moments. Second, they did not want the Witch King to look weak or beatable in any way because they were afraid it would undermine Eowyn’s victory a few minutes later.

I get all of that and still hate their decision to have the Witch King destroy Gandalf’s staff and knock the wizard to the ground. I am happy this scene was reserved for the Extended Version so that general audiences did not have to see Gandalf debased simply to exalt Eowyn a few moments later. The former is not necessary for the latter. They could and should have kept Gandalf’s dignity without weakening the Witch King. Tolkien did it just fine as far as I am concerned.

Beorn

Illustration by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

I really like how Beorn is portrayed in The Hobbit films. Particularly in the Extended Editions. He is decidedly not human. He is unpredictable and doesn’t feel particularly safe.

My biggest gripe is that he is not given enough to do. In the book, Beorn does feel like a Deus ex machina of sorts. But, it works for the book just fine. He shows up at the Battle of the Five Armies and he completely turns the tide. I get the filmmakers not wanting to take the spotlight off our heroes, but I still believe they could have given Beorn more to do without sacrificing Thorin and company’s heroics.

Book Beorn fired up my imagination. Film Beorn was kind of cool. There is a big gulf between those two things.

Tolkien vs Peter Jackson: Final thoughts

That’s my list. As I wrote earlier, I’m sure I could come up with many more but I don’t want to overstay my welcome. Plus, it is not particularly thrilling for me to be criticizing my favorite films of all time. What about you? What are some things you feel the books did better than the films? Let us know in the comment section below.

Follow me

Phill Lytle

I love: Jesus, my wife, my kids, my church, my family, my friends, Firefly, 80's rock, Lost, the Tennessee Titans, the St. Louis Cardinals, Brandon Sanderson books, Band of Brothers, Thai food, music, books, movies, TV, writing, Arrested Development, pizza, vacation, etc...
Follow me

Phill Lytle

I love: Jesus, my wife, my kids, my church, my family, my friends, Firefly, 80's rock, Lost, the Tennessee Titans, the St. Louis Cardinals, Brandon Sanderson books, Band of Brothers, Thai food, music, books, movies, TV, writing, Arrested Development, pizza, vacation, etc...

5 thoughts on “Tolkien vs Peter Jackson: Five Things the Books Did Better Than the Films

  • September 6, 2019 at 11:29 am
    Permalink

    I hope you get a lot of feedback and comments on this one Makes for interesting discussion and debate. I will just give an opinion on Frodo. Like you, the book character is to be preferred; that’s almost always the case. But I love Frodo’s compassion and tender heart in the film, too.

    Reply
  • September 6, 2019 at 12:20 pm
    Permalink

    You and I have very different opinions of the movies. (At least The Lord of the Rings. I think we’re a bit closer on The Hobbit movies.) Your love of them has grown over the years, while mine has waned. (I think our love of the books is probably fairly equal.) Yet, as with your previous article, despite my expectations, I find no fault with your opinions on these five characters/scenes.

    As you said, there are many more besides the five you discussed. The most obvious, in my opinion, and definitely one of my top five, is the character of Saruman.

    I love Christopher Lee’s portrayal, but there’s no closure to the character. Sure, there’s his death scene in the extended version, but that’s hardly satisfying.

    I still believe the “Scouring of the Shire” could and should have been filmed. Perhaps just for the extended version, but it should exist in some form. Not only would it have provided the closure of Saruman’s character, but it would have addressed another concern I have with the film adaptation: the lack of character growth of Merry and Pippin.

    Yes, they mature a bit in the films, but nothing like in the books. They are leaders and warriors, strong of character by the end of the book. They need no help from men, elves, or dwarves to free their people from oppression, which they do quite quickly and effectively.

    Reply
  • September 6, 2019 at 12:30 pm
    Permalink

    Your waning love of the LOTR film trilogy vexes me. I’m vexed.

    I would have loved to see the Scouring of the Shire in the Extended Edition. I get why it was not in the Theatrical cut, as that version was already accused by critics of having too many endings, but the EE was for the fans, and they would have been fine with as many endings as needed. And yes, it would have helped with Merry and Pippin’s character arc.

    Oh well. If we ever get a 6 season TV series based on LOTR, we should get the Scouring in all its glory.

    Reply
  • September 6, 2019 at 2:04 pm
    Permalink

    Very well written article. I strongly agree with two of these:

    The one here I had the most problems with was the film Frodo. The book Frodo was much more admirable, and had a lot more strength of character. He was like a wise father figure to the rest of his hobbit companions.

    While I liked the film Faramir a lot, but they watered down his character quite a bit.

    Reply
    • September 6, 2019 at 2:42 pm
      Permalink

      Frodo is definitely more of a father figure, or at least an older brother figure to the other Hobbits in the books.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: