In the latest issue of National Review 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 Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I took the occasion of this anniversary to reflect upon the difficult journey of Jackson’s film trilogy to the screen (at one point, it was almost forced into one film, directed by Quentin Tarantino); to weigh the merits of Jackson’s films (excellent, for the most part); and to assess the faithfulness of Jackson’s adaptation to Tolkien’s work (on which the score is more mixed, but on balance positive).
Some of Jackson’s changes are sensible, particularly as dictated by the differences between film and literature. Alterations to certain characters, however, are less defensible. You can find more detail about that in the essay. But here, I would like to focus on one character I didn’t explicitly discuss there: Frodo Baggins, the hobbit entrusted with the One Ring and tasked with its destruction.
The first major thing to note about the differences between Tolkien’s Frodo and Jackson’s is their respective ages. In the novel, Frodo receives the Ring from his uncle, Bilbo, at age 33. Then, after a 17-year gap (one of the aspects of Tolkien’s narrative Jackson sensibly compressed), his quest begins. Jackson, however, cast Elijah Wood, in his late teens when filming began, as Frodo. He does a good job, to be sure. But this modifies the essence of Frodo’s character. And it also alters the relationship between Frodo and Samwise Gamgee, his companion all the way to Mt. Doom. Though Sean Astin plays a great Sam, he is ten years older than Wood and had just had his first child when filming began; he has admitted this made him treat Wood as Frodo in a more paternal manner. Whereas in Tolkien, Sam is actually twelve years younger than Frodo. And the relationship between the two is more fraternal, with Frodo as the elder sibling. By no means does this difference ruin Jackson’s trilogy. But it does create a relationship that is distinct from that in the novel.
The second major thing to note about the differences between Tolkien’s Frodo and Jackson’s comes near the end of Frodo’s quest. When Frodo and Sam (and a “special guest”: the mischievous creature Gollum) finally arrive at Mt. Doom to cast the Ring into its fires, Frodo fails: He puts the Ring on. Gollum then finds him, despite the Ring’s having made Frodo invisible, bites it off Frodo’s finger, and takes it for himself. The book and film more or less show this same sequence of events. Here, however, they diverge. The novel has what, to an unstudied reader, can seem a somewhat anticlimactic resolution:
‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone.
Eschewing such an apparent anticlimax, Jackson shows us a dramatic, action-movie style struggle between a bloodied Frodo and a delirious Gollum, ending with the two of them falling over the edge of a cliff, though Frodo hangs on to the edge and is helped up by Sam while Gollum plummets below. It can seem, at first blush, to be more satisfying, and to a typical moviegoer, it probably is. But this divergence represents one of the ways in which the films are “too violent and have too much action with not enough focus on the philosophical elements of the books,” as Tolkien expert Brad Birzer has said. (Although in depicting Frodo’s encounter with the Ringwraiths at the Ford of Bruinen, Jackson makes Frodo less impressive than Tolkien does; in the film, it is Arwen who stands against the Ringwraiths with a wounded Frodo in tow, while in Tolkien Frodo stands alone before the Ford’s waters, driven by Elrond and Gandalf, defeat the wraiths.) But Gollum’s fall is no mere accident. It is the unfolding of a providential design on the part of Eru Illuvatar, the omnipotent godhead of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. As Tolkien put it in a letter:
Frodo deserved all honour because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘ that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never-named’ (as one critic has said).
Jackson leaves in the hints of the providential design: Gandalf’s suspicion that Gollum would have some part to play in the Ring’s destruction, Frodo’s pity on the creature (until the end), etc. But the action-movie style climax makes things a bit less subtle than Tolkien would have them. I had thought for many years that Gollum’s fall was a direct intervention of Eru Ilúvatar in the physical world — of which there are few examples after its creation, one being the resurrection of Gandalf — but I recently encountered a subtler interpretation that casts Gollum’s — and the Ring’s — destruction as the self-obliteration of evil by its own inability to abide by the rules of the created universe. Either way, this nuance is lost in Jackson’s adaptation. And thereby diluting somewhat what Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey called the “philosophic core” of the author’s work:
. . . the whole structure of The Lord of the Rings indicates that decision and perseverance may be rewarded beyond hope . . . . [Tolkien] believes in the workings of Providence — the Providence which “sent” Gandalf back, and which “meant” Frodo to have the Ring . . . . But that Providence does not overrule free will, because it works only through the actions and decisions of the characters. In Tolkien there is no chance, no coincidence. Characters’ perception of events as chance or coincidence is a result only of their inability to see how actions connect . . .
Still, whatever the shortcomings of Jackson’s adaptation, I find it a worthy effort to capture Tolkien’s vision — and an eminently rewatchable one that deserves its acclaim and cultural endurance.