Thoughts on “Lord of the Rings” (the books)

So, after being inspired to do it by the “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” books, I did sit down and re-read “The Lord of the Rings”.  Now, the first time — or maybe two times — I read them I remember not being all that impressed by them, and one of the big things I was looking for this time was to see if I liked them more than I did earlier, after liking “The Hobbit” quite a bit more this time around (to the point that I was able to actually get through the book this time).  And, as it turns out, I did.  So let me start with why I think that is.

One of the reasons, I think, that I enjoyed it more is because after watching the movies over and over again I had a much stronger entry point to the series than I had before.  I already had a connection to the world and the characters and the events and the history, which meant that I didn’t have to build that in the early stages of the work.  This is the same thing that helped me with the “Pretty Little Liars” books, where watching the show had provided me with an emotional connection to the characters before I started reading them, even though the characters and plot points were different.  I’m not saying that the character building in “The Lord of the Rings” is bad, just that having the connection already saved some work and so I could focus more on everything else instead of trying to care about the characters and the world from the outset.

The other reason I think I liked it better is that while the books still can be a bit plodding, I found “Memory, Sorry and Thorn” to be terribly plodding, and so coming from those books it seemed like a breath of fresh air.  The same thing happened to me while rewatching “Charmed”, where watching it after a number of mediocre shows made me able to accept it for what it was and as a light, entertaining series that, despite its flaws, managed to pull that off.  Here, while again the books were plodding, “The Lord of the Rings” did more with it, even if I found some parts of it incredibly annoying, although mostly in “Return of the King”.

Which made me realize something else:  Frodo’s quest is the most important of all of the quests in the book, but it’s the most plodding and the one where the least actually happens.  This is because the work doesn’t actually focus on Frodo’s temptation and trying to resist the pull of the Ring very much, but instead simply has them trying to get to Mordor and Mount Doom, and keeps throwing obstacles in their path that aren’t themselves all that interesting or novel.  The work doesn’t really make their quest a huge challenge to them, but doesn’t focus on the more interesting inner struggle.  So, even at the end, Frodo seems like someone who just gave in to the temptation of the Ring instead of being the only person, perhaps, who could have even gotten it that far.  The other threads were, in general, more interesting.

Another thing that struck is that the books and movies are far more different than I remembered.  I had heard some people complaining about how the movies had made changes from the books that ruined things, and had thought that that was just people who liked the books first being unduly upset at changes that needed to be made to adapt it, like the guy who wrote “Persona for the Win” disliking “Persona 4 the Animation” despite my thinking that it did the best conversion it could even though it changed things in ways that I didn’t care for.  But, no, the movies and the books are hugely different, and where they differ it’s usually because the movies are going for drama while the books were going for a history.  For example, in the movies at the Council of Elrond everyone is fighting over who will take the Ring to Mordor until Frodo steps in to say that he’ll take it, while in the book no one wants to take it until Frodo volunteers.  While you can argue that that scene makes more sense as it gives Frodo a reason to volunteer and we can see that Gandalf didn’t want him to take it but accepted its necessity, it’s also far more dramatic than it needed to be.  The movies also do the same thing with Theoden hinting that he might not answer Gondor’s call while in the books he might have made an aside comment like that but in general it was just assumed that he would.  But the doubt is more dramatic, so that’s what the movie went with.

It also changes a lot of characters, especially the hobbits.  For the most part, the changes are made to add comic relief to the story, as the hobbits are presented as being totally unprepared for adventuring in the movies while in the books Merry and Pippin had the more adventurous hobbit bloodline and so were more competent, and Gimli wasn’t being used as a joke most of the time.  And by doing that, they made the heroes more competent and so through that made the villains more competent.  In the movies, at Weathertop the hobbits stupidly start a fire that allows the Nazghul to find them, but in the books everyone, including Aragorn, decide to rest there and light a fire, and the Nazghul had headed there earlier, encountered Gandalf, and sent some of them to chase him while the remaining five waited there for whomever Gandalf was meeting.  So it wasn’t stupidity but planning that had the Nazghul arrived when they did.  These things could have been expressed in the movie but what they did was more dramatic and so that’s why it was done.

One big change was with the Ents.  In the movies, Merry and Pippin try to convince them to get involved in the war, but after an interminably long discussion over the matter they decide not to, so they trick Treebeard into going to see the destruction that Saruman has wrought on the forest which motivates them to attack Isengard.  In the books, they were already aware of the damage and were having the meeting to decide what to do, and then decide on their own to attack Isengard.  This makes more sense because Treebeard notes that some of those trees were his friends and as a shepherd of the forest he really should have known that damage on that scale was happening.  It also fits better thematically because it presents the Last March of the Ents as just that:  one of the fading remnants of the Old World marching one last time to help defend the New World that is itself displacing them.  And for the most part, that’s the underlying theme of the books, to me:  the Old World is passing on and must do what it can to ensure that the New World can take over.  In the movies, it’s far more about having our heroes overcome the apathy of the people around them as opposed to the denizens of the Old World recognizing their responsibility and rising to meet it, and through that ensuring that Man can fulfill it’s obligations and not fail.

Anyway, I still liked the books better this time, but don’t think I’ll be rushing to re-read them.  Next up is another re-read, of “Dracula” this time inspired by my recent watching of the Universal Dracual movies.

4 Responses to “Thoughts on “Lord of the Rings” (the books)”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I find the LotR books “slow” in places.

    I don’t think Tolkein gets a good rhythm until “book 2”. “A Long Expected Party” works, but then the books wander around until they reach Bree, and then again the journey is somewhat tedious until the encounter at Weathertop and the dash to Rivendell.

    The pacing in the later half of volume 1 is more consistent, and then book 3 picks things up and drives the story forward. While fundamental to the story, the series does suffer somewhat once the party splits at the end of book 1. The story that follows Aragorn (and later Gandalf) is military/political drama, while the story that follows Frodo and Sam (and Gollum) is a journey through darkness and self-discovery. Both strands are thematically important to the confusion, but the difference in tone and pacing as we switch between “books” can be jarring.

    Confession: my favourite parts are book 3, book 5, and the final chapters of book 6. Also the finishing of Sam’s story in the Appendix.

    The fundamental contrast between the books and the movies is that Tolkein doesn’t do “action”. Actual “fight scenes” in the books, where the tension is escalated around physical activity by and threats to a main character, are few and far between. I can think of Weathertop, the attack of the wolves on the Fellowship before entering Moria, the defeat of the Witch-King, and Sam in Cirith Ungol. Even in these, the focus tends to be on the effect on the viewpoint character (and the story) rather than the action. We do get “battle scenes”, but these tend to be narrated from afar or after the action – the focus is on the battle rather than the battling.

    One of the biggest themes of the books is the contrast between “men of action” and “men of wisdom”. This is personified in Boromir vs Faramir, but is by no means isolated to this. Those who seek power so that they may “do” are corrupted and fall into despair. The scene where Frodo offers the Ring to Faramir who rejects it is emblematic of the conflict in the very heart of Gondor, and yet the film changes it so Faramir seeks to seize it and Frodo must flee.

    It is understandable that the filmmaker would want to change the story to take advantage of the visual medium. It is ironic that in doing so he embraces that which Tokein’s whole canon warns against.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think the Faramir scene (at least if I’m remembering the chain correctly) is another example of the movies’ penchant for drama (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). For Faramir to be offered the Ring and just not take it, even in the book, is far less dramatic and even anti-climactic when compared to a case where Faramir feels an initial temptation but at the end lets them go anyway without seizing the Ring when he probably could. It also does weaken the Ring’s power if Faramir can completely ignore any temptation to take it and just refuse it, no matter how wise he is, given that both Gandalf and Galadriel were more tempted and he might be closer to them than he is to Boromir, but he isn’t at that level yet. I think the scene works in the books, but it actually does at least slightly add something in the movies, while keeping the plot intact.

      But yeah, that distinction is totally lost in the movies.

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