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The Lord of the Rings Part 4:
the book versus the film

by Roger Keen

Now The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is finally complete, garlanded with Oscars, burned into the minds of millions and destined to live forever on DVD, video and eventually TV, how will this affect future interaction with the Tolkien novel? Comparisons will be unavoidable, and the way we pre-film readers might say, "They didn't do the Scouring of the Shire -- that was an oversight," post-film generations, who will most probably come to the film first, will say, "What's this Scouring of the Shire? That isn't in the film. And anyway everyone knows Saraumon died when he was pushed off the balcony of the Tower of Orthanc in the extended DVD version of The Return of the King."

Then there is the thorny issue of visualization. When we first read the book all those years or decades ago, we each formed our own ideas of what a Hobbit or Troll looked like, and Gollum would be a marginally different order of bogeyman for every young mind that encountered him. From now on the sprite-like features of Elijah Wood will forever define Frodo, the teddy bearish grandpa figure of Ian Holm will do the same for Bilbo, and the marvellous Albert Steptoe-goblin cross of a CGI enhanced Andy Serkis will rule as Gollum, no argument.

It has happened before, innumerable times, almost subliminally. Who can now read, say, The Shining without seeing Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance? Or read The Silence of the Lambs without thinking that Thomas Harris actually had Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in mind when he constructed Lecter and Starling. Hopkins' identification with Hannibal Lecter is now so complete that it was thought worth remaking the first Lecter book, Red Dragon (originally made as Manhunter) restyling Brian Cox's performance in line with the Lecter/Hopkins figure's new iconicity--though the result is a far inferior film.

In this way a film takes possession of a book, changes it from the roots upwards, renders it into a mere vehicle, a lower evolutionary stage in storyhood en route to its final and definitive destination: celluloid. So is film then a more dominant artistic form than the novel, and destined to overshadow and strangle it as time goes by, and the habit of extended reading declines generation upon generation? Look how film has contended with written fiction in the first hundred years of its existence -- what will the next hundred hold?

But then of course the relationship isn't all one way. Film versions of novels have acted as great advertisements for the originals and revitalized works that might otherwise have disappeared from view. How many new readers have classical authors gained through screen adaptations of their works? And what published but obscure present day novelist doesn't lust after the film deal that will put him on the shelves of WH Smith?

But who is in charge? Film tends to subjugate novels for its own devices. So Dickens, Austen, etc. become fodder for costume drama, hardboiled novels such as Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep become blueprints for film noir, and a visionary sf writer like Philip K. Dick becomes the Daddy of dystopian future thrillers like Blade Runner and Minority Report. So often novels are chosen for publication, re-discovered or written in the first place with their eligibility for fitting film genre requirements in mind. It's obvious the larger economy of film has the upper hand.

And isn't it becoming more and more true that a film version will stand in for the book for those that haven't read it? And for those who have, the cry "The book's far better than the film" will be uttered in vain, despite its perennial truth. For all its allure, film remains a much smaller narrative canvas than the novel, and novels must be compressed, truncated, liposuctioned and sometimes deformed out of all recognition to fit film's tight parameters. So giant novels like War and Peace, Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov are cut down into digestible melodramas; and "difficult" novels like Ulysses and The Remembrance of Things Past have small parts standing in for the whole; and an "unreadable" novel such as William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch has in David Cronenberg's film incarnation a counterpart that doesn't contain a single scene from the original, yet is still considered by those who haven't read the novel -- that is practically everybody -- as "representative".

So where does that leave The Lord of the Rings? It is in many ways a special case, as here we have a very major Novel Of Our Times becoming a very major film trilogy. It won The Big Read recently, and has been a favourite of young people in every generation since its publication; but none of that can save it from being irreversibly transmogrified by film iconography. It is hard to imagine a better job being done within the remit of twenty-first century high budget film making, or a worthier director for the project than Peter Jackson, yet film feeds on film and the inevitable derivations of styling and image design have given us nasgul with mouths like the eponymous Alien, a Witch King who is a close cousin of Darth Vader, an Aragorn who is something of a latter day Errol Flynn, with a beard on a perpetual number 2 trim, and an Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel who have the fantasy babe appeal of videogame pixel chicks.

Much of the production design seems familiar too. The underground scenes are Indiana Jonesish, the landscape and combat scenes owe much to the fantasy medievalism of works like Excalibur and Legend, and the Mt. Doom climax is imported straight from the steel works at the end of Terminator 2. And already The Lord of the Rings trilogy is influencing newer films. The all singing and dancing CGI Transylvania of Van Helsing could be a suburb of Middle Earth, and the epically expanded hand-to-hand battles of Troy could be happening on the fields of Helm's Deep.

It can't be helped. Nothing can stand in the way of "progress". All we can do is not judge a work by its film version alone, and urge others to do likewise. Go back to the text. Read the book too. For all our sakes, read the book too!

Roger Keen's articles and stories have appeared in a variety of magazines over the years, including Critical Wave, Writers' Monthly, The Third Alternative, Psychotrope and Prism. More recently he has done review and feature work for The Alien Online, Video Vista and other webzines. You can find more of his work on

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