Very long ago, before I was born, and dinosaurs ruled the earth, a certain four books came into the lives of my parents and changed my life without so much as a how-do-you-do. Now, today, thirty-eight years later, memories of a very odd youth compete with fantastic visions presented on the silver screen -- and I am saddened and delighted at the same time.
When I was very young, my parents and their friends from University indulged in massive, elaborate ring-parties in which dozens of people reenacted sections of The Lord of the Rings. To an impressionable young mind, there was nothing odd about gangs of Nazgul loitering in the kitchen, or Orcs chasing you through a night-black forest; or meeting Ents in the barky flesh, or standing below the walls of Minas Tirith while a lake of fire burned around the black shape of Grond the ram, and the Lord of Morgul descended (not without near-accident) from the sky on black wings.
My only regret is the nickname I was given to differentiate me from my father -- somehow I became Pippin -- and no one asked me if I wanted to be Frodo instead, or Sam, or even Merry (who always got all the credit for being the ‘sensible’ one. Bah!). But I did make a good Hobbit for a time, though the inexorable passage of the years made me more suited to play Eomer or Theodred.
The ‘Trilogy’ was also the first book I remember being read, and then reading for myself. The Hobbit fell in and out of early memory, too, but ‘There and Back Again’ is Bilbo’s story -- not Pippin’s -- and I fear The Lord of the Rings will always be about Peregrin Took and his long, dangerous journey to become a Guardsman of Minas Tirith. Not about his cousin Frodo (twice removed) who got tangled up in some sordid business over a magical ring. I mean, really! Old Bilbo should have just thrown the nasty thing in the river . . . ah, but then I would not have met Treebeard or Legolas the Fair or gotten a black eye from an engineering graduate student dressed as an Orc smacking me with a wooden sword as we struggled under the boulders of Weathertop.
I saw Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring on opening day, at 2 a.m. -- a friend knew a theater manager, who knew another theatre manager, who was having an ‘employee’s screening’ -- and she very kindly let me tag along with their gang. After three and a half hours (counting standing-around-in-the-parking-lot-discussing-the-movie time), I drove home in near-freezing cold, trapped in a hallucinatory daze. Sleep eluded me as the movie played over and over again in my fatigue-addled mind. Eventually, I did sleep and woke up in time to go stand in line for an evening show -- where my folks and all their remaining friends from Ring-Party days went in a huge mob -- there were thirty of us. An old family friend, still known as ‘Sauron’ to his friends, commented: "I’m glad I lived long enough to see this!"
The movie is really good. A beautiful piece of work on nearly every level. Fabulous production design, action, music . . . Elvish, by god! Elves, Mr. Frodo, Elves!
But Jackson’s vision is not what I remember -- not the living dream of my childhood -- and I’m glad, because I don’t want those memories to be replaced with something seen by so many people. In any case, the world of Middle-earth is now a real, shared, memetic universe viewed, experienced, and lived in the imaginations of millions. In such a context, Dr. Tolkien’s work is a history, and subject to a thousand, or a million interpretations. Everyone gets their own copy to enjoy and Peter Jackson, Alan Lee, and Geoff Howe just happen to have been able to show everyone their particular, individual vision.
All that said; I do have a quibble or two (or five) with the film. These are about things which happened inside the context of the movie, not the books. So those of you who have not seen the movie may wish to step outside and try some of Old Toby’s Longbottom leaf while I indulge in a mild rant.
First, the encounter between Sauron, Lord of Mordor, and the Armies of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves at the beginning of the film is woeful. Even with the judicious cutting necessary to reduce a very long book into a very long movie, there are a number of elements missing which could have resonated to good effect in other parts of the film.
There is no sign of Gil-Galad the Elven King. The only Elf lord who appears is Elrond, who would have been Gil-Galad’s herald and a junior officer among the host of notables present. Second, there is no Galadriel, who was the war-captain of the host of Lothlorien and a fearsome power in her own right. Instead, Elendil, King of Numenor, is struck down almost immediately and his son Isildur defeats Sauron by accident. In my view, this weakens the character of Sauron. This also steals a huge portion of backstory from Galadriel.
I mean… Elendil, Gil-Galad and Galadriel besieged Mordor, shattered the Black Gate, smashed Sauron’s armies to ruin, toppled Barad-Dûr, then cornered the Dark Lord on the slopes of Orudruin and went toe to toe with him in single combat. They beat him in a stand-up fight. There was no accident, no wild swing of a broken blade catching Sauron’s ring-finger. There was enormous, poignant sacrifice in the deaths of Elendil and Gil-Galad -- an aspect nearly lacking in the movie version. Now, I understand the constraints of budget, but at least they could have shown Galadriel on the field of battle and bitterly disagreeing with Isildur about destroying the Ring. That fits with her reappearance, with her desire for the Ring, with her struggle about going into the West and abandoning her temporal power in Middle-earth. Her encounter with Frodo then closes an ancient circle -- here is the Ring come into her power again, and again she must set it aside. And heck, they already have Cate Blanchett under contract, right?
Second, though Frodo -- bearer of the One Ring -- should be able to see the three Rings made by the Elves, they do not (as far as I can tell) make any indication of the hidden power wielded by Elrond, Gandalf and Galadriel. At the least, I think they should have expressed a subtle hint of the reaction of the three other Ring-bearers to the presence of the One Ring. They could have shown the other Rings when the scene is from Frodo’s point of view. But no… a tiny detail, so small, the smallest of details. Plus… back to Galadriel again… her confrontation with Frodo at the Mirror is a lot creepier if you realize she already has a Ring of Power and might just decide to have two and if you think Sauron is a bad-ass, then be thinking again, my friend!
Third, I am tremendously saddened by the disposal of the whole backstory of Khazad-Dûm (Moria) and the longing of the Dwarves to reclaim the halls of their fathers. Particularly since the whole matter of ‘Balin, King of Moria’ was not just set aside, but rather clumsily changed. Gimli’s character is given sad, short shrift (if I may make a modest pun). Very disappointing. I had not realized how much the moment when Gimli takes Frodo down to the shores of Kheled-zâram and shows him the Crown of Durin glittering in the deep water meant to me until… it was passed over, and the Fellowship was so suddenly under the golden eaves of Lothlórien. So do our memories betray us, I suppose, making some things bright and others dull.
Fourth, where exactly are all the songs? The poetry? The riddles? Hello?
Fifth, and this is a matter of personal honor, I have great, grave disagreement with the portrayal of one Peregrin Took (a handsome -- even dashing -- lad, filled with fun and a keen eye for elevenses) in this film! He seems no more than an addle-brained simpleton, barely capable of holding Gandalf’s hat without getting into considerable trouble. Grumble… grumble...
Well, he saves everyone in the end. He does! You’ll see.
About the Author:
Thomas Harlan is the author of the Oath of Empire series and other books.
Copyright © 2002 by Thomas Harlan. This article not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.
Art: "Fellowship at the Gate of Moira" by Alan Lee.