If you want to get a Tolkien fan riled up, ask them what they think of Peter Jackson’s adaptations. It’s a favorite topic and everyone has a pet peeve about how Jackson went about telling the story in his movies. The two biggest disagreements that often arise are over Jackson’s handling of the Hobbit series and his depiction of Lorien elves at Helms Deep. The first I think a little weak, the second is well founded.
First it is important to remember that Jackson was adapting books into movies. They are different storytelling mediums that have different strengths and weaknesses.
Second, in the case of the Hobbit movies, it needs to be understood that there is a difference between The Hobbit, the book told from Bilbo’s point of view, and the story of events recounted in The Hobbit.
One of the most underappreciated aspects of Tolkien’s writing is how faithful and skillful he is in presenting both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as documents originally written down by the hobbits Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. This serves to give a sense of realism in his work as well as shape the narrative (Sam’s perspective is noticeably different from Frodo’s), and part of that is how it limits what events are seen and told.
Thus in The Hobbit, Bilbo recounts his story of his adventures with the dwarves, with notes and minor changes added by Frodo and Sam after the 1937 edition (which contained the original story about Bilbo winning the ring from Gollum). It contains little note of Gandalf’s dealings with Thorin prior to ‘The Unexpected Party’, the White Council, or the assault on Dol Guldur, all of which are told of in “The Quest of Erebor” in The Unfinished Tales. In this short passage, Gandalf recounts that his primary fear at the time was what the Necromancer could do if he was in league with the Dragon. It is for this reason that he gives his aid to Thorin Oakenshield.
In the movies, Jackson sets out to tell the story of the events in The Hobbit, which were the preliminary moves in The War of the Ring, though few at the time knew it.
On the other hand, there are the Elves at Helms Deep. The reason this bothers me so much is that it narrows the wide and complex world that Tolkien built. Jackson focuses the narrative on his main heroes, but in doing so ignores the rest of Middle Earth. I don’t have the dates at hand, but during the Battle for Helms deep, Lorien and Mirkwood were at the very least preparing for the oncoming assault from Dol Guldur that was only finally defeated when Baradur collapsed.
This is one of the main appeals of Tolkien, the vastness of his world. Aragorn and the fellowship, while important, are not the only company engaged in struggles with Sauron, there are others who know little of them yet are still dependent on a little hobbit and his friend struggling in the mountains.
Bringing the elves to Helms Deep, to my mind, creates the impression that Elrond and Galadriel are simply sitting in their palaces watching and waiting for Frodo to throw the ring into the fire, when in fact they were busy fighting off an assault that goes unmentioned in the films. While Frodo and the quest of the ring is vitally important, Tolkien makes it clear that it was only a small part of The War of the Ring and I think this is an important point for storytellers to be aware of.
Very, very rarely do we ever see a story which is the focus of an entire world, people go about their lives and go through their own stories quite independently of what the main character in another story is doing, and giving readers a glimpse of that helps to open up the world and create depth. Take for example Ender's Game, while Ender's sister and brother serve to highlight the development of Ender as a character, the other thing that their story does is open up the world on earth, removed from Ender's space stations. Thus, while Ender is the center of things for a lot of people in the military, on earth, he is little known, lost behind a tumultuous political landscape that gives a sense of vastness to Card's world.
In summary, I thought Jackson did a good job on the movies, even if I wish he hadn’t made some changes here or there, but it is important to note also that Jackson was making these movies as a prelude to the Lord of the Rings, which impacted some of his decision. As someone who had read The Unfinished Tales and knew a lot of the backstory, I was excited to see Jackson include some of it, even if there were other changes along the way. It expanded the world and showed a little more of what went on beyond Bilbo's point of view. If you haven’t read The Unfinished Tales, I encourage you to give them a read. They are truly wonderful stories and give a lot of great background for characters and events in Lord of the Rings.
What were some of the things you thought Jackson did well or messed up? Do you think Tolkien’s intentions were preserved into the movies?