Top critical review
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of Peter Jackson's "Fellowship of the Ring"
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 21, 2012
If I were asked by the author's nemesis to adapt the author's popular novel for the screen, I could ask for no better model than Peter Jackson's film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. With its loving attention to costumes, set design, locations, and casting, the film has mesmerized even self-acknowledged Tolkien fans with its soulless charms. Of Tolkien's 394-page book (not including the 4-page Forward and 15-page Prologue, none of the former and only four pages of the latter to which the film even alludes), less than 22%, or material from only 86 of the 394 pages, appears in the film. What better way to undermine an author than to use less than 22% of his book? Peter Jackson might answer, by using less than 22% and then distorting and even making-up characters and plots to fill the three-hour running-time of a film that purports to tell J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved tale, but in fact tells that tale as though captured by Saruman.
It's especially ironic that the end credits include the claim "based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien" (2:50:45). That's quite a stretch. Unlike the Harry Potter movies, Peter Jackson, despite his purported love for Tolkien's work, makes very free with it, apparently considering his own imagination superior to the author's. I certainly understand that film adaptations of books often need to leave out subsidiary plots and such, in the interest of making the film a standard length. While I'm disappointed with the absence of the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil chapters, for example, it's reasonable that they would be absent, since they are unnecessary to the primary plot of destroying the Ring. What I object to is the invented plots -- including a great deal of Saruman and orc nonsense -- and altered characters -- cf. feminist Arwen and wishy-washy Aragorn -- added at the expense of Tolkien's wonderful writing. It's a pity, because everything but the screenplay and score are done so well in the film. As a book adaptation, the film earns 2 of 5 stars. If it were a film from an original screenplay I'd give it an extra star.
A scene by scene analysis appears below, comparing the film to the book. Chapter and page references are taken from the Second Edition (4th Printing) published by Houghton Mifflin (© 1965).
Scene 1 - Prologue
0:00-7:15 - The CGI battle of the alliance versus Sauron is so very artificial looking. The bodies flung by Sauron's mace seem insubstantial, as do the countless numbers of pixel soldiers. In the film, Isildur cuts three fingers from Sauron (~4:00), thus defeating him. His army (orcs and all) dissolve. In the book, Sauron is defeated, then Isildur cuts the Ring from his finger.
In the film, Isildur is ambushed as orcs leap upon him and slay him (~5:00), apparently dumping him in the river, now shot full of arrows. In the book, Isildur is ambushed, tries to escape by wearing the Ring and is betrayed by it when he swims in the river (Anduin), whereupon he is shot full of arrows. Despite the falseness of the CGI battle, and the liberties taken with the story, the Prologue does provide a quick and reasonably solid background for the story that follows - not that this background is necessary at this point, since Tolkien provides all we need as his story unfolds. It should be mentioned that the film prologue bears no resemblance to Tolkien's own (pp.10-25), except for touching upon part 4: Of the Finding of the Ring (pp.20-23).
Scene 2 - The Shire
7:15-11:35 - Hobbiton looks wonderful. The set design is impressive, and it's remarkable how well the film-makers seamlessly mingle the "big people" with the hobbits.
Scene 3 - Very Old Friends - Book I: Chapter 1: A Long Expected Party (pp.29-50)
The first 4 pages (29-32) and the last 5 (45b-50) of this chapter are omitted. The middle 12 (p.33-44) are nicely used, however.
11:35-15:35 - This scene between Bilbo and Gandalf is nicely handled, with warm touches of compassion and humor. Bag End is simply beautiful, and little things - like Gandalf bumping his head against the chandelier - add to the overall effectiveness of the scene. It's nice to hear lines straight from the book, such as Bilbo's complaint that he feels like "butter scraped over too much bread." I do dislike the pseudo-Irish turn to the film score here, with the tiresome penny whistle. The film scoring is so sadly cliché, and there is far too much music throughout the film in general, yet this scene isn't badly marred by the music. It really is a fine little portrait of Gandalf and Bilbo. Scenes 3, 4, and 5 correspond with pages 33-44 of Chapter 1.
Scene 4 - A Long Expected Party
~15:35-20:00 - Bilbo's birthday party is well-done, with just a few minor additions that aren't in the book (Sam trying to work up the courage to dance with a hobbit-lass - presumably Rose Cotton - Merry and Pippin getting into the fireworks, Bilbo telling children about the trolls). Still, these don't clash with the character of the book at this point, and add humor to the scene. Again, it's nice to hear dialogue drawn right from the book, as Bilbo's preposterous speech.
Scene 5 - Farewell, Dear Bilbo
20:00-24:30 - This faithfully-enough covers the relevant material from the book, without egregious departure. The film really does right by Bilbo and Gandalf in this first half-hour.
Scene 6 - Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe - Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past (pp.51-73)
~24:30-26:40 - Here is where the filmmakers begin to take great liberties with the story. This scene between Gandalf and Frodo, and the treatment of their interactions with The Ring, strays from the text (Gandalf will not even touch the ring!).
Scenes 6-7 are drawn, as much as they are, from the 5th page (p.55) and following of the 2nd chapter. Here the book gives us the background of the rings (paraphrased in the film's Prologue).
Scene 7 - The Account of Isildur
26:40-29:20 - Scene of Mordor and Black Riders (Ringwraiths) added. Gandalf studies the papers in the archives at Minas Tirith (this is mentioned much later in the book, in Book II: Chapter 2 The Council of Elrond, pp.264-267). The Black Rider shows up in The Shire even before Gandalf returns to Bag End to confirm that the ring is The Ring.
Scene 8 - The Shadow of the Past
29:20-38:30 - Here we rejoin Tolkien's story, as it continued following Bilbo's birthday party and farewell. Gandalf returns to Hobbiton and performs his test upon The Ring. He and Frodo discuss its history.
~34:30 - Frodo immediately leaves Hobbiton, with Gandalf helping him pack. In the book (p.72 and first page of Ch.3), Gandalf urges him to leave within the year, if G. hasn't returned. Still, this scene does a reasonable job of summarizing Chapter 2.
The first half-hour of the film stays pretty faithful to the book, and certainly captures the rustic charm of The Shire. The actors are well-cast, both for looks and ability, and the set-design and costumes are top drawer. It's a pity that the film (and the series) loses its footing from this point.
Scene 9 - Saruman The White
~38.30-43:00 - Gandalf is off to see Saruman. In the book, we don't know this until much later, in Rivendell (Book II: Ch.2 The Council of Elrond, pp.269-275). Gandalf does not tell Saruman about The Ring in the book. There is then a big, stupid confrontation between the two wizards, which is certainly not in the book. This four-and-a-half minute sequence is largely made up.
Chapter 3: Three is Company (pp.74-94) - The film omits this chapter entirely, except for pp.83b-84, which are paraphrased at ~45:15 in Scene 10.
Scene 10 - A Shortcut to Mushrooms
43:00-47:00 - Merry and Pippin stumble into Frodo and Sam while M. & P. are stealing carrots from Farmer Maggot (~43:40). There is then a flight from Farmer Maggot. This 90-second sequence is made up.
~45:15 - Film skips Chapter 3 until (p.83b), where the Black Rider appears and they get off the road to hide. In the book, there's no distracting the Rider by tossing a bag, nor Sam keeping Frodo from using the ring, and no roiling of insects. A few seconds of the getting off the road business is accurate, but the flight from the Rider is made up.
Chapter 4: A Shortcut to Mushrooms (pp.95-107) - The film omits this chapter entirely.
Chapter 5: A Conspiracy Unmasked (pp.108-119) - The film omits this chapter entirely.
Chapter 6: The Old Forest (pp.120-133) - The film omits this chapter entirely.
Chapter 7: In The House of Tom Bombadil (pp.134-145) - The film omits this chapter entirely.
Chapter 8: Fog on The Barrow-Downs (pp.146-160) - The film omits this chapter entirely.
Scene 11 - Bucklebury Ferry
~47:00-49:15 - This chase to the ferry is entirely made-up, apparently inspired by the second page of Ch.5 A Conspiracy Unmasked. Most of ~38:30-49:15 is completely made up by the filmmakers.
Scene 12 - At the Sign of The Prancing Pony - Chapter 9 (pp.161-174 - Film omits all but 6)
~50:00 - This scene is littered with errors, and is largely false to the character and content of the book. To begin with, it's raining, unlike in the book ("white stars were shining" p.163). The encounter with the gatekeeper is well-done, but just after, when we meet Barliman Butterbur, he acts as if he's not well-acquainted with Gandalf (there's no mention of the message from G. that's slipped his mind, for example). This is complicated by the fact that the name Underhill seems chosen on the spot by Frodo, rather than given to him by G., as in the book.
There's an ominous quality to the film's Prancing Pony. Filthy and ugly faces populate the room, and there is no "chorus of welcome from the Bree-landers" nor "friendly and inquisitive" Bree-hobbits, as in the book (p.167).
~52:45 - Frodo has the silly temptation to finger The Ring and hears voices - who knows why the filmmakers felt they should add that.
~53:00 - Pippin starts talking about Frodo Baggins and Frodo trips in trying to stop him, at which point The Ring falls onto his finger, resulting in visions of the Eye of Sauron - very strange. In the book, Frodo begins singing a song to distract the crowd from Pippin's loose tongue, and falls from the table he's dancing upon, slipping on the ring as he falls.
~56:00 - Without establishing any trust, the hobbits fall in with Strider and, presumably at his urging, switch rooms and thus avoid being slashed to ribbons by the Black Riders. Yet, why would the hobbits be sleeping with Strider in the room, considering that they have no knowledge of who he is - since this important section of the book, establishing his identity and their trust, is left out of the film. In the film, we first glimpse Strider at 52:00, but only "meet" him at 54:00, where-upon he grabs Frodo and throws him into a room. Perhaps this is meant to establish trust?
In the book, Strider invites Frodo to sit with him (p.169), and it is during their conversation that Pippin's tale-telling gets out of hand, whereupon, at Strider's urging, Frodo distracts the company by offering a silly song (pp.170-172). After the commotion caused by Frodo's abrupt disappearance, Strider asks for a quiet word with him. This is all much different from the scene at the inn as portrayed in the film.
Strider - Chapter 10 (pp.175-187) -- This chapter is omitted from the film.
~57:00 - Strider casually gazes out the window at the Black Riders in the street below. He tells the hobbits about the Riders, and suddenly - without explanation - the hobbits are following him into the wilderness.
By omitting Chapter 10, the film has omitted any sense, any logic behind the hobbits taking up with Strider, rendering Scenes 12 and 13 largely preposterous.
Scene 14 - The Spoiling of Isengard
58:30-60:15 - Saruman is ordered by Sauron, via the Palantir, to make an orc army; he then rips up the trees at Isengard whilst Gandalf is prisoner atop Orthanc. This is not in the book, though it is extrapolated to some extent from Book II, Chapter 2 The Council of Elrond.
Scene 15 - A Knife in the Dark - Chapter 11 (pp.188-208)
This chapter is omitted from the film, except for the last two pages (pp.207-8) and a bit of p.199.
~60:45 - Strider gives the hobbits their swords, atop Weathertop, then Merry and Pippin foolishly make a fire to cook bacon. The Riders attack, but Strider has left to have a look around, only showing up after the Riders have stabbed Frodo. This differs a great deal from the book, where the hobbits have their swords from the barrow, and where they are now not even atop Weathertop.
Scene 16 - The Caverns of Isengard
~65:00-67:22 - Gandalf sends a moth message, while Saruman makes a mess of the place and creates the Uruk Hai orcs. This is made up from whole cloth.
Scene 17 - The Flight to The Ford - Chapter 12 (pp.209-227)
The first two pages of this chapter are summarized, after a fashion, at the end of Scene 15. The remainder of the chapter is omitted in the film, apart from a glancing reference to the troll-hole (p.217), and a greatly altered telling of the final two and a half pages (the flight to the Ford).
67:23-73:00 - The hobbits are sitting amidst the stone-turned trolls - without explanation. Strider orders Sam to look for Athelas (Kingsfoil), though in the book (p.210), he has them in his belt-pouch already: "These leaves I have walked far to find; for this plant does not grow in the bare hills; but in the thickets away south of the Road I found it in the dark by the scent of its leaves." Having Sam look with him for Athelas in the dark, an illogical change the film makes, sets up the next foolish scene: Arwen (taking Glorfindel's role from the book) appears and puts a sword to Aragorn's neck (showing her superiority, one supposes, over a Ranger who should have sensed her presence). Arwen approaches Frodo in a halo of angelic light, speaks to him, once more asserts her superiority over Aragorn ("I can ride faster") and takes Frodo on her horse. Sam once more scolds the increasingly unconfident Strider for his poor leadership "What are you doing? Those wraiths are still out there!" Arwen and Frodo flee from the Black Riders, at which point Arwen says magic words to make the river rise, before praying for Frodo. This whole account varies widely from the book. It bears noting that Arwen only appears in The Lord of the Rings in a brief scene at Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring (p.239), at the end of The Return of the King, and in the appendices. We lose the character of Glorfindel and the account of the flight to the ford is much changed.
Scene 18 - Rivendell - Book II, Chapter 1: Many Meetings (pp.231-251)
This chapter is omitted from the film, except for half of the first page.
73:35-75:30 - Gandalf is tortured by Saruman (74:30-75:30) and then leaps from the roof of Orthanc as the eagle swoops to catch him. In the book, there is no indication that S. tortures G., nor that G. leaps from the tower when the eagle Gwaihir rescues him.
Scene 19 - Many Meetings
75:30-79:00 - Frodo meets Bilbo (~77:00) after seeing Merry and Pippin, vs. p.243 of the book. Scene 19 is a made-up scene of Frodo and Sam discussing their readiness to go home.
Scene 20 - The Fate of the Ring
~79:00-82:40 - Here we are given a made-up scene between Gandalf and Elrond, where Elrond belittles Men.
Scene 21 - The Sword That Was Broken
82:40-84:50 - This is a made-up scene between Aragorn and Boromir that furthers the film-makers' purpose to remake Aragorn as a wishy-washy, reluctant leader.
Scene 22 - The Evenstar
84:50-86:30 - Yet another made-up scene: this time between Aragorn and the whispering Arwen. Aragorn's previous strength of character has been utterly bled-away by the end of this scene.
Scene 23 - The Council of Elrond - Chapter 2 (pp.252-284)
This chapter is omitted from the film, except for two paragraphs from the last page.
86:30-93:00 - Almost none of this scene reflects the book's description, save for two of the last three paragraphs of the chapter: Frodo taking on the burden for the journey to Mordor, and Sam joining the Council and the quest. This is a pity, for the chapter recounts the history of the Ring, as told by Elrond, as well as what befell Gandalf as he came to understand the nature of the Ring and approached Saruman for counsel. While these tales were told in prior scenes in the film, after a fashion, they've been shorn of much of their substance, power, mystery, and suspense by the filmmakers' impatience and poor judgment. Here again, as so frequently in the film trilogy, the basic character of the principle players differs from the book, with, for example, Gimli and Boromir far more hot-headed and unbridled, and Aragorn almost as neurotic as a Woody Allen protagonist.
Scene 24 - Bilbo's Gifts
93:00-95:20 - We are shown, in a way that differs from the book, the giving of Sting and the mithril coat from Bilbo to Frodo (The Ring Goes South, p.290-291), yet the book describes no demonic flash of covetousness for The Ring, as the film shows on Bilbo's face.
Scene 25 - The Ring Goes South - Chapter 3 (pp.285-307)
This chapter is largely omitted from the film. The first five pages are skipped entirely, before we are given a riff on half of p.290-291 (see Scene 24). The next six pages are skipped.
95:20-97:00 - The company seem to be traveling by day, unlike in the book. At a campground, Boromir teaches swordplay to Merry and Pippin, while Gimli urges passage through Moria to Gandalf, though these exchanges are not in the book.
97:00 - Crebain (birds) from Dunland fly over: in the film it is Legolas who first spies them, though in the book all but Sam and Aragorn are asleep; this is handled much differently there (see p.298).
Scene 26 - The Pass of Caradhras
98:15 - 1 hour, 43 minutes - Journey over the mountain Caradhras: Frodo falls and loses the Ring, which Boromir picks up and reluctantly returns, after threatening gestures from Aragorn. This is made-up. We are then treated to scenes of the crebain reporting to Saruman, then Saruman's voice causing an avalanche and storm, then Gimli (once more) urging passage through Moria, then Frodo being told to decide the course of The Fellowship - all complete fabrication.
In the book, it is not Saruman who hinders their passage, but, as Aragorn says (p.302), "There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own."
Scenes 27 & 28 - A Journey in the Dark - Chapter 4 (pp.308-334)
The first 7½ pages of this chapter are omitted from the film.
1:43-1:47:45 - The doors to Moria are nicely done, taken almost exactly from Tolkien's illustration in the book (p.319). However, Frodo figures out the password to Moria (not Gandalf, as in the book), the Watcher in the Water is depicted much differently in the book (not as this towering Kraken-like octopus as in the film), and Gimli makes absurd offers of Dwarvish hospitality, as if he didn't know that Moria was abandoned.
1:47:45-1:52:45 - They journey a bit through Moria, then Frodo sees Gollum, and Frodo and Gandalf have the conversation about Gollum that they had in Bag End in the book - at least this is a rare moment where the film uses Tolkien's actual written dialogue. Overall, the chapter is pretty well handled in the film, capturing its mood and "look" well.
Scenes 29 & 30 - The Bridge of Khazad-dûm - Chapter 5 (pp.335-346)
1:52:45-2:01:30 - They arrive at Balin's tomb - and, simultaneously, the well - but Pippin knocks a whole skeleton, bucket, and chain into the well, rather than just a pebble, as in the book.
The fight at Balin's tomb is described quite specifically in the book (pp.338-342): an orc leaps from the tomb, not Gimli, who would never show such disrespect for Balin by standing on his tomb; the cave troll is hacked at by Boromir as its arm is thrust through the door opening, and Frodo stabs its foot; Frodo is pinned by an orc spear (not the troll, who isn't green and scaly, as the book describes). Frodo then shows the company his mithril coat. In the book, this scene occurs in Lothlorien, when Aragorn tends the wounds of the company.
2:01:30-2:11:15 - Next, the film shows orcs swarming down the pillars of Moria like bugs. The orcs surround the company and then abruptly flee back up the pillars after a growl is heard (the Balrog). Gandalf is prevented from action here, because Director Peter Jackson wants a big fight. The crumbling bridge scene - leaping the ever increasing chasm - is completely made up. It looks like a video game - very much CGI.
The fight with the Balrog is actually well-done - quite similar to the book! I especially like how the filmmakers achieved the combination of darkness and fire in the Balrog's body.
Aragorn yells at the company to keep moving, despite Boromir's protests that the hobbits need to mourn, very much unlike the book (see the first page of the Lothlorien chapter).
Scene 31 - Lothlorien - Chapter 6 (pp.347-367)
Apart from less than one page, this entire chapter is omitted from the film.
2:11:15-2:13:15 - Frodo hears Galadriel's voice whispering, after Gimli spouts some nonsense as they enter the wood. They are met by Lucius Malfoy and his duplicates. (He seems to be the model for the film creators' idea of wood elves.)
2:13:15-2:17:45 - The film then skips right to Celeborn and Galadriel (Ch.7). Lothlorien and its elves are depicted as dark, creepy, and rather malevolent in the film, completely contrary to the book. Made-up exchanges between Legolas and Frodo, and Aragorn and Boromir follow.
Scene 32 - The Mirror of Galadriel - Chapter 7 (pp.368-382)
The first 2½ pages of this chapter are omitted, before Celeborn asks of Gandalf (p.370). The next 2 pages are skipped, apart from Galadriel bidding them rest (p.372). The next 4 pages are passed over, before Galadriel leads Frodo to the Mirror (but not Sam, as in the book (p.376). The next 2 pages are skipped. About 4 pages of this 14-page chapter are used in the film.
2:17:45-2:17:45 - Galadriel showing the mirror to Frodo follows the book pretty well (p.379-381), but again, the whole feel of Lothlorien is dark and malevolent.
Scene 33 - The Fighting Uruk-hai
2:23:12~2:25 - Another egregious intrusion of Saruman and his orcs. Not in the book, of course.
Scene 34 - Farewell to Lorien - Chapter 8 (pp.383-395)
This chapter (13 pages) is omitted from the film, apart from one paragraph (top of p.393).
~2:25-2:25:45 - The film in-authentically depicts the giving of the Phial of Galadriel (but not the other gifts) in a very brief (30 seconds) flashback as the company is on its way down the river.
Scene 35 - The Great River - Chapter 9 (pp.396-410)
The first 13 pages of this chapter are omitted from the film. Only the penultimate page is used.
2:25:45~2:28:30 - The Argonath (Pillars of the Kings) (2:27:15) from p.409 are nicely depicted.
Scene 36 - Parth Galen
The Breaking of the Fellowship - Chapter 10 (pp.410-423)
The first sentence is used ("Aragorn led them to the right arm of the River."), but not the remainder of the first 2 pages; the film uses much of the next 5 pages, but not the next 4 (p.418-421); in all, 6 of 12 pages.
2:28:30-2:30:00 - Gimli makes up some nonsense about how horrid Morder is, after Aragorn asserts that they're heading there once evening falls, in contrast to the book (p.411).
2:30:00-2:35:00 - Frodo just wanders from the company without a word, rather than asking for an hour alone (p.412). He finds his way to the hill of Amon Hen, where he is confronted by Boromir, flees from him, and sits unwittingly upon the Seat of Seeing - all nicely done and quite in keeping with the book (p.413-417). Then, after removing the ring, Frodo actually offers it to Aragorn after hinting that Aragorn would have wielded it as Boromir wished to! This utterly counters the book, where Aragorn doesn't even see Frodo again after Frodo leaves to ponder his path (see p.418).
Scene 37 - The Breaking of the Fellowship
Here, we've left The Fellowship of the Ring and begun material from The Two Towers (book).
2:35:00 - Aragorn gives battle to the orcs, after telling Frodo to go to Mordor on his own (this made up from whole cloth). An orc cries "Find the haflings!" though we've been given no reason why the orcs would know about the company, that hobbits are among them, or what the term "hafling" means. If you haven't read the book, you're out of luck. A big fight now ensues, with Legolas and Gimli joining in.
2:36:15 - Merry and Pippin espy Frodo and tell him to hide with them. Frodo refuses. Then, M. & P. yell at the orcs to draw them away from Frodo - more imagination by these intrepid filmmakers.
2:38:20 - Merry and Pippin stand around in a daze as Boromir is shot with arrows. Strangely, Frodo frequently takes out The Ring and holds it, keeping it in his pocket rather than on a chain around his neck.
Scene 38 - The Departure of Boromir
2:41:40-2:44:15 - This is handled very nicely in the film, in keeping with The Two Towers text.
Scene 39 - The Road Goes Ever On...
2:44:15-2:50:30 - We return briefly, and glancingly, to the Fellowship book: the final two pages (422-423).