Imagination Connoisseur and voracious reader, Stubble McShave, shares his enthusiasm for the three-part novelization of the LORD OF THE RINGS movie series (LOL)!
I love Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. It has amazing visuals and incredible storytelling. It helped put speculative fiction on the mainstream map, was a part of taking us to the Post Geek Singularity and helped in paving the way for countless stories to come. Although there hasn’t been that many epic fantasy movies of note so far. What’s even more impressive is that it’s actually 100% original. How often do you see a blockbuster film franchise that’s not based on, say, a widely popular book from over 50 years ago?
But if you’ve ever wanted to know what The Lord of the Rings would be like in book form, you’re in luck! It turns out there’s new novelization of the films, written by some hack author named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. I have to say, it seems risky to give a huge franchise to an unknown author, but it just may have paid off.
I recently read the trilogy, which weighs in at a respectable 481,103 words and wouldn’t you know, it’s actually good. It noticed a lot of small changes you’d expect in a novelization, such as more worldbuilding and a slower pace. But I was actually surprised by many of the alterations Tolkien made. He’s reinterpreted entire storylines and, in some cases, added new ones. That’s a lot of freedom to give to such an untested author, and it creates a fundamentally different experience than watching the films. Here are some of the biggest changes I noticed in this novelization of an original film franchise.
I find it odd that they started the book with an early appendix, explaining what Hobbits are. Shouldn’t that information come out naturally from the text, oh well.
The novelization follows the film pretty closely in the beginning. There is more time devoted to Fordo and his backstory but otherwise not much has changed. They started the story with Bilbo’s birthday party but then they wait for 17 years. That felt a bit odd.
The hobbits then leave the Shire and things start to diverge. First, they have an adventure where they nearly get eaten by a barrow-wight, and then they meet Tom Bombadil. I do not understand Tom Bombadil or why Tolkien added him to the story. He contributes nothing to the plot and we never see him again. He kind of saves the hobbits from the barrow-wight, and they get the swords, you know the ones that Aragorn carries around with him all the time. The only thing Bombadil accomplishes is to make the plot less interesting because he treats the Ring of Power like it’s no big deal.
At first, I thought this character was some original idea that Jackson had and that it was one of those famous darlings that creators want to kill all the time. But no, wouldn’t you know Bombadil is entirely invented by Tolkien. I guess Bombadil provide an opportunity for more worldbuilding, but it’s not like Tolkien skimps on that elsewhere. Bombadil doesn’t even fit with the rest of the setting, which is full of epic, serious figures while Bombadil is jovial and flippant. He feels like a character from a different story inserted into the plot so he can sing some songs and then leave, never to be seen again.
In the films, Legolas is a great character, but there’s just one problem – his evolution in power level is unrealistic. In the first film, he’s shooting orcs and goblins dead with his bow from point-blank range to hundreds of yards away. In Two Towers he’s taking out a dozen orcs while sliding down a castle wall with a shield like it’s no big deal. When it’s time for Return of the King, he’s become a one-elf army, killing everything in sight and taking down a building-sized animal as if it’s nothing. The consequences are that it takes away all the tension from the character since it seems like nothing can hurt him. He’s becoming cartoonish.
The new novels by Tolkien handles this better. Instead of an enormous high kill count, Legolas’s elven heritage lets him perform incredible feats like walking on snow and seeing by the light of the moon. He’s still an excellent archer and fighter, but he seems more realistic. Legolas abilities makes him feel like someone not of this world but rather something alien, something otherworldly and strange without making him seem overpowered. It’s a great way to bring across the mystique of the elves races without distracting from the story.
In these new books Legolas is actually somewhat of a support character when it comes to fighting. He’s primarily a ranged fighter, taking out enemies that’s out of the other characters reach or sight. Aragorn and Boromir are the ones who do most of the fighting in Fellowship of the Ring. Boromir doesn’t do much fighting in the later books (for obvious reasons). Legolas fights more in the second and third books, but he never overshadows the other characters. In the books he even loses to Gimli in a contest of who can kill more orcs! In the movies Gimli is way beneath him in fighting ability.
In the films, Boromir’s death scene is one of the most memorable moments in the entire story, so I was shocked when I heard that it happens off-screen in the novelization. It starts with a lot of action and ends with him dying in the arms of Aragorn after having tried to save Merry and Pippin. I wondered how Tolkien would resolve Boromir’s temptation arc without the redemption of protecting the Hobbits. What if the fellowship’s most tragic figure didn’t get his final redemption?
Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about that. Tolkien did a great job. Even if Boromir’s arc mostly happens off-screen, there’s plenty to like there. Not only do we find out more about why he craves the ring, we also get a deeper look at his emotional state. The reason he wants the ring is because Gondor is slowly being overrun, and he’s desperate for a way to turn back the tide.
Meanwhile, Tolkien uses the off-screen battle to increase the tension. Aragorn hears the sound of a fight, but neither he nor we know what’s happening. When he finally arrives on the scene it’s more powerful than a description of the battle. The movie works better with the battle on-screen. As a written work, the novelization has different capabilities in describing the inner turmoil of the characters.
In the old movies it always struck me a bit odd when they were going through the mines of Moria. Gimli talks about how his cousin will throw them a feast when they arrive, and yet the mines look like they’ve been abandoned for centuries. How did Gimli not know that they’d been dead for decades. Surely, he or his kin must have wondered why their relatives hadn’t sent a message or visited for the last century or so. And how did Gandalf know that they had dug too greedily and too deep if it only happened recently? Did Gandalf know about the Balrog before going in?
Fortunately, in the new novelization, Tolkien clears this all up. It seems that Moria was abandoned centuries ago when the dwarves dug up some ancient evil, but in recent years, a group of dwarves came from the Lonely Mountain to reclaim it. I suppose Tolkien got an advanced copy of the script for the Hobbit movies. I guess he studied the Hobbit movies and thought that he could extrapolate on some of the characters from those movies in order to explain the Moria sequence.
Anyway, it seems that it’s this more recent party of dwarves that Gimli is expecting to meet. They’ve been quiet for a decade or two, but apparently not long enough to convince him there’s something seriously wrong.
I was surprised that the women actually had a reduced role in the novelization. It’s almost as if the books were written over half a century ago. They are mostly put on pedestals to be admired from afar. I was surprised, almost shocked, when Arwen actually speaks at the end. The only female character that’s somewhat developed is Eowyn. The rest are just queens of virtue that are never fully developed as real characters.
One of the best parts of the original Two Towers movie is the battle scenes a t Helm’s Deep. The characters have to put up a desperate defence against an overwhelming enemy. Our heroes defending Helm’s Deep are sure to fall against the onslaught. It’s very satisfying when Gandalf arrives with the Rohirrim to annihilate the Uruk-Hai and save the day. It’s satisfying both because we thought the battle surely was lost in the moments before and also because we get a reunion between King Theoden and Eomer.
However, in the novelization Tolkien doesn’t really do a great job with this conflict. Even though Tolkien have a lot of description of the battle, it doesn’t make the Uruk-Hai seem all that dangerous. Our protagonists kill them without a second thought. They are more or less arrow-fodder or axe-fodder. Even if the Uruk-Hai manages to break through their defences there’s never any sense of our heroes being in danger. The differences in the final moments of the battle between the books and the movies makes it seem that they never needed any reinforces in the books. Even though I read the books during the last week I can’t remember who led the charge of the reinforcements at the end.
It’s strange because in the next book he writes really good battle scenes. In the Two Towers however his novelization of the movies was actually a step down.
Another change that I found strange was that Tolkien decided to change the relationship between Frodo and Sam. In the movies they are really close friends from the very start. In the novelization however, Tolkien changed that to something that was still a friendship but it was more focused on their roles as master and servant. I don’t know why he did that. Maybe it was the pressure from all the memes from the movies of Frodo and Sam being gay.
So now we come to the end of it, but wait.
When I started this novelization of a great movie trilogy, I thought the major plot points would be the same, and sure they more or less were. Tom Bombadil came a bit out of the blue, but he doesn’t really change anything. So, what do you know, there’s actually an entire new storyline tacked onto the story. You know “The Ring” is destroyed, Sauron vanquished, and Aragorn installed as the rightful king of Gondor. What else is there to do? This really felt odd after having seen the movie first.
Anyway, it turns out that shortly after Frodo left the Shire, a team of Saruman’s henchmen arrived in the Shire and claimed the place for themselves. After the Ring has been destroyed, Saruman installs himself as the head of the most important pipe-weed production center in Middle Earth. The hobbits must now reclaim their home and kick that nasty old wizard out of town.
In part this feels unnecessary and tacked on to the story in a weird way. Even if the Hobbits would be unsuccessful in getting rid of Saruman, they could easily make a phone call to Aragorn and have him show up with a regiment of Gondorian soldiers to kick Saruman out. On the other hand, this section gives the hobbits a chance to show how much they’ve grown and evolved both in capabilities and sensibilities since they left home as novice travellers. It’s also nice that Merry and Pippin get to take center stage for once. They’re in charge of the fight, which is a welcome change after spending most of the trilogy either as unnecessary baggage or hostages.
Even if this extra Shire storyline isn’t really needed, it’s still a reasonably fun read and an interesting way to contrast who the hobbits were when they left compared to who they are when they return.
So, that’s all I wanted to say about this brand new novelization of these classic original movies.
P.S. I raced through these books pretty quick, after all, the whole trilogy is about the size of just one book in another book series that I enjoy.