The art of adaptation is a cruel business. For a property as beloved as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there’s bound to be casualties when moving from the page to screen. Peter Jackson carried the burden with aplomb, breathing life into Tolkien’s rich world of Middle Earth while adding some of his own artistic flourishes. From The Fellowship of the Ring to The Return of the King, Jackson took the highest of high fantasy concepts and translated them into three rousing adventures. He rightly deserved the three Academy Awards he won in 2004 for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
That being said, the movies are not beyond reproach. Fans of the books know the extent to which Jackson deviated from Tolkien’s writing, especially in his adaptation of The Two Towers. Characters are distorted, key elements under-emphasized, and major events are skipped over, often in favor of less effective replacements.
Here are The 15 Worst Changes From Books To Movies In The Lord Of The Rings.
15. ERASING ALMOST ALL OF FRODO’S HEROISM
J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic succeeded in showing that the smallest and seemingly least among us have the capacity for greatness. As the world of men falls, its survival rests on the shoulders of a boy from Bag End. Though it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, his affecting performance covered up some of the harshest changes made from book to screen. He may be of diminutive size and stature, but the Frodo seen in Tolkien’s original writings is an unmitigated hero.
Throughout The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson undercuts Frodo’s literary strength and effectively reduces him to a damsel in distress. Though he brazenly fights the Nazgul at Weathertop in the books, fear overtakes him in the movies and drives him to literally crawl away to safety. In the Mines of Moria, Frodo helps take down a cave troll, but during those scenes in the films, he’s practically useless. Though we can understand the need to make the ringbearer both precious and vulnerable, Frodo’s character became needlessly one-dimensional when the source material provided ample opportunity for him to punch above his weight.
14. TURNING FARAMIR INTO BOROMIR #2
The success of Peter Jackson’s trilogy thrives on its villains. From Wormtongue to Sauron and the Uruk-hai, the dark side of Middle Earth is masterfully portrayed. Unfortunately, that same level of expertise and nuance failed to carry over into the world of men. Though the cast of actors is on point, the adaptation from book to screen leaves multiple members of the human contingency hanging in the balance, with Faramir receiving the worst treatment of all.
13. REDUCING EOWYN TO RAPUNZEL
Considering the era in which the books were published and the World War I veteran who wrote them, you wouldn’t expect Eowyn to be much more than a placeholder female character. That assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Though the source material packs Eowyn’s perspective with dignified proto-feminism, the movies fail to capitalize on Tolkien’s writing. In The Two Towers adaptation, Eowyn makes a hard pass at Aragorn, but no one really knows why. Is it because he’s sporting well-coiffed hair? A sweet new sword? That devil-may-care attitude? Even Eowyn can’t specify it, but nevertheless, we’re led to believe that even new love can suddenly bloom out of the barren Tolkien apocalypse.
This version of Eowyn would have been absolutely riveting onscreen. Jackson and Boyens not only missed the opportunity to grow her character in The Two Towers, but they then rushed her final battle against The Witch King. Though we won’t dwell on her Revenge of the Sith-worthy Darth Vader scream, Eowyn’s incredible accomplishment is needlessly blunted by a crawling competition against Gothmog, the Orc General. No, the creature’s presence isn’t established to give Eowyn another heroic moment, but to allow Aragorn to kill him and save the day, along with the damsel who Peter Jackson himself put in distress.
12. FORCING FRODO TO CHOOSE GOLLUM OVER SAM
In Tolkien’s masterwork, Frodo and Samwise Gamgee share an unbreakable bond. More than friends, they are companions at the end of the world. In their journey from The Shire to the fires of Mount Doom, a caustic word here or there would have done irreparable harm to their already perilous journey. Were it not for the movies’ obsession with drumming up drama at every turn, the partnership of Frodo and Sam might have been portrayed as Tolkien intended.
That all changed on Cirith Ungol, however, when Gollum’s insidious efforts to win Frodo’s favor succeeded. Not only does he become a puppet for the ghoulish, knuckle-dragging hobbit, but Frodo turns his back on Sam and accuses him of lusting after the ring. It’s a hard scene to watch, especially knowing it simply never happened in the books. This is a Judas betrayal kind of moment, a turn of events that happens so late in their adventure in The Return of the King that it leaves very little time for the two hobbits to mend their relationship before returning home.
11. LEAVING OUT TOM BOMBADIL
You didn’t expect to get through a Lord of the Rings comparison piece without word of Tom Bombadil, did you? Fair play to those who argue in favor of Peter Jackson’s decision not to adapt the mysterious man of the forest. He may not be an integral part of the plot, but his presence would have created much-needed space between the flight from the Shire to the forming of the Fellowship. Indeed, Peter Jackson’s introductory movie accelerates events that otherwise take a long time to unfold. Though the first movie depicts the hobbits’ escape as a one-day affair, Tolkien’s book dedicates many pages to the exodus.
10. CASTING HUGO WEAVING AS ELROND
When we first meet Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring, he’s approximately 6,500 years old. J.R.R. Tolkien describes him “as noble and fair as an elf-lord, as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard, as venerable as a king of dwarves, and as kind as summer.” In short, Elrond is the total package. His big screen debut may depict him as something of a sage, but it pushes Elrond into far more human territory than his Elven nature can rightly bear. To be sure, he is as mortal as he is eternal, so he cannot be entirely god-like in appearance and nature.
9. TURNING THE ELVES INTO CONVENIENT HEROES
For many fans of the movies, The Battle of Helm’s Deep was the high watermark in The Two Towers. It was a showdown in the rain of raging Uruk-hai against an army of men and elves. It’s a scene that stands up against the best battles in Game of Thrones, but it’s a shame that Peter Jackson heavily interpolated the source material and basically rewrote the entire nature of the war. Most egregious of all, he leaned heavily on the Elven warriors to battle back the army of darkness. To be clear, there were no elves at Helm’s Deep in the books, though the movie shows a commissioned crew of half a thousand archers sent from Lothlorien to the scene of the fight.
8. CUTTING OUT ALMOST EVERY SONG AND POEM
Despite its many missed opportunities, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit succeeded in its quieter scenes, particularly in moments of song. When the Dwarves bellow the “Misty Mountains,” a haunting and hypnotic theme, all of the majesty in Tolkien’s mind seems to bloom. It’s especially odd that Peter Jackson would spend several minutes of precious runtime to watch Thorin Oakenshield hum a tune, considering the rest of the movie is consumed by high frame-rate CGI.
This moment is but one of many songs and poems written throughout the text of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Pippin’s Song in The Return of the King is one of the most prominent in the LOTR trilogy, and Jackson used it to marvelous effect. If only Tolkien’s original songs were put to more frequent use. Without suggesting the trilogy be turned into a full-blown movie-musical, it would have benefited from Frodo’s ditty in the Prancing Pony or Aragorn’s poem about Gondor. This is high fantasy, after all, the very reason Tolkien penned such a long list of tunes in the first place.
7. MAKING THE ENTS SEEM DAFT
It’s not until Treebeard takes the hobbits on an afternoon stroll when he finally witnesses the decimation of his fellow Ents. Like Eowyn, he lets out a Darth Vader-lite scream to let the sadistic wizard know his days are numbered. This is a slap in the face to the characters Tolkien first created. In the books, Merry and Pippin’s arrival comes just before the Entmoot, where Treebeard and Co. quickly decide to bring ruin to Saruman. They don’t need to think about it, because they’re smart, savvy, and proud of their people. In the movies, the Ents have little to no agency and instead serve as time-killing filler while the rest of the plot unfolds.
6. UNDERMINING THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MERRY AND PIPPIN
On the whole, the comic relief throughout The Lord of the Rings trilogy is well handled by Peter Jackson and co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens. From Bilbo’s 111th birthday party through to the end, Merry and Pippin bring the laughs with their non-stop troublemaking and tomfoolery. Unfortunately, the two hobbits are turned into the Punch and Judy show of Middle Earth far beyond the boundaries that Tolkien outlined. Their wit and value sadly get lost in the shuffle. If it weren’t for Merry and Pippin, Frodo and Sam would never have successfully left the Shire in the first place. Though they are out of their league throughout the story, Merry and Pippin are quick on the uptake and learn as they go. In the movies, however, Merry and Pippin are depicted as accidental warriors who join the Fellowship on a whim. In the books, they demand they join Frodo on the journey, and though Elrond heatedly protests their presence, it’s Gandalf who insists they be allowed to come.
Finally, it’s worth arguing that in the wake of Eowyn’s gender-reversal kill of the Witch-king, Merry’s key contribution has been overlooked. Without his mystically-powered dagger and surge of daring, the Nazgul would never have been weakened to the point where a single blow would end him. Though the movies show Merry plunging the dagger into the wraith’s side, he receives none of the credit in the aftermath.
5. HUMILIATING GANDALF AGAINST THE WITCH KING
Speaking of the Witch-king, if you’re going to add a scene where he fights Gandalf, you can’t let him win. Or if you’re going to bring the wizard to his knees, do it after a glorious battle, the kind fan fiction writers love to create. For whatever reason, Peter Jackson’s extended version of The Return of the King has a scene at Minas Tirith where the Witch-King flies down to stop Gandalf from riding with Pippin. Though he’s in the presence of one of his greatest enemies, Gandalf doesn’t move, and instead sits atop his steed waiting for the Nazgul to flinch.
Checkmate. The Witch-king sends a magical force-field to shatter Gandalf’s staff, then blast him off his horse in truly humiliating fashion. It is a senseless moment that not only adds no value to the movie, but it has zero relation to Tolkien’s books and diminishes the almighty power of Gandalf without even giving him a chance to respond.
4. DIMINISHING ARAGORN INTO A SELF-LOATHING HERO
If there were no template against which to compare the Aragorn of the movies, you might think of him as the ultimate hero. He’s understated, (relatively) principled, and, when he can be convinced to fight, courageous in battle. That’s all well and good, but the Aragorn as imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien is far more pronounced. Rather than the scruffy-looking, reluctant and almost self-loathing leader in the movies, the Aragorn of the books is groomed for leadership. More than any other man in the story, Aragorn is the standard bearer for heroism. He doesn’t back down from his destiny, nor does he question his role in the fate of Middle Earth. No, he embraces his role as Isildur’s Heir with gusto. In the movies, he seems to always have one foot out the door.
3. NO CLOSURE FOR SARUMAN
Saruman is a central figure throughout The Lord of the Rings, so why was his end so unsatisfying? Sauron may be the most terrifying villain of all, but he’s trapped to a one-eyed presence for the entirety of the trilogy. That leaves Saruman as the most significant enemy to take fleshly form, and given all of the havoc he wreaked throughout Middle Earth, you’d think Peter Jackson would have relished the opportunity to include his death in the final film.
In the theatrical edition of The Return of the King, all we’re told (by way of Treebeard) is that the crooked wizard has been locked in his tower, wasting away until death comes for him. If the Ents have him under their command, then surely they’d exact some form of capital punishment on him rather than a measly prison sentence. The guy decimated their population, after all.
2. SKIPPING THE SCOURING OF THE SHIRE
Long before J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the ending of The Return of the King, he planned to bring the fantasy epic full circle. Amid the far-reaching destruction of Middle Earth, even the Shire was not left unscathed. Drawing from his memories following the aftermath of World War II, Tolkien remembered, “a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important.” This bucolic image was Tolkien’s own Shire, and it, too, had been ravaged by the dogs of war.
When the hobbits return home (in the books), they find their homes have changed as much as their own lives. Saruman and his sniveling servant, Wormtongue, have moved into Frodo’s residence at Bag-End, and the evil forces of Mordor have overcome the Shire. The final battle of the War of the Ring takes place in Bilbo Baggins’ backyard, and it sees the hobbits fight valiantly and Saruman get the death he always deserved. Though the hobbits intend to peaceably oust him from the Shire, Wormtongue slits his master’s throat and gets killed by a flurry of arrows.
These sequences would have added to the movie’s already epic run time, but they would have demonstrated the pervasiveness of the evil Sauron inspired. Without it, the movies depict the Shire as virtually unchanged despite the apocalypse surrounding them, which not only lessens the stakes but begs the question: if Bag-End was off limits from danger, shouldn’t Frodo have just stayed home? Tolkien hung the entire narrative on this penultimate chapter because it illustrated that in times of war, not even the kindest people nor the countryside are safe.
1. MAKING GIMLI INTO A JOKE
Contrary to his depiction in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, Gimli is a stalwart warrior and a straight-laced dwarf. Though he’s essentially a court jester in the movies, Tolkien envisioned him as “a grim character, for the most part, laughing only occasionally, and, though in a few rare situations, inspiring amusement, but never joking.” He’s not humorless, but he’s certainly not the bumbling buffoon that thinks he can shatter the one ring with one fell swoop of his axe.
By turning Gimli into the laughing stock of the Fellowship, the dwarf undercuts moments of gravitas. Take the gloomy moments leading up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep, which is essentially the Normandy Beach battle of Middle Earth. While Theoden and Aragorn ready their men and bark orders, Gimli stands at the edge of the fortress making wise-cracks and having a laugh. There’s room for humor in even the gravest situations, but not at the expense of Gimli’s character, who verges on caricature throughout the film adaptations.
What else got lost in translation from the books to the movies? Let us know in the comments!