“I should resent perversion of the characters … even more than the spoiling of the plot and scenery” – J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 210
As Tolkien alludes, characters are perhaps the most important element of a story. Unfortunately the filmmakers changed many of the characters in a myriad of ways despite (supposedly) trying to tell the story of The Lord of the Rings, albeit in cinematic form. This essay will explore some of these deviations from the text, though it is by no means exhaustive. It is also not a list to point out little differences but to chronicle fundamental alterations.
The primary difference of Frodo in the films from Frodo in the book was the former’s ongoing weakness. Beginning in The Fellowship of the Ring where is reduced to a moaning wreck who has to be chaperoned to Rivendell instead of riding Asfaloth on his own, and continuing in The Two Towers where he lies to Faramir and later attempts to surrender the Ring to the Nazgûl in Osgiliath, Frodo behaves weakly. In both the book and film The Return of the King Frodo is despairing to the power of the Ring, but the key difference is that Frodo began to break down much earlier in the films. The strength of character the drove the Quest (albeit with significant help) in the book is conspicuously missing from the films; and the filmmakers themselves seem to recognize this at the end of The Two Towers.
One of the most noticeable changes it to Aragorn. The Aragorn of the book, later King Elessar, is confident of his destiny and ability, and is simply waiting for the right time to assume the kingship of Gondor as is his right as the heir of Elendil. By contrast the Aragorn of the movies is constantly self-doubting (far more than his book counterpart), even insisting that he has “never wanted” the power of kingship. Gone is one of his major traits: self-confidence bordering on arrogance, evidenced by his behavior at Meduseld and his looking into the Palantír. Instead his self-doubt and reluctance dominate the “journey” of the character.
Similarily absent is his sense of justice and nobility. After being crowned as the King Elessar, Aragorn hears a number of cases, including those of defeated enemies, and exercises justice and mercy in his judgments. Compare this to movie-Aragorn, who beheads the Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gate (though this scene is only included in the Extended Edition of The Return of the King) in violation of the rule ( acknowledged by both the Mouth and Gandalf) that dictates that heralds shall not be killed.
Gimli’s character is minor in both the book and the films, but in the film he was reduced to near constant comic relief. He barely appeared in The Fellowship of the Ring but was nonetheless twice the butt of jokes: in the Council of Elrond when he attempted to destroy the Ring with an axe and in Moria with the first dwarf tossing joke. Throughout The Two Towers Gimli blusters and brags through most of the movie, but for most of the movie he is not shown to have any prowess. He lags behind Aragorn and Legolas throughout the chase across Rohan, spends most of the “Warg battle” trapped underneath a growing pile of corpses, and is subjected to another dwarf tossing joke at Helm’s Deep. He is given a small moment of glory when his “count” surpasses Legolas’, but that is small compensation after the rest of the movie. He continues to be a (supposedly) humorous distraction in The Return of the King, particularly with his experiences in the Paths of the Dead. He is also upstaged again by Legolas, despite continuing bluster. His steadfastness and reliability are not communicated; instead we are shown a blustering, overconfident, laughably weak fighter.
Faramir was perhaps the most controversial changed character. In The Two Towers, especially in the theatrical release, Faramir was scarcely recognizable as the character from the book: instead of understanding the importance of the Quest and helping Frodo and Sam greatly he did not trust them and almost brought them before his father before having a change of heart after seeing Frodo nearly give the Ring to the Nazgul in Osgiliath. This is a drastic departure from the Faramir of the book.
Denethor’s character was drastically simplified into a one-dimensional lunatic. Tolkien stated in Unfinished Tales, “The Palantíri” that:
“Denethor was a man of great strength of will, and maintained the integrity of his personality until the final blow of the (apparently) mortal wound of his only surviving son. He was proud, but this was by no means merely personal: he loved Gondor and its people, and deemed himself appointed by destiny to lead them in this desperate time.”
The truth of this is evident in The Return of the King, in which Denethor is no fool. He did summon the armies and call for aid from Rohan, and sent Faramir only to reinforce Osgiliath, not retake it. True, book-Denethor was irrational at the end, but film-Denethor was irrational from the beginning: blindly foolish, refusing to summon the armies of Gondor or light the beacons; and sending his son on a suicide mission to retake Osgiliath.
Treebeard (and Ents in general)
Treebeard, and to an extent all the Ents were largely reduced to mere comic relief. They are bumbling fools for most of The Two Towers, unaware of the destruction of their own forest and too shortsighted to see the danger right next to them. Their role is so undervalued that they are relegated to brief interludes from the violence and tension of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, rather than being an important part of the story (as Tolkien saw them in Letter 210).
Aside from the obvious change (her replacing Glorfindel), Arwen’s character was also altered in the later films. Strangely enough, given her fairly martial role in The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen was a much weaker (and weepier) character in The Two Towers. She decided to give up the man she loved at the insistence of her father, and changed her mind only when she saw that she could have a son. Why she did not realize earlier that marriage to a king would entail childbearing is left unexplained. While Arwen’s role was almost non-existant in the book, she did not decide to leave Aragorn, having said that she would marry him almost 40 years earlier (Appendix A.I.v).
Elrond, like his daughter Arwen, had his role significantly increased by the filmmakers. However, his entire outlook on Middle-earth was changed: even in The Fellowship of the Ring he was bitter over Isildur’s failure to destroy the Ring and distrustful of Men in general. This was taken further in the last two films where he willfully deceived Arwen to convince her to leave Middle-earth. Elrond of the book took his daughter’s choice of husband much better, and we are not told of any attempt at trickery.
If one accepts that faithfulness to the details of the story is how one should gauge faithfulness then it then it would seem that the characters are unfaithful to their book origins. Yes, some changes are necessary during adaptation, but in the cases above I feel that the characters were either wholly or mostly altered to the point where it becomes difficult to say that they are really the same character as their counterpart in the book.