There is a specter haunting the Lord of the Rings fandom: the specter of purism. Despite the role this idea has played over the years, many people have a very distorted and/or inaccurate view of it. To some it means any who dislike Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and to others it means those who wanted every single aspect of the book to be included in the films. Neither of these perceptions are accurate, however. Therefore the true beliefs of purists, instead of a hodgepodge of hearsay and stereotypes, should be presented publicly to the entire fandom.
Purism, in general, is the concern with maintaining the purity of something unadulterated by newer versions. For Tolkien Purism this means not having the “purity” of the story as told in the book be mixed with the independent ideas of the filmmakers to any great degree in the process of adapting the story to film. This belief may seem at first glance to be close-minded, but it is grounded in the idea that the point of adaptation is to tell the same story as the original book albeit in a different fashion. The most important thing for purists is preserving as much of the original story as possible.
Opposite purists in debates over the films are the so-called “revisionists” who accept and sometimes even welcome changes to the story. The debate between purists and revisionists has now been going for many years, since before the release of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. Since the release of those films, however, the purist/revisionist debate has largely devolved into discussions specifically about the films and their qualities (or lack thereof) as adaptations. While this is a source for much discussion, it has grown at the expense of the deeper question: in what way should filmmakers approach a book that they are adapting to film?
Much of the disagreement between purists and revisionists is due to their very different perspectives on adaptation, a difference that is sometimes forgotten in debates exclusively about the films as adaptations. To have a meaningful discussion about the films though, one must first have an understanding of the different conceptions of what a good adaptation is.
Principles of Purism
Although purists want an adaptation to be as faithful to the original story as possible, they are not necessarily opposed to all adaptations. Those purists who are willing to accept some adaptations do not insist on an exact carbon copy of the book, but they want the filmmakers to respect the source material as the foundation of the adaptation and to not fundamentally change the story itself in the process of adapting that same story to a new medium.
In general the following points summarize purist ideas about adaptations:
- The films are first and foremost adaptations of an existing story, and that existing story is found in its true form in the book.
- While certain changes are necessary to adapt the story to a new medium, making fundamental changes to the story itself defeats the purpose of adapting an existing story.
- Thus, changes to the core personality or characterization of the characters and major revisions to the plot and themes should not occur.
- Some cutting, condensing, restructuring, and related altering is acceptable if done strictly in order to make the story fit the new medium.
- Additions to the story should not be made unless minor and not infringing upon the main story.
- Cuts, changes, and alterations to the story for reasons other than adaptation (i.e., director’s preference, modernization, etc.) should not occur.
- An unfaithful adaptation that changes the original story is a bad thing since it is misleading to call it by the same title and it takes advantage of the existing fandom.
- Quality as cinema does not automatically make a movie a good adaptation, nor vice versa.
- However, the story told in the book is good enough that it could have been made into a successful film with only minor, understandable changes.
Purists and Revisionists
While both purists and revisionists accept the necessity of making some changes during the process of adaptation, revisionists will accept much more fundamental changes to the story rather than relatively minor changes to the way the story is told. They hold that such changes are necessary in the process of adaptation in order to make a successful film (that may or may not be a faithful adaptation). Many also believe that despite changes to the story the films can still honor the “spirit” of Tolkien and thus be faithful to the book. There are two main varieties of revisionists whose claims shall be addressed in turn.
First are the more extreme revisionists, somewhat rarer in the post-LotR release era, who reject the idea that the films should remain faithful to the book. To them making a successful film should be the paramount concern of the filmmakers, not how best to remain true to the book. These revisionists are comfortable even with what amounts to the re-creation of the story, disregarding the original text. They are essentially the diametric opposites of purists. Their claims, however, ignore the simple fact of adaptation; namely, that it is all about an existing story. To ignore the original story is to defeat the purpose of adaptation as opposed to original fiction.
Of course, certain changes must be made given the constraints of the medium of film but that does not mean the story itself should be changed. “Adaptations” that radically change the story of the source material are not uncommon, and filmmakers undoubtedly have the legal right to make these changes, but appealing to the fact that it is common does not constitute a real argument. Purists feel that filmmakers should remain true to the letter of the original story as much as possible especially when (1) their films retain the title of the original work and (2) the success of the original work affects the fortunes of the adaptation.
The second group of revisionists accepts the idea that the films should remain faithful to the book in some way, but they disagree with purists over how this faithfulness must manifest itself. They have offered many arguments about when and why changes to the story are justified or at least acceptable.
The “Spirit” of the Story
“The spirit of Tolkien” is a common phrase among many revisionists (including some people who worked on the films): they claim that so long as the films remain true to the spirit of Tolkien faithfulness has been maintained even if the story itself is changed. This argument frequently takes a form similar to “despite all the changes to the story, the ‘essence’ or ‘feel’ of The Lord of the Rings was still intact and noticeable in the films.” This “feel” is as elusive and subjective as it sounds. Most debaters who employ this tactic do not define “feel”, merely asserting that it was there based on their own opinion. Nevertheless, let us consider what the “feel” of The Lord of the Rings might be.
Using a narrow definition the feel of the story becomes inextricably linked to the details of the story itself, such as the interactions of characters; various events; and settings. The “feel” of Rohan from the book, for example, is indistinguishable from the descriptions and characteristics of Rohan in the book. When changes are made to these details though, a narrow definition quickly becomes untenable for the revisionist argument.
The alternative, then, is to define “feel” either extremely broadly or extremely subjectively. The latter often comes in the form of “it felt like that to me”, which is of course impossible to debate (or use as a standard to assess faithfulness). The former can take many forms, but some are “a fight between good and evil” or “the little guy taking on the big bad guy”. By these standards though Star Wars and Harry Potter captured the feel of The Lord of the Rings. If one makes the concept so generic it becomes meaningless when applied to anything more specific than a genre, and certainly not applicable to analyzing specific stories.
The Necessities of Adaptation
This argument runs, essentially, that the fact that some changes must be made during adaptation is a carte blanche for the filmmakers, explaining any alterations in the name of necessity. Both the writers for Jackson’s films and fan revisionists commonly use this argument. Any number of fundamental changes to the characterization or personality of the characters, or to the plot, can be defended in this manner. The weakness in this argument is, of course, that not all changes are of equal significance and some have far greater ramifications than others. It is unconvincing to suggest that, in the process of retelling a story, you must make changes to the nature of the story itself of just cutting and condensing parts in order to fit the new medium. Doing so would defeat the purpose of adapting an existing story instead of creating a new one and is a gross exaggeration of the fact at the heart of the argument.
The Necessities of Popular Appeal
Another argument that is sometimes used to explain away changes is that the filmmakers had to make the films appeal to audiences and be interesting. The argument also holds that the existing book fan base alone would not be enough to make the movie profitable. Without going into an analysis of sales and numbers, this seems a bit odd, as The Lord of the Rings is a bestseller worldwide with huge numbers of fans. However, there are also plenty of people who dislike it, so for the sake of the argument I will assume that the revisionists’ claim about profit is true. It is worth noting, however, that even Jackson himself acknowledged the importance of the book’s popularity when trying to convince companies to support and market the films (see The Frodo Franchise, Chapter 2–Prudent Aggression).
It is important though not to over-apply the concept of popular appeal to all changes made by the filmmakers, however. Films innately have two major advantages over the book when it comes to appealing too large audiences. First, it is easier to sit through a movie then read a long book, in part because of the length of time involved and also because films are by their nature both faster-paced and lack lengthy descriptive passages. These alone would make the story much easier for people who didn’t get into the book to sit through with only a few cuts and abbreviations (necessary in almost any adaptation of a book).
This argument is used to explain away many changes and both the filmmakers and fans alike claimed that characters have to be changed to appeal to people. The inherent notion in this that the book characters would not appeal to people is simply taken for granted. However, while some of the changes made by the filmmakers might be justified this way, there is no reason to automatically assume that something in the book could not work in a faster-paced movie, especially given the longstanding popularity of the book.
Helping the Book
This is perhaps the last fallback argument that is used to defend unfaithful adaptations. It holds that despite all the changes to the story, at least the film will have motivated some people to read the book and experience the true Middle-earth who would not have otherwise done so. It is undeniable that many people have been brought to the book by the existing films (or related products), and this is certainly a good thing. However, there are also many who have liked the movie with its emphasis on action and violence but disliked the (comparatively) slow and “boring” book. This could be the case with any unfaithful adaptation.
Without extensive surveys and studies that are beyond the means of the author of this essay it is impossible to tell which group is larger with regards to the existing films. However, in some ways Jackson’s movies are eclipsing the book in popular culture. The extensive use of film imagery when discussing the book, and the inevitable confusion of plot by people who assume that the film tells the same story as the book bear witness to this. Even among people who have read the book there can be mix-ups of story elements that cannot seriously be said to benefit the book.
This is a highly subjective argument that is difficult to argue. In the end it comes down to what one sees as more significant: some people reading (and fewer enjoying) the book, or millions of people worldwide having their conception of Tolkien’s writings muddled. It is important to remember, however, that this argument does not even try to address the changes that were made and may even reject them as bad.
Purists believe that the films should tell the story of the original book with as few alterations as possible, but they recognize the necessity of cutting and condensing to fit a new medium. They reject serious changes to the characters or the plot itself. Revisionists generally recognize that some faithfulness should be maintained during adaptation but they are comfortable with changes to the story. They have offered many arguments to explain or excuse changes, though purists generally disagree with those.