Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are usually mentioned when people think of good book-to-film adaptations. And, once you watch them, you realize why. For many people, Jackson’s movies captured the spirit and themes of the books and gave us a faithful recreation of Middle-Earth. You can see the influence of these now-iconic movies in LOTR videogames, board games and even the upcoming Amazon Prime TV series. Heck, New Line is even revisiting Jackson’s continuity with a new anime film, written by the trilogy’s co-screenwriter Phillipa Boyens.
So, while Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies remain the most faithful adaptations of Tolkien’s books thus far, how did he and his team manage it? What did the Kiwi filmmaker and Weta do to create a ground-breaking epic trilogy that is highly regarded and set the stage for many of today’s modern blockbusters? Let’s take a trek into Middle-Earth and find out what made the LOTR movies good…
7. The Trilogy Was Filmed in One Go
Despite the fact that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was written as one book, Professor T’s publishers at the time decided to split it into three separate volumes. While Tolkien was initially opposed to this idea, his eventual publisher, George Allen & Unwin, wanted to minimize potential financial losses (suffice to say, they had no clue how profitable the book would be). Thus, the subtitles Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King were eventually born.
Given this history, it’s perhaps fitting that, much like Tolkien wrote his ‘trilogy’ as one book, Jackson filmed his trilogy as one film back-to-back. This gives the entire trilogy a feeling of consistency tonally and narratively and a beautiful sense of flow. Whereas the Star Wars movies are never visually or thematically consistent, you can feel the consistency throughout the three LOTR entries because they were filmed as one movie.
6. It Keeps LOTR’s most iconic lines
I love J. R. R. Tolkien. There’s no denying the man’s contributions to the fantasy genre nor his innovations regarding fantasy worldbuilding. While these concepts are translatable to film, his dialogue isn’t quite as film-friendly. Tolkien’s dialogue is very conversational – and, at times, as whimsical as his descriptions of Middle-Earth. There’s a certain magic to it, but it needs reworking for a feature film (especially one designed for general audience consumption).
A good thing Peter Jackson does, alongside movie co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, is reworking the book’s dialogue while remaining true to the feel of The Lord of the Rings. They wisely veer away from modern English colloquialisms and retain the ‘Ye Old’ eloquence of Tolkien’s dialogue. Yet, as fans, the screenwriters know what lines in the book are the most impactful. Therefore, they wisely keep some of the book’s most iconic speeches (i.e., Gandalf’s thoughtful musing on how we must “decide is what to do with the time that is given us”) to keep things faithful, even if they employ said speeches in different parts of the story and/or via different characters.
5. Howard Shore’s gorgeous soundtrack
So, let’s just put this out there right now. Howard Shore’s score is one of the best movie soundtracks period, let alone the best for a fantasy film. From the flute-led laidback vibes of ‘Concerning Hobbits’ to the doomsaying-chorus of the Sauron theme back to Enya’s painfully angelic vocals in Aniron, Shore hits all the right notes (sorry) in his audio tribute to Middle-Earth.
But what’s so incredible about LOTR‘s score is just how distinctive it is. Just about everybody can recognize the beautifully seductive ‘Ring’ theme, which is so subtle yet illustrative of the rings’ dangerous allure. While it’s exciting to see Howard Shore in talks to reprise composing duties for the Amazon Prime series, one wonders whether the famed Canadian music mastermind can repeat similar success to his time on Jackson’s films. I guess we will soon find out.
4. It Boasts the Best Cast
The Lord of the Rings movies boasts some of the best actors in fantasy cinema. Obviously, the suitability of a film’s casting can make or break a film entirely. Thus, it was good that the minds behind the LOTR movies were just as painstaking in their casting as they were regarding VFX. Indeed, for many a Tolkien fan, it’s hard not to envision Ian McKellen’s almost-perfect portrayal of Gandalf when reading the books. Nor can they shake off Christopher Lee’s beautifully hammy portrayal as good-guy-turned-Sauron-lackey Saruman.
Likewise, Elijah Wood’s casting as Frodo was a solid choice. When Wood began filming, he was 18, and by the time he finished, he was in his early twenties. This was a coincidental but poetic contrast to Frodo’s very own coming-of-age story in the movies. LOTR
3. Streamlines the LOTR narrative
Okay, so this might be a controversial point. Especially since, to this day, many hardcore Tolkien fans dislike Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings since it makes so many changes to the book. And yet, it’s for this very reason that LOTR remains one of the best book-to-film adaptations of all time. Jackson knows what parts to cut out in order to service the story on-screen.
While Tolkien (awesomely) went on marvelous tangents to embellish his fantasy world (i.e., Tom Bombadil, the Hobbits’ encounter with the Barrow-wights, Glorfindel), these tangents are impractical in a mainstream feature film. After all, film is a far more structured medium, filmgoers tend to have shorter attention spans than book readers, and there’s only so much money you can throw at special effects. By omitting some of Tolkien’s material, Jackson centers the film on Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom and the War of the Ring, therefore making the movies more consumable by a general audience. His omission of the Scouring of the Shire is perhaps his most ingenious since this section feels like “an ending after the ending.” The big threat of Sauron is gone, and Sauron would have felt measly in comparison. It’s much more satisfying to have Sauron and Mordor perish and then wind the story down from there.
2. Captures the Moods of Lord of the Rings
Lord of the Rings exudes a variety of tones across its 481,103 words. There’s comedy, tragedy, light, darkness, joy, depression, and more. Now, handling all these feelings in an amateur author’s hands would amount to something of a constant ‘mood whiplash.’ However, Tolkien’s work is almost flawless in balancing these tones.
Jackson succeeds in replicating Tolkien’s flexibility in tone and feeling, albeit via a visual medium. And, incredibly, he manages to do so tenfold. From the Laurel-and-Hardy-esque shenanigans of Merry and Pippin, all the way to the nihilism of Sauron and Mordor, to the tragedy of Sméagol to the bond between Sam and Frodo, Jackson wields all these elements. It makes them flow throughout the story without the various tones conflicting with one another.
1. Captured the Essence of Middle-Earth
Depicting an alternate fantasy universe in film is hard stuff. When you’re filming a movie like, say, Maid in Manhattan, the setting is more or less made for you. However, in Jackson’s trilogy, the Kiwi director had a huge challenge in convincing audiences that they were watching the story take place in another world, not their own.
Thankfully, PJ won this challenge and then some. Using breath-taking cinematography, Jackson transforms the beautiful wilderness of New Zealand into Middle-Earth. And via the ground-breaking VFX of Weta Workshop, he flawlessly depicts the hellish landscapes of Mordor.
However, it’s not merely through the camera that Tolkien’s universe is beautifully realized. Howard Shore’s themes for the world’s locations (such as Rohan, the Shire/Hobbiton, and Rivendell) give them individual character and a feeling of pure magic. One hopes Shore revives this concept into the upcoming Amazon Prime series.
What do you think are the things that make Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies great book adaptations? Do you think the LOTR Amazon Prime TV series will prove as good as the movies?