Adaptation Analysis: Lord of the Rings- The Fellowship of the Ring

For the adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson and his team claim to have remained exceptionally faithful to J.R.R Tolkien’s original novel. However, when comparing sequences, there seems to have been major truncation and combination of scenes, and removal of characters. For example, the length of travel in the chapter “Flight to the Ford” is truncated compared to the corresponding film sequence. The scene in the film does not last many days compared to the novel’s version, and the character development and journey itself seem to be less expansive. Frodo is also incapacitated in the film, while Tolkien has him regain strength at various moments of travel. The particular chapter, “Flight to the Ford,” is not an exact transference of what Tolkien included in his novel. In John M. Desmond’s Adaptation Studying Film and Literature, he explains the problem with “fidelity” and how when one claims “faithfulness,” they are putting literature above the film medium  anytime they employ “the language of fidelity.” In addition to this claim, Desmonds states, “Moreover, there is no standard measure as to how much of the “essential” text must be transferred in order for the film to be judged as faithful.” (40). In an attempt to create a system of evaluation of faithfulness, Desmond defines different metrics of evaluation: close, loose, and intermediate. Since Jackson repeatedly emphasizes the closeness of his adaptation, the definition Desmond gives of close adaptation is, “when most of the narrative elements in the literary text are kept in the film, few elements are dropped, and not many elements are added.” (44). 

In an interview, Jackson calls Tolkien’s novel “the bible” and that he was “respectful” to the source as he and his team were creating a screenplay. He claims that it was meant to be “Tolkien’s film,” not their own. In the same interview, the filmmakers and actors describe the importance of rewrites in vivid detail. John Rhys-Davies says that he had “two file boxes filled with rewrites” that he could never read because of how quick shooting would commence each day. These rewrites often consisted of the filmmakers coming back to Tolkien’s novel, putting the text into the film through dialogue or the cinematography. The team also allowed actors “to become writers,” and they concluded that the “artistic result was terrific.” The claim is that they added “lots of scenes,” which they felt made it better than the original. As an example of this, with “Flight to the Ford,” the filmmakers went into Chapter 12 Appendix A, Part (V) from Return of the King, which is clearly not from Fellowship. Interestingly, the filmmakers replace the elf Glorfindel with Arwen, who is meant to be Aragorn’s love interest. This section of the Appendix from Return of the King develops both Aragorn and Arwen by providing background information of their family and the decision Arwen must make that seems truncated in the film. Although Jackson claims faithfulness, the drastic change in character, and many other changes, make the transfer of “Flight to the Ford” to film an intermediate adaptation.  

Desmond defines an intermediate adaptation as “when it is in the fluid middle of the sliding scale between close and loose. Some elements of the story are kept in the film, other elements are dropped, and still more elements are added.” “Flight to the Ford” seems to fit such categorization with specific moments that do not happen in the film. Everything is swift, while the chapter feels as though this is a grueling journey we are taking with these characters. Tolkien’s description of landscape and terrain also emphasize the exhausting trek for these characters. Desmond says, “an intermediate adaptation neither conforms exactly nor departs entirely.” (44).  In the opening of “Flight to the Ford,” there is an immediate difference in urgency. For the film, Frodo’s stabbing is a way to propel the story’s plot with cruciality. After Frodo is stabbed, Aragorn, disguised as Strider, picks up the sword and says, “He’s been stabbed by a Morgul blade.” He evaluates the situation, “This is beyond my skill to heal; he needs elvish medicine.” Jackson plays this dialogue in quick back and forth cuts between our characters in close-up to show the situation’s urgency. These rapid cuts are furthered as Frodo (Elijah Wood) screams in the background. The quick cuts continue, and Strider picks up Frodo, taking him on his back as they hear a shriek that was also in the novel, “There was no sign of the Riders. But even as they were hurrying across, they heard far away two cries: a cold voice calling and a cold voice answering.” (194). Jackson has the shriek happen as they are quickly escaping while Strider grips Frodo on his back and sprints with the others, which adds to the suspense. For the novel, the pacing is slower. We get moments when Strider tells Sam that he is not the enemy, “I am not a Black Rider, Sam,” he said gently, “nor in league with them. I have been trying to discover something of their movements; but I found nothing. I cannot think why they have gone and do not attack again.” (192). The urgency is not as apparent since they stay in the same position instead of running like in the film. The editing creates seriousness, which is also an example of Jackson’s truncation. The chapter is not fully there and also not in its original order; the quick pace allows the filmmakers to fly through this chapter instead of Tolkien’s meandering journey.

Although the group does not take as long to get Frodo to Rivendell compared to the novel, the camera pans to the left, and Sam says that it will take six days to get there (referencing the journey in the book). In the novel, our characters reference Gandalf many times in this chapter, such as when Strider says, “Gandalf hinted that it might prove so.” (193) and when they decide to leave Weathertop, he also states, “If Gandalf ever came here, then he must have been forced to ride away, and he will not return.” (194). Instead of Strider’s references, Jackson chooses to close-up on Frodo and have his internal scream become audible. He screams: “Gandalf,” which Jackson uses to transition us to a scene where we catch up with the wizard, turning Frodo’s scream into a sound bridge. In the novel, Tolkien follows our characters to Rivendell because there is a difference in convention between the mediums. For Jackson, it is in his best interest to use his toolbox of filmic conventions to achieve something monumental. He employs a suspenseful score by Howard Shore while a crane shot slowly reveals the immensity of a cavern. The crane pulls back to reveal a moth fluttering in view, which suddenly changes the suspenseful score to an angelic chorus. The camera follows the moth and moves towards Gandalf on a tower. With an emphasis on space, there is an extreme close-up of the moth in Gandalf’s hand. Jackson isolates Gandalf’s whisper; however, we do not understand what he says. With an expression of pain, Gandalf is in a canted angle as the moth flaps toward the right side of the screen. Jackson has the camera go into the bird’s eye and zoom into the cavern where Saruman’s army is smithing weapons. There is a montage, which has rapid cutting between these creatures preparing for war. The sequence culminates with Saruman in an eyeline match as he creates the Uruk-Kai, a new breed of orcs. We then cut back to a close-up of Frodo to bring us back to our band of characters. Jackson’s deviation allows us to see another side of the situation, as cinematic time can suspend us. Jackson’s choice to show this sequence at this moment is not the exact way that “Flight to Ford” is shown in Tolkien’s novel.  

Next in “The Flight to Ford,” there is quite a bit of wandering as well as the discovery of the “troll-hole” and the stone trolls that they believe are real. In the chapter, Sam sings a song about a troll, and Tom, with big boots on, comes in search of his uncle, Tim. The troll is gnawing on the shin bone of his uncle. The song is an interlude and development of their situation; the trolls were of stone, and Strider hit them with a stick instead of his hand: ‘It is as well you used a stick and not your hand, Strider!” (203). For the film, Jackson omits all of this song, but he has giant stone trolls in the background. For him, he chose to show the visual over the dialogue on these stone trolls. Creating an interesting landscape and a nod to this sequence in the novel seems to have been his intention. The history between Bilbo, Gandalf and these trolls is also omitted, seemingly loosening the precedence set for the characters’ in the novel. For the film, Jackson has Strider and Sam search for an Athelas plant (Kingsfoil), which is the same for the novel: “‘It is fortunate that I could find it, for it is a healing plant that the Men of the West brought to Middle-earth. Athelas they named it, and it grows now sparsely and only near places where they dwelt or camped of old.” (193). However, in the novel, Sam stays with Frodo while Strider finds the plant, and in the film, Sam calls the plant, “a weed.” In Strider’s search, Arwen puts a weapon to his throat, with her person off-camera: a suspenseful way to introduce a character since the Black Riders are in pursuit. In the novel, Glorfindel’s character comes later in the chapter, and they have the upper hand in the situation as the group hide in the bushes and let Glorfindel pass before they speak to him. The high-key lighting in Frodo’s POV of Arwen and the angelic harmonies in the background provide an introduction in contrast to her previous scene with Aragorn. Jackson employs superimposition to further the divine nature of Arwen and Frodo’s hypnotic state from his injury. In the film, Glorfindel’s dialogue is given to Arwen: “there are five Wraiths behind you. Where the other four are, I do not know.” Finally, the elvish Arwen and Strider confuse the hobbits. Jackson also uses an extreme close-up of their hands to show they are in love: an element that may have been brought in since romance is often a necessity in Hollywood blockbusters. 

Jackson introduces us to Arwen, who is a half-elf and also Aragon’s love interest. For this, the filmmakers went into the Appendix of Return of the King, where Tolkien provides an overview of Aragorn’s bloodline, his disguise as Estel after his father’s death (“slain by orc arrow that pierced his eye,”), and his need to become “the King of both Gondor and Arnor” to receive acceptance from Arwen’s father, Elrond. After Aragon successfully earned both titles, it says, “Elrond grew weary at last and forsook Middle-Earth, never to return.” The appendix has Aragorn succeeding and receiving both “the winged crown of Gondor and the scepter of Arnor,” which at the time of his death he leaves to his son Eldarion. Like the film, by marrying Aragorn, Arwen loses her Elvin immortality: “she tasted the bitterness of the mortality she had taken upon her.” The appendix ends with both of their deaths. Arwin goes to the city of “Minas Turutg and passes away to the land of Lorien.” For the film, Jackson chose to replace Glorfindel with Arwen. In the text, Glorfindel searches for the group by way of Rivendell. Interestingly, the blonde-haired Glorfindel leaves a jewel or “token” for the others to know it safe to cross the bridge of Mitheithel, which Strider had previously read as it was intended. Glorfindel tells them about Gandalf not being in Rivendell since he had departed, which is one of the stories he produces when he finds them. Another interesting difference between the film and the novel is the ending of “Flight to the Ford;” Tolkien has Frodo be the only one on the “white elf-horse of Glorfindel.” (208). In the film, Frodo is incapacitated and holds on to Arwen as she controls the horse: Jackson adds suspenseful music and uses tracking shots to document their flight, and there is even slow-motion. The proximity of our band of characters and this ending location (The Ford) is much closer in the novel. For the final sequence, Arwen seems to activate the river to defeat the Black Riders while in the novel, it is a final stand by Frodo: “By Elbereth and Luthien the fair,’ said Frodo with a last effort, lifting up his sword, ‘you shall have neither the Ring nor me!’” (209). After Frodo drops his sword, the waves turn: “White flames seemed to Frodo to flicker on their crests and he half fancied that he saw amid the water white riders upon white horses with frothing manes.” (209). In the film, Jackson visualizes this perfectly, down to the horses’ “frothing manes” as though this scene was reality. After these waves carry off the Black Riders, Frodo collapses, “He heard and saw no more.” For Jackson, he ends the sequence with more superimposition to show his drift out of consciousness and transition the scene to Rivendell. 

The particular sequence of “Flight to The Ford” has similarities, differences, and added material. All of the material points to what Desmond describes as an intermediate adaptation. In interviews, the filmmakers said their adaptation is “faithful” to the novel. The differences call into question the closeness of the adaptation. Some may argue that Jackson retains the plot’s same outcomes and Tolkien’s themes. However, the pacing, the omission of the characters, the combination of the appendix and this chapter, and Gandalf and Saruman transitional sequence point to more of a stylized version of Tolkien’s original. Obviously, Jackson translates the chapter from the written to the visual, but his use of the language of fidelity calls into question by what terms one can judge their adaptation as a faithful one. The crew saying they kept coming back to the novel does not necessarily make the adaptation faithful since we have used the term “faithful” but have not distinguished the standard by which we are judging it. For Desmond, the categorization of close, loose, and intermediate is a standard he proposes. By applying this standard, there seems to be enough material change that calls into question closeness. Arguing against the director’s assessment of fidelity is not my intent; I find it important to distinguish between what they mean by faithfulness and how they said their changes “made the story better.” As the filmmakers call this Tolkien’s film, and by the standard of how heavily they relied on source material, it could be said that it was “faithful” in the sense that they saw it as a homage to Tolkien. Desmond’s label of intermediate adaptation can be seen through the number of differences between novel and film in “The Flight to Ford.” 


Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature, by John M. Desmond and Peter Hawkes, McGraw-Hill Education Create, 2006. 

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: The Lord of the Rings Part One. Mariner Books, 2012. 

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Appendix A, Part (v) .” Return of the King, Mariner Books, 2012. 

— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.

Christian’s Bio:


Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.”  Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.

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