During the years Peter Jackson released his Lord of the Rings films, I spent more time thinking about Middle-earth than I did about my own life. I wasn’t working for WETA Workshop, I was just looking for an escape from middle school when The Fellowship of the Ring premiered. I saw each film at least three times in theaters and bought each theatrical cut on DVD only to buy the Extended Edition DVD several months later. Like many Tolkien fans, I was hoping for scenes outlining Tolkien’s lore and toehrs that gave literary storylines more room to breathe, like Faramir’s relationship with Boromir, or his with Eowyn.
Unfortunately, the added scenes primarily serviced Tolkien’s new, younger fandom, one hoping for Pippin and Merry gags rather than lore. Faramir did get a flashback with Boromir and their father, but the scene was only a short sliver of the material Jackson added in. Jackson’s problems are only amplified in the Hobbit trilogy which he directed from 2012 to 2014. Watching him try to expand and diversify dwarf culture to flesh out thirteen Gimlis instead of just one serves as even more damning evidence that Jackson never really understood what makes Tolkien’s Middle-earth a place worth exploring.
Whining that Jackson didn’t “do the movies right” is more than just a petty fanboy dispute. If Jackson and his team had leaned just a little harder into adapting Tolkien’s morals into their films, pop culture would have benefitted from a story about globalism, the seductive nature of greed, and struggling against xenophobia. Instead, we have an overwhelming trilogy about how good and evil are comically easy to spot. Why were Tolkien’s Uruk-hai evil? Because they were an unnatural, living abomination created from two races of creatures who had been tortured into submission themselves. Why are Peter Jackson’s Uruk-hai evil? Unless you’re paying attention to throwaway lines about lore, they just are.
Of course, it took me more than a decade to realize this; I was 11 when I first saw Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring. I spent middle school — and most of high school — staying up late on a website then-called LOTRPlaza.net, asking questions of anonymous users who professed themselves Tolkien scholars. I wanted to be a Hobbit so badly that I got into text-based role-playing, and I probably spent more time in a fake Middle-earth than I did making IRL friends. What I learned from my experience in the Tolkien fandom is that the divide between fans of the films and fans of Tolkien’s oeuvre is a contentious one.
On LOTRPlaza, any and all discussions of shipping, sharing of fanmade graphics or art, and speculation about Jackson’s films are relegated to a sub-board called “Legolas Love Letters.” The old fandom guard, who suddenly experienced a surge of teenage Orlando Bloom fans on their previously very literary website, were understandably suspicious of someone like me, whose username in 2001 was PippinGurl90. After a few weeks of being ignored in debates about The Silmarillion, which I was reading for the first time that year, I started a new account with a vaguely Middle-earth sounding name, Tolkienesque, and started writing fan fiction with with the best voice my 12-year-old self could manage. I also joined the role-playing boards, which were impenetrable to fans who hadn’t read the books cover to cover. The Lothlorien of the boards, for instance, was a much darker realm than Peter Jackson allowed it to be, and only celestial beings were able to travel through it freely.
These fans, who call Peter Jackson “PJ,” perceived the blockbuster Lord of the Rings films as charming, but neither accurate nor definitive adaptations of the texts many of them revered almost religiously. Jackson did a fantastic job differentiating the four Hobbits in his film, and most literary Tolkien fans credit him for zeroing in one what makes Merry (brave and clever) different from his counterpart Pippin, the most childlike of the Halfling quartet. Jackson enhanced what was already present in Tolkien’s novels, making Pippin and Merry into a bumbling, prat-falling, wisecracking pair of almost-children, which made their experiences with evil in Return of the King even more heartbreaking.
Where Jackson went awry was in forcing other characters, particularly Legolas and Gimli, into cinematic roles their source text characters weren’t ready for. Though the contentious relationship between the two is played for laughs throughout the trilogy, we really only see how horrific the history between their races was through hints, like the thrilling surge of music that accompanies the elves to Helm’s Deep. OG Tolkien fans take issue with the levity injected into Legolas and Gimli’s relationship in Jackson’s trilogy, and rightfully so: When it came time for Jackson to complicate the dwarves as a race in The Hobbit, he had done so much to make Gimli look trivial that his movie fans weren’t ready to see thirteen versions of him.
This was only exacerbated when Jackson was freed from the time limitations of commercial screenings. While he could have used the Extended Editions to add Tolkien’s original nuance with further details of the original lore, instead we get a scene between Eowyn and Gimli that’s mostly jokes about dwarf women having beards. It’s just wacky comedy again, and never approaches the depth of emotion that Gimli is allowed to briefly experience while grieving in Moria. Because Jackson wasn’t as interested in the relations between dwarves and elves as he was between the Dúnedain and the Steward family in Gondor, the mournful “nooo” Gimli utters when he discovers all of his relatives have been brutally killed is more awkward than resonant. Overall, the Extended Editions waste time by adding lore in as comedic dialogue. Jackson tries to have it both ways by pleasing casual moviegoers with levity and assuaging the worries of Tolkien fans who only want to see their favorite texts adapted faithfully.
All the work Tolkien did in world-building, giving dwarves and elves and Ents their own cultures and folklore, is reduced immensely in Jackson’s films. That’s all part and parcel of any book-to-film adaptation and could be stomached, or even enjoyed, when done in the spirit of enhancing what makes the source material beloved. But in the case of Jackson’s adaptations, there’s major tonal dissonance between the books and films: While Tolkien’s trilogy reads as a plea for Anglo-Saxon readers of his time to consider other viewpoints and fight xenophobia, Peter Jackson’s films portrays creatures who appear strange to the average viewer for the sake of humor.