We all love Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Its amazing visuals and incredible storytelling helped put speculative fiction on the mainstream map, paving the way for countless stories to come. What’s even more impressive is that it’s totally, 100% original. That still blows my mind. How often do you see a blockbuster film franchise that’s not based on, say, a widely popular book from over 50 years ago?
But if you’ve ever been curious what The Lord of the Rings would be like in book form, you’re in luck! It turns out there’s a brand new novelization of the films, written by someone named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.* I have to say, it’s a risky move giving such a huge franchise to a relatively unknown author, but it seems to have paid off.
I just finished the trilogy, which weighs in at a respectable 481,103 words,* and it’s pretty good. It has a lot of small changes you’d expect, like more worldbuilding details and a slower pace, but I was honestly surprised by how many major alterations Tolkien made. He’s reinterpreted entire storylines and, in some cases, added new ones. That’s a lot of freedom to give such an untested author, and it creates a fundamentally different experience than watching the films. Here are some of the biggest changes I noticed in this novelization of an original film franchise.
1. An Unnecessary Character Is Added
The novelization follows the film pretty closely for the first few chapters. There’s a bit more time devoted to Frodo’s backstory,* but otherwise not much has changed. Then the hobbits leave the Shire and things start to diverge. First, they have an adventure where they nearly get eaten by a barrow-wight, and then they meet Tom Bombadil.
I do not understand Tom Bombadil or why Tolkien added him to the story. He contributes nothing to the plot, and we never see him again. He sort of saves the hobbits from the barrow-wight, but Frodo already had that situation mostly in hand. In fact, the only thing Bombadil accomplishes is to make the plot less interesting because he treats the Ring of Power like it’s no big deal.
At first, I thought this character was some pet project of Jackson’s thankfully left in a deleted scene, but that’s not the case. Bombadil is entirely invented by Tolkien. I guess Bombadil does provide an opportunity for more worldbuilding details, but it’s not like the book is short on those elsewhere. He doesn’t even fit with the rest of the setting, which is full of epic, serious figures while Bombadil is jovial and flippant. He feels like a character from a different story inserted into the plot so he can sing a few songs and then leave again.
2. Most of Boromir’s Death Scene Is Offscreen
In the films, Boromir’s death scene is one of the most memorable moments in the entire story, so I was shocked when I heard it happens offscreen in the novelization. I wondered how Tolkien would resolve Boromir’s temptation arc without the redemption of protecting Merry and Pippin from the orcs. What if the fellowship’s most tragic figure didn’t get his due?
Turns out I didn’t have to worry; Tolkien did a great job. Even though we don’t see the orc battle, there’s still plenty of meat in Boromir’s arc. Not only does the book give us a deeper look at his emotional state, but we also find out more about why he wants the Ring so much: Gondor is slowly being overrun, and he’s desperate for a way to turn back the tide.
At the same time, Tolkien uses the offscreen battle to build tension. Aragorn hears the sound of a fight, but neither he nor the reader knows what’s happening. When he arrives on the scene to find a field of slain orcs and a dying Boromir, it’s more powerful than a description of the battle. This isn’t to say it was a mistake to put the battle onscreen in the film, just that as a written work, the novelization has different capabilities. Don’t worry though – if you really want to see how Tolkien would have described the fight, he has Merry and Pippin recount it in great detail during the second book.
3. Legolas Is Way Less Badass
In the films, Legolas is a great character portrayed with the grace and stature befitting a son of Mirkwood, but there’s just one problem: power creep. In the first film, he’s a really good archer, shooting orcs dead from point-blank range. In Two Towers, he’s shield-sliding down a castle wall and taking out half a dozen orcs at the same time. By Return of the King, he’s become a one-elf army, dealing death as he pleases and taking down a building-sized monster like it’s nothing. This damages the battle’s tension because it seems like nothing can hurt Legolas. He’s almost like a cartoon character.
The novelization handles this much better. Instead of a mile-high kill count, Legolas’s elven heritage lets him perform incredible feats like seeing by moonlight and walking on snow.* This helps Legolas feel otherworldly and strange without making him seem overpowered. It’s a great way to bring across the mystique of the elves without disrupting the story.
In fact, for most of Fellowship, it’s Aragorn and Boromir who do the bulk of the fighting. Legolas mostly plays support, taking down enemies who are out of the humans’ reach. He fights more in the second and third books, but he never overshadows the other characters. He even loses to Gimli in a contest of who can kill more orcs!
4. Moria Makes More Sense
The Moria sequence in Fellowship always struck me as odd. Gimli talks about how his cousin will throw them a feast when they arrive, and yet the mines look like they’ve been abandoned for centuries. How did Gimli not know all his fellow dwarves were dead? And how did Gandalf know that they had dug too greedily and too deep if it only happened recently?
In the novelization, Tolkien clears this all up. It turns out that Moria was abandoned centuries ago when the dwarves dug up some ancient evil, but in recent years, a group of dwarves came from the Lonely Mountain to reclaim it. I’m guessing Tolkien got an advanced copy of the Hobbit trilogy script, which would explain how he knew to reference the adventures of Bilbo and Thorin.
Anyway, it’s this more recent party of dwarves that Gimli is expecting to meet. They’ve been quiet for a while, but not long enough to convince him there’s something seriously wrong. After all, they’re some of the Lonely Mountain’s best warriors; what could possibly have defeated them?
5. The Sexism and Racism Are Worse
Sadly, the LotR films weren’t kind to either women or people of color. Arwen gets a cool moment when she rescues Frodo with water magic, and Eowyn triumphantly slays the Witch-king, but that’s about it for female characters. Meanwhile, the good races are all lily-white while orcish skin is almost always dark, and the few humans of color in the trilogy are inexplicably fighting for Sauron. Did they not get the memo about him wanting to turn all of Middle-earth into a blasted hellscape?
The novelization is even worse. Arwen doesn’t rescue Frodo; it’s some other random elf we never see again. In fact, Arwen’s presence in the story is so small I was shocked when she actually has a line of dialogue near the end of book three. Eowyn still takes down the Witch-king, but that victory is tainted by what comes after: turns out Eowyn was only fighting because she was sad,* and once she finds a man, she gives up all that unwomanly nonsense. So that’s not great.
The novelization is even worse on race. In the films, it was heavily implied that dark-skinned people are on Sauron’s side. In the books, it’s explicit, with Tolkien spending a lot of time talking about “swarthy” skinned enemies and directly conflating skin color with an allegiance to the Dark Lord. This kind of racist nonsense is bad for the story and bad for the genre as a whole. I can only hope that Tolkien’s bad ideas won’t influence fantasy writers for generations to come or anything like that.
6. Wormtongue Makes More Sense
At first glance, the film’s version of Grima Wormtongue is perfect for his role as Saruman’s evil spy. He’s constantly sweaty, his default posture is coiled up like a snake, and you can hear the cackle in his voice. But that’s actually the problem: he’s too perfect. It’s hard to believe no one in Rohan realized he was evil, especially since the king seems to have aged 50 years just by talking to him. The royal guard should have knifed him in a back room long before Gandalf and co arrived.
In the novelization, Grima is presented as a charismatic advisor to the king and respected by all after many years of loyal service. When he councils Theoden against helping Gandalf, his arguments even make sense! He talks about how Saruman has always been a valuable ally and that Gandalf only ever shows up when he wants something, often bringing trouble in his wake. This version of Grima nearly had me convinced!
While the novelization still has Grima exerting supernatural influence over the king, it’s much subtler than in the film, and it makes sense that only a wizard of Gandalf’s talent could spot it. This makes Grima’s defeat much more satisfying because it was actually difficult. The novelization also makes it clear that “Wormtongue” isn’t actually Grima’s name; it’s just what his enemies call him. Well done, Tolkien.
7. Helms Deep Is Boring
In the original Two Towers film, the Battle of Helms Deep is a desperate defense against overwhelming odds. The defenders are badly outmatched and sure to fall. It’s wonderfully satisfying when Gandalf and the Rohirrim arrive to smash the Uruk-Hai,* both because we were sure the day was lost, and because it represents a touching reconciliation between King Theoden and his nephew Eomer.
None of this is true in the novelization. Though Tolkien nearly overloads the page with a description of the battle, none of it makes the Uruk-Hai seem dangerous. The good guys slaughter them left and right with barely a second thought, and the attack seems doomed to failure. Even when the Uruk-Hai breach the Deeping Wall, there’s no sense of danger. In the film, when the defenders make their final charge, it’s clearly a doomed last stand. In the novelization, it seems like they’ll defeat Saruman’s army all on their own without any need for reinforcements.
Speaking of reinforcements: when they finally arrive, they are lead by… some guy. I’ve honestly forgotten his name, and I refuse to look it up. He’s mentioned in the narration a few times, but we’ve never actually seen him before, and if we ever see him again, I missed it. This has none of the emotional satisfaction that Eomer’s charge does in the film. Instead, it’s just a mop-up exercise.
The weird part is that Tolkien can write exciting battle sequences; he proves that with Minas Tirith in the next book, but he simply chose not to here. Not a great career move for an unknown author trusted with such an important franchise.
8. Sam and Frodo’s Relationship Is Different
Unfortunately, the LotR films have no openly queer characters, but the relationship between Sam and Frodo still provides fertile ground for shipping. The two hobbits have an intense friendship based on understanding and mutual support – who wouldn’t want them to end up together?*
Tolkien made some… interesting changes for the novelization. Sam is still intensely dedicated to Frodo, but not as a friend or partner. Instead, their relationship is primarily defined by Sam being Frodo’s loyal servant. That kills a lot of the shipping potential because the two hobbits are no longer on even footing, which isn’t a good place to begin a romantic relationship. Tolkien does once liken Sam defending Frodo to a small animal protecting its mate, but that’s all we get.
The master–servant relationship is also a lot less emotionally compelling. It feels like Sam’s actions are based more on obligation than a genuine desire to help Frodo. I don’t know why Tolkien, a modern author writing in modern day, would expect readers to connect with this dynamic. Heck, even if the books were published over 50 years ago, they’d still represent a problematic idealization of an outdated social structure.
9. Gollum Doesn’t Have Much of an Arc
When Gollum was first brought up in Fellowship, I was expecting a minor villain the hobbits would vanquish and then never think about again. Instead, he turned out to be one of the most compelling characters in the entire film trilogy. He comes so close to redemption he can taste it, and then he’s cast back into darkness through a combination of exterior forces and his own flaws. I cheered for him the whole time, and it broke my heart when redemption passed him by.
For some reason, Tolkien decided to make Gollum significantly less compelling in the novelization. Most of the same plot events take place, but there’s never any real chance that Gollum could break away from Sauron’s power. Instead, his internal conflict is mostly about whether he’s too scared of Frodo to try anything, or if he wants the Ring badly enough to openly attack the hobbits.
Not only does this make for a less interesting character, but it also cheapens the importance of Bilbo showing Gollum mercy. In the film, when Gandalf talks about the part Gollum has yet to play, it includes the possibility that he might break free of the Ring’s influence. In the novelization, the only payoff is that, by coincidence, Gollum happened to be in the right place at the right time to take the Ring from Frodo and then fall into a volcano.
10. The Hobbits Have to Reconquer the Shire
When I started reading this novelization, I expected all the major plot points would be the same, and for the most part, they were. Sure, Tom Bombadil makes an unwelcome appearance, but he doesn’t change anything important. So imagine my surprise when I got to what I was expecting would be the end, only to find an entire storyline still waiting. That sounds strange, I know. The Ring is destroyed, Sauron vanquished, and Aragorn installed as the rightful king of Gondor. What else is there to do?
It turns out that shortly after Frodo left the Shire, a team of Saruman’s goons showed up and claimed the place for themselves. After the Ring’s destruction, Saruman himself takes up residence,* putting himself in control of Middle-earth’s most important pipeweed production center. Now the hobbits must oust this evil wizard and reclaim their home!
On the one hand, this section feels tacked on and unnecessary. Even if the hobbits fail, Saruman’s position cannot possibly hold. The worst-case scenario is that Aragorn will send a force to deal with the problem later. Those are hardly high stakes. And yet, this section does give the hobbits a chance to show how much they’ve grown. They’re no longer frightened travelers; they’re badass soldiers who will force Saruman out by strength of arms. It’s also nice that Merry and Pippin get to take center stage for once. They’re in charge of the fight against Saruman’s mooks, which is a welcome change after spending most of the trilogy either as tagalongs or hostages.
So while this extra Shire storyline isn’t really needed, it’s still a reasonably fun read and a decent way to contrast who the hobbits were when they left with who they are when they return. There is one final bit of strangeness though: this section is where Tolkien is most blatant about his political beliefs. The whole trilogy, even in the original films, has the unhealthy idealization of kings that’s common to fantasy, but this section takes things a step further. Here, Tolkien vents his spleen about the evils of urban industrialization destroying the beautiful state of bliss between country aristocrats and the simple peasant-folk. Weird, Tolkien. Very weird.
Bonus: The Eagles Are Still the Same???
You can’t take two steps on the internet without stepping on an article about how the eagles are a huge plot hole, and they are. They can fly wherever they want, up to and including Mount Doom, so why did the hobbits have to walk? No amount of fan-theorizing is going to square that circle, so I was sure Tolkien would take the opportunity to address the issue.
He did not. If anything, he made the plot hole even bigger, with line after line extolling the virtue and power of the eagles. He even makes a point of how devoted the eagles are to Gandalf. I’m honestly baffled. Why would Tolkien, writing years after the films came out, go out of his way to make the problem worse? It’s not as if he didn’t know about the plot hole since he couldn’t have missed all the articles about it online, as he is a modern day person with an internet connection.
So there you have it, all the major difference between the extremely original Lord of the Rings film and their brand new novelization. Despite some of the problems, I still think these books are worth reading. Tolkien has an impressive grasp of wordcraft, no doubt about it, which is especially surprising in such an inexperienced writer that no one has ever heard of. No doubt he’ll go on to do great things!
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