Analysis

Ten Changes Made in the Lord of the Rings Novelization

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

Cover art of Tom Bombadil.

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

Boromir's death scene from Fellowship of the Ring

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

Legolas wielding two swords.

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 Mines of Moria from Fellowship.

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

Eowyn from Two Towers.

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

Grima and Theoden from Two Towers

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

Orcs scaling the wall of Helms Deep

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

Sam and Frodo from Return of the King

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

Gollum from Lord of the Rings

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

Merry wearing a helmet.

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???

Eagles from the Hobbit films.

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!

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. April

    This is cute, but I’ve always found Tolkien to be too verbose for my tastes. For me, this a case in which the movies are clearly superior to the books

    I was hoping you would mention Elladan and Elrohir. For some reason they were my favorites as a kid. The write up on Legolas was spot on though. He went from cool to breaking suspension of disbelief.

  2. Tifa

    This is hilarious!

    I’ve watched The Lord of The Rings so much I can basically quote the whole thing.

    Tom Bombadil has always bothered me. I read somewhere that he was left over from some other idea that Tolkien had.

    I do have one explanation of the eagles, which most people have probably heard before: that grandly flying to Mordor would attract Sauron’s attention, as well as that of the Nazguls, and the risk that the Ring would fall anywhere but Mount Doom if the Nazguls attacked the eagle carrying Frodo would be too great. It’s not much of a theory, admittedly, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.

    Could you do one for The Hobbit, too?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Glad you liked the article Tifa! So at the risk of rehashing an eagles argument, I don’t think it matters if they draw Sauron’s attention. As far as I know his giant eye doesn’t shoot lasers or anything, and we see in both books and movies that the eagles can easily overwhelm the Nazguls on their fellbeasts.

      It’s not completely without risk but it’s way less dangerous than having Frodo walk all the way to Mount Doom.

  3. Michael Campbell

    Oren:

    Brevity is the acme of skill.

    • SunlessNick

      I’ve seen Roadrunner. Trusting in Acme never works out.

  4. Intptt

    The books had so much scenic descriptions. I think Tolkien wanted to capture the imagery of Jackson’s spectacular sets and locations? Understandable, but it made the books way harder for me to read. I’m not a visual thinker; I don’t have the attention span for that much visual detail.

  5. Paul C.

    Great post, Oren, and I hope this JRRT guy pays attention.

    I think Tolkien slacked off and didn’t watch the extended edition of the film, though, because when the chief Ringwraith confronts Gandalf in the book, the nascent battle between the two is cut short and the reader has no idea who is the more powerful. Jackson brilliantly shows the Nazgul leader breaking Gandalf’s staff, so the viewer has no questions left unanswered.

    Another failing: JRRT skipped the character arc for Faramir, from deeply desiring the ring to overcoming that desire and letting Frodo go on his quest. It should be obvious that everyone, that is to say, absolutely every single being in Middle Earth, would have been strongly tempted to take the ring, but somehow JRRT blew right past that.

    Well, maybe next time. Though I am looking forward to see what Tolkien does with his upcoming translation of Beowulf…

    • Tifa

      Good point about Faramir. I always found it odd that in the books, everyone went on about how dangerous and corruptible the Ring was, and then the narrative turned around and basically implied/stated that it’s dangerous and corruptible…as long as you’re not Gandalf. Or Aragorn. Or Galadriel. Or Faramir…

      My mum thinks that Galadriel barely resisting taking the Ring is out of character, that she should have resisted it completely. I disagree.

  6. Karen M

    Ok first of all, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is the originator of the books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien was a Professor of Literature at various universities in England. He died in 1973. The Hobbit was published in 1937 and LotR in 1954 and 1955. The books were first published in the U.S in the early 1960’s (unauthorized editions) and in 1965 (copywrite editions,) He developed the story between 1937 and 1949. The movies are an adaptation of his books, not the other way around. The books you refer to are reprints of the originals. An animated movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers was released in 1978 which was not well received (I saw it and IMHO thought it did not do the books justice.)

    Yes, his works are sexist and racist which are views reflecting the social atmosphere of over 50 years ago (which you disparage in your reviews.) He also drew upon much more ancient texts, such as Beowulf, The Scandinavian and Icelandic Eddas, and works from the Dark and Middle Ages. It should be no surprise therefore, that his books contain both sexist and racist elements.

    So, while I find your observations interesting, I feel that your lack of knowledge and research greatly diminishes some of them.

    • Sarah

      I *almost* can’t believe you didn’t realize this was satire. Almost.

    • Lyrianthalaasa

      Wow, that one flew right over you, didn’t it?

  7. CatSong62

    What about Aragorn? Almost too many differences to note.

  8. Innes

    I’m always surprised by Tom Bombadil is a bad and unnecessary character takes, not that they’re unjustified, but because Bombadil is actually my favourite character from the middle earth universe. I think its because I actually encountered him first in an audiobook anthology in which the Bombadil barrow wight series had been cut out of The Fellowship and into its own short story.
    In that context, its actually pretty good as a fun exploration of a mysterious bard in a fantasy pseudo-europe. The weird irrelevance of the one ring becomes inconsequential since the plot is Frodo encountering this weird guy on a trip that isn’t especially pressing, rather than a digression from the Very Big Plot.
    Also barrow wights are pretty cool.
    I don’t especially have a point here other than Bombadil is a pretty cool character when considered as a facet of Tolk’s extended universe, rather than a plot-relevant character.

    • Cay Reet

      Bombadil as a such is a very cool character who would have deserved a book or two of his own. But he doesn’t really fit in with the general tone of LotR. He lives in his own world, which is perfectly fine, so he doesn’t mind what happens to the ring either way.

  9. SunlessNick

    There was one thing about Eowyn’s fight against the Nazgul I preferred in the book. Which is her “I am no man line” – in the book, Tolkien has her say that line at the beginning of the confrontation, and then notes that the Nazgul hesitates “as if in sudden doubt.” Because of course exact wording matters in cases like this. I find that cooler than we got in the film.

  10. Deana

    Actually I missed Tom Bombadil (aka the Green Man) and the Scouring of the Shire in the movies. In as far as Tolkien did not believe in allegory, but did believe in typology, those two elements were critical to the book(s) arc.

    Bombadil is a reminder of older things than the elves, and the Scouring of the Shire shows that the hobbits (all four but most especially Merry and Pippin) have grown up.

    The results of war are everywhere in the text. Bombadil is a reminder that this “war to end all wars” is not the first nor will it be the last. The Scouring of the Shire shows the responsibility of carrying the lessons of the past into the present conflict.

  11. Kathy Ferguson

    You know how the New Yorker always introduces Andy Borowitz’s satirical articles with an announcement in big letters saying this article is satire? I think Mythcreants may need one of those.

  12. Dave L

    > totally, 100% original

    Not really

    The movie ripped off numerous works including Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara and Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. It also took many of the tropes from Discworld and played them straight

    And the Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits (and many other concepts), are lifted DIRECTLY from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, to the point where I’m surprised Wizards of the Coast didn’t sue

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