Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Lord of the Rings: Literature and Film

I watched the Lord of the Rings recently. I have seen it many times and think it is altogether excellent. But I also noticed a number of things that I had not the first time. I thought on this for a while, and then realized why. About a year ago, I reread Tolkien's trilogy. Relatively fresh in my memory, I was able to notice a number of major deviations from book to film, and so wanted to write about it in order to point them out to those who may not know of their existence.

Faramir: Prince of Ithilien

The character of Faramir is significantly changed from book to movie. In the books, Faramir is essentially the leader of Gondor; his father is often too busy with his ongoing mental duel with Sauron to pay much attention to the movements on the ground. The Faramir of Tolkien is intelligent, wise, and, above all, noble. He fights off the encroaching attacks of Mordor time after time, but does not seek war or glory. Thus it is that Boromir, his brother, takes his place in the spotlight and becomes the grand hero of Gondor.

But while Boromir is flashy, prideful, and direct, Faramir is altogether different. Where Boromir blows the loud, proud Horn of Gondor and charges into battle, Faramir only commits to battle when there is tangible gain, and he does not enjoy the fray as Boromir does. In short, Faramir is the ultimate leader; a man who knows his duty but does not revel in it; a man who loves literature and music, not warcraft and glory.

Consequently, it is for these reasons that Tolkien chose Faramir as being the character most like himself. Faramir only fights because he has to in order to save his people. "Here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less incalculable and remote: one of the Kings of Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder Race." Faramir is the only man to be described as such, and also holds the honor as being the only man able to behold the One Ring and resist it with little effort. Such is his purity of heart, nobility of kings, and confidence in the goodness of his cause. When he encounters Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, he lets them go without fuss. Faramir instantly realizes the immense importance in the quest to destroy the Ring, and refuses to hinder that journey, even over the complaints of his own men, and the inevitable dismay of his father.

Faramir: Tormented Captain of Gondor

By contrast, the Faramir of Peter Jackson's movie trilogy is substantially changed. Gone is the purity of purpose. Gone are the similarities to Tolkien. Instead, Faramir is altered to a man perpetually in doubt of himself, and perpetually crippled by his constant desire to prove himself to an uncaring father. The Denethor and Faramir of Tolkien's writing have their issues, but in no way was the Faramir of Tolkien so dominated in action by his father's wishes. In the film, Faramir is tempted by the Ring as Boromir was, to the point of bringing it, Frodo, and Sam all the way to Osgiliath, with the end goal of giving his father "a mighty gift." In essence, Faramir stops the Ring Bearer in his tracks in order to benefit himself, in the hopes that the delivery of the Ring will finally earn Faramir his father's love.

And this deviation in character does not end in the Two Towers. While Faramir eventually comes to his senses and lets Frodo go, in Return of the King, he goes to report to Denethor. Denethor (in his own character change in becoming almost villain-like) tells him to take Osgiliath back, and to not come back unless he succeeds, no matter the odds. In essence, Denethor tells Faramir to take back a ruined fortress seething with orcs and Nazgul with only a handful of men. And, of course, being the weak-kneed sissy that he is (in the movie), he does it, commands over a massacre, and is devastatingly wounded in the process.

The tragic part of all this is that this change in character effectively make the entire nation of Gondor seem weak and corruptible, failing to engender the empathy of the viewer. In the book, Faramir shows us that Gondor is not without its heroes. Denethor and Bormir fell to the corruptive influences of the enemy, but Faramir stood above them, illustrating to us that Gondor was a place that we did not want to fall. But in the movie, the mere change in his character cripples our ability to empathize with Gondor, as all we see of them are men without hope and without willpower. And, consequently, we don't feel as involved in the Siege of Minas Tirith, whereas the Battle for Helm's Deep made us care for the defenders every step of the way.

Why the Change?

In the Two Towers, the main climax for most of the characters was the Battle for Helm's Deep and the Ents' attack on Isengard. By contrast, Frodo and Sam were left without a climax of their own. For some reason, they did not want to use Shelob's Lair, so they were left with nothing for the poor hobbits to do. So they fabricated a climax of their own.

Believing that Faramir's "sea-green incorruptible" nature in the book would not translate well to film, Faramir's character was put within the target reticle. Peter Jackson argued that for Faramir to be immune to the influence of the Ring would undermine the movie, pointing out that every other character up to that point had undergone temptation when near it. So they changed Faramir substantially in order to be weaker and more open to corruption, so as to provide Frodo and Sam an emotional climax.

Sadly, as I mentioned earlier, I think this decision had poor ramifications for the trilogy as a whole. Without a strong character for Gondor, the nation as a whole felt like a population of depressed, corruptible, weak bunch of doomsayers. Boromir falls to corruption. Denethor goes totally crazy. Faramir nearly commits suicide. The Siege for Gondor thus feels more hopeless than it should have, with soldier after soldier of Gondor falling seemingly without a fight. It is really too bad that they had to change Faramir. By himself, he was my favorite character and, as the movie rolled on, I found myself missing him, and wanting to return to Tolkien's vision.

On to Part 2


  1. Do you have a source where Tolkien states that he identifies that strongly with Faramir? I can definitely see Tolkien wanting a strong figure for humanity, a figure of hope and inner strength, since it is keeping with his personal beliefs in a redeemable mankind, but I would want a statement from him specifically stating that he feels so personally connected to Faramir's character.

  2. no. 180, p. 232 of The Letters of Tolkien.

    He does not say it explicitly, but Tolkien points out that the words he puts into Faramir's mouth (particularly of his vision of a 'great wave' consuming humanity) are exactly his own. The index of The Letters also points out that this letter indicated Tolkien's likeness in Faramir.

    Other (speculative) similarities involve the fact that both Faramir and Tolkien participated in long, drawn out wars where they did not want to fight, but felt that they had to because it was the right thing to do. Also, both have a preference towards the arts, history, and literature.