Although not immediately seen as a likely success (Shippey), J.R.R. Tolkein’s original epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings flourished, and has had numerous adaptations for different mediums in the years following its publication. Not surprisingly, each one has had its criticism. In particular, deviations from canon – a term used to mean original story-line and accepted character history supported by the author’s writings – are among the worst “offenses” that can be made when pursuing an adaptation, according to those who refer to themselves as Tolkein “purists.” Such changes, they argue, substantially change the narrative and spirit of the original tale (Ruzin). But in each case, the creators of these adaptations have shouldered the task of recreating and retelling a fantasy epic that is too large to be contained even within itself; Tolkein himself had reams of world-crafting to support the characters and story-line behind his writing. While the novels stand alone on their own strengths, they take on their true grandeur when read the context of their world and its history. Considering this, it is a wonder at all when a film adaptation, a few scant hours of visual storytelling, can reflect even a part of the world that Tolkein created.
Of those that have tried, surely the most convincing has been Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. There is no question that it had substantial canonical revision, but instead of taking away from the story, it focused and condensed the plot to the point where it can be managed and presented in the film format. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings made thoughtful and important changes to the narrative which enhanced the story-line for the medium in and audience to which it was told. These changes included the removal of some scenes and characters, and revising the overall roles that some characters were to play.
Removing characters and situations that appear in the book may seem like the worst kind of story-tampering, but where these passages drew the reader into Tolkein's world, they would have seemed like irrelevant film-padding when presented in a visual format. In reading, the speed of the story-line is very much dictated by the readers; they can skip passages, reread others, and pause to review a previous plot point at will. In a movie, the narrative is dictated by the production and direction of its creators. For many of the removals, the reasoning can be traced back to this simple point: in a few hours, it is necessary to guide the viewer through an epic story-line, and there is no time for esoteric detours.
One of the most esoteric characters in the books, and absent from the movies, is the character of Tom Bombadil. Introduced in the latter part of The Fellowship of the Ring, the bulk of Bombadil's contribution to the story-line was little more than an intermission; he demonstrated that the One Ring has no effect on him and sang a few songs before seeing the Hobbits on their way. Tolkein's...