Watch me spit tacks

This is custom-made for me – a discussion on the “lessons” to be learned – by writers – from Lord of the Rings. No, not the books, the MOVIES. And as most people who know me will tell you, I’ve always had STRONG opinions on those movies.

Anyway, Part One is here:

(and there are several parts, linked at the bottom of #1)

You may want to read the whole thing, and then come back here. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Now. Can we take this apart – shred it, more likely – please?

It starts right there from the first paragraph, and I quote: “…wrote an article about Peter Jackson’s movie version of the story, focusing on choices he made that all writers can learn from.”

But you are talking the MOVIES here, and most of the choices that Jackson made that affected the story only diminished it. So what are writers supposed to learn from this?

Are they supposed to learn how to distill the beautiful complex story by Tolkien into something that’s simplified to a painful degree, misunderstood and willfully rearranged at the whim of a movie director?

Says the author of the article, “The 1,000 page story is so complex and broad in scope that even the author …said they could never be translated to film…There are many people, including the three of us, who are elated he was proven wrong.”

Oh, really? He was proven bitterly, bitterly right.

Let’s take this one thing at a time.

“So much of what the filmmakers did in creating and then editing their work is what we writers strive for when polishing a manuscript: pinpoint the heart of the story and stay true to it, cut what can be lost, and always direct conflict and pacing.”

Laudable, on the face of it. But the point is, they FAILED. Stay true to it? Not hardly. One of the most egregious things they did was shuffle dialogue at their whim from places where it originally made perfect poignant dramatic sense to places where it was just meh.

Example – that moment in which Aragorn draws out the sword-that-was-broken and says to the frightened Hobbits, “My name is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and if by life or death I can save you, I will.” This causes those frightened Hobbits to BELIEVE in this complete stranger who has just dropped into their world, and sail off with him into the unknown without balking. Jackson takes it from here to – where? To the point where it’s all but been decided to go gallivanting off with the Ring at Elrond’s council, i.e. the Hobbits already know the rest of the Dramatis Personae and trust them, and Aragorn’s declaration comes off as more of a drama queen looking for attention than the sincere, honest, absolutely meant vow which he offered to the Hobbits at Bree. I hated that. I hated it with a great hate, preciousssss. There are things that didn’t need to be messed with, and JACKSON WENT THERE. Sorry, but that isn’t a lesson I would want to learn – as a writer.

“Though the lessons we’ve learned from the filmmakers could probably fill a book of their own, we’ve chosen ten tips to help a writer revise her WIP. Use our handy character guide if you’re unfamiliar with the story or need a refresher course in who’s who, then set free your inner geek and prepare to traverse the world of Middle Earth.”

Uh, no. You’ve probably picked ten tips which might apply if you are trying to bowdlerize a Lord of the Rings into a horrid adaptation. Nothing in those movies offers any lessons to the writer. But I ought to know by now at whom these “lessons” are aimed. Anyone who needs a “Refresher course” on the characters in Lord of the Rings probably deserves the movies.

On to their tips, the tips for the WRITER.

Number one, begin in the right place.

Oh, makes absolute sense. Except when it doesn’t, as in the justifications that these folks put forward. They went to the book and they found a prologue “overstuffed with backstory and proper names” (can you get any more snarky at, you know, the “writerly” arts here?) and then ditched it, and provided the Ring’s backstory as a prologue instead. This even works, as a concept, IN A MOVIE. It would be simplistic and annoying in a book. But okay, Jackson made that choice, and it was okay, it was one I could live with – there are SOME concessions to be made when translating the written to the visual and perhaps this worked as one of those.

But then, oh, but then – “The filmmakers also chose to insert a battle sequence to suck the viewer in. This bold choice achieved a threefold storyteller’s goal: it showed the stakes, defined the good and bad guys, and moved the story forward with cinema-chair gripping conflict.”

The FILMMAKERS… “CHOSE”… to insert a battle sequence? Just like that? “Moved the story forward with cinema-chair gripping conflict”? There’s your guiding whip, right there. Don’t write the damned story. Just write cinema-chair-gripping conflict and you’re fine.

How is this a lesson for any writer?


Number two, explore universal themes in identifiable ways.

“Viewers could hardly be expected to care whether a fictitious world succumbs to ultimate evil. They care desperately, however, whether or not each character will survive the tests placed upon them.”

Um. Yeah, up to a point. But the intensity of LoTR depends on the audience (and please note the choice of words again, “viewer”, not “reader” – tell me again how this is aimed at WRITERS) being sucked into potential Armageddon. Sure, individual characters and their fates are what drives the story forward – but in the end THEY do what they do because they care about their world. And if you don’t go to that place with them, you lose the big picture. You don’t necessarily get all chummy with a character by following him into the privy. You identify with him when he lifts his eyes into the hills and watches the sun rise and tries to find hope in a new day which will probably bring none because… well, because of the BIG PICTURE. The big picture is the story. Lose sight of that at your peril.


Okay, lesson three – tap into sources of inner conflict to create character arcs.

Again, it sounds absolutely wonderful – and then they destroy it with their very next words. The filmmakers “…made controversial changes regarding the character of Faramir.”

Oh, hell, yeah, didn’t they just. You could hear the outraged yawp from the true LoTR fans across the world. The article says, “In Tolkien’s version, Faramir allows the hobbits to continue their mission, saying he is ‘wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee’. The filmmakers made a different choice: Faramir feels sympathy for the hobbits but plans to bring them and the Ring back to his father. Only after an enemy attack, during which he sees the Ring’s treacherous effects firsthand, does he make the right decision. The internal conflict latent in the story is externalized for dramatic effect, increasing suspense and substituting action for dialogue.”

And once again, this is not advice for a writer. It is visual redistribution of story. No, you do NOT need to “externalize” the conflict in order to show it. THIS IS THE STRENGTH OF THE WRITTEN WORD. You can actually show the reader what is going on inside your character’s head, without having him go out and whack somebody in order to make up his mind. Did the “filmmakers” not understand how much weaker, how much more of a stereotype, they made Faramir by making this “different choice”?

Really? What a lesson for a writer to learn, right there. Don’t trust your readers, at all at all. If in doubt, make your character go all action-y and go out like a berserker and whack at people and put THE ENTIRE STORY ARC IN PERIL just because you can’t make him come to a decision without acting it out like a child in kindergarten. Please note that “substituting action for dialogue” piece of wisdom. There’s a lesson for a writer. Don’t talk about anything when whacking will do. Good grief, even people in Game of Thrones (and that can get as whackey as you want it to) actually TALK to one another every so often, and decisions are made on the basis of conversations. No, you do NOT have to put on a Cinemascope ™ Sensurround™ extravaganza every time you need your character to think about some hard decision.


Lesson four – raise the stakes, with big stakes = big payoff.

Yet again, eminently wise. But their example?… Aragorn and Arwen. People, people, people, LORD OF THE RINGS WAS NOT A ROMANCE. Live with it. Inserting Arwen into the storyline where she never was just because you needed a pretty face on the screen to pull the butts into cinema seats does not warrant rewriting the damned book wholesale. Right from the start I was resenting deeply Arwen’s transformation into Warrior Princess (and why the fricking hell was she on Glorfindel’s horse?)

Here’s the article’s words on the matter: “In the book version, Aragorn must win his kingdom in order to receive Arwen’s father’s blessing on their marriage; if he fails, she will join her father and the other elves in their exodus out of Middle Earth. High stakes already, but the filmmakers take it up a notch. Arwen herself makes the decision to remain in Middle Earth (which makes her a less passive character than in the book), and the consequence of giving up her birthright is that she will die if Aragorn and his allies do not save their world from Sauron’s rule. Now, the stakes for both Aragorn and Arwen are both public and intensely personal.”

Um, well, just NO. This actually misreads the entire thing, and not surprisingly, because throughout the movies Jackson has consistently and persistently misread and misunderstood and misrepresented the Elves. At the Council he makes Elrond behave like a peeved CEO rather than what he actually was in the book. And where does Jackson get off making Galadriel into that wicked CGI witch when our Ring expedition hits Lothlorien?)

Here, again, the writers of the article are simply tossing out the big picture in favor of fawning on the romance of it all. The stakes that Tolkien put on this relationship are huge, particularly in the light of Beren and Luthien – and that Arwen would be only the second Elf to renounce the magical lands of the West for love of a mortal, only the second in the entire recorded history of the Elven race (which is LONG. Go look at that prologue again, or read the Silmarillion). And achieving Gondor, and Arwen with it, are the forces that shape Aragorn’s whole life. How much higher can the stakes get than that?

But no – the “filmmakers” give us “the consequence of giving up her birthright is that she will die if Aragorn and his allies do not save their world from Sauron’s rule.” Uh, no. She will die if she makes this choice, yes, eventually – that is part of the choice, she takes on mortality. But she won’t die ANYWAY. The choice only takes effect if and when the allies win, and Gondor is achieved, and she then still chooses to marry Aragorn as promised. Until that moment she is still Arwen, daughter of Elrond, Elf with an immortal soul. “She will die” is not upping the stakes. She would die anyway, and she would NOT die if she did not choose the choice she chooses. Elves… are complicated. Jackson failed to take any of that complexity into the equation.

This is not raising the stakes, people, this is reducing a high and old and immortal race to the level of us squabbling humanoids. It might make them more approachable but it also makes them considerably less interesting. And the Jackson version of Arwen’s “choice”… simply fails to interest me. If I wanted to read a cheap romance I’d go look for it in places other than in a book like Lord of the Rings. There are, God knows, enough awful knockoffs of LoTR out there – plenty of what some of my peers have called Extruded Fantasy Product (EFP for short) – enough to keep those who just want improbable fantasy worlds and lots of whacking quite happy, thank you very much. Arwen was NOT in the LoTR story. Live with it. Or if you can’t go make a movie of one of the EFPs. More than enough heaving bodices to go around in those.


Lesson five, find new twists for stale conflicts.

Again, words of wisdom, but…

The writers of the article seem to think that the things that happen to Frodo through the storyline of LoTR needed to be sharpened to a different “jagged edge” by the “filmmakers”. In truth? Not so much. Frodo’s character arc is quite fine throughout the story, thank you. The article splits the storyline into the three movies showing the “edge” in each – but Tolkien’s already done all of this, and in a WRITERLY fashion – and the authors of the article are once again pulling in a visual direction. This is not a lesson for a writer to learn. This is what the FILMMAKERS have done. It’s that damned cinema seat gripping dynamic again. What’s wrong with writing a story and layering things in? How about tips on how to do that? Maybe the next article *I* write will be on that topic. Just to balance all of this out.


Lesson the sixth, wring tension from simple moments.

Truth, and eminently doable, and even more eminently desirable in a story. But, once again, we slide into disaster in the examples pulled up by the article’s authors. Their example?

“In another example, Arwen must decide whether to stay in Middle Earth or leave forever with the other elves. After deciding to leave—forsaking her love for Aragorn—she changes her mind, but the filmmakers were never entirely satisfied with the Why of it. Enter a premonitory vision of the son she would have with Aragorn. This dramatically amps up the emotional tension in the scene and provides a conflict between her and her prophesizing father, who tried mightily to get her to safety but ultimately knew the child could come.”

How many ways of bowdlerizing Tolkien’s story can you count here? This is not wringing tension from simple moments. This is introducing silly extraneous material just for the hell of it all, and again, in purely writing terms, this cheapens the decision Arwen makes considerably. In the book she chooses Aragorn over eternity. Why is that not enough for Jackson? Why does she have to be bribed by the vision of the child-who-would-come? I mean, the consequence of her staying and marrying Aragorn would probably have been expected to be a child, somewhere along the line. Why is this suddenly such a revelation? What, I thought I’d marry and stay a virgin, or stay barren all of my life, but oh, there’s a child, and now I must stay? There are undercurrents here I don’t even want to get into because they muddy the waters considerably – but this isn’t real tension. It’s cheap thrills.


Lesson seven, find the right blend of internal and external conflict.

Eh. The “filmmakers” seemed to have done their utmost best to toss out any internal conflict that they could in favor of, you know, bright swords and WHACKING. From the article:

“Wearing viewers out with big chunks of battle sequences was a real risk, but the filmmakers solved it by varying the action with a plethora of internal conflict scenes: Gollum debating with himself over what to do with his hobbit companions; Aragorn interacting with the besotted Eowyn; Frodo struggling to hold on to hope; Faramir weighing winning his father’s respect against sending his men into a hopeless battle.”

Again, that “viewers”. You see, readers will get into a book, and will follow the story. You can’t “wearing them out with big chunks of battle”. You can, however, just throw in a huge chunk of extended whacking which was the drawn-out movie battle for Gondor before the city walls – a chunk that could just as easily have been shortened in favor of keeping some of the scenes that REALLY needed to be in the movie and which got tossed out because of, well, they needed the time for the long whacking extravaganza. Like, for instance, a hint of the Scouring of the Shire. Without which the arc of the entire story kinda falls on its face and that tender parting scene at the tail end of movie #3 essentially loses all context and becomes a bathetic and tacked-on ending designed to appeal to pure sentimentality.

What could they have done? They could have ended the movie at the wedding of the century and sent off Aragorn and Arwen into the happily ever after, the end – what, they’d done quite enough damage with the “romance”, why NOT conclude the story with the thing? Or they could have at least HINTED at the Scouring somewhere. Something. But Jackson’s decision to rip it out entirely weakened the story – destroyed the story.

When Frodo, in the book, says half-blindly on the anniversary of Weathertop, “I am wounded… wounded… it will never really heal” – and speaks of the Shire being saved, “…but not for me.” – this all builds to an inevitability that he will leave the Shire and this world, particularly as Arwen gives him the gift of her own place in the last ship that leaves for the West (this, too, of course, falls away or is diminished when Jackson re-frames  Arwen’s “choice” in the movie version).

What the movies fatally lack is a substratum, something that the story can rest on. No matter what the authors of this particular article say, the lessons learned by a writer are NOT that such a substratum is unnecessary or that it can be replaced by action scenes to remove, oh, you know, all that DIALOGUE. The lessons rest precisely in what was taken OUT of those movies, not of what was put in.


Lesson eight, therefore – “trim the fat” – is eminently sensible and it is all too easy to spot writing that is merely padding to a storyline.

But, the article’s author’s say, the filmmakers here “…hewed to a mantra: if it did not support the main story–Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring—then it was trimmed.” Which is precisely what did not happen, and is contradicted by the very next sentence: “Romance fans (we are among them!) were saddened when the secondary love story between Faramir and Eowyn was distilled to little more than a secret smile between the two characters in the theatrical release and a thirty-second hand-holding scene in the extended version.”

First of all, any story that needed an “extended version” or a “director’s cut” in order for it to make complete sense is inherently flawed, period. But more importantly – hey – look – there WAS a “romance” storyline in this book after all. But it was just not photogenic enough – they needed Aragorn and Arwen! Warrior Prince and Fairy Princess! No matter that THAT love story was always in LoTR’s background, no, THAT had to be brought to the fore because, eh, it was hotter, I guess, and poor Faramir and Eowyn, the ones who really DID have a comprehensible humanscale romance going on, just got dumped in the trash.

There’s a lesson for a writer to learn, to be sure – when in doubt, go for the flash and eschew the subtle… or… oh, WAIT. Here we go again. The VIEWER. These are all visual media choices. Where does the writer and the craft of writing come into this, again…?

The article’s authors say, “Rightly, the filmmakers focused on trimming secondary characters first in order to maintain the integrity and focus of the main storyline.” And hey, I am not the kind of twisted purist that would have demanded to see Tom Bombadil on the big screen. I DO understand that trimming had to be done, that choices have to be made. But WITHIN THOSE PARAMETERS, why couldn’t Jackson just be content with telling the story he chose to film and refrain from adding dwarf-tossing to amuse himself?

Lesson the ninth, “trya story scramble”.

Aw, geez. Did the filmmakers do that, to a fault. They scrambled the story into a veritable omelette. And here we have it again – in the “lessons for writers to learn” – the article’s authors come up with, “Die-hard fans of Tolkien know that the fearsome scene between Frodo and Shelob, an enormous spider, happens in the second book. When appraising the films for pacing, however, it was decided the second film had enough tension without the arachnophobic scene, while the final film needed an extra dollop of Frodo. Easy as a slash mark, Shelob was cut from film two and spun into the movie’s final installment.”

In other words, these are not a writer’s lessons at all. They are a primer on how to (or, in my own book, how NOT to) make a film of a complex book. Not how to WRITE one. Further in, there’s this: “Other bits of dramatic story the filmmakers loved that didn’t fit in with their final chronology made it into Lord of the Rings in flashbacks (Aragorn and Arwen’s love story) or flash forwards (the prophetic burning of the Shire).”

Oh, at least the burning of the Shire gets a mention – even if it’s just as something that “didn’t fit into [their] chronology”. Newsflash. It isn’t THEIR chronology, it’s Tolkien’s, and if you’re filming Tolkien’s story you don’t get to reinvent the chronology. Work with what you have or don’t work with it at all. Discarding bits of story – VITAL bits of story – because they don’t fit the filmmakers’ rewrite of the material is just egregious, and is bad advice to boot. If you can’t cleave to the story write your own adventure and film THAT.


The tenth lesson is all about endings, and I’ve already covered some of that.

It is instructive to learn that “some viewers left the movie prematurely” because the endings were so fudged in the movies – the article’s authors call the “third ending”, the leaving of the Elves for the shores of the fabled West and Frodo’s going with them, “bittersweet” – but like I already said above there was no bitter in this sweet. It was just a dollop of sweetwhippedcream sentimentality perched on the tail end of the movie, your AWWWW moment which was completely surreal and unnecessary given that the substratum on which that bittersweetness whereof they speak actually depended.

Conclusion? “Says Peter Jackson of the film and the process that won his team eleven Academy Awards, “You never just say ‘this is perfect.’ You’re always fighting and grappling with yourself to try to push it further and further and take every opportunity that you can. If you’d like to learn more about how Lord of the Rings was crafted into film and pick up new tips to employ in your own writing, check out the bevy of gems in the extended DVD editions, paying particular attention to any director’s notes.”

Alternatively… go away and leave the damned movies alone, and if you want to learn how to write a book, go read the book. Trust me, Tolkien did this better.

Filed under writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There is one comment. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. green_knight

    I knew this had to be your article ;-)

    Overall, I liked the movies (yes, I know). I disliked (stronly!) some of Jackson’s choices, understood others, and *liked* seeing more Arwen (though not necessarily the choices themselves)

    But I thinkk your main point is absolutely unassailable: Jackson did what he did in order to create a film – whether it worked or not is debatable (many choices did not work for me, and fewer for you), but they’re not applicable to books. Grand visual overviews, impressions that run into each other to create a sense of time passing, introductory flashbacks (which films can code much more easily as ‘not-the-present’ – just think of Seagol) etc etc – books need to find _different_ approaches.

    And last but not least, I disagree on the topic of ‘big stakes’ because the higher the stakes, the more similar the stories become. There are only so many ways in which you can say ‘and if you fail you die and everybody you love dies, too’ – give me the whole breadth of human experience, and give me characters who might have to fail *and then live with that failure*.

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.



Browse our archives: