Arwen At The Ford: A Trip Down Memory Lane
With every man and his dog having something to say about the adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire into Game of Thrones, today I thought I would try to describe what it was like back in the very early 2000s, debating the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from book into movie. One of the great forgotten battles of the internet, incidentally – it is now extremely common to laud Jackson’s original trilogy without realising how controversial it was at the time.
Remember that until 2001, Middle-earth was a book-based fandom nearly half a century old – the idea of watching the movies, then chasing up the books, was profoundly odd, and those movies that did exist (Bakshi’s 1978 attempt) were eminently mockable. There were few real precedents for turning ‘adult’ fantasy books into movies – when fantasy adaptions were taking place, you were looking primarily at child-orientated source material (Roald Dahl, Michael Ende, C.S. Lewis). Live action adult fantasy did exist (1982’s Conan the Barbarian, and its imitations), but these weren’t really notable as story adaptations, at least at a plot level. Really, adapting The Lord of the Rings – without animation, no less – was venturing into uncharted waters.
This was my first real encounter with computers and the (dial-up) internet, incidentally. I was in my late teens, a massive Tolkien geek, and for the first time in my life, I could actually talk to others about the books I loved (a childhood in provincial New Zealand will do that). So I took to this newfangled internet forum thing like a duck to water.
Basically, at the time, the point of contention was between Purists and Revisionists. Purists emphasised fidelity to Tolkien’s text as the most important goal – and while they were generally pragmatic enough to accept cuts or necessary changes (no-one cared about Tom Bombadil), they viewed additions or unnecessary changes extremely sceptically. Revisionists, by contrast, were willing to accept a much greater degree of change if it meant a good movie – a Revisionist regarded it as a movie first and an adaptation second. Most Revisionists, however, had their limits – hence the Purist question of whether their opponents would accept B-52s over Mordor.
I myself was a Revisionist – geek though I was, I knew enough that books and movies were different mediums, and that a movie that tried to be a verbatim adaptation (with cuts) would likely be a bad movie. The first Harry Potter movie, which also came out in 2001, was commonly used as an example by Revisionists for this very reason.
But now for some serious bones of contention in those long ago days…
(i) Arwen At The Ford
Yes, really. Anyone watching Jackson’s Fellowship in 2018 can have no idea of what a fandom controversy replacing Glorfindel with Arwen was seventeen years ago.
On paper, it made perfect sense: Glorfindel is not an important character in the book, and serves no purpose beyond being Powerful Ancient Elflord. Ralph Bakshi in 1978 decided to replace him with Legolas, on the basis that he might as well introduce a meaningful character. Jackson, who (understandably) wanted to make Aragorn’s love interest something more than a cipher, decided to do the same with Arwen…
Cue complaints about XenArwen (see what I did there?), with the AATF acronym being a recipe for flame-wars.
The biggest complaint about Arwen was that treating her in this way upstages Éowyn – if we have multiple warrior maidens in the story, it takes away from Éowyn being special. I think this is one of the reasons why the proposed idea of having Arwen at Helm’s Deep never eventuated – though frankly, it’s making a mountain out of a mole-hill. The Ford of Bruinen is not a battle situation, Arwen is not in combat, and besides we know from Tolkien’s own essays that female Elves were willing to fight if need be.
Looking back, I think there was actually more than a tinge of misogyny about what was going on here – but thankfully, the controversy evaporated the moment the movie was released, and we saw Liv Tyler actually doing the scene.
(ii) Elves At Helm’s Deep
We didn’t get Arwen at Helm’s Deep… but we got Haldir. This one, I think, was a more warranted Purist complaint – it is one thing to find a means of beefing up Arwen’s role, but another to have a completely unnecessary addition that serves no great plot purpose. Haldir isn’t important.
Revisionist that I was, I was OK with this. My reasoning was that the Elves of the book were fighting Dol Guldur, but since that had been cut, giving them a cameo at Helm’s Deep at least acknowledges they were doing more than twiddling their thumbs.
(iii) The Round Spiky Wheely Dealy
Ah, the RSWD (also known as the Round Spiky Wheel of Death). Saruman falls onto a spiked wheel and dies (cue blatant homage to Christopher Lee’s role as Dracula).
The online discussion of this one was based off a rumour – the RSWD never actually made it into the theatrical release of The Two Towers in 2002, though it does feature in the extended version. The controversy was less about the Wheel itself – Wormtongue still gets his knife in beforehand anyway – and more about genuine sadness over the implied cutting of the Scouring of the Shire.
(iv) Galadriel in a Microwave
This one was a bit different. In contrast with the other controversies, which were flagged well in advance, and which largely died with the release of the films, Galadriel in a Microwave came out of nowhere. No-one quite knew how… spectacular… the temptation scene was going to be.
Watching Fellowship for the first time in December 2001 with my family (none of them had ever read Tolkien), this was the moment I actually cringed in my seat. It’s fine now, but going from my visualisation of the book to this was a bit of a jump.
(v) Faramir and Osgilliath
Jackson’s Faramir takes Frodo and Sam to Osgilliath before releasing them – which earned a fair bit of criticism from the Purist camp, on account of being character assassination, and serving no plot purpose. Recall that most Purists were willing to tolerate some changes – the issue was perceived unnecessary changes.
This was another controversy that erupted after the Two Towers came out, rather than beforehand. It also led to “Osgilliate” affectionately being turned into a verb by the online Tolkien fandom for years afterwards. To Osgilliate something was to hijack it or take it in bizarre, unexpected directions.
(vi) Ringwraiths on Fire
This one was a bit like Galadriel in a Microwave – the issue wasn’t so much that Jackson was changing the scene, but more that he was doing a bad job of depicting it, by making the Ringwraiths at Weathertop appear weak and vaguely comic.
To be honest, while criticisms are valid, I actually think Jackson was in a no-win situation.
(vii). Sauron at the Morannon
Recall the B-52s over Mordor analogy being used as a limit for how far a Revisionist was willing to tolerate change? This was my personal B52 moment – the rumour (and it was more than a rumour) that Sauron would turn up at the Black Gate to fight Aragorn in person. A notion that makes about as much sense as Adolf Hitler personally duelling the Polish leader in September 1939.
Thankfully, Jackson changed his mind on this one, though that vicious troll fight Aragorn has in Return of the King is a stand-in for what had been planned…
In addition to all of this, there was also a now-forgotten additional factor at work. First Viewing Syndrome.
This was the tendency for people who knew the book inside out (i.e. most online Tolkien fans in the early 2000s) to spend the entire movie analysing adaptation discrepancies, to the point where it ruined their enjoyment of the film. This was largely a sub-conscious thing too, and affected Revisionists as much as Purists. Subsequent viewings could be treated much more on their own terms – which meant that one’s appreciation of the movie went up the more one saw it.
I remember being affected by First Viewing Syndrome on seeing Fellowship – I remember going out of the theatre feeling vaguely embarrassed, while my father (who had never read the book) called it the best action movie he’d ever seen(!). I had less of an issue with The Two Towers – indeed, at the time, I actually thought it was better than Fellowship, primarily because I had never seen anything like Helm’s Deep on screen before. I utterly loathed Return of the King (*cough* Denethor *cough*) on first viewing, and subsequent viewings have only improved that loathing to “mild distaste”.
That gives an overview of how Tolkien fandom reacted to Jackson’s now-lauded movies. Next time you see someone complaining online about how Game of Thrones mangles character and plot… remember that some of us really have been here before.