Born and raised in northern Sweden, the environment surrounding me was often that of hills and forests. I would either spend my days feeding various pheasants by the river or running around forests with woodland creatures and pretending to fight off monsters with my bow and arrow.
This lifestyle only became more prominent the day I found the one film that not only brought all these fantasies to life but cemented them in my mind and making them the reason I started writing in the first place.
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.
The first part of a trilogy that would come to change my life for the better from a writer’s standpoint as well as an imaginative perspective. The imagination born from my early childhood years lead to that of an increased wish to put these fantastical images running through my mind on paper. I began writing because when the films were finished and the books were all read, either to me or by me, I needed more. What had been introduced to me was something I wished to keep alive. I wanted to prolong the sensations that J.R.R Tolkien’s stories gave me on a permanent basis. I wanted to remain in Middle-Earth.
What was it then that Peter Jackson did so well? What achievement did this director accomplish with these films that changed me to my core and served as a catalyst for my own writing?
As an aspiring storyteller, who had spent so much time telling stories to himself without ever finding the proper way of putting them down on paper, I was a young kid who was waiting for wizards to cross my path. I was waiting for that final encouraging push out of my hole that would lead me to find my own voice.
Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were the ones who finally came along and guided me towards that end goal with their hands on my shoulders. Their Lord of the Rings trilogy has served as not only an ever-recurring ray of light that would brighten up any gloomy state of mind but also as an endless supply of inspiration. Over the course of the past sixteen years I have re-watched the trilogy about twice, sometimes three times, a year. Throughout these years I have been surprised to find new little titbits that I may have glossed over during previous viewings. These films are crafted in a way that every little detail has a significant purpose. Even some tracks in the score, composed by the genius that is Howard Shore, are written and recorded using grammatically correct Middle-Earth native Elven language created by Tolkien whilst he was creating the world. Such intricate and astounding little features all add to the many reasons that make me hold this trilogy as the single greatest achievement in cinematic history.
The reason I bring up the choice to use the specific Elven language created by Tolkien, which is called Quenya, is to help you understand just how encyclopaedic Tolkien’s work is. The world building Tolkien put into his work is second to none. The sheer magnitude of information given within his pages is simply impossible to transcribe from medium to medium without creative liberty and diversion from source material. The astounding amount of mythology that exists in the story is interwoven using all the different races, creatures and the history they’ve established together in this fantastical world. They all reside in pre-established cities and countries with histories of their own. All of this is explained using layers of exposition that only the holy trinity that is Jackson-Walsh-Boyens could put together for the silver screen as masterfully as they did while simultaneously telling the story in a close-knit enough way that it doesn’t venture too far off the boarders within which the general audience resides in.
Peter Jackson started off by creating a film that would attract the average movie-goer who couldn’t care less that Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron are the same race, being that they are all Maiar (divine spirits). Or that Aragorn and Arwen are both descendants from the same family tree, which kind of makes them related, but they’re several generations apart since Arwen is immortal, so it doesn’t really count. As mentioned previously, the crux behind making this film as approachable to any audience as possible is by dauntingly going head first into the project without letting the source material constrict your field of creativity. Creative freedom is key here, as is keeping in mind that changing several aspects of a beloved book isn’t disrespectful if it’s done in a way that keeps the spirit of the novels intact. If a detail from the novel is sacrificed, the script made sure that it was for the benefit of the narrative and the history it removed from. For example, Glorfindel doesn’t have to ride from Rivendell to save Frodo after the young Hobbit is stabbed by the Witch-King of Angmar. Instead, Arwen Undómiel, the Elf maiden who gives up her immortality for the would-be King, is both introduced to serve the story at large and for her own character development. Also, this makes the film less of a sausage fest. The way the story is told in Tolkien’s books isn’t suitable for a word by word translation from book form to the silver screen since copious details and information about this world which is thousands upon thousands of years old is transcribed in the epic novel. In the cinematic medium, this would become tedious unless the details serve a higher function. Jalshens (Jackson, Walsh and Boyens amalgamation, stick with me on this) found the perfect way to keep the culture and history of Middle-Earth intact while telling the story in a condensed way. This is first done in the very beginning of the film through Galadriel’s, masterfully portrayed by the incomparable Cate Blanchett, expositional monologue during the film’s opening prologue. We hear her narrate through the history of Middle-Earth while we assume a translation is being whispered in the background. What we learn as the story progresses is that Galadriel’s English monologue is the translation of the far more ancient language being whispered in the background which indicates just how foreign of a world we are embarking upon. This happens repeatedly throughout the series but it’s subtle enough that it doesn’t take away from the unfolding narrative. For example, later on in the film while Aragorn looks upon Isildur’s broken blade in Rivendell we are reminded of the prologue during which said blade is broken. As we are being led further along in the narrative by learning of Aragorn’s connection to the fallen King, as his heir, we are also being introduced to Boromir and the difference between the two characters moving forward. With creative freedom Jalshens were able to shape their own narrative structural rule within the story; the scenes never stick to doing one thing.
Jalshens took an ordinary audience and guided them in a dangerous fantasy world, allowing them to explore it through the eyes of someone who is just as much of an outsider as they are. Every heightened sense of thrill the young Hobbit felt was also felt by the audience because it was all just as foreign to him as it was to us. This was a remarkable achievement on many levels, especially because of the character development it offered to the supporting characters surrounding Frodo throughout the series. The reason as to why we see these characters as more than simple personalities is because we get to follow their character development through the eyes of an outsider first, before they blossom and venture off into their own arcs.
This development kicks into high gear particularly during the escape from the mines of Moria.
A prime example of this is Aragorn himself. When we meet him, in the Prancing Pony, the hooded loner we observe isn’t the same natural born leader he blossoms into after Gandalf’s demise.
Similarly with Legolas, we are introduced to this magnificent Elf who can do no wrong. As he walks upon snow on the edge of a cliff while his entire party trudges through, barely holding their heads above the cold downpour, the audience is given an insight into his mockery of the mortality surrounding him. As the entire fellowship struggles, all bloody and exhausted as they fight for their lives, this immortal Elf is practically dancing through the forests, dungeons and mines as he nails arrow after arrow between the eyes of enemies several leagues ahead of him. However, when Gandalf falls into shadow and flame we see the same immortal Elf in the middle of an existential crisis as he seems to finally have faced death for the first time in the thousands of years in which he has lived. This immortal being is faced with death because of his choice to put stock, as the audience does, into the well being of mortals around him.
The imperative task Jalshens set before themselves was to make sure that the characters felt real. They presented a story that encouraged imagination. Not only did Jalshens introduce me to Tolkien, giving me millennia of history to unpack and explore, but they encouraged me to put it all down on pieces of paper rather than let them disappear after momentary mental exploration. As I sat in a hole in the ground waiting for a grey pilgrim to give me the push I didn’t know I needed, they encouraged me to build entire worlds for myself and fill them with wonders of my own.
They set me out on the adventure in which I explored hidden kingdoms, mountain halls and fantastical creatures yet unexplored by mankind.
Thank you J.R.R. Tolkien.
Thank you Peter Jackson.
Thank you Fran Walsh.
Thank you Philippa Boyens.