Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Is Epic – But Not According to Tolkien’s Son

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy gave author J.R.R. Tolkien a larger presence in the pop culture zeitgeist in the early 2000s. The popularity of Jackson’s films has spanned well beyond the 2003 release of the final installment in the series, The Return of the King, which earned 11 Oscars at the 76th annual Academy Awards. Yet, despite the large-scale success and exposure Jackson (and other filmmakers before him, such as Ralph Bakshi with his 1978 animated take) brought to The Lord of the Rings, one member of the Tolkien estate remained firmly unimpressed by the newer interpretation of the author’s work — Tolkien’s own son.

Christopher Tolkien made his dislike not only for his father’s work becoming so mainstream but of Jackson’s particular vision of The Lord of the Rings no secret. In an interview with the French publication Le Monde in 2012, he stated the filmmakers « eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25. » His criticism didn’t end with Jackson, but the reception of his father’s work by the public in general over the years. He stated that Tolkien as a writer had « become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. » It’s a fairly harsh stance to take, considering Christopher’s son, Simon Tolkien, was fully supportive of Jackson’s trilogy. J.R.R. Tolkien himself was clearly comfortable on some level with his work being interpreted since he signed over the rights before his death in 1973. However, his son’s words do have power. Christopher was the executor of his father’s literary estate up until his own death in 2020, but perhaps he was a tad too harsh considering everything Jackson’s series has done to broaden the scope of Tolkien’s work.

Anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings books knows that there are intense battle scenes. And Jackson even featured specific details from those scenes in his films, such as the heads of Gondorian soldiers being flung over the walls of Minas Tirith during the Battle of Pelennor Fields. He also took directorial liberties. The Elves never showed up to Rohan’s aid during the battle of Helm’s Deep in the original text. For film, however, this added an extra bit of drama to a battle that needed to carry the weight of a climax.

Jackson explained his decision-making regarding Helm’s Deep in the behind-the-scenes DVD extras. It’s clear he plotted any changes to the novel with a great deal of consideration and deliberation. If this was one of the main criticisms Christopher Tolkien was referring to, it may simply be a misunderstanding of adaptation and the needs of the source material on the page versus the big screen. The books are full of action but, due to the author’s own attention to detail, move considerably slower than their on-screen counterparts. Jackson simply cut to the chase.

In the same Le Monde article, Christopher Tolkien was quoted as saying, « The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. » For fans of the films, it’s hard to imagine this particular criticism considering Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings has so many moments of levity amidst a story very much about the perils of vice and war. Jackson’s films aren’t all action, sadness, joy, or frivolity. They’re full of breathtaking set pieces, keen attention to detail, and intentional crafting of moments between characters.

The extended editions even show how he tried to incorporate more material from the text that simply had to wind up on the cutting room floor to cut down the running time for theaters. They don’t have the breadth of the books, but then it would have been an absolutely impossible task to incorporate every single nuance of the book into the film. Even a series such as Prime Video’s precursor, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, won’t be able to capture the entirety of Tolkien’s life’s work into its planned five seasons.

Jackson can’t exactly be blamed for attempting to bring The Lord of the Rings to movie audiences since Bakshi first attempted it with his bizarre rotoscope take on Tolkien’s work, but Jackson did add more mass appeal. It’s likely The Hobbit films would not have been made if not for the success of the original trilogy, even though they take place before The War of the Ring and Frodo’s journey to Mordor. Christopher Tolkien seemed to view this broader audience reception as a hindrance to the work being ingested properly, saying, « Commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. »

It’s a shame since the films contain many universal themes, making them timeless stories birthed from Tolkien’s work — even if they’re not great philosophical diatribes. In an Entertainment Weekly article in December 2001, Christopher Tolkien conceded, « I recognize that this is a debatable and complex question of art . . . suggestions that have been made that I ‘disapprove’ of the films, whatever their cinematic quality, even to the extent of thinking ill of those with whom I may differ, are wholly without foundation. »

Whether or not the younger Tolkien became embittered over the years from seeing what a raging success Jackson’s films became in relation to his father’s work is unknown, but at one time, he did seem to understand there will always be a difference of opinion. Regardless, J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t go to the grave grasping the creative control for himself or his estate. It may have been a monetary decision, but the fact remains that he released the rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. As a result, whoever is willing to pay for those rights may adapt and interpret his works into new and different mediums for many years to come. The hope is that any artist who chooses to take on Tolkien’s work will act as a conduit to stir interest and perhaps lead a member of their audience back to the source to discover more of Tolkien’s rich and beautiful world.