“I loved Liv Tyler as Arwen! What a strong female character!” “Oh! Those Black Riders in the movie were so creepy!” “I mean, I like The Lord of the Rings and all, but Game of Thrones is just so much more gritty and realistic.”
These are but a small sample of conversations you may hear when the topic of the The Lord of the Rings movies comes up: Some love them. Some hate them. Some just prefer other fantasy over them. I’m not here to argue why The Lord of the Rings is better than Game of Thrones, but I am here to address an interesting point about these movies so many have come to know and love: the books are different, and therefore the movies could’ve been much different. Peter Jackson has been criticized a lot over these films and that’s not what I mean to do here. I simply want to look at the book and see how much different the films I would make out of it would be. Let me spoil something up front: they wouldn’t be rated PG-13, and justly so.
As an amateur film-lover (and wanna-be, self-proclaimed critic), I love talking about movies (usually playing the devil’s advocate) and I enjoy hearing what other people think about movies. Movies are easy to connect to others through and, seeing as how this blog is devoted to all things Tolkien, I find it very easy to connect to others who enjoy the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, as much as I may have personally enjoyed them (and continue to enjoy them on the reg) it may come as a surprise to some that they were not and are not received well by some audiences. Now, the The Hobbit movies are another story entirely, but it’s hard to look at the The Lord of the Rings films and not see them as deserving of their 800-something nominations and 470-something awards. They’re objectively “good” movies (for what that’s worth). But that’s not what I mean when I say people still criticize them. By this I mainly mean that many fans of the book (whom the general public would scorn and call ‘nerds’) were and are upset by some of the changes to the story for the film’s adaptation.
Let me pause here and address that: Personally, I think the books are un-filmable. I hold this thought in contention and balance with the seemingly-contradictory view that Peter Jackson’s movies are amazing. I do this by taking everything I see on film with a grain of salt. By that I mean I try to watch the movies as though the books didn’t exist. I ask myself things like, “Do I have good reason to care about this character right now? Is what they’re doing relevant to other parts of the story? Was that scene realistic in this world?” and so on. The films alone are great, but in comparison to the book…eh, not so much. There are many departures from the book that I feel were necessary to make the literature fit onto the silver screen, so to speak. The way the story sits on the pages, a direct-to-film adaptation would be slow, boring, and somewhat dry (so, obviously I would love it; but general audiences would despise it, and that’s where the money comes from). Peter Jackson took a slow, sonorous, and lengthy epic about small people turning the big gears of the world and made it into a combat-based action movie; and it worked brilliantly! While it remains at its core The Lord of the Rings, it is nothing really like its text-based counterpart.
With that said, I now want to address the main point of this article (finally, sorry): what would the films actually be rated if they were true to the book’s narrative? I want to do that, not by going through every scene in the book and trying assign a rating based on every little detail, but by examining some of the scenes that were actually converted into Jackson’s films already, as well as a handful that were not, but could affect the rating in major ways. Here we go!
Well…actually…sorry. Before we do that, I think it would be appropriate to briefly touch on the system used to rate modern films. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is responsible for rating every major film for the general public’s good, but this is not enforced by any law. Films can and are released without such a rating, but many theaters can and do refuse to show those. The ratings that we are all probably familiar with are as follows:
G – General Audiences: All ages admitted; typically nothing in these movies would offend even the most cautious parent.
PG – Parent Guidance Suggested: There may be some things that would offend some younger audiences. Violence in these movies would be very mild. Profanity can be present in these movies but it will be mild and not sexually-oriented. Brief, partial nudity may be present, but never in a sexual context.
PG-13 – Parents Strongly Cautioned: Material in these movies will be inapproriate for younger audiences and maybe even teenagers. Drug-related material may be found in these movies. They can contain multiple expletives, with sexually-derived ones present too, but only one or two instances of “hard” curse words. Nudity may be present, but no actual sex scenes (supposedly). Frightening or thrilling action and horror scenes will typically receive this rating as well.
R- Restricted: If you’re under 17, you have to have a guardian with you for these. These will mainly be adult movies with a lot of adult content. The reigns are removed when it comes to most sex and profanity. Violence, horror, and gore are pretty liberal in these movies. Most kids and teenagers do not need to see these movies.
With a clear frame of reference, we can now go on with the show:
1. The Black Riders
Any person that read the book before the year 2001 (which would not include me)and was looking forward to seeing their favorite parts of the book portrayed on the big screen had a lot to be thankful for, as Peter Jackson did many things correctly both visually and from a narrative perspective. In the book, the Black Riders are terrifying foes (see Tolkien Fact 44 for more info) and some of the scenes with them in it are some of the more nail-biting experiences I’ve had while reading a book.
The hobbits move through the forests and fields of the Shire and you get the sense Black Riders are everywhere, but the first real encounter with them is at Weathertop. The movie does a great job making this scene dramatic and intense, but the book is more focused on the horror of the moment. The hobbits huddle around a fire, knowing that danger is out there and that the Black Riders are aware of their location; they sit in silence, facing away from the fire and staring into the pitch black of night all around them, wondering when the Riders will show up. Suddenly, they get the impression, rather than actually see, that huge shapes and shadows are looming up outside of the ring of the firelight and… *shudder*. I can’t go on. It’s too intense. Just imagine it on film, though: The camera is with the hobbits by the fire, looking over one of their shoulders into the blackness. There’s no music. You can only hear the sounds of their shallow, frightened breathing. Something moves in the night, only feet away from the camp: a shadow, black moving on black. The hobbits hold their breath. There’s no sound. The shadows move closer and grow larger but there are no footsteps. The huge shapes move into the flickering light of the low-burning fire. Huge, man-shaped figures in trailing, tattered, black robes seem to float slowly towards the camera… *shudder*. I think I’ll stop here, before I get too scared to sleep tonight (and before this turns into a fan-fiction). So, one could imagine perhaps a more terrifying scene than the one portrayed in the current films. However, as scary as the actual scene is, this may not alone warrant an R-rating. Maybe PG-13. Let’s move on.
Needless to say, Tolkien is not known for his use of curse words in his writing. In typical British fashion, insults like ‘ass’ do come up in his work, but are meant to be no more than the modern equivalent to calling someone dumb or, literally, a donkey (as the origin of the curse probably comes from). The current movies are rated PG-13 not for any kind of profanity, but would a more book-hugging film be? Obviously, those who are reading this that have read The Lord of the Rings know that there is no explicit language in the book, at least you wouldn’t be able to find any with a word-search. However, Tolkien is known for the creation of one of the most foul and despicable races in modern fantasy: the orcs. The movies have done a brilliant job with the visual design, audio design, and overall feel of the loathsome creatures. You can see the difference between the distinct types and tribes of orcs (Tolkien fact 52) and get the sense that they are not nice guys to be around. But what does the book say about them? In the pages of the novel, we see the same ugly, depraved, and ruthless species, but other details are given about them that may not come out exactly in the film.
When Merry and Pippin are being lugged and herded across the plains of Rohan, we get a chance to listen in on some conversations and quarrels between the different groups present. Tolkien often describes the orcs as cursing and swearing, though he never writes out the words himself. One is left with the impression that this sweaty, grimy, smelling troop of goblins is hideous to see and grating on the ears in terms of the foul things coming out of their mouths. I imagine a bunch of inmates in the worst prison being forced to work a construction site together in the middle of Iraq. (Although, I have nothing against all inmates, construction workers, or Iraqi people. Just imagine some tough guys sweating and cursing a lot.) I’m not sure exactly what the “worst” dirty words were back in the 40’s and 50’s in Europe, but I bet they weren’t much different than the ones we use today. I bet Tolkien knew exactly what the orcs were saying, and they would probably use up their 1-2 “f-word limit” pretty quickly in a PG-13 movie. I would say an R-rating may be justified to accurately portray the orc society and customs.
3. Barrow-wight’s Lair
One of my favorite scenes in the book is left out of our modern film adaptation, and that’s the time when our unfortunate hobbits are captured by a Barrow-wight. (Tolkien fact 40) This takes place immediately after, and in contrast to, the scene with Tom Bombadil (also not featured in the movies). The hobbits leave his house and attempt to traverse the Barrow-downs. Obviously, something has to go wrong in a good story, and it goes very wrong in this case. The group strays into thick fog and wanders into the midst of the barrows. The fog is so thick that they can’t see each other close by and night is setting in: a perfect setup for a horror story, and Tolkien takes advantage of it. Frodo thinks he sees the opening in the hills they thought they saw earlier that day from far off but as he runs ahead in excitement he realizes where they have wandered into.
The shapes he thought were hills marking the exit to the downs were actually huge standing stones, ominous and chilling. As he turns, he realizes he is separated from his friends and calls out. He thinks he hears responses but they seem far away. He runs blindly towards the calls as he can best guess but eventually the calls trail off into a wailing, “Help!…” Frodo is left alone in deep fog that is beginning to tatter and shred as a chilling night breeze picks up, leaving us with one of my favorite scenes in the book for its creep-value:
“[Frodo] imagined suddenly that he caught a muffled cry, and he made towards it; and even as he went forward the mist was rolled up and thrust aside, and the starry sky was unveiled. A glance showed him that he was now facing southwards and was on a round hill-top, which he must have climbed from the north. Out of the east the biting wind was blowing. To his right there loomed against the westward stars a dark black shape. A great barrow stood there.
‘Where are you?’ he cried again, both angry and afraid.
‘Here!’ said a voice, deep and cold, that seemed to come out of the ground. ‘I am waiting for you!’
‘No!’ said Frodo; but he did not run away. His knees gave way, and he fell on the ground. Nothing happened, and there was no sound. Trembling he looked up, in time to see a tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars. It leaned over him. He thought there were two eyes, very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance. Then a grip stronger and colder than iron seized him. The icy touch froze his bones, and he remembered no more.”
Then we actually get into the dank, dark barrow. Frodo wakes up in the tomb with his friends lying next to him, looking dead. He has a dreadful encounter with a creaking, creepy hand crawling around the corner to get them, but I won’t go into much detail. Let me just say it’s scary. So, we have this horrifying story, comparable maybe to the Weathertop scene with the Black Riders in terms of how scary it is, but maybe that alone wouldn’t warrant an R-rating either. However, this scene isn’t the only part I’m concerned about in the chapter.
Eventually, (spoilers) Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits. However, they were dressed in some kind of ancient burial clothing by the wight and had lost the clothes and gear they had on them when they were captured. Tom instructs them to remove their clothes and run free over the fields naked while he goes and finds their ponies. Naked. Imagine that odd scene in a movie. Didn’t think there was nudity in Tolkien? Well, there is. Four naked hobbits. Obviously, they could be shown above the waist in a movie and the nudity is by no means sexual in the least, but it’s there and the MPAA would have to consider the idea of four naked hobbits (an idea I keep repeating with emphasis because it’s funny) when they rate this hypothetical movie. Enjoy your thoughts of naked hobbits.
4. Combat in general
Perhaps one of the easiest things to consider when thinking about how much more adult The Lord of the Rings could be is violence. I said earlier that Jackson took a book that was not by any means an action-based or thriller novel and turned it into a movie that was like that and, while that’s true, the books still do contain a decent amount of action and violence. All of the major battles from the movies, and more, are in the books in more or less detail. Some things had to be stretched or squished to make the movie feel more natural but for the most part the movies do justice to the battles. However, lovers of Game of Thrones and action-based fantasy or thrillers may scoff at the lack of blood and gore in these movies.
Tolkien did not shy away from violence and yet did not focus on it or let it take over the story he was trying to tell; it was a natural part of the narrative he was fleshing out and he used it when it was necessary. Peter Jackson has also not be known to shy away from violence and gore in some of his previous films and there is a fair share of violence and even some blood in his The Lord of the Rings adaptation. Orcs get beheaded, blood spurts out of orcs while they die (sometimes), but mainly we don’t see much of the “real” or “gritty” side of the battles portrayed. The violence present is doubtless the only real reason it is a PG-13 movie to begin (lacking drugs, language, and nudity anyways), but the violence we get is pretty tame for a movie that has large segments of our heroes mercilessly slaying orcs. The natural progression of this aspect into reality is to increase the gore, the violent deaths, and the overall feel of battle. For the most part, the battles are there to serve as proving grounds for our characters; chances for them to show that they too can kill droves of bad guys and save the day in the end. But the battles are a little grimmer than that in the book. Tolkien does a great job of only giving detail when it matters (yes, all of the details about location and tree colors are important to true fans, mind you) and he doesn’t hesitate to portray war like it is: desperate and wicked. He talks of orcs and wild men hewing the bodies of those that are already dead in the Battle of Helms Deep. You can also imagine that the men and orcs aren’t worried about their mothers hearing what they are saying while they’re in the middle of battle; in other words, I bet there is a lot of cursing going on. Now, this is not to say that I want to see these things in a version of The Lord of the Rings but if a movie was going to attempt realism in this fictional world, these are the kind of things you could logical expect to see.
5. Shelob’s Lair
The final scene I want to touch on is, once again, a horror scene. Shelob is nothing to mess with, in both the book and movie. This huge spider-form of evil is wicked, malicious, and always hungry. The scene in the movie where she is silently sneaking up on Frodo and he doesn’t know it is one of my favorite in the trilogy. However, as much as I enjoy the changes for the film, the original scene is equally as cool, though 20X more scary. Frodo and Sam do not actually get tricked by Gollum into splitting up (though it adds a nice element of despair to the movie) and they both head into Shelob’s lair, though they don’t know who lives there. It’s pitch black and they can’t see anything. They can only feel that the tunnels they are walking through are large and the smell is horrendous. The smell gets stronger and stronger and a presence of foreboding weighs on them more and more as they get closer to Shelob’s den.
Imagine this in movie-form: obviously a pitch black scene is largely un-filmable. Though darkness is scary, you have to have some kind of contrast for reference to actually be afraid in it, at least in a movie. One option would be a black screen and then some kind of jump scare with Frodo pulling out the Phial of Galadriel and seeing Shelob, but I feel like that would be a cheap shot and not interesting. My preference, though different, may be a little scarier and possibly horrifying enough to get an R-rating; I don’t know. When Sam and Frodo enter the tunnels, a night-vision camera comes on.
Use of night vision in movie Cloverfield; obviously my movie wouldn’t use a handheld camera… or would it?
Yes, this may be cheesy and out of place, but I would hope, if done correctly, this would add to the effect of the scene being eerie and the feeling of the hobbits being out of place as well. The camera is fixed to go in front of the hobbits, looking back at them, so the audience can’t see where they’re going, only what’s around them. As they progress, maybe some kind of ominous music, strings or something eerie, comes in and builds as the tension ratchets up. The voices of the hobbits quicken and their breathing becomes sharp and they no longer worry about whispering. They also stop worrying about where they’re stepping and jog together, slipping and stumbling on things lying on the floor of the tunnel; we can see these things are bones, heads, body parts, and weapons and clothes of people Shelob has consumed, but the hobbits don’t know. When they approach the entrance to Shelob’s actual lair, they can’t see in it, but we can. Two huge clusters of bulbous eyes and huge fangs and long hairy limbs curled up underneath her, only feet away from the hobbits. They only make mention of the smell, but we know the real danger. It’s scenes like this that are scary to me: situations where the audience knows the danger that the characters can’t possibly be aware of and also are hopeless to get through. Maybe this also wouldn’t be R-rated either, but I would hesitate to bring my kids if I knew a scene like that was in a movie. Think of all the sleepless nights kids and teenagers have over less.
In conclusion, these are just a handful of scenes and ideas that could be different in another version of the movies. There are more scenes that come to mind that may have more adult features in the book, but I feel these are the prominent ones to point out. Perhaps not all of these alone, or even together would get the MPAA’s R-rating, but I feel like some of them would make the decision a little harder for that group. Like I said, the current movies are more than fine to me. The PG-13 rating is also a good medium for them. I cringe to think how lame the action would be if a PG rating were to be slapped on them. Again, I don’t bring these points up to say that I want to see an R-rated adaptation. An R-rating would prevent so many people from seeing this amazing story played out. I certainly would not be as big of a fan as I am now if the movies had been rated R, as I was too young when they were released. I’m glad and thankful to be able to have complaints in the first place about a The Lord of the Rings trilogy; it’s truly a blessing to have such a masterful adaptation of a film that I would say you really shouldn’t attempt to film in the first place.