N°2 | Mythopoetic Adaptation in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy

David Goldie

Abstract :

The debate on adaptation often focuses on a perceived rivalry between the arts when considering the transformation of narratives from one media to another. This paper seeks to go beyond the problem of comparison by opposition by considering one element in the question of adaptation more specifically. Somewhat paradoxically, this is the story itself. Despite being at the heart of the adaptive process, it is a partner that rarely has a voice in any of these discussions.

Résumé :

Trop souvent, la question de l’adaptation se focalise sur la transformation des récits à travers différents médias, ainsi elle met en évidence une certaine rivalité entre les arts. Au lieu de se heurter aux problèmes issus de la comparaison d’œuvres par l’opposition, cette contribution se concentre sur l’un des éléments mis en jeu par l’adaptation. Paradoxalement, il s’agit de l’histoire. Malgré le fait qu’elle devrait se trouver au cœur même du processus d’adaptation, nous n’entendons que rarement sa voix.


« For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable. »
Ursula Le Guin (Introduction, Tales from Earthsea xv).

        Ursula Le Guin neatly captures a dilemma we face when considering cinematic adaptations of mythological texts. On one hand, modern CGI technology allows incredibly lifelike rendering of places, peoples and events that would have previously been impossible. On the other hand, mythological storytelling has ancient origins and the messages contained in such tales remain as true today as they ever have. These points would seem quite favourable for adapting such stories. However Le Guin points out that exploiting modern technology to accurately portray ancient narratives is often a difficult balancing act.

        In his 1939 On Fairy Stories lecture, J. R. R. Tolkien describes the art of the storyteller as weaving a magical spell on the reader. He does this through the creative act of mythopoeia. While this term existed before him, it has become associated with Tolkien as the title of a poem he wrote for C. S. Lewis. Tolkien presents a discussion between “Philomythos” (myth-lover) and “Misomythos” (myth-hater) and defends the creation of myths, underlining the importance of their narratives. These two characters represent Tolkien and Lewis and the poem re-enacts the conversation between the two on the evening of the 19th September 1931. This was a formative moment in Lewis’ spiritual renaissance. Lewis held the view that myths, however attractive and appealing as stories, were worthless since they were “Lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien managed to convince Lewis that this was wrong. In his opinion myths contained universal truths offering glimpses of the great truth of Christianity. Mythopoeia is extremely important to Tolkien. It is the art of producing myths and stories that bring these truths to the surface.

        Before the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), Christopher Tolkien adopted an unequivocally negative stance towards Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in an interview with Raphaelle Rerolle for Le Monde.

They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25, (…) The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.[1]

        According to Christopher Tolkien the adaptations are disrespectful. Blockbuster action films are neither aesthetically pleasing nor intellectually stimulating. Ignoring the fact that The Lord of the Rings is not without detractors in the world of literary criticism[2] he also condemns a large part of the readership who fuelled the book’s early success.

        J. R. R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson are both mythopoetic storytellers. When debate focuses on aesthetic and essential differences in adaptations, the central importance of the stories and what they have to say is often forgotten. While such oppositional comparison is understandable, this is a crucial omission for The Lord of the Rings.J. R. R. Tolkien’s point of view was expressed in On Fairy Stories where he famously declared: “The Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty” (The Monsters and the Critics, 125). This metaphor neatly captures the idea that stories exist in a historical continuum and that ideas can be communicated across space and time. As new ingredients are stirred in, the original constituents resurface and new flavours are created from the mix of old and new. Just like a cook, the storyteller’s art is to draw them out and present them to a contemporary audience. J. R. R. Tolkien thus provides a philosophical support for the process and the practice of adaptation.

        This article aims to discuss how mythopoeia, the art of myth creation, has become central to the Hollywood blockbuster. Taking The Lord of the Rings as example of mythopoetic storytelling we will question Christopher Tolkien’s dismissal of Peter Jackson’s works as mere action films. Structuring his narrative on “The Hero’s Journey” concept that has informed Hollywood blockbusters since Star Wars, Jackson certainly follows a familiar format. Yet his adaptations have succeeded in reintroducing the narratives to a post-Millennial audience. The fundamental questions are how and why do such stories as continue to attract and fascinate audiences?

        Firstly, we will consider mythopoeia and its significance for J. R. R. Tolkien. Next, we will see where the mythical pretensions of Hollywood blockbusters come from by examining the “The Hero’s Journey” story cycle. Finally, we will analyse a passage from The Two Towers,comparing Tolkien’s view of stories with the representation of the same sequence in the film version.

‘Philomythus to Misomythus’
J. R. R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia

        J. R. R. Tolkien explains his own theories on the importance of stories in On Fairy Tales. Mythopoeia should be the ultimate aim of a writer in a creative process he terms “subcreation.” An author should assume a role akin to a deity by creating a universe for his story. He should know it intimately and make certain it functions coherently so that there can be no doubting any part of it. Tolkien compares his role with that of God, the Creator in what he calls the Primary World. In this sense, the author is the creator of a Secondary World, a subcreation in respect to God’s Primary World.

        In a mythopoetic context it is appropriate to incorporate and adapt other elements from myths and legends. According to Tolkien this is what has always happened unconsciously. Glimpses of the Gospel, the “true” myth, are contained and distilled in other tales that blend and mix in the cauldron of “Story” Although Tolkien never uses the word “adaptation” it is clear in On Fairy Stories that it is not something to be avoided. In fact it is fundamental to Tolkien’s thinking and writing.

        Regarding the process of cinematic adaptation, Brian McFarlane advocates moving away from comparison via a narrow oppositional paradigm in his essay “Reading Film and Literature” from 2007. He argues for placing the narrative at the centre of discussion and considering the relations between the different versions as a starting point for evaluation of the work in question. Since good storytelling exists just as much in cinema as in literature, it is necessary to appreciate that the narrative mode is different and interpretation comes through different semiotic messages.

        McFarlane suggests approaching cinematic adaptation through the concept of intertext as developed by Julia Kristeva in Sèmiôtikè. Recherches sur une sémanalyse and Gérard Genette in Palimpsestes. This means not only taking into account a number of influencing factors from the story’s roots to the cultural context of the adaptation but also its place within a cinematic context, all of which contribute to its newly adapted form

        Despite Christopher Tolkien seeing his father’s work as a unique creation, intertextuality is actually at the heart of The Lord of the Rings and it is extremely important to bear this in mind. As a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, Tolkien’s particular expertise was in philology, retracing the origins of words. His extensive study of ancient texts afforded him a vast knowledge of mythology that he set about employing and indeed adapting to achieve his aim of creating a specifically English mythology. Tom Shippey demonstrates this in his book The Road to Middle-Earth, citing numerous references in Tolkien’s works to legendary texts such as the Icelandic Kalevala.

        Where mythopoetic texts are concerned, adaptation is not a case of opposition between art forms, but rather part of an ongoing process that facilitates the transmission of ideas. Tolkien discusses this last point extensively in On Fairy Stories. Indeed, his main interest is this communication of ideas via stories rather than an anthropological search for their origins. Tolkien’s Christian faith is inseparable from his concept of mythopoeia. However, the idea that myths contain universal truths transmitted in an indirect and palatable way is not exclusively Tolkien’s. Other writers have examined this question from radically different standpoints

        In A Theory of Adaptation Linda Hutcheon explains the continual transmission of ideas by borrowing from Richard Dawkins’ concept of the “meme” in The Selfish Gene. The meme represents a unit of cultural identity or idea and is analogous to the gene. Just as the process of natural selection contributes to an ongoing evolution in the natural world, the same is true in culture. Hutcheon therefore encourages us to regard stories as such evolving units of culture. While contexts may change over space and time, the essential messages remain the same.

        Before them both Joseph Campbell took an anthropological approach to explain the transmission of ideas through mythology. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he studied myths from around the world, referencing many different cultures and religions. We can compare Tolkien’s concept of “Story” to the idea of the existence of a universal mythological story cycle such as the “Monomyth” or “The Hero’s Journey” developed by Campbell. Campbell’s two major aims were to prove the universality of these narratives and to establish their importance as formative stories for human society.

        As a specialist of mythology and comparative religion, Campbell concluded the existence of a common human inheritance to be found in myths. To develop his concept of the hero, Campbell based his own theory on the work of structuralists like Lévi-Strauss or Saussure. He supported his interpretation of myths by using the Jungian theory of a universal consciousness and Freudian dream interpretation. While admitting to being open to spirituality in his interview with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Campbell underlined the pattern at the heart of all mythological narratives. Remarking such similarity that he could not attribute it to one source or another, he underlined the commonality to be found in all cultures and religions.

        There is an inherent opposition between them. Tolkien would certainly would not have believed in Campbell’s approach. In his opinion, every myth contains elements of the “true” myth of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile Campbell was suspicious of monotheism, centred on humanity and the shared inheritance of a collective consciousness. Yet Tolkien’s cauldron analogy allows for different ingredients within his soup. Tolkien and Campbell both uphold the importance of myths containing messages to be communicated to humanity. Mythological narratives bear witness to universal truths that will appear again and again. Debating the merits of one view over another is not really the issue here. Instead, we come back to one central point. If an idea is strong enough it will survive through adaptation

        As a specialist of mythology and comparative religion, Campbell concluded the existence of a common human inheritance to be found in myths. To develop his concept of the hero, Campbell based his own theory on the work of structuralists like Lévi-Strauss or Saussure. He supported his interpretation of myths by using the Jungian theory of a universal consciousness and Freudian dream interpretation. While admitting to being open to spirituality in his interview with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Campbell underlined the pattern at the heart of all mythological narratives. Remarking such similarity that he could not attribute it to one source or another, he underlined the commonality to be found in all cultures and religions.

‘(…) a lesson disguised as entertainment.’
Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey, 2007, 300)

        “The Hero’s Journey” lends itself to adaptation, retelling of stories and recycling themes. In 1979, Syd Field published Screenplay, the Foundations of Screenwriting. He developed a form he called the “Paradigm” and explained how to stage events in order to keep the narration moving forward. Similar to Aristotle’s story structure of context, conflict & resolution, this emphasised the traditional three act structure, plotting the number of pages required for each section against the time this would take in a film. This is illustrated by the table below, today freely available for download.

        In the 2005 version of his book Field analysed how The Lord of the Rings Trilogy fits into this structure:

         In Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo becomes the ring bearer to return the ring to its place of origin, Mount Doom, so he can destroy it. That is his dramatic need. How he gets there and completes the task is the story. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring sets up the characters and situation and narrative through line; it establishes Frodo and the Shire, as well as the Fellowship, who set off on their mission to Mount Doom. Part II, The Two Towers, dramatizes the obstacles Frodo, Sam, and the Fellowship confront on their journey to destroy the ring. They are confronted with obstacle after obstacle that hinder their mission. At the same time, Aragorn and the others must overcome many challenges to defeat the Orcs at Helm’s Deep. And Part III, The Return of the King, resolves the story: Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom and watch as the ring and the Gollum fall into the fires and are destroyed. Aragorn is crowned king, and the hobbits return to the Shire and their life plays out. (19)

        While we are not suggesting a direct link between Field’s Paradigm and Campbell, there are certain points in common. Since the Paradigm is a general approach for a screenplay, the details of the narrative arc are not clearly defined like Campbell’s monomyth. Despite this, the Paradigm is also based on a three act structure where the main characters are on a journey towards resolution. What is certain is that this form is the basis of the blockbuster and The Lord of the Rings trilogy clearly subscribes to a similar structure.

 As Hunter explains in his essay “Post-Classical Fantasy Cinema” from 2007, “The Hero’s Journey” has had a major influence on Hollywood productions since the 1970s.

If The Lord of the Rings reminds us of Star Wars, this is not only because Star Wars borrowed heavily from Tolkien’s novel, or even that both happened to mine identical archetypes: all Hollywood films now draw inspiration from Star Wars’s Joseph Campbell-influenced pseudo-myth of individual liberation, sacrifice, and enlightenment. (161)

        A clearer understanding of “The Hero’s Journey” and how it has permeated Hollywood will now allow us to see how it affects the narrative structure of Peter Jackson’s films in more detail.

        Campbell divides the Monomyth into three parts, comprising seventeen stages of a narrative he called “The Hero’s Journey.” The journey takes place in three phases of “Departure,” “Initiation” and “Return” as we can see below:

        This is a story of personal development with consequences on a societal level. To sum it up, in the departure section the context of the story is established. The hero is put in a position, often reluctantly, where he has to respond to a problem threatening the society he lives in. The next is his initiation into a position where he possesses the necessary knowledge and experience to be able to address and resolve this problem. This is the section where the major personal development occurs. Past these points the hero is prepared to return to society and bring his new-found knowledge to bear on the problem affecting his society. This may take some time and involve various adventures on the way back. Once back, he is the master of two worlds, the spiritual and the real, ready to bring resolution.

        Star Wars is the most obvious example of “The Hero’s Journey” in cinema and its links to The Lord of the Rings are more than anecdotal as Cyril Rolland points out in his 2010 article. George Lucas discovered Campbell’s work in the 1960s while studying anthropology at the University of Southern California. Lucas’ storytelling impulse was identical to Tolkien’s. He wanted to make his films for a generation growing up without fairy tales and create his own mythology based on fundamental morality. Despite apparently harbouring some ambition to make his own version of The Lord of the Rings, he eventually decided against it and set about creating his own mythopoetic story. We clearly see elements of “The Hero’s Journey” in the story of Luke Skywalker. As Hunter points out, post-Star Wars, myth-making has become a central part of Hollywood production. If such stories can teach us universal truths, it is unsurprising that we constantly return to them and narratives that resemble them.

        In the 1980s, the mythopoetic impulse of Hollywood increased when Christopher Vogler, a script analyst for the Walt Disney Company, wrote a famous memo to his staff arguing that the most successful screenplays were variations on “The Hero’s Journey.” In Vogler’s opinion Star Wars was the perfect example and fantasy the ideal genre as archetypes are freely represented and spirituality is untouched by religious dogma. Having studied Campbell, Vogler developed a simplified version of “The Hero’s Journey,” incorporated into The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers in 1990.

        In the 2007 edition of this book Vogler spoke his belief that “stories are alive” (300) thus echoing the thoughts of Tolkien and Campbell. Vogler’s version of “The Hero’s Journey” plots twelve stages which outline both the outer and inner progression of the main character through trials and tribulations before arriving at a place of enlightenment. Its simplification of Campbell’s cycle has made it an ideal format for screenwriters, neatly dividing into three equal sections or acts.

        Championing the blockbuster format, Vogler repeatedly tells us that we should not be too quick to dismiss “The Hero’s Journey.” As he says, stories “want to teach you a lesson disguised as entertainment” (300). Vogler may have only increased the formulaic tendency of the blockbuster, yet he also gave classical narrative forms a chance to survive and thrive today. Unsurprisingly we can also find examples of “The Hero’s Journey” in characters such as Neo in The Matrix (1999 – 2003), Jake Sully in Avatar (2009), Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (2012-15) and, of course, Harry Potter. While acknowledging the obvious commercial aspects of a cinema industry looking for universally exportable stories, we could also say that the mythopoetic pretensions of these stories are precisely what make them so attractive to audiences.

        Vogler’s “Hero’s Journey” travels between two worlds. While strict applicability in the overall positioning of the stages is open to discussion we should not forget that The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy. Peter Jackson recognised the overall unity of the narrative arc before beginning shooting. He then made the three films continuously as one largely chronological work over a six-year period. Vogler’s pattern is represented below and applied to the primary narrative of Frodo’s journey.

        This may appear as an oversimplification of the complex interlacing of narratives within The Lord of the Rings. Frodo is not the only hero in The Lord of the Rings. If his journey to Mordor represents the Primary narrative, the Secondary one relates Aragorn’s personal journey towards accepting his place as the true king of Middle-Earth and a similar plotting could be achieved for him.

        Beyond the scenario structure Tom Shippey’s comments regarding Peter Jackson’s intentions are particularly insightful. Shippey is in a unique position regarding The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a renowned Tolkien expert, he was invited to be a consultant for the production. During a conference given at Swarthmore College in 2010 he emphasises several points of interest.

        The comparisons with Star Wars are very important. According to Shippey, George Lucas’ production was the model for The Lord of the Rings production. As he puts it, “Peter Jackson wanted to out-Star Wars, Star Wars.” Shippey supports the idea of Jackson as a mythopoetic storyteller for the 2000s, obeying the cinematic conventions imposed on him by showing a story rather than telling it. From a purely technical point of view, in the early 2000s, the time was right for another story of epic proportions to speak to audiences. Cinematic technology was advanced enough to be able present Middle-Earth on film and thereby bypass some of the problems that had led to disappointment with previous attempts such as the animated version by Ralph Bakshi in 1976 and its follow-up The Return of the King by Rankin and Bass in 1980.

        However Jackson shares a deeper mythopoetic intention with Tolkien and Lucas. Writing in 2013, the psychologist Serge Tisseron remarked on the renaissance of fantasy during this period pointing out that the success of the Harry Potter (2001-11) can at least be partly attributed to a desire to recapture certain cultural references or supposedly universal images and ideas which Western society felt it had lost after the attacks of 9/11.

        It could be argued that this merely provides escapism. However, in On Fairy Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien states that this is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, conceptualizing it in the image of the “Escape of the Prisoner,” he asks if we should really be contemptuous of anyone trying to escape their own difficult situation by immersing themselves in a story. The “prisoner” is still allowed to dream of the free world outside of their cell. It is real, even if they cannot see it. In the same way, we can escape into stories in the search for fundamental truths.

        Tolkien created Middle-Earth during the difficult circumstances of the beginning of the twentieth century, convinced that England needed a mythology of its own to turn to in times of crisis. For Tolkien fantastic escapism is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is a mechanism for presenting reality and indeed truth in a palatable way. The mythopoetic heart of The Lord of the Rings was perfectly suited to responding to the problems faced by society at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It would not be an overstatement to say that Peter Jackson’s adaptations at least partly paved the way for the rebirth of fantasy that culminated in the Harry Potter phenomenon.

        Perhaps Christopher Tolkien’s criticism hinges on the fact that Jackson often plays up the adventurous side of The Lord of the Rings. Jackson certainly employs a great deal of CGI. This point was regretfully conceded by Viggo Mortensen who played Aragorn in the film. In an interview from 2014 he confessed to much preferring The Fellowship of the Ring to its sequels as more time was given over to the reflective elements of the text. In his 2005 article “Peter Jackson’s Film Versions” Shippey also recognises a tendency to play up to a contemporary audiences’ expectations. He cites the prominence of Arwen as just one example. She provides a strong female character thus responding to potential criticism of Tolkien’s gender politics. If these points support Christopher Tolkien’s view, Peter Jackson does not ignore the text’s mythopoetic intentions as we will now see in one of the most memorable sequences of the films.

‘The great stories … the ones that really mattered’
Sam Gamgee, The Two Towers (2002)

        The reflective side of the stories is not completely forgotten. For example we see it during the steady development of relations between Frodo, Sam and Gollum. There are some masterful sequences which provide visual representation of Smeagol’s inner struggle with Gollum, such as conversation between the two parts of his personality via a reflection in a pool at the beginning of The Return of the King (2003) and on either side of a tree which splits the screen in two in the final scene of The Two Towers (2002).

        One of the most memorable sequences of the trilogy juxtaposes the epic with the reflective. We find it at the climax of The Two Towers. Comparing its treatment in the book with how it appears in the film will allow us to see how mythopoeia is just as close to Peter Jackson’s heart as it was to Tolkien’s.

        Towards the end of the literary version, Frodo, Sam and Gollum try to enter into Mordor by taking a secret passage at the top of the rocky steps of Cirith Ungol. It is a very arduous path and the hobbits decide to rest and eat a last meal before crossing over the frontier. At this point Sam begins a conversation about storytelling:

(….) The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.” (738-39)

        On first sight it is an episode which could seem an entirely insignificant example of Tolkienian digression and may well have been among the first passages a Hollywood executive might consider cutting. The two companions just seem to be momentarily escaping their plight by talking about their favourite stories before they move on. However, on further examination, Tolkien is clearly explaining his own theories on storytelling. Within his own mythopoetic text, this passage presents a discussion on the value of mythical stories and the importance of his “Story” concept. This fact is emphasised by Sam who describes them as “the tales that really mattered.” He continues:

“I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. (…) I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” (The Two Towers,739)

        Frodo and Sam’s determination in the face of extreme adversity is a lesson for us all. To the casual observer hobbits are clearly defined by their height and outer timidity. Thus, they are presumed to be insignificant by the great powers of Middle-Earth. Tolkien informs us that this is clearly the wrong way to judge a person. In spite of all the power that can be wielded on the battlefield it is the action of self-sacrifice of two small individuals that will ultimately decide the fate of Middle-Earth. Sam thus equates himself with a person in a tale and the reader begins to understand that heroes can come in all shapes and forms.

        It is particularly significant that Sam presents Tolkien’s ideas here. The friendship between Frodo and Sam is thus integral to this narrative. Sam is Frodo’s gardener and far from extraordinary. However, he volunteers to accompany Frodo on his quest and steadfastly holds to this task. In J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, Carpenter reminds us that Sam represents the rank and file soldiers Tolkien met as an officer in the First World War. Tolkien wanted to pay homage to these anonymous men. In his opinion, they were the real heroes who did their duty despite incredibly difficult circumstances

        To really understand Tolkien’s conception of myths we need to recognise the universality of the narratives the hobbits are discussing. If Tolkien’s major argument treats the common roots of myths, here Sam underlines that myths are universal stories in the sense that they can touch each of us. Anyone, even the least sophisticated, can find meaning in myths. Perceiving the similarities between old tales from his childhood and his present situation, Sam finds comfort here.

        Peter Jackson does not ignore this passage. In fact he transposes the text of this conversation to another scene of his own invention, using all the cinematic means at his disposal to underline its importance and touch his audience on an emotional level. The hobbits have been captured by Faramir of Gondor and the Ring is bound for the city where it will be taken into the possession of men. The hobbits are therefore facing the imminent failure of their quest to destroy the Ring once and for all. To make matters worse, as they pass through the outpost at Osgiliath which guards Gondor, the company is attacked by the Nazgûl. These Ringwraiths are attracted to the Ring. Frodo’s strength and resolve fail and he almost gives it over to the enemy. At the last moment Sam stops him. Frodo realises the enormity of his task and despondently wonders if he can really achieve his aim. At this point Sam launches into an epic speech.

Frodo: (slowly) I can’t do this, Sam.

Sam: (sadly) I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here.

Sam stumbles to his feet and leans against a wall.

Sam: (cont’d) But we are.

Sam keeps watching the terrible scene, and speaks absently.

Sam: (cont’d) It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy?

Sam: (Voice Over) (cont’d) How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: (skeptically) What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam looks at Frodo… Sam walks over and lifts FRODO to his feet.

Sam: (resolute) There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Frodo is moved bySam’sdetermination. He smiles grimly.

(“The Two Towers Screenplay Transcript”)

        This dialogue condenses the first part of the text from the book and places it in a different context. It thus loses some of the important references which Sam makes to other stories from the legends of Middle-Earth. In the book he compares their situation to events from The Silmarillion and realises that he and Frodo are participating in the continuation of stories began long ago. They are actively involved in their mythopoetic creation. Crucially, theirs is a real story.

        Peter Jackson replaces the whole discussion by an emotional monologue. At the centre of a close-up shot, Sam, leans against the wall of their hiding place in the ruins of Osgiliath and looks out to the horizon. As he begins his speech he is framed in a medium close shot. Frodo lies on the ground listening and seems visibly affected. Accompanied by stirring romantic music, Sam’s speech continues as a voice-over to a montage of images of the Battle of Helm’s Deep between the forces of Rohan and Isengard which is taking place far away at the same time. Firstly we see the monstruous Uruk-Hai fleeing before the horseriders of Rohan led by Gandalf and Aragorn. Against all odds men have been victorious. This fact is underlined by a full shot of King Theoden crying victory with his sword held aloft, then close-ups of Gandalf and Aragorn in the melee. Next we jump another long distance to Orthanc where the Ents, together with Merry and Pippin, are destroying Saruman’s evil industry. Liberating the force of a dammed river, it floods the land all around and bring Saruman’s projects to an end. We return to Sam in full shot to conclude with the final part of the dialogue. When Frodo asks him “What are we holding on to, Sam?” he helps his companion to his feet before delivering his final words.

        It is a stirring speech, typical of a blockbuster and an element which could support Christopher Tolkien’s criticism. However Peter Jackson believes that stories are an essential part of our humanity too. In an interview with Sean Woods for Rolling Stone in 2013, he was asked, “With all the advances in technology, which you clearly love, do you ever worry that storytelling will fall by the wayside?” Jackson simply replied: “No. No. No. No. No. Look, we’re human beings and we want stories. We’re always going to be entertained and have our emotions touched by humanity and by things that we recognize in our own lives.”

        His images support this point of view and the audience can hardly fail to take notice. Just as Frodo and Sam are living through it, we are watching a great tale, one that really matters and the emotion conveyed by the speech and its mise en scène cannot fail to move us. In fact it is so powerful a speech that even Gollum seems visibly affected. More importantly for the narrative, Faramir has also been listening. Thanks to Sam he sees that the situation goes beyond the laws of the city he is supposed to be defending. He is a good soldier but also a righteous man and decides to free Frodo and let him continue his quest despite knowing this decision means the death penalty for him.

        This is definitely an emotional sequence which places the speech in a different context to the novel and for another effect. However, does this difference make the speech any less appreciable or diminish its artistic value? The central theme is still the power of stories and it entirely supports J. R. R. Tolkien’s points. If we have taken this particular example it is because it illustrates how an adaptation can condense and change a text then employ cinematic language to provoke a strong reaction in the viewer. Even if the point is made according to the norms of a stirring speech in an action movie, is startlingly clear. The great stories teach us values and advice necessary to stand up to all challenges. This is precisely what “The Hero’s Journey” tells us in all its forms. The “tales that mattered” now become “great stories … the ones that really mattered” and “the stories that stayed with you, that meant something.” It is a turning point in the narrative and links intrinsically to mythopoeia. Here Jackson succeeds in visually representing a message that may well have remained hidden in Tolkien’s text. Dramatising and emphasising it, Jackson succeeds in making the fundamental impulse of Tolkien’s storytelling clear to all who see it.

        In conclusion we return to our initial point of departure. Christopher Tolkien finds Peter Jackson’s film versions of The Lord of the Rings difficult to digest since he regards them as merely shallow escapist action films. In holding this opinion, he certainly does an injustice to the films and his father’s notion of escapism. The mythopoetic impulse that inspired his father’s work is just as present in Peter Jackson’s films, not only in his direction but also in the blockbuster format. If this mythopoetic format has established itself so soundly in Hollywood it is not necessarily because of economic expediency and a lack of creativity. It is because myths are able to touch us profoundly even within the context of merely entertaining us.

        Even if we cannot and should not forget the essential differences that inform the arguments that Tolkien, Campbell, Vogler and Jackson present to us on the value of myths, we cannot deny the mythopoetic impulse that lies at the heart of their ideas. Mythopoeia uses the common roots of mythological narratives to adapt and re-present universal ideas that remain as relevant today as they ever have. Blockbuster action movies may be formulaic but in their adaptation of “The Hero’s Journey” they follow a pattern that has existed since long before cinema and even literature. Following on directly from the opening quotation of this article, Ursula Le Guin neatly sums up the attraction of such stories in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea:

We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” and “there” is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill […]. So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities. (xv)

        The sequence we have examined helps to underline the fact that in the context of The Lord of the Rings, the story should be perceived as something which exists for its own and our own sakes. Studying stories as J. R. R. Tolkien did himself, what really matters is not the differences between representations of their narratives but rather how these fit into our overall cultural inheritance.

        With this in mind, we finish now with another quotation from Sam and Frodo’s conversation in the book:

(Sam) “Don’t the great tales never end?” “No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended.” (The Two Towers,739)

        This is of course true for both the characters and the storytellers. Instead of creating an opposition between them as authors, maybe it is preferable to view J. R. R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson as collaborators playing their respective parts in the process of adapting and telling stories. Contrary to Christopher Tolkien’s assertion, an action film should be not a term of abuse. As we have demonstrated, it is completely appropriate that Tolkien’s epic work should have been adapted in this way. The way we tell the stories may change but our need for them and the messages they provide remain as strong as ever.

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The Author:

After graduating in Modern Languages from the University of Manchester, David Goldie taught English both in Italy and the United Kingdom. Since his arrival in France in 2001, he has worked in a variety of contexts both in industry and in higher education. He now occupies a post in the UFR Sciences at Aix-Marseille University where he teaches English to non-specialist students in cinema in the SATIS department and collaborates regularly on screenwriting courses. He is affiliated to the LERMA laboratory where his research centres on English literature and adaptation studies. His doctoral thesis deals with the cinematic adaptations of fantasy novels, including the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis & J. K. Rowling.

Frodo is moved by Sam’s determination. He smiles grimly.


[1] Worldcrunch. “My Father’s ‘Eviscerated’ Work – Son of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out.” Trans. Jeff Israely (Web. 19/07/14).

[2] Harold Bloom

[3] “The Paradigm Blank Worksheet,” Sid Field, The Art of Visual Storytelling (http://sydfield.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/paradigm.pdf)