Concerning Hobbits, Heroes, and Film: Lessons “The Lord of the Rings” Taught Us

What about the visualization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring struck global audiences in December 2001 so powerfully? And what is it about Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films that has allowed them to continue captivating and inspiring international audiences new and old over a decade after their release? The Lord of the Rings films and franchise themselves have been heavily critiqued and commented on, but this literature has centered around either the mechanics of producing and marketing the films or the precise details of how Jackson changed Tolkien’s story, without considering the implications of those changes. There is a significant dearth of intelligent analysis of Jackson’s singular accomplishment; i.e., how his changes to the story and his manipulation of cinematic devices endowed the films with a uniquely successful combination of believability, narrative cohesion, and emotional depth. My book, Concerning Hobbits, Film, and Heroism, will help to fill this gap by revealing the thoughtful and meticulous filmmaking decisions that lifted Tolkien’s fantasy story out of its literary niche and brought it to the highest realm of critical acclaim, resulting in one of the most celebrated cinematic franchises in history.

Literature and cinema have their own distinct languages. To successfully adapt a piece of literature into film, a director has to use the vocabulary of cinema (screenwriting, mise-en-scene,[1] visual effects, cinematography, and editing) to translate the written word into something recognizable, yet entirely new and unique – ideally, something that can stand on its own merits as an influential and historic work of art. While J.R.R. Tolkien was a master of Old (and new) English and the inventor of several languages of his own, he could not imagine how his sprawling, fantastic novel could successfully become a film.  And yet Peter Jackson succeeded, spectacularly.  In my book, I will delve into an exploration of the language of cinema and how Jackson used this language to visually translate the themes and tone of Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.

Based on my Honors Film Studies thesis for Wesleyan University, Concerning Hobbits, Film, and Heroism will lay out how Peter Jackson’s narrative development of distinct threads of humble heroism in each of Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin was balanced with the use of popular cinematic devices, such as Aragorn’s romantic hook or the myriad spectacular action sequences, to create a trilogy of films that dominated global box offices and has had a substantial, lasting influence on contemporary filmmaking. I will reveal the lessons in effective, emotive filmmaking that are illustrated by Jackson’s visualization of Middle-Earth and his cinematic translation of The Lord of the Rings’ two predominant themes: moral opposition (i.e., good versus evil) and the power of the modest Tolkienian hero (i.e., the notion that the most humble of characters can become the chief hero through acts of honest bravery and self-sacrifice). This book will use objective analysis of specific shots, scenes and characterizations throughout the trilogy to highlight exactly how Jackson accomplished the impossible with The Lord of the Rings, breaking down the movies in terms that average fans of the films and the book can understand and appreciate. Millions of people know that Peter Jackson took a dense, high-fantasy text and respectfully turned it into compelling and exhilarating cinema. My book will let them understand how.


[1] The book will, of course, explain phrases like mise-en-scene in laymen’s terms-- MES refers to all the things in front of the camera, e.g. composition, framing, lighting, staging, coloration, acting, sets, props, costuming, etc