The Hobbit part one of eleventy billion approaches, and Peter Jackson has valiantly attempted to recast dwarves as action heroes after spending three movies establishing them as goofy comic relief. Gimli’s handling and the tension it creates when making an entire movie about dwarves highlights a major problem with Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, and one of the reasons I’m not a major fan of the films: The reduction of characters to cinematic archetypes. Let’s look at the Nine Walkers, the archetypes they’re forced into, and how the story suffers as a result.
The Unlikely Hero
The main character, an ordinary guy who is dropped into a situation beyond his knowledge and abilities and has to save the world. Characters: Frodo, natch.
While Frodo is an archetypical unlikely hero in the books as well, the films really go out of their way to pass heroic actions to Frodo, whether it makes sense or not. For instance, Frodo figures out the riddle on the Doors of Durin, because Merry isn’t a hero and can’t possibly be expected to accomplish something plot-expedient.
The main character’s loyal, but bumbling and not too bright, companion, who exists primarily as a foil for the protagonist and to occasionally step up to bat when everyone else is out of commission. Characters: Sam.
Sam is, of course, a sidekick in the books, but the films make some alterations to fit him better into the archetype. For instance, in the books, Sam is definitely the more “together” character and often ends up taking care of Frodo. He does some of this in the films, especially at the end, but Frodo taking on a more active, heroic role erodes Sam’s competence. And, of course, he’s the fat one. Aren’t all hobbits supposed to be fat?
The Action Hero
What can I say? Tough, noble, good-looking, and formidable in combat. Characters: Aragorn and Legolas.
Both lose out as they are pushed into this role. Aragorn has many action-hero traits, but the films lose the mentor side of his character, which we see in the books especially before Gandalf joins the group; for instance, when he tells the hobbits the story of Beren and Luthien. And Legolas turns from a rather minor character into a shield-surfing pretty boy.
That old wise dude who explains the plot and then dies so that the protagonist can get a chance to act on his own. Characters: Gandalf.
Gandalf is a mentor however you interpret him, but the films tend to use him to explain away ambiguities even when he doesn’t have a good reason to know the answer. For instance, Frodo suspects that someone is following them through Moria, Gandalf says “It’s Gollum,” even though Gandalf has absolutely no way of even knowing that Gollum is free, let alone that he’s there.
The team member who turns on the others. Characters: Boromir.
This is one of Hollywood’s most complex and diverse archetypes, and consequently Boromir is the only one of the Nine Walkers who I really think is handled well, and not just because Sean Bean is a fantastic actor. The movies neither make Boromir into an obvious villain nor make his attempt to steal the ring into an improbable plot contrivance. My only real objection is that Gondorians shouldn’t be blond.
The Comic Relief
Either a wisecracking joker or an incompetent buffoon; either way, he exists solely to amuse the audience. Characters: Merry, Pippin, and Gimli.
Here’s where I start flipping tables. None of these characters are either plot-important or hot, so obviously they have to be comic relief, right? Merry and Pippin are a comic relief duo so joined at the hip that the film doesn’t know what to do with them when they get separated; Gimli, who ought to be Legolas’ equal in ability, is treated as a complete doof, especially in The Two Towers.
You may be wondering: Why is any of this a problem? The media are different, after all, and changes have to be made. But notice how these changes generally make the characters more trite, less complex, and (oddly) less consistent. We don’t end up with a better movie by making people know things they shouldn’t or by lumping two characters together rather than treating them as individuals. There are better ways of adapting these characters for film, which I’ll address in part II.