From “Mithril Coats and Tin Ears: ‘Anticipation’ and ‘Flattening’ in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy”, by Janet Brennan Croft, in Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, ed. Croft, The Mythopoeic Press, 2004.
[Tolkien] readily admitted his ignorance of filmmaking and scripwriting, but had some ideas of his own about translating text into dramatic form. As Tolkien observed:
The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies. (Letters 270)
For many viewers, Jackson’s adaptation fails in precisely this way: his focus on battles, spectacle, and his own interpolated material, is at the expense of the core matters of characterization and theme and their careful construction through the tone, language, and pacing of bridging scenes.
The Mines of Moria: “[He] may think he knows more about Balrogs than I do, but he cannot expect me to agree with him”
A close study of the Mines of Moria sequence illustrates the above problems further, and shows how Jackson’s preference for horror and fight scenes actually reduces tension and suspense. Tolkien’s two chapter set in Moria, “A Journey in the Dark” and “The Bridge of Khazad-dum,” are brilliantly written. Tom Shippey comments on the “increasing tension” and “relative understatement” of this section of The Fellowship of the Ring:
Unlike many of his imitators, Tolkien had realized that tension was dissipated by constant thrill-creation. Accordingly the dangers of Moria build up slowly: from the first reluctance of Aragorn, ‘the memory is very evil’ (never enlarged on), to the ominous knocking from the deep that answers Pippin’s stone (was it a hammer, as Gimli says? – we never learn), to Gandalf’s mention of Durin’s Bane. The Balrog is also hinted at several times before it appears: the orcs hang back as if they are afraid of something on their own side, Gandalf contests with it and concedes ‘I have met my match’ before it is ever seen, and again the orcs and trolls fall back as it comes up to cross the bridge of Khazad-dum. Even when it does come into focus, the focus is blurred . . . What Tolkien does in such passages is to satisfy the urge to know more . . . while retaining and even intensifying the counterbalancing pleasure of seeming always on the edge of further discovery, looking into a world that seems far fuller than the little at present known. (Shippey, Century 86-7)
One of the most incomprehensible changes Jackson makes is immediately revealing the fate of Balin and his companions, thus eliminating one major aspect of the tension of the journey through Moria. Moria is no longer the haunted and disquieting scene of a dwarf-colony’s mysterious disappearance; in Jackson’s film it is just a rather prosaically bloodstained killing ground. Echoes and cobwebs would have been far more intriguing and suspenseful than scattered bits of armor and bone (Fellowship, scene 33: “Moria,” and app.: “Moria” on disc 3).
The flattening of dialogue is also troublesome in this sequence. As one reviewer points out, “Tolkien’s dialogue was always very carefully crafted – he had a delicate ear for nuance – hitting the tone just right with impressive consistency. The screenwriters are clumsy by comparison . . . I don’t think Jackson has much faith in words.” (Russell 2). For example, Gimli’s invented speeches about dwarf hospitality sound rather painfully forced: “Soon, Master Elf, you will enjoy the fabled hospitality of the Dwarves – roaring fires, malt beer, red meat off the bone” (Fellowship, scene 33: “Moria”). This dialog is inappropriately jolly and Disney-like for Tolkien’s “tough, thrawn [and] secretive” race of Dwarves (1106; App. F:I), a race definitely not known for their hospitality to outsiders. Gandalf’s original lines at the point the Company is lost are precise and in character: “I do not like the smell of the left-hand way; there is foul air down there, or I am no guide” (306; II:4). It is grating to hear this reduced to Jackson’s colloquial “When in doubt, always follow your nose” (Fellowship, scene 34: “A Journey in the Dark”). It makes Gandalf sound like Toucan Sam™ chasing after Froot Loops™.
It is only when the screenwriters use Tolkien’s own words, even shifted many chapters away from their origin or given to different characters (as described in Towers, appendix: “From Book to Script”), that the script comes close to soaring. Gandalf and Frodo’s conversation about pity and mercy, the fate of Gollum, and how Bilbo was meant to find the Ring (Fellowship, scene 34: “A Journey in the Dark”), though displaced far from its source in the early chapter “The Shadow of the Past” and much rearranged, is more effective and moving than anything else Jackson has added to this scene. (This technique does not always work; having Sam paraphrase Frodo’s lines about the improbability of any return journey from Mordor [610; IV:4] in the third movie [Return, scene 47: The Land of Shadow”] is inappropriate to Sam’s character, because he never entirely gives up hope that they will somehow survive and return.)
. . . [additional comments referring to later scenes in Moria, including the Cave-troll, Balin’s tomb, and the stairs] . . .
A director better known for suspense, rather than horror, might have handled the Moria sequence of the film differently. Imagine Alfred Hitchcock directing this section, perhaps even in black-and-white. He would have made the most of the spooky emptiness of the vast corridors and stairs, the slow building of tension, the half-seen shadows out of the corner of the eye, and the ominous sounds in the dark. The silent forcing of the door in the Chamber of Mazarbul, the frightening, bewildering battle in the dim dusty light, and headlong race to the gates would have been well-suited to Hitchcock’s style, and the Balrog would most likely have remained a menacing unfocused shadow in his hands, rather than a CGI monster with a well-defined shape. Directed like this, it could have been much truer to Tolkien’s original vision.