Attention: If you are not an insane Tolkien fan, read no further.
Okay, now that we have gotten rid of the 'unbelievers' we can continue!
For the past two months, my wife and I have been rereading The Lord of the Rings (out loud, together, one or two chapters per night). I've read LOTR before, but I decided to do it a bit more thoroughly this time around, reading it in conjunction with the Silmarillion and the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkein, just to make sure I am getting everything in context. I have also been consulting the online source Encyclopedia of Arda, as well as the Book of Lost Tales 1 and the Tolkien Companion by J.E.A. Tyler. As if that isn't enough, I've also been in personal contact with Joseph Pearce, author of Tolkien: Man and Myth, as well as Jeff Murray, a fantasy artist best known for his portrayals of Middle Earth (who, by the way, speaks Elvish to me in his emails). It should be obvious that I am trying to get the most well-rounded view of LOTR I can get by making use of all available printed and human resources.
This, of course, brings us back to the question of the relation of the movies to the books. I originally saw the LOTR movies before having read the books, and thus thought them very good, as I had nothing to compare them to. I still think they are good movies, so I am not really questioning that. They are entertaining, cinematographically pleasing to watch and relatively faithful to the book. I saw a lot less to complain about in Peter Jackson's LOTR than I did in the Walden Media production of the Chronicles of Narnia and Prince Caspian. Even after I read the books, I was still relatively pleased with the movie. I never get my expectations high in things like this. I never expect the movie to square with the book, because it never can. For one thing, a book comes at your imagination from so many more avenues than a film is able to, so in some sense, every book will automatically be better than the movie just because of the nature of film (except Last of the Mohicans, the only book I know of that was crappier than the movie).
Furthermore, there are many things about LOTR specifically that cannot be reasonably duplicated in film: for example, the seventeen years that elapse between Biblo's going away party and the time that Gandalf returns with confirmation that the ring is indeed the Ring of Power. Interestingly enough, from reading Tolkien's letters, I see that Tolkien himself was distressed by a BBC production of LOTR that had time going by too fast. While he understood that movie's cannot simply make seventeen years elapse, he suggested that there be some means of displaying the passing of time (like the changing of seasons, for example). The Jackson version lacked even that.
For me, the question is not how well the movie follows the book, but how faithfully the movie communicates the realities and images presented to us by Tolkien's works. How well do the films enable us to enter into the history and myth of Middle Earth? In this respect, there are a few problems, of which I will only enumerate the most serious.
First, the spirit of loyalty between Sam and Frodo. Though this comes out wonderfully in the first two movies, in the third there is too much license taken when Gollum tricks Frodo into telling Sam to go home. While the power of the Ring is strong, in the book it is never so strong as to cause the friendship of Frodo and Sam to split (though it is strained). In the book, Frodo and Sam go into Shelob's lair together, holding hands in the dark. In the film, Frodo enters alone after having ordered Sam to go home. This undermines what Tolkien was attempting to show about friendship and love: their power to triumph even in the midst of great evil. For those who have read the book, while it is not inconceivable that one hobbit should betray another because of the ring (isn't that the story of Smeagol and Deagol?), we find it hard to believe that this particular hobbit would be so taken in by the ring as to break his fellowship with the Sam.
I also was troubled by the failure of the movie to weave in the legendarium of Numenor and Valinor into the plot. In the book, Valinor is always behind everything, like a great constant upon which every elf reflects and every non-elf still is aware of. The glory of Valinor and the Valar permeates everything good in Middle-earth, from the gardens of Lothlorien to the phial of Galadriel to the very songs sung by Bilbo and Samwise about the western lands over the seas. The idea of a paradise "over the seas" is so prominent in the book that a great deal is lost by removing this imagery. Vague allusions are made to it by Gandalf in the third movie, but nothing like we get in the book. I think Arwen mentions the word "Valar" in the first movie as well. However, for the elves in the book, it is the splendors of the Undying Lands that give substance to their hopes, meaning to their lore, and power to their kind over the forces of evil. The power of the Light of Earendil over Shelob is meaningless to the uninitiated without a knowledge of who Earendil is, what his journey wasthe fact that the light is that of a Silmaril, what a Silmaril is, who Shelob descends from and its connection with the Two Trees of Valinor.
Can we reasonably expect this to all be worked into a film? Of course not. I am not blaming Jackson for getting this one wrong. It brings out a point that Tolkien himself made when getting LOTR published: the trilogy is shallow and vague without the background of the Silmarillion. Tolkien initially lobbied to get the Silmarillion and the LOTR published together as a single work, but the publishers were concerned about the length (and the wrongly doubted the ability of Tolkien's readership to get interested in what they perceived as the obscurities of elven myth).
The same can be said of the Numenorean background to the mannish elements of the story: how much we lose about Aragorn not knowing about the downfall of Numenor and the subsequent fate of the Dunedain in Middle-earth! By the way, Aragorn's figure is much different in the movie: a lot quiter and not as confident in himself. The Aragorn of the book never has to be encouraged by Elrond to "put off the ranger and become the king." The Aragorn of the book is the king from his first appearance. Though he comes dressed as a ranger at Bree, the book makes clear his royal status by several, almost supernatural references to Aragorn's imposing figure and commanding voice.
Well, so much more could be said (like why was Tom Bombadil left out?). In the end, I think any movie would fail in communicating Tolkien's vision to us. Jackson makes a noble attempt, but fails in some of the areas that would have helped us the most in transporting us into Middle-earth. Ultimately unsatisfying for me is the fact that the take over of the Shire by "Sharkey" and Saruman's final end are left out entirely, although I have not watched the extended versions, so maybe it's in there. But, that's my thoughts as of now. All that remains is to rent and watch the extended versions to see if they add anything important.