Spoilers, for both the film(s) and the book!
Difficulty in Comparing
While books and movies are often two different beasts, sometimes the difference is more stark than others. Jurassic Park felt like two stories from the same style in the same genre (albeit the book was far deeper and easily superior!), but The Lord of the Rings feels almost difficult to compare.
While writing a novel that would kickstart an entire, modern genre, Tolkien also wrote something harkened back to earlier days of storytelling. LotR feels like it could almost be a bridge between the fairy tales of old and the epic fantasy of today. The dialogue is proper, the heroes are noble, songs abound, and the world is explained.
LotR’s film treatments–movies that I adore–are thoroughly modern beasts. Movies craft experiences differently, combining music, sights, and sounds. They’re paced quicker, the characters speak in a down-to-earth, clipped tongue, and heroic deeds are shown in cinematic detail that sits viewers directly next to the players.
Going A Little Deeper
They both bring different virtues to the table. The book answered quite a few of my questions, especially regarding the other rings (rings which feel like an afterthought in the films). The build up to Moria was much better in the books than in the movies, both in terms of explaining its history and building up the question of its current state.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t note how I came to appreciate the locations more deeply. The Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlórien were all wonderful places, and Tolkien did an amazing job of creating a desire to stay there–not just for the characters, but for as the reader as well. The magical pull of ancient, warm times past that the the two elven cities carried (and, perhaps even moreso, Tom Bombadil’s place, which wasn’t in the film at all) was much stronger in the books. With the movies, I wasn’t overly sad to leave the Shire or the two elven cities; with the books, it was a maelstorm of excitement, fear, and profound saudade.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t without its virtues in that regard. Bree, for example, was a fairly warm and interesting place in the books–logical, seeing as how it’s near the Shire, and hobbits and Men mingle. Yet it pales in comparison to either the Shire before it or Rivendell afterward (or, in the book, Tom Bombadil’s before it), leaving it rather bland. In the film, Bree stands more on its own, and the change in atmosphere does a good job of ratcheting up the tension by letting us know that we’re not in the Shire anymore.
While sticking with the movie’s virtues, I think the film handles dialogue better. To a modern ear, the book’s dialogue feels a little stodgy and archaic (probably intentionally, to be fair). It’s a little more difficult to pick up who is speaking when, as they seem to have a similar manner of speaking, sort of like going back and reading Shakespeare. It took me much of The Fellowship to really get into the flow of it, and the movie feels more natural.
That being said, the trimmed dialogue and faster pacing of the movie excised quite a bit of detail in terms of events and in terms of explanations. Obvious omissions related to the pacing include the Barrows and Tom Bombadil/Goldberry, but the book goes on to explain quite a bit I had wondered about, particular in relation to the rings. In the films, the other rings seemed like an afterthought. They were just gone, with little mention.
While we know what happened with the rings given to men, in the book, we learn the elven rings were untouched by evil, and even get to see one. The dwarven rings are explained to be partly lost, and partly recovered by Sauron–and it’s noted that the dwarves managed to mostly resist their evil, outside of an infatuation with gold.
It’s a toss-up when it comes to tension. In the book, we wait something like 17 years between Bilbo’s party and the start of the adventure, but once the adventure starts, we have Black Riders already in the Shire, as well as a mysterious figure actively interrogating hobbits trying to find Frodo. Then shortly afterward, we spend days at Tom’s, and months in the elven cities meandering about.
In the movies, evil is constantly right behind the door, and there is no time to dally in Rivendell or Lothlórien. The trip through the Mines of Moria goes south far quicker, and there is significantly less downtime overall.
In the End…
I couldn’t begin to guess which I’ll prefer! As of this writing, I’m a good 60-70 pages into The Two Towers, and so still have more than half of the novel to finish. To give a fair comparison, I would certainly have to watch the movies again–probably the extended versions!
I can say I’m the most excited I’ve been in years for a fantasy novel, and to my next little write-up for The Two Towers!