Ian McKellen E-Posts

3 October 2000

"Mercy!" cried Gandalf: "if the giving of information is to be the cure of your inquisitiveness, I shall spend all the rest of my days in answering you. What do you want to know?"


Q: The LOTR website fans are overwhelmingly anxious about the present (presumed) mistreatment of the novel, obviously a much-beloved classic, and I have to wonder if, in your memory, a book of these dimensions has ever made the transition to film relatively intact? The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace...Dune...all unrecognizable. Why film a great story with great characters...by changing the story and removing the characters?

A: Lord of the Rings is perhaps the most faithful screenplay ever adapted from a long novel. This is not just because our writing quartet is devoted to the original and would share other fans' resentment if it were "mistreated". Tolkien has an advantage over Dickens, Tolstoy and other epic writers. His storylines have a clear sweep and are less concerned with the byways and subplots which characterise 19th century novels. Consequently the major milestones of the Fellowship's journey are intact. Inevitably, even in a three-film version, there will be some omissions of characters and elisions of events but as the story unfolds onscreen and as the landscapes are seen for the first time, little will be missed.

The enthusiasts who have read the novels over and over may notice every change but in doing so they will miss the point. Peter Jackson's movie does not challenge the novel's supremacy any more than the distinguished book illustrations by Howe, Lee et al were meant to replace Tolkien's descriptive words. Paintings, drawings, animations and at last the feature films all augment our appreciation of Lord of the Rings. And just watch the book sales rise as New Line's publicity for the film gears up.

Another point on this, the question that dominates my email: the adaptation of masterpieces from one medium to another is as old as literature. Most of Shakespeare's plays are re-workings of stories, poems or written history. When I moved Richard III from stage to screen, I was determined to make a good film in honour of a great play. Had I left every scene and line of the text intact in the movie, it would not have been a good one. Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, my favourite version of the Macbeth saga, distorts Shakespeare to spectacular effect. The play which inspired it remains intact.

From: Robyn Norris 

Q: Whilst re-reading the trilogy, I found myself wondering how the Council of Elrond in 'Fellowship' is going to be handled in the movie. There's an awful lot of talking that could drive movie-goers mad (it's okay in the books).

A: Your comments are a nice rejoinder to concerns about the authenticity of the film adaptation. Much of the Council is taken up with discursive news, e.g. Gandalf's report on Saruman's activities. The film covers this part of the story more cinematically than by a long monologue. The Council scene, set in a perfect reconstruction of Rivendell, will feature in The Grey Book.

From: Phil

Q: How much the action will vary between the three movies of the Trilogy? Like if one of the movies will come out having more special effects and action sequences than the others?

A: As far as I can judge, the style of each movie will be set by the action as the story of the Fellowship progresses. I don't know of any plan to differentiate the three films stylistically.

Q: Tolkien had in mind to create England's own mythology. Do you feel that this shows to some level in the films, along with the religious aspect of it?

A: If Tolkien ever hoped to establish an English mythology, he didn't succeed. The Lord of the Rings and its attendant books are renowned as literature and supreme examples of epic storytelling. But Frodo and Gandalf are yet to join Robin Hood and King Arthur in popular imagination. This may well change with the release of the Jackson movies, written and filmed (ironically) about as far away from England as it is possible to be.

From: Todd F. Bonny

Q: I was glad that you were able to debunk the rumors of Arwen joining the Fellowship. However, I wasn't sure whether this covers just the rumor of her being at Moria or not. I am hoping you can also dispel the rumors of Arwen being placed in battle scenes.

A: I can.

From: John M. Ewing

Q: Paul Scofield is one of my favorite actors, and I was excited that you mentioned that he would make a good Gandalf. I loved Scofield's portrayal of the noble but defeated and fatigued French king in Branagh's Henry V. After that, I always thought that Scofield would make the perfect Denethor.

A: He was also unforgettable as the Ghost of Hamlet's father in the Zeffirelli film with Mel Gibson. His most renowned successes on screen (and stage) were as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (Oscar) and as King Lear in Peter Brook's production. I wish more filmgoers knew his work but he has eschewed a movie career. As Britain's senior star actor, he also these days works infrequently on stage. A Scofield performance is a major event. As for Denethor, casting has not yet been announced.

From: Josephina

Q: Was glad to hear you were at the San Diego Comics Convention where yet another preview of the LOTR movies was shown. How can we simple fans ever hope to know where they show and when they come? although I believe this one was known beforehand but out of reach for me :( sniff. How many previews are there in existence now? The 20 min one, the 6 min one, the internet preview: I believe there is a 45 min one and now this latest preview. Is this correct?

A: It must be irksome to hear of these previews yet be unable to see them, with the exception of the Internet piece which nearly seven million downloaded in its first week. The other previews are not intended for the public but for potential distributors and others whom New Line needs to impress during production. As such, they have resoundingly succeeded, even though they lack the music, soundtrack and special effects that will surely feature in the official previews next year.

From: Michael Smith

Q: It has always been interesting to note that thousands of the trilogy's readers view Frodo and Aragorn as Jesus stereotypes and Gandalf as a portrayal of "God". Tolkien (even as a Catholic) vehemently disagreed with these comparisons (as do I), but I was wondering whether Mr. Jackson intends to make the "Christian theme" of these stories apparent?

A: In a mythology as potent and detailed as Tolkien's, interpretation is inevitable. His myth, however, is more dense than a metaphor. Hence, perhaps, its originator's disclaimer. If readers want to rediscover their religion in the Fellowship's characters, all well and good. Filmgoers may well do the same although I see no signs that Peter Jackson is catering to them. Like his predecessors who illustrated Lord of the Rings on the page, his moving pictures are drawn closely from Tolkien's descriptions and word-painting.

Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.

From: David Courtenay-Quirk

Q: As a socialist, I sometimes get asked why in the world I "waste" so much time reading LOTR—which is (so they tell me) monarchist, mystical, male-centered, ethnocentric (if not downright racist), and elitist.

But I've always thought of the novel in terms of how progressive it is. Of the "little people" throwing down the powerful. Of Eowyn suffocating under the patriarchy of the Rohirrim. Of the forest itself rising up against the ruiners of the environment. Of the necessity of people of all races to unite and work together. Of the unabashed and unapologetic love between Frodo and Sam (JRRT's own protestations against their relationship being gay be damned). Of the horrors of war. Of the nastiness of industrial development (c.f., Saruman; although the dwarves provide an example of beneficent industriousness, based on thoughtfulness and care). Of the pettiness of cruelty. Of the importance of compassion. And of finding endurance in hope.

That last is a line from the Silmarillion about Gandalf. And I've come to see Gandalf as something of the quintessential activist. Never ceasing in his preparation for the battles ahead. Traveling here and there, wherever he is needed. Sizing up the balance of forces. Tiring, yes, but struggling on despite the odds and the sacrifices.

As an activist yourself, do you ever envision Gandalf in this way? If so, do you try and bring that out in your performance? Do you see LOTR as progressive? Or romantically reactionary? Or both?

In solidarity.

A: Your analysis is compelling and ought to convince your friends who are not impressed by the eternal battle between good and evil. Gandalf as activist? He is certainly fighting to change things but, unlike the activists I know, he is not necessarily in conflict with established forces indeed he often recruits them. A commander in the field as well as worker on the ground.

From: Brandon Parker

Q: Do you think I should read Lord of the Rings before seeing it in theatres? I really don't know anything about it.

Q: And I don't know anything about your reading habits. The novel is long although many, many people have read it many, many times over. Some, it must be admitted, just can't get stuck into it. As has been said: "The world is divided between those who have read Lord of the Rings and those who intend to". If you are sure you will see the first film, my guess is that you will be so caught up in the adventure that you won't be able to wait for the second and third films which complete the story. Then might be your best time to start on the novels. Whenever, you won't regret it.

From: Jeremy

Q: 1. Will Legolas carry a bow in the movie? In the internet preview we see him wielding a sword. 2. Who is your favourite character in the books? And why?

A: 1. Orlando Bloom looks an expert archer and his Legolas always has his bow to the ready with a leathern quiver of arrows at his back. 2. Well now, I'll need some time to think about that one....

Additional E-Posts about LOTR may be found in

The Lord of the Rings

Sorry, we're no longer taking questions for Ian McKellen's E-Post Blog.


Acting Shakespeare Ian McKellen DVD