The Question of Frodo’s Age: Does the shift change the nature of the character?
Peter Jackson did a stunning job of bringing Middle-Earth to the screen, better than anyone else has or I believe, will. I am not a purist, but I have been a book fan since early childhood, and although Peter Jackson, thankfully, did not butcher the story as he could have, he did take some artistic license. While it is true that some changes are necessary to successfully translate any story into a different medium than it was originally intended, the question then becomes, how much license is too much?
Many seemingly insignificant deviations create a snowball effect. For example, by presenting Merry and Pippin as immature pranksters who stumble into the adventure, instead of conspirators who have made a well thought out and responsible decision this aspect of their characters must be presented in some other way, such as the Entmoot. As presented in the film, Merry and Pippin must convince the Ents to take action; this has the rather sad effect of making the Ents seem uncaring about the condition of their flock, whereas in the book Treebeard is disturbed about it from the beginning.
Where then, does one major (and often overlooked) change fit in? Does the shift in Frodo’s age change the nature of the characters as in the previous example? Let us look at this question from all sides.
First, the filmmakers did not always stick to the exact timeline of events, as evidenced by the removal of everything between Bilbo’s 111st and 128th birthdays. This creates a problem. What age should Frodo be? Do we go with 33, making Frodo younger than his book counterpart or make him older from the very start?
Second, it must be said that hobbits look at coming of age a bit differently than we do. According to The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo was just coming out of “his tweens, as the hobbits called the irresponsible twenties between childhood and the coming of age at thirty-three.” This corresponds with our perception of age 18, which Elijah Wood fits quite well.
However, this cultural change (if I may call it that) does not come without its disadvantages. First, it downplays the foreshadowing and similarities of Bilbo and Frodo’s experiences with the ring. In the book they both possess the ring for sometime before feeling its effects and are of similar ages when starting their journeys. In the film these aspects of the story are nonexistent, and the power of the Ring is greatly accelerated. No longer does it take years for the Ring to take hold of Frodo, in the film it takes mere months.
Second, it gives Frodo more chance of success. Frodo’s age no longer works against him in the same way. His obstacle is now inexperience. However, he still has the wisdom of Gandalf and Aragorn to draw from. He also appears to be nonetheless wise himself, despite his sudden loss of years. This is especially true in The Fellowship of the Ring where the writers’ gave Frodo many of the other characters’ insights, actually making him wiser than his book counterpart. In one of the early scripts Frodo even gave Galadriel’s prologue, making him very wise indeed.
The effect of this unexplained ability to be so wise beyond his years is the reason, I believe Sam seems so immature during many of The Two Towers’ scenes and other parts of the film trilogy. In fact, it also provides some explanation for his treatment of Gollum. In the book, it makes sense for Frodo to be wiser than his fellow hobbits; he has had more life experience, while Sam has no idea how to deal with such an untrustworthy character as Gollum. It is true that in both versions, the ring blinds Frodo to some of the more unsavory aspects of his character, but he also understands Sméagol, something Sam can never do. Sam’s reaction to Sméagol, by comparison, even in light of his clearer understanding of the situation, is at times incredibly petty; something that would do less to impugn his character if there were a twelve year difference in age. In fact, according to the book Sam would not have been far out of his tweens at the time their adventure takes place, and he was older Merry and Pippin.
But does changing Frodo’s age change the nature of Sam and Frodo’s relationship? Frodo’s original age explains, to some degree, Sam’s loyalty. Sam always looked up to Old Master Bilbo, and it would stand to reason he would have the same respect for an aging Frodo as well, whereas in the film they were more equal in terms of age and social standing. The scenes in the Green Dragon are great for establishing the friendship that was evident in the books, but the absence of these factors leads to the question everyone who has not read the books seems to be asking, “Why does such a young hobbit have so loyal a servant?” This is really a two-part question: Why does Sam work for Frodo and why is he so loyal?
Although it would make more sense for an older hobbit to hire a gardener, to be fair it should be stated that Sam was really Bilbo’s gardener and was simply kept on after he left. After all, Sam considered himself Frodo’s friend as well as employee, (although this is more implicitly stated in the books than film) and it is unlikely that Frodo would terminate his employment solely because of Bilbo’s absence, no matter his age. Now for the second part of the question, “Why is Sam so loyal?” This may actually be more of a cultural question than an adaptive one. Older generations (such as the one in which the book was written) considered loyalty a much more important trait than we do today and were more loyal to their friends and even neighbors in times of trouble. The world at that time was in some ways a safer place, as is the shire. So in this instance, I believe that the question of Frodo’s age is more a question of culture, than character. Frodo’s age appears to have been changed simply for the sake of making its cultural implications more understandable to the audience, and the questions it creates around this issue are primarily cultural in nature, without fundamentally changing nature relationship itself.
Still, that does not mean that this “slight deviation”, does not have consequences. As with any action, the altering of Frodo’s age is not isolated unto itself, and does at times, have a negative effect on the characters in other aspects, as we have seen. However, I do not think that it significantly changes the effect that Tolkien intended to have on his audience or the essence of the story itself, and that I believe is most important.