The Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring also includes one of Tolkien’s songs that is presented fairly closely to the book version. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) sings softly to himself in Elvish a quiet, unaccompanied song about Beren and Lúthien. The gentle tune fits with Tolkien’s description of chanting an ancient lay.
Notably, The Lord of the Rings movies left out “The Man in the Moon,” but the song was later included in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. The live-action films actually boast many of the most book-accurate depictions of Tolkien’s songs. “Blunt the Knives,” a.k.a. the “Dwarves doing dishes song,” is rousing and fun, and the musical setting for “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold” (listed as “Misty Mountains”) is achingly beautiful. Performed unaccompanied even though Tolkien’s Dwarves played instruments, it starts with Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) deep bass rolling over the scene, evoking the deep mountain mines that the song is about. Instruments aside, both songs could have been lifted straight from the pages of the book.
But there was a reason that Jackson didn’t adapt “The Man in the Moon” in his first trilogy, and that one of Tolkien’s songs (as well as a couple of original songs, like the “Lament for Gandalf” and Éowyn’s Old English lament for Théodred) got bumped to the Extended Editions. There is only so much running time available in a movie.
When it came to The Hobbit trilogy, rather than adapting three large adult books into three movies, Jackson was adapting one medium-sized children’s book into three movies, and was therefore actively looking for padding, rather than trying to avoid it. Although not every single song from the book is included, as there are a lot of them, the film even adds an extra song for the goblins. Tolkien’s goblins sing (“or croak”) a fairly short song about taking their prisoners down to “Goblin-town,” which Tolkien describes as “truly terrifying.” The film includes this song, but with the huge flapping chin design for the Great Goblin and the length of the song, it comes across as more strange and ridiculous than terrifying. The film adaptation then adds a section all about the various ways the goblins plan to torture the Dwarves, which is just deeply unpleasant – but still not actually very scary.
The plot simply stops for the songs in Jackson’s second trilogy. In Tolkien’s books, this isn’t too much of an issue. Reading a book is a longer and slower activity than watching a movie, and readers are investing more time in immersing themselves in the book’s world. They can also easily skip a song if they want to. None of that is true of a feature film. A really effective adaptation, then, will not only produce music and settings for the songs that suit their tone, but will use them in effective ways, and cut them if they aren’t helping to advance the story. We’ve already seen this in the radio adaptation, which used the Rohirrim’s ballad to tell the story of the battle. But this is done most effectively in the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated film of The Hobbit, which incorporates the songs almost perfectly.
The Rankin/Bass version essentially takes Tolkien’s songs and uses them to make a musical adaptation composed by Maury Laws (of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer fame), adding a version of “The Road Goes Ever On” from The Lord of the Rings as well. There is only one original song, “The Greatest Adventure,” written because Rankin felt Bilbo was lacking a motivation song, as he told The New York Times at the time. This works, not only because The Hobbit has a higher proportion of songs in it than The Lord of the Rings anyway, but also because the film is a children’s animation. Disney had been making children’s animated films as musicals since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, so using the songs that are in the book to tell the story makes sense.