This article contains The Lord of the Rings spoilers.
When The Two Towers was released in December 2002, it was fairly common knowledge among J.R.R. Tolkien fans that screenwriters Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens had initially planned on putting the character of Arwen at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. It would’ve been a major change to the books. And more than just consider the concept, Jackson even filmed scenes with actor Liv Tyler there in complete armored regalia. And even now, several eagle-eyed YouTubers have spotted moments in the final cuts of the film where Tyler can just about be seen on screen from a distance.
However, the filmmakers changed their minds, and Arwen was removed from the sequence while action scenes were reshot. In fact, Arwen’s entire character arc in the film was altered, a decision that was greeted very positively by a large number of people—not just fans of Tolkien’s books, but even Tyler herself on the movies’ DVDs.
But, looking back with 20 years’ of hindsight, we think maybe Arwen at Helm’s Deep was quite a good idea, and could have worked pretty well. Here’s why…
Books, Movies, and the Process of Adaptation
Books and movies are different forms of media, and they have different requirements. It is impossible to simply take a book and put it on screen; you have to adapt it. This requires making certain choices, and where every reader might visualize something in a slightly different way, you have to choose a visual interpretation and stick to it. And you have to change things, because sometimes, what works in a novel simply doesn’t work in an audio-visual medium.
Some adaptations are closer to the books they are based on than others. TV series are often able to be very close to the book because their extended running time allows the inclusion of more subplots and more detail from a novel. And it is certainly possible to change too much in an adaptation, to the point that the result bears little resemblance to the source material—the BBC’s 2021 series The Watch, which was inspired by Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels but bore very little resemblance to its source material, is a good example of something that isn’t so much an adaptation as an entirely new story with some similar character names.
However, in general, the process of adaptation will involve making some changes to the plot and characterization of the source book while often ensuring the film still represents the spirit of the book. This is something fantasy readers have become more used to in recent years, partly thanks to the popularity of adaptations of George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman’s works. Changes made to the early seasons of Game of Thrones and to season 1 of House of the Dragon have often been praised as improvements on the source material, as have some of the changes to Netflix’s The Sandman.
Both authors have experience in screenwriting as well as books, and both are usually involved in productions based on their works, explaining to fans that they support some of the changes being made and that certain choices work better on screen than others. Some changes have also been made because they wrote the original books in the 1990s, and attitudes have shifted in the years since.
But it was still the late 1990s when Jackson and company were scripting their Lord of the Rings adaptation, and at the time there was a lot of concern around the idea of making changes to Tolkien’s beloved book. It is also fair to say that there are a particularly large number of Tolkien fans who dislike any changes at all being made to Tolkien’s books, perhaps because Tolkien’s son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien felt that way (and did not like Jackson’s films).
If you listen to the director’s and writers’ commentary track on The Two Towers Extended Edition DVD, the three writers talk constantly and defensively about every change they made to the book and why they made it. It’s clear that deviating from Tolkien’s text was a huge concern for everyone involved. And of course, Tolkien himself (who was perfectly willing to change an entire chapter of The Hobbit to better fit The Lord of the Rings and changed his mind about his own plots on a regular basis) was sadly not around to discuss their choices.
Arwen at Helm’s Deep
In a featurette in the Extended Edition DVD boxset, several members of the cast and crew explain at length why Arwen was initially included in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, and why she was taken out of it again.
Jackson and company had decided to have a group of Elves join the Rohirrim in their defense of Helm’s Deep, a change from Tolkien’s book that does remain in the final film. Jackson explains that he thought it was “somehow a romantic notion that the Elves would give one last piece of assistance to the men before they leave.” Boyens also talks about how it honors the spirit of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, and points out that the Elves in the books were fighting in Lothlórien and Rivendell. The books briefly mention these battles, but they do not show them. So for the films, it made sense to send Elvish troops to a battle already being filmed rather than mention a new one off-screen.
Jackson goes on to talk about how Arwen had been intended to fight at Helm’s Deep as well. “Originally,” Jackson said, “we thought that’s a great opportunity for Arwen to reappear and to have another connection between her and Aragorn… because our real problem was geography, that we had a romance where the two characters… weren’t in the same space.”
Boyens agreed, adding that early on they had been worried that studio executives would not have gone for a story in which the hero and his love interest have a psychic connection. Ultimately, Jackson concluded, “Our solution was to bring Arwen with the Elves, have her part of Helm’s Deep.”
Yet making a change, and then standing by it are two different things. The Two Towers producer Barrie Osborne revealed on the movie’s DVD that he recalled vividly when a rumor got on the internet that Arwen would be at Helm’s Deep.
“There were a lot of objections to that thought [from Tolkien fans],” Osborne said. And for her part, Tyler recalled that she cried after reading some of the online comments referring to her as “Xena: Warrior Princess.”
No one on the DVD featurette spells out exactly why they changed their minds, but they do show footage of Tyler working on fight scenes and explain that it was while shooting the Battle of Helm’s Deep that they decided it wasn’t working and they were going to go in a different direction.
Boyens said, “Now that we’ve managed to come back to the book, what we discovered is that the love story could be more unconventional, that you could in fact tell the story as written with these two main characters being apart from each other because they were always together.” Tyler describes the second half of shooting as being when they “came back to who Arwen really is,” and explains how happy she was about the changes, saying “you don’t have to put a sword in her hands to make her strong.”
The Problem of Arwen
Tyler makes a solid point about how a “strong” female character does not have to be a warrior. But The Lord of the Rings does have such a female character already, in Galadriel (whose warrior background, as briefly implied by Tolkien and expanded upon in The Rings of Power, is not shown in the movies). And the fact remains that there was a reason the writers wanted to put Arwen at Helm’s Deep in the first place.
Aragorn and Arwen’s love story is a challenging one to adapt. In the books, as well as being geographically separated from everyone else, Arwen does almost nothing and has no character arc. Aragorn and Arwen’s love story is mostly told in the novel’s Appendices, which go into their background, their falling in love before the events of the book, and what happens to them afterwards.
In the main text itself, she shows up and looks pretty in Rivendell, and then turns up at the end to marry Aragorn, almost like an Elfish reward for his heroism. This obviously would not work in a movie trilogy in the early 21st century. Arwen desperately needed a character arc of her own, a discernible personality, and some kind of involvement in the main plot, to make her reunion and marriage with Aragorn a satisfying conclusion for the audience.
Jackson and company had already brought her more securely into the plot of the movies—and given her something to do—in The Fellowship of the Ring by having Arwen instead of the Elf Glorfindel bring Frodo to Rivendell. Even Ralph Bakshi, whose earlier screen adaptation was so desperate not to change Tolkien it included unnecessary details like a 17-year time gap, replaced Glorfindel in this sequence with a character more significant to the story (Legolas).
As a consequence of the change, Tyler’s Arwen is far more proactive, riding with Frodo, having something reasonably substantial to do to further the plot, and perhaps revealing some of the strength that first attracted Arwen when she refuses to fear the Ringwraiths.
But once the Fellowship leaves Rivendell in that movie, Arwen’s lack of story becomes a problem again. In the final version of the trilogy, the writers use a combination of flashbacks, deleted scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring (in which Aragorn and Arwen appear to break up and Aragorn believes Arwen will be sailing away with the Elves) and an implied psychic connection between the two to keep their love story alive in viewers’ minds. Arwen’s character arc is spread over the second and third films; in The Two Towers she decides to sail to the Undying Lands, then in The Return of the King a vision of her and Aragorn’s son prompts her to stay after all.
The story in the finished films isn’t altogether bad, but it isn’t the strongest plotline in the movies either. Arwen’s story is told in fragmented bits and pieces across two very long movies. When she returns to Rivendell, the writers have her inexplicably become ill because “her fate is tied to the Ring,” prompting Elrond to re-forge Elendil’s sword Narsil into Aragorn’s sword Andúril and take it to Aragorn, and giving Aragorn an extra bit of motivation. But since the fate of the whole world is at stake, that extra factor was hardly needed, and in the books he has Andúril from midway through Fellowship.
We wholeheartedly agree with Tyler that a female character does not need a sword to be strong, and being motivated by a desire for love and children is completely valid. But what compelling characters do need is some kind of arc and agency. In the final version of The Two Towers, Arwen decides to leave Middle-earth, a radical departure from the books where she doesn’t contemplate that idea at this stage, and that’s it.
Once she has made the decision to stay in Middle-earth in The Return of the King, she just lies around looking unwell until the movie’s resolution. The decision not to have her bring Andúril to Aragorn instead of her father is especially strange since that would have given her some kind of role in the story’s conclusion beyond motivating male characters.
We don’t know exactly what prompted the removal of Arwen from Helm’s Deep, but the hostile reaction of fans online seems like it may have been a factor. With the benefit of hindsight, reacting to this online outrage does not feel like the necessarily best approach. For one thing, it’s absolutely mystifying why anyone would think a character having some similarity with Xena is a bad thing. Xena is a cultural icon, and one of the DCEU’s most successful movies, Wonder Woman, has taken some clear inspiration from Xena.
It’s possible that objections to Arwen being depicted as a warrior also stemmed from concerns about making Arwen and Éowyn too similar, especially as Éowyn wants to fight at Helm’s Deep but is told not to. But Éowyn’s big fight scene comes in The Return of the King, and if Arwen was at Helm’s Deep, it would be easy to write her out of the later Battle of the Pelennor Fields by simply having her injured at Helm’s Deep and sending her home to recuperate (which may have been the plan).
And Arwen and Éowyn come from completely different cultures and are not even the same species: Éowyn’s background is a male-dominated human society, whereas Arwen’s Elven female ancestors rescued men from Sauron (Lúthien), escaped murderers trying to destroy their whole family (Elwing), and led rebellions (Galadriel). Éowyn is one of Tolkien’s most complex characters and we would never take anything away from her, but movies don’t need to be restricted to one sword-wielding woman, and Arwen fighting with her fellow Elves takes nothing away from Éowyn’s later bravery in disguising herself as a man so she fight with Rohan.
What could be Gained from Putting Arwen at Helm’s Deep?
Putting Arwen at Helm’s Deep removes one change from the book (dramatizing her choice to remain on Middle Earth and then giving her a mysterious illness) and replaces it with another (including her in the Elven forces at Helm’s Deep along with the other Elves).
We can’t help feeling that Jackson and company’s initial instinct might have been right. If Arwen came with the other Elves to Helm’s Deep, we could have seen her and Aragorn interact while under pressure, beyond the brief glimpse we get near to Rivendell. Éowyn would have met and interacted with Arwen, providing a rare opportunity for two women to talk with each other in these films (the cutting out of Arwen from Helm’s Deep also caused the removal of a sequence in which she went to Galadriel in Lothlórien to ask for help). We would also get a stronger sense of Éowyn’s despair and loneliness when she realizes Aragorn will never be interested in her romantically.
Most importantly, it would have given Arwen a role to play in the larger story. Her decision to leave Middle Earth and then to change her mind and stay really affects only herself, Elrond, and Aragorn. Sure, she prompts Elrond to bring Andúril to Aragorn, but she doesn’t even bring it herself.
If the writers had stuck to their original storyline, Arwen would have gone to Lothlórien, persuaded Galadriel to send troops to Helm’s Deep, and therefore saved our heroes there (except Haldir!) by giving them enough troops to hold out until morning. She also would’ve taken part in the fighting before being forced by injury to leave again—something that would actually fit Tolkien’s theme of the pain of lingering war wounds (seen in Frodo’s continuing pain from being stabbed at Weathertop and from being poisoned by Shelob).
She would be an active participant in these movies, rather than a side character whose story flits in and out of the films and who exists primarily to motivate men.