I recently purchased the full-blown Extended Edition of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings
on DVD. So far I've watched The Fellowship of the Ring
and The Two Towers
and I'm very happy with the extended versions. I've been a huge fan of the book since my high school days, some 25 years ago, so I originally approached the films with a mixture of hope and fear. Seeing them all in the theater I was pleased. Jackson and the cast did a wonderful job bringing Middle Earth to life. There were changes from the book, of course, some of which bothered me and some of which did not. Excising Tom Bombadil was no big deal, as he doesn't affect the story. I was bugged by what they did to Faramir, however, as it seemed to me that his character changed for no good reason. The extended edition of TT deals a bit more with Faramir (and there may be more in RotK, but I haven't watched it yet). In general the extra stuff in the first two movies is very good, and really adds a lot to the richness of the story.
I was pretty surprised by how well these films did a the box office. Being intimately familiar with the books I had no trouble following what was going on, but if you hadn't read them then I have to believe you were lost a good part of the time. When the fellowship have to decide between Caradhras, Moria, or the Gap of Rohan, do people who have not read the book and have no mental map of Middle Earth really know what this decision is about? More importanly, do they care?
I think they do not care. I think the majority of movie-goers want to see attractive people in exciting situations, and that's it. Define the good guys and the bad guys and let them have at it. So you get Orlando Bloom riding an orc shield down the stairs at Helm's Deep. That's just the price we pay to get a decent treatment of a great book on the screen. It just seems odd to me that the audience doesn't demand more. Peronally I feel annoyed if I don't get the backstory or if it doesn't make sense. If the characters have no motivation for doing what they are doing, then why should I care about it?
The same thing showed up in the prequel Star Wars movies. Neal Stephenson wrote an op-ed piece about this for the New York Times that wound up generating a /. article. The Stephenson piece has gone to NYT archive hell, but you might be able to find it out there somewhere. He poses the question, "Whose ship are Annakin and Obi-wan on at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith?" I think most people would have no f'ing idea. And in this case it's not really their fault, because a bunch of the Star Wars prequel backstory is not even in the movies, it comes from the ancillary material on line and in various print forms. The point is that the audience doesn't care. They just want some bad guys there to cross lightsabres with Annie and Obi-wan.