The claim that Tolkien created very stereotypical female characters is of course quite without basis; Éowyn in especial comes to mind. However, whilst Tolkien can be cleared of this charge, perhaps Peter Jackson cannot be. His Arwen is undeniably far different from Tolkien’s original character. I would like to look at the characters of Arwen in the books and Arwen in the movies, and then to decide in which medium she is more cliché.
In The Lord of the Rings book, we see very little of Arwen (other than in the appendices). She is mentioned first at the feast in Rivendell, and Tolkien describes her in detail, saying that Frodo had never before seen “such loveliness in living thing.” After this she is barely mentioned save in passing until The Return of the King when Aragorn receives the banner which she made for him. And again she basically drops out of the story until she arrives with Elrond in Minas Tirith.
The scriptwriters for the film expanded this small part significantly. Replacing Glorfindel, Arwen saves Frodo from the Black Riders. She becomes a much more obvious motivation for Aragorn’s character, encouraging him before the Fellowship departs from Rivendell (this mostly in flashbacks later on). A subplot is added in which she allows Elrond to convince her to take the ship from Middle-earth and almost goes through with it, only returning when she sees a vision of her and Aragorn’s hypothetical future son. Her subsequent loss of immortal Elven life is played for all it’s worth. Near the end of The Return of the King, she and Aragorn are reunited at his coronation and the love story comes to a happy end.
In the books, we see barely enough of Arwen to know much about her. We know little more than that she is the daughter of Elrond, as lovely as Lúthien; the romance between herself and Aragorn is merely hinted at until her coming to Minas Tirith. Going by this minimal information, she may indeed seem stereotyped. However, there is something else to be considered. In most of fantasy literature, the gorgeous female sidekick is given a main part to play, especially in motivating the hero. Tolkien does not give any such role to his Arwen; she is in fact one of the least-mentioned characters throughout the book.
This mistake, however, is committed by the scriptwriting trio. Out of Arwen’s ten or so appearances across the three films, four involve her giving Aragorn ‘pep talks’ or otherwise encouraging or helping him. Approximately the same number of scenes is devoted to her teary departure from and return to Rivendell and the consequences of her choice to remain.
Whilst there is little of which to accuse Tolkien, there is much of which to accuse the scriptwriters. Arwen’s first appearance, in which she rescues Frodo, seems an attempt to portray her as an action heroine; during the rest of the film trilogy her character goes downhill until she becomes merely the might warrior’s gorgeous but wimpy love interest. This may seem harsh, but I believe it is true. It is clearly in the films that she is a stereotype, not the book.
This essay was originally published in The Ivy Bush, May 2015.