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The theatrical adaptation of LoTR portrays the undead from Dunharrow considerably differently than the books (see this question, this answer, and wikipedia). It also changes the role they play from support to essentially allowing the battle of Minas Tirith to be won, rather than lost.

In the movie, they are shown as somewhat hokey "easy button" to resolve the battle by allowing them to come in and trample/kill all forces of Mordor.

From Wikipedia:

According to a magazine article, Peter Jackson hated the Dead Men; he thought it was too unbelievable. He kept it in the script because he did not wish to disappoint diehard fans of the books

This has always been my least favorite part of the Lord of the Rings theatrical trilogy. It just feels lame to me. But I didn't realize Peter Jackson also disliked them.. but then made them even less believable than those in the books.

As a result, I am curious what reasons exist for the men of Dunharrow were portrayed in this way. Note this thread has a fair bit of anecdotal thoughts but I am hoping for a bit more comprehensive answer.

  • “He kept it in the script because he did not wish to disappoint diehard fans of the books.” Oops. That is interesting that he didn’t like them. – Paul D. Waite May 12 '13 at 22:17
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    @PaulD.Waite exactly - by "appeasing" the fans he actually managed to do more damage than simply omitting them would have (to me, at least). – enderland May 12 '13 at 22:18
  • It's curious to hear that he didn't like them - Peter Jackson is an old hand at zombie/splatter movies and I would have assumed that this part of his background had at least some influence in his portrayal of them. – user8719 May 12 '13 at 23:34
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    IMO the Dead Men are a very interesting part of the books. These are men held back only by an oath they broke! Only by fulfilling that oath can they be released. Oaths and promises are powerful in the world of LotR; much more so in the books than in the movie. Portraying the Oathbreakers merely as B-movie zombies was the lame decision, actually. – Andres F. May 14 '13 at 23:00
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Gimli recounts the assault of the Undead as follows (Return of the King, Chapter 9, The Last Debate, page 910):

but I know not whether their blades would still bite, for the Dead needed no longer any weapon but fear. None would withstand them.

So the Undead use only fear as a weapon. And a bit later:

‘Ere that dark day ended none of the enemy were left to resist us; all were drowned, or were flying south in the hope to find their own lands upon foot. Strange and wonderful I thought it that the designs of Mordor should be overthrown by such wraiths of fear and darkness. With its own weapons was it worsted!’

So the Undead used fear against servants of Darkness, who are especially susceptible to it. Not quite as far fetched as the movie.

But stepping back, there are a lot of similarities. In the book, the Undead freed the hands of the Southern army of Gondor. Aragorn led that army to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. By letting the Undead turn the tide, the movie actually retains the causality of the book's events.

A goal of the movie is to be faster-paced, and to make the characters more of a driving force. The change of the Undead from a mystical emotional danger to physical warriors fits right in. Enjoy these well-written words from wikia.com:

The overall effect of the entire movie series was that it told a story that was recognizably that of Tolkien's, but it did so with major thematic and other differences that tended to disappoint his fans. These differences were not, however, of any importance to the movie's target audience— the enormous worldwide movie going public most of whom knew nothing of the story. Despite the differences, The Lord of the Rings motion pictures are beautiful and stunning epic movies that tell a great story in their own right.

Wikia's detailed list of differences is also worth reading. The book's characters shoulder their burden with resolve, even when there is little hope. The movie's characters are more free: they show fear and doubt, yet take more credit for their success. That might also be a sign of the times: between the faithful Christian Tolkien in the 1940s, and the zombie movie maker Jackson in the 2000s.

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