Jefferson Democrat did a bang-up job this summer taking us through his research on the Tolkien Legendarium and the many ways he’s expanded understanding of both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, and I cannot thank him enough for his generosity in sharing all his work — work that’s going to be collected into a book soon and published (watch this space). Meanwhile, if you missed any of his installments or want to read them again, they’re collected here in this handy space. And what have I been doing during my summer vacation, while JeffDem was doing all that work? I’ve been finishing up the research for a history, something I’ve been working on for 20 years and far afield from both medieval and fantasy, and soon I’ll be able to share more about it.
So….dipping my toes back into what Tolkien in “On Fairy Stories” called the “cauldron of story,” and mindful that Amazon is now working on an extended series of The Lord of the Rings, I thought that, some 20 years after Peter Jackson did what I thought was impossible and filmed a version of the trilogy that was both live-action and really wonderful, it was a good time for a retrospective, a look back at what thrilled us, and those places where his filmed version fell short. I’ll go first:
The casting was inspired — perfect, actually. From Rosie Cotton to Faramir (poor underused Faramir) there’s not a wrong note. Christopher Lee and Andy Serkis get special shoutouts, as does Viggo Mortensen for courageous acting with horses, who are big and tend to roll over on actors now and then. Karl Urban as Éomer is also impressive, especially since he admitted he’d never been near a horse or a sword before. Miranda Richardson as Éowyn….actually, the whole cast was, well, perfect. Which means all of them were great — visually and as characters. The acting was spot-on. And wisely, Jackson hewed as much to Tolkien’s own voice and the voices of his characters as he could, creating a Middle Earth that satisfied readers to whom the books were beloved, while bringing in a whole new generation of Tolkien adherents.
Now, can we talk about the scenery? New Zealand is the tenth member of the Fellowship on its journey to Mordor/Gondor/Rohan. Lovingly filmed, beautifully framed, and imaginatively conceived. All the way, visual treats.
This clip from The Return of the King is emblematic of Jackson at his best: what Tolkien treats in a few sentences
For answer Gandalf cried aloud to his horse. ‘On, Shadowfax! We must hasten. Time is short. See! The beacons of Gondor are alight, calling for aid. War is kindled. See, there is the fire on Amon Din, and flame in Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad, and the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan.’
The Return of the King, p. 19
Jackson expands into one of the most memorable and thrilling montages of the trilogy. Because film is visual, not imaginative. Its strength is the utter gorgeousness of the scenery, and this is something that Jackson was great at capturing, not only the grandeur of Middle Earth, but the sheer scale of distance between places. Or the intimate beauty of the Shire. Or Minas Tirith, the ringed city cut by a mountain’s spar. Alan Lee did a lot of the concept art, Weta Workshop built it, and Jackson helmed the whole enterprise.
Ditto to the special effects — flawless.
Jackson did what I thought was impossible — I don’t want to take that away from him, because the trilogy is really spectacular. Even after 20 years it holds up.
Why, oh why, are we unsatisfied with simple admiration? Why do we have to come back to the things that bug us? As if Jackson couldn’t stand the test of time (he will) without me throwing nits?
But I’ve got a few, and I suspect you do, too. Here are mine:
The Gotcha Moments
They drive me nuts, every time I see them. I know they’re coming. I wince. And they’re no better over time. What am I talking about? The little spots where Jackson amps the tension and he doesn’t need to: the hand reaching out to grab Frodo in Bag End when the Ringwraiths are about but it’s Gandalf, Galadriel welcoming Frodo as “the one who has seen the Eye” in menacing tones, Aragorn demanding of Frodo “Where is the ring?” again in menacing tones after Boromir’s fall. I could go on, but I think you know what I mean. I don’t know whether it’s Jackson’s training as a horror director or his fear of not drawing in the audience completely but, as a fan, I say, “Dude, lose the bells and whistles. You’re mining gold here — you don’t need to gild it.”
Which gotcha worked? The Ringwraiths at the Prancing Pony surrounding the beds and the cross-cuts to Sam being asleep. That one was okay.
Losing Faramir and the Scouring of the Shire
I’m good with letting Tom Bombadil pass by in silence, although the fog on the barrow-downs would have been awe-inspiring. The film version didn’t have the time for a leisurely segue from fairy story to high-style epic, and so he had to go. I also understand the need to streamline and collapse some scenes (which is why we also lose Fatty Bolger, the house in Crickhollow, and some 16 years between Bilbo leaving and Frodo fleeing the Shire. And we lose a lot more as we go on.) But Faramir and his relationship with Éowyn deserved some respect; Faramir is the Best of Gondor, a southern mirror to the northern Aragorn/Elessar remnant of Numenor, and Éowyn’s character needs to move on from hopeless love for Aragorn to self-knowledge and then acceptance of Faramir. And I really missed the speech about being old men sitting in the sun.
Finally, I grieved over the fact that the Shire was never scoured. However, the book’s successive closings — the destruction of the Ring, the coronation of the king and the retrieval of a scion of the white tree, the return trip with Gandalf, the cleansing of the Shire, and finally the Grey Havens — all of that works in the book; there’s room in the novel. Not so in the film. I understand that. But damn! Merry and Pippin deserve the chance to put to use all they’ve learned. And Saruman’s death on the road:
To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.
The Return of the King, p. 300
Imagine that on film.
Instead, The Return of the King ends with a series of conclusions and they all feel rushed. Frodo’s illness — born of the Ring’s corruption, the stab from a Morgul knife and the sting of a giant spider, together with all the deprivations of a desperate year-long journey — is reduced to a twinge in the shoulder, not a debilitating condition he has to hide to keep Sam from worry. And the pain of his exile-at-home is not there. Instead there’s a melodramatic voice-over rush to the ending. And while I hate that voice-over, it doesn’t stop me from dissolving into a puddle as the ship departs Middle Earth and Sam goes home.
Improvements over Tolkien
What? You didn’t think I was going to end on a bad note, did you?
Where did Jackson improve over his source text? Again, two words: Tom Bombadil. And three more: Ghân-buri-ghân. Not that Ghân-buri-ghân isn’t awesome, but — plot streamlining. Which gets to the heart of nitpicking: something has to go. We don’t all agree on what should be cut.
Another improvement: taking that ridiculous song away from Frodo at the Prancing Pony and making Pippin’s indiscretion the motivating event for the Ring to slip onto Frodo’s finger. It makes the disappearance scene more in character with the characters and moves the film forward. It absolves Frodo of looking like an idiot instead of a fifty-year old hobbit carrying a heavy corrosive burden.
The last stand at Helm’s Deep. Okay, the Elves weren’t supposed to be there, but don’t tell me you didn’t cheer when they marched in.
Finally, this may not be true of all viewers, but I was delighted that Jackson added Arwen into the storyline instead of relegating her to an appendix. For two reasons: her positivity and steadfast courage was a worthy counterweight to Éowyn’s character arc (although I thought it was a cheap dodge to tie her life to the Ring — it made no sense). And it made Aragorn’s motivations clear, which they are not in the book. It’s in The Fellowship of the Ring that we get a single hint of what’s going on with him:
Their farewells had been said in the great hall by the fire, and they were only waiting now for Gandalf, who had not yet come out of the house. A gleam of firelight came from the open doors, and soft lights were glowing in many windows. Bilbo huddled in a cloak stood silent on the doorstep beside Frodo. Aragorn sat with his head bowed to his knees; only Elrond knew fully what this hour meant to him. The others could be seen as grey shapes in the darkness.
Only Elrond knows. And Elrond is not saying. Keeping Aragorn’s passion locked in his heart doesn’t work well for film, and I have to say it doesn’t do Aragorn much credit in the novel either, leading some critic to say that the novel Aragorn has all the qualities of a good horse, or something like that. So yeah. I’m not thrilled that Jackson turned Aragorn into an exile unwilling to embrace kingship (although it works for the film); the king awaiting his time and rising to the occasion works better on the page. The Aragorn/Arwen love story adds a dimension we didn’t know we needed until we saw it.
That’s my praise and my brickbats, not that Peter Jackson will ever care a whit about either. He brought to life a place that lived in my heart and did what I had always believed was impossible: he filmed the unfilmable and breathed it into life, and he did it with grandeur and style.
The man earned the right to bring Bag End to his home and make it place to live. Would that we could all do that.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987. (I gave my ancient 1960’s trilogy that was given to me by a treasured mentor to my equally-treasured niece when I was given a nice nifty reprint with cover art from the films.)
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