D&D Archives01/18/2004

The Lord of the Rings
Part III: The Return of the King
A film by Peter Jackson
Based on J. R. R. Tolkien's Fantasy Classic

Part One of a Review by John D. Rateliff
Warning: Contains Spoilers

The long wait is over. After nearly fifty years, J. R. R. Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, called by some the book of the century, has finally gotten the film treatment it deserves. Join us in this review by Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff.

"Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter . . .
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!"
--Theoden before the walls of Minas Tirith

Two Questions, Two Answers

The first question anyone thinking about seeing this movie should ask is this: "Is it a good movie?"

The answer is, "This is not just a good but a great movie." It's a movie destined to join the classics, a film that gets discovered anew by each generation, and a movie likely to win all kinds of awards and make stars of the people who appeared in it and gave it their all. It's also a movie that will very likely elevate the New Zealand film industry from fringe to mainstream status and has already established Weta Workshop as the new millennium's special effects house of choice -- this decade's Industrial Light and Magic.

If you liked any of the Peter Jackson film adaptations from Tolkien's book released last year and the year before, you'll want to see this; it's as good as the first (The Lord of the Ring, Part I: The Fellowship of the Ring) and better than the second (The Lord of the Rings, Part II: The Two Towers).[1] Many movie critics are hailing these three films as the most successful film trilogy ever, and while this is something of a misnomer -- just as with Tolkien's book, these are not really a "trilogy" but three parts of a single, greater work -- it is indisputable that this movie has raised the bar on fantasy films: Jackson has proven that today's technology has finally made it possible for a sufficiently imaginative director to realize on-screen a persuasive visual analogue to almost anything an author can dream up. Like its two predecessors, Jackson's The Return of the King is a stunning success, not just commercially but artistically as well. The story, the acting, the scenery, the cinematography, and the special effects are all superb. No wonder it's turning up on film critics' "ten best movies of the year" lists[2] and being widely mentioned for possible Oscars.

The second question for most viewers, following hard on the first, is this: "Is it a good adaptation of the book?"

For many Tolkien fans, this question is even more important than the first. (We are, after all, talking about a book that has sold more than fifty million copies, created the modern fantasy genre, and held its audience for a half-century now. It's not just any book. It's a classic.)

My answer: on the whole, yes. Unfaithful in many details, Jackson's film nevertheless follows the main outlines of Tolkien's story with surprising fidelity. For example, while it deleted the entire "Scouring of the Shire" sequence (in which the four hobbits return home to find that Saruman's men have devastated the Shire in their absence, felling trees everywhere and establishing a police state) for a classic presentation of veterans returning from the war to take up their place again among ordinary folk who have no conception of what they've been through, it nonetheless retains the rest of the denouement. Some filmmakers might have been tempted to end, if not with the destruction of the Ring and spectacular fall of the Barad-dur, then with the crowning of Aragorn and his marriage to Arwen (cf. the party shots at the end of George Lucas's Star Wars movies); Jackson, like Tolkien, realizes the importance of wrapping up the loose ends. Just as the story starts slowly, grounding the heroic in the everyday, so too it winds down gradually with the four hobbits' adjustment back to normal life. We as readers and viewers have invested so much in these characters that it would be too painful to be torn from them in a glib happy-ending sequence. Instead we get to see the hobbits come home again, the story set down in Bilbo's book, Sam's reward for all his loyal service (happy marriage, fatherhood, the respect of his peers), and Frodo's growing realization that he has spent everything that might have seen him through a long quiet life, burning himself out in order to achieve his quest, and now has nothing left but a few short years of increasing pain from unhealing injuries, leading up to the heartbreaking but wholly appropriate farewells of the final scene at the Grey Havens.

Including long, slow scenes like these at the beginning and end of his epic is just one example of the dedication on the part of Jackson and his crew to "get things right." The amount of effort that went into creating the props and choosing (or creating) the settings was nothing short of phenomenal, as not just the film itself but the documentaries accompanying the DVD editions of the film's first two segments clearly establish. But in terms of the plot and characterization it was also vital that they nail the story and characters. The Lord of the Rings had already been the subject of not one but two appallingly bad films a generation ago (the Bakshi and Rankin-Bass animated movies); if they didn't get things right this time it would be overwhelmingly likely that no one would try again. Hence, Jackson's films have by default become the definitive film interpretations of Tolkien's work.

This simple fact accounts for the extreme fan reactions to changes introduced by Boyens and Walsh, Jackson's scriptwriters. While a small contingent rejected the films outright before even the first installment was released (taking the extreme position that since it was impossible to create a perfect film version of the book it was better not to try), most were willing to suspend judgment until they could see for themselves whether or not Jackson had pulled it off, waiting in apprehension as news leaked out of New Zealand about various casting and scripting decisions (e.g., initial horror at the casting of Liv Tyler as Arwen, delight at the prospect of Cate Blanchett's Galadriel). Once the films were out, the vast majority of Tolkien's fans were won over, although not without reservations -- accepting as a sad necessity the decision to cut out the Tom Bombadil chapters or Scouring of the Shire while being annoyed at the silly way Merry and Pippin join Sam and Frodo's quest or by Gimli's being reduced to comic relief, for example.

In fact, we now know (from the documentaries accompanying the expanded edition of the second film) that this fervent but conditional support from the vast legion of Tolkien's fans had a direct impact upon the films, forcing the filmmakers to realize that they would have to justify every departure from the original and thus causing them to reign in some elements ("Arwen, warrior princess") that would otherwise have strayed far afield from the spirit of Tolkien's book. This proved lucky for both the filmmakers and the fans and meant that the end result stays much closer to Tolkien's vision than would otherwise have been the case. It did not prevent Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh from making some gaffs (see next section), but it exerted constant pressure on them to adhere to the original, thus pleasing the built-in audience by giving them a story that has stood the test of time, not some dumbed down movie adaptation thereof.

The Good and the Bad of It Given the overall excellence of The Return of the King, there are still some scenes and performances that deserve calling out as the high (and low) points of the movie. This section looks at some of the triumphs, as well as a few of the shortcomings, of this third and final installment of Jackson's film.

The Good

First off, let it be said that the title character, Aragorn the king, is superb throughout, handling himself with quiet dignity that can translate into deadly action at a second's notice. The rather annoying diffidence and indecision he showed in the scenes at Rivendell in the first and second movies are gone as if they never happened; he has grown into something more than an action hero (that's Legolas's role): a natural-born leader of men. The moment when he gives an order to Theoden, who after a second's hesitation accepts his authority (as he would not have done in the second movie), is the kind of understated moment that makes these movies epics rather than mere action flicks. Furthermore, he is a leader willing to lead from the front, putting himself on the line and never asking others to do what he will not do himself (the exact opposite, in fact, of Denethor the Steward, or most modern leaders). Whether Mortensen can translate this role into a career as a leading man remains to be seen, but here he has executed a difficult role with admirable understatement, showing charisma without bluster and playing the epic hero as a quiet man instead of a brawler. One imagines Homer's Odysseus and perhaps Malory's King Arthur as heroes in the same mode.

By contrast, there's nothing restrained or subtle about Orlando Bloom's Legolas, who again plays the action hero; his many fans will find plenty to applaud here, particularly in the scene where he single-handedly takes on a mumak (oliphaunt) and its riders. Bloom is not only the initial breakout star of the ensemble (cf. Pirates of the Caribbean); his Legolas has changed the way people see elves. Gone is the old cliché of delicate, ethereal artiste in favor of über-competent scout and deadly warrior. Not bad for a character who Tolkien himself said probably accomplished the least of all nine members of the Fellowship. Moreover, in the films it is Legolas who becomes Aragorn's blood-brother (so to speak), a role taken by Eomer in the book -- less Tonto to his Lone Ranger or Kato to his Green Hornet than a comrade-in-arms who's so effective that he transcends sidekick status and becomes the hero's partner. If we think of this part of The Lord of the Rings as a buddy movie, it's Aragorn and Legolas who are the stars of that theme.

As for Gimli, the third of "the Three Walkers", he fares considerably better in this film than the first two. After being a figure of fun in the first film and then reduced to comic relief in the second, he finally regains some dignity here. It's too late to undo the damage the earlier scenes caused, but at least he doesn't keep falling down here, or need constant rescuing, or burble out a string of inane remarks. In fact, he's given not one but two of the best lines in the film: "That counts as one!" (to Legolas, upon the latter's slaying the oliphaunt), and his summation of Aragorn's plan to march out to the Black Gate: "Small chance of success. Near certainty of death. What are we waiting for?" Rhys-Davies is finally allowed to show what he can do, and the results are good enough to make us wish we had seen more of it, and earlier. If Peter Jackson does some day make The Hobbit into a film to accompany his Lord of the Rings, then it's to be hoped he bases his dwarves there more upon Gimli's depiction in this film than in the earlier installments.

It was unfortunate that the plot required Gandalf to be absent for so much of the middle movie; that deficit is made up here, with scenes that show off every facet of his character: the great wizard, the wise councilor, the capable general, the skilled warrior, and, perhaps most of all, the kindly friend. It's a mistake to have him personally kill Denethor (deliberately pushing him into the flames makes Aragorn's succession look too much like a coup d'etat), but this is a quibble against the overall excellence of both the characterization and McKellan's performance. His outstanding moment is perhaps the little scene, during a lull in the battle, when he reassures a frightened Pippin by describing the afterlife (after all, having recently died, he has just seen it firsthand!), prompting the hobbit to remark "That doesn't sound so bad." Ian McKellan is so good that it's now hard to imagine anyone else having played that role: He has made it his own.

As for the hobbits, Jackson does a great job of keeping the focus of the film on Frodo's journey. The Sam/Frodo/Gollum scenes in The Two Towers, while good in themselves, felt like a side-story to the war in the west when in fact the exact opposite should have been the case. Here that imbalance is corrected; we never lose sight of the fact that everything hinges on the fate of the Ringbearers. Woods' performance is also better; his earlier tendency to stare soulfully off into space gives way to a more suitable empty, desperate look as the physical challenges facing him mount (although he's still a popular favorite for the Mark Hamill where-does-your-career-go-from-here award). It would be easy to make the scenes of Sam and Frodo's attempts to reach Mt. Doom mawkish or drag out too long -- a major flaw of the Rankin-Bass cartoon[3] -- but Jackson keeps the tension up and shows that the weary hobbits are moving as fast as they possibly can, given the terrible conditions and all the obstacles in their way. These scenes vividly bring to life Boromir's words in the first film:

"One does not simply walk into Mordor.
Its Black Gates are guarded by more than Orcs.
There is evil there that does not sleep
and the Great Eye is ever watchful.
'Tis a barren wasteland
riddled with fire, and ash, and dust.
The very air you breathe
is a poisonous fume.
Not with ten thousand men
could you do this . . ."

These scenes also show Sam's growth beyond a one-hobbit pep squad. His sort of heroism is entirely different from Legolas's: the stubborn determination of an ordinary person to do what's right, whatever the cost (again from the second film: "There's good in this world. And it's worth fighting for."). Sean Astin comes into his own here as the kind of everyman Tolkien wanted his book to pay tribute to, and he gave an Oscar-worthy performance where he, as the supporting actor, becomes so important that he assumes center stage (which was, after all, Tolkien's intent).

Similarly, The Return of the King is Pippin's finest hour as well, the moment when the young fool of a Took is forced to grow up at last. He does not cease to be something of a dunce (witness his pride in lighting the signal-bonfire without first noticing he's now standing on a heap of burning logs) but he gains the ability to act decisively when he needs to. And who knew that Billy Boyd could sing? The scene in which he sings a cappella for Denethor, while Gondor's knights are being slaughtered out on the battlefield, is far from subtle, but that does not prevent it from being heartbreaking as well. Ironically it is Merry, the smartest of all the hobbits, who somehow fails to have a supreme moment of his own. He is good throughout, just as he has been in the previous two movies, but at least in the theatrical release of the film he never quite has a defining scene to match Pippin's the way he does in the book when he stabs the Lord of the Nazgul (coming closest when saying goodbye to Pippin in Rohan) -- a pity, since Monaghan is very good in the role and fully brings this most underappreciated of hobbits to life.

And then, of course, there's Gollum. It's ironic that Andy Serkis and the special effects wizards at Weta Workshops did such a superlative job on the second film that their delivering more of the same in the third somehow seems less effective (the same might be said of Christopher Lee's Saruman, who was so good in the first film that he seemed only a pale shadow of himself in the second, in which he should have dominated). Still, Serkis's performance and the special effects generated from it remain very impressive: one of the great modern film performances, good enough to rank alongside, say, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.[4] Jackson and his crew pulled no punches and perfectly captured Tolkien's character: murderous, frightened, greedy, starved for affection, desperate to regain the one thing that gives his life meaning, and quite mad. Critics who say that all Tolkien's characters are simple black-and-white, good-or-evil, are simply not paying attention: Gollum with his split personality and face of an evil child is now as iconic a figure as Norman Bates (Psycho) or Jekyll/Hyde. Gollum's ambiguity and split personality come across brilliantly in the film; particularly good is the way in which he sows seeds of doubt regarding Sam in Frodo's mind, feeding his incipient paranoia.

Of the vast supporting cast outside the fellowship (114 speaking roles and twenty thousand extras), two have to be singled out for special praise, having turned in outstanding performances on the second film and being likewise exceptional in the third: Miranda Otto's Eowyn and Bernard Hill's Theoden. Hill's Theoden could have come straight out of one of Shakespeare's tragedies or history plays; he conveys so much with just a movement of his eyes that many viewers are likely to miss just how impressive a performance this is -- if only Faramir, Denethor, or Eomer were this good! And as for Miranda Otto's Eowyn, there's no justice in the world if this role doesn't launch her on a successful career as a leading lady. While she might look a little goggle-eyed while wearing the helmet, everywhere else she shines, eliciting a response from male viewers to match the female audience's swoons over Bloom's Legolas. A pity the theatrical cut had to drop the whole "Houses of Healing" scene so that she only appears in one brief crowd shot after her dramatic, climactic battle against the Witch-King, but at least that encounter -- one of the most often illustrated scenes in Tolkien's book -- was all any Tolkien fan could ever have wished. Bravo.

Finally, there's the spectacle: Peter Jackson uses New Zealand's natural beauty and the wonderful sets constructed by his crew very, very well. For me, the greatest moment in the film was the sequence with the signal beacons lighting one by one, which is a stunning visual analogue to rekindled hope in a dark, dark moment. Another impressive scene not in the book but added for the film (and a fine example of why such expansion sometimes works to the film's enhancement) is the parade through the streets of Gondor as the doomed Gondorian knights ride out on a futile "charge of the light brigade" assault, and the women and children silently strew flowers in their path as their fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands ride to their deaths. The scene building up to the Paths of the Dead is suitably spooky and very effective in a low-key manner, while at the opposite pole the Battle of Pelennor Fields excels by pulling out all the stops. Holding nothing back, Jackson gives us a battle scene far better than Helm's Deep, with quicker action, rapid changes in how the battle is faring at any of a number of points, and much more effective dramatic opposition -- the Orc general (Gothmog?), while possessing pink pig makeup that is unfortunate, is a perfect battlefield adversary (smart, cruel, brave) who personalizes the faceless throngs. Also of note is the arrogant, swaggering Mumakil rider in the second wave. Grond, the giant battering ram, makes the viewer cringe even before it begins its work. The dragonlike mounts of the Nazgul (a significant departure from the pterodactyls Tolkien envisioned; an example of a change which is an improvement) are brutally effective in shattering and demoralizing the opposition. And the rapid shifting between the personal and the epic gives the whole emotional impact: quick intercuts of individuals desperately struggling and being cut down bring home to the viewer what's going on all over the battlefield.

This sense of when to use a detail to drive home a point is probably the most important thing Jackson as a filmmaker shares with Tolkien as a writer: Both reward those who pay attention. The best example I can think of in the films is the moth that appears to Gandalf near the end of the vicious battle before the Black Gate. Just as Jackson trusted the viewer to be able to pick up the threads of the story in the second and third films without a lengthy voice-over or recap (instead giving them each time a flashback to a scene they hadn't seen before, Gandalf's battle with the Balrog and Smeagol's gaining the Ring, respectively), so too he here expects the audience to remember the moth that had visited Gandalf during his imprisonment atop Orthanc, some eight hours of film-time ago, and realize that its sudden re-appearance heralds the arrival of the eagles. How many film-makers would have that much faith in their audience?

The second part of this two-part review picks up with a discussion of the shortcomings of the film and explores a few answers to the question "What next?"


[1]See my reviews of the earlier two parts of this film trilogy at (FotR, part one), (FotR, part two), (FotR, part three), (TT, part one), and (TT, part two).

[2] See, for example, the Dec. 26th 2003/Jan. 2nd 2004 double issue of Entertainment Weekly, where it made both of the magazine's in-house critics' top-ten lists (#1 and #8, respectively) as well as having its cast dubbed "Entertainers of the Year"; the extended edition of the previous installment, The Two Towers, also made the top-ten DVD list (clocking in at #4).

[3] In the 1979 cartoon, the time-scheme was so distorted that Sam and Frodo seem to spend several weeks just wandering around inside Mt. Doom. By contrast, the timeline in Appendix B of LotR and Barbara Strachey's excellent little mapbook Journeys of Frodo (1981), which traces the movements of the Fellowship throughout the entire quest, shows just how well they did despite the enormous difficulties.

It is ironic, given how grueling many readers find the first few chapters of Book VI of The Lord of the Rings (describing Sam and Frodo's journey across Mordor), that one modern fantasy author heavily influenced by Tolkien, Stephen R. Donaldson, has said that were he writing the book he would have jettisoned the Hobbiton sections at the beginning and instead devoted "hundreds of pages" to the struggle through Mordor (interview, published in Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Variations on the Fantasy Tradition by W. A. Senior, 1995). While it's easy to see how this section of the story would appeal to Donaldson's characteristic desire to make his characters suffer, one is forced to conclude that Tolkien did well to keep the most brutal section of his work so brief.

[4] Fans of Serkis's Gollum may want to check out Serkis's new book, Gollum: How We Made Movie Magic (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), a behind-the-scenes guide to everything the actor went through when creating the role.For those who cannot get enough of Gollum, see the "easter egg" on the extended edition of The Two Towers, featuring Gollum's very funny, very profane acceptance speech of a MTV "Best Virtual Performance" award.*

*To find this scene, insert the first DVD and go to the "select a scene" option. Scroll down the right column and click on the final entry (29-30). Press the arrow cursor to scroll down from scene 29 to scene 30 and then down again; a "ring" icon will appear at the bottom of the screen, just left of center beside the "*new scene" header. Click on the ring to see the hidden scene.

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