"Lucy, you got some 'splainin' to do!" - My Review of ROTK
As was true of the first two installments, the scenery and sets of Return were absolutely magnificent, and I don't think anyone besides Peter Jackson could have visually pulled off Middle Earth. But even Lucy's schemes were great in theory and in rehearsal. She only got into trouble when she tried to actually do them.
Is Peter Jackson's Return of the King exactly as Tolkien wrote it? No. Granted, I am no purist. However, I do believe in staying true to the original characters and cultures. Here is where Return failed me the most.
I guess I shouldn't be too disappointed. In many ways, Return was simply the logical conclusion of what Jackson gave us in Fellowship and Two Towers. I guess if I wanted to be picky, I should rag on those films as well. But then this article would turn into a book. So here is the non-extended version:
Frodo was too weak and gullible.
Aragorn was not kingly.
Arwen was both wishy-washy and pushy.
Elrond was manipulative.
Denethor was crazy for no apparent reason.
Sauron looked like a scared rabbit with his spotlight eye.
Gandalf was disrespectful.
Sam had to stay in ME but...
Celeborn got to leave.
Eowyn's borrowed lines from Return of the Jedi.
The love triangle was too overplayed, then too quickly resolved.
The Ring's destruction was cheesy.
The dead army looked like the 10th plague from 10 Commandments.
The Epilogue was choppy.
Admittedly some of the above are merely pet peeves. But others are evidence of significant problems with the way that Peter Jackson has understood LOTR.
What disappointed me the most was that there was little to no understanding of the kingship. ROTK left me feeling sad that Aragorn was now king, that he now had to rule a ruined city. Part of this I think, comes from not giving the audience enough to care for Gordor. Rohan in TTT worked because we cared for Eowyn, Eomer, and Theoden. Gondor has Boromir, Denethor, and Faramir, all who have serious reasons for us to not really love them. Maybe if ROTK had given me more reasons to like Gondor (Faramir as he was written and Beregond would be good starters), I would be glad that Aragorn was king, but that just takes care of one detail. I still wouldn't know that he didn't just fall into this kingship and I still wouldn't know how important the kingship is. And there are the questions where was the joy that the king had returned and where was his identity as the High King (i.e. ruler of pretty much the known world)?
Second, the complexities of characters seem to be forgotten. For example, where was the wisdom of Frodo? The Frodo I know was never deceived by Gollum. Maybe this is just the difference between movies and books, but Tolkien's characters are much deeper than what I saw on the screen. Elrond was capable of loving Arwen, grieving for Arwen, and letting Arwen go all at the same time. Likewise, Arwen loved her father, submitted to her father, loved Aragorn, and helped Aragorn without ever changing her mind. Peter Jackson's Elrond and Arwen portrayed none of these complexities. Simplifications like this may have made the story easier to tell, but it also made weak and occasionally annoying characters.
Finally, although Peter Jackson and his team did an excellent job of portraying the various cultures of Middle Earth visually, they seem to have forgotten to incorporate those cultures into the characters. For example, the Nordic-inspired Rohirric culture would have been familiar with death and probably even valued death on the battlefield. Eowyn would have never borrowed definitely "American" lines from Return of the Jedi. She would not have denied Theoden's fatal wounds; she would have been glad for him them while still grieving. This goes back to complexities, something that culture is simply by definition. That culture was only visual was very disheartening for this amateur anthropologist.
Peter Jackson took on the task of not only making the fantasy land of Middle Earth come alive visually, but also communicating the tale and incarnating the characters. The three epic films that we have now are the result of this grand project that probably broke all of the biggest, longest, largest, etc. records in the film history.
While the trivia and fun facts from the movies will boggle the minds of fans for years to come, I for one left the theater frustrated with the actual content of the movies, specifically ROTK. The stunning visuals allowed me to see Middle Earth in a way I had never before been able to, but the characters and cultures that were my reason for loving ME were almost unrecognizable or nonexistent in parts.
If all of this seems quite dreary, don't worry. I am not being hasty and have not written ROTK or the movie trilogy off entirely...at least not yet. With the rumor of the Extended ROTK having an additional 65 minutes, Peter Jackson will have over an hour (not to mention the 3-5 hour appendices) to do "some `splainin'".