It Could Have Been Better - A review from a disappointed pragmatist

I gave myself two chances to watch the movie this time, the second viewing being barely a day after the first. I did my best to help myself enjoy the movie by not reading the book again just before watching the film. I told myself not to set my expectations too high.

Sadly, I found that the film did not improve very much on a second viewing. I came out feeling that things were just wrong, wrong, wrong. Of course, there were things that were great: Helm's Deep battle shots, the flooding of Isengard, Eowyn's portrayal, just to name a few. But somehow the film failed to engage me. It failed to make me feel with the characters.

I could see why certain departures from the book were made, but they were made very badly. Take Theoden's wimpification for example. He was portrayed in the movie as stubborn, despairing, full of self-doubt (hmmm, doesn't that sound like movie Aragorn? We see a pattern emerging in the kings of Middle Earth eh?). Perhaps that was to represent the despair of the situation and to demonstrate how men were failing in strength and nobility. It gave a context to Theoden's recitation of "Where now the horse and the rider?", a vivid picture of the loss of greatness. But, horrors or horrors, Theoden came across as petty ("Last I heard, Theoden, not Aragorn, was king of Rohan"?!), cowardly and self-centred. He needed Aragorn to spur him on and do all his dirty work, and most of his commands to his soldiers in Helm's Deep were to pull back and retreat deeper into the fortress. Not a single word of encouragement from him. Was all this to contrast Aragorn's growing confidence? It unfortunately diminished Theoden's character greatly. Will audiences cry for him when he dies in ROTK? I doubt so.

I don't even know how to begin about Faramir. I do not believe the loss of my favourite character can be made amends for in ROTK next year, because there just isn't enough time to do it properly without being too abrupt. Even if I were to accept that the writers wanted to make him less flat as a character, the clumsiness with which this was done will make any attempts to bring back book-Faramir impossible. Can we believe that he has the true essence of nobility in him? Can we feel happy that Eowyn is marrying someone of true worth in ROTK and not settling for second best? With what we've seen of him so far, I don't think so.

To me, the main weakness in the movie comes from the poor direction and adaptation of the book. The acting, the visual effects, the photography, the computer generated characters, the music, were all stellar. I understand that it would not be possible to put everything in books 3 and 4 into a three hour movie without sacrificing character development and plot development. But so many of the additions were very unnecessary and took up precious time:

- The warg riders' attack and the whole Brego episode. A brief flashback to Arwen's conversation with Elrond would suffice, and the report of Saruman's army of ten thousand could have come from a scout. There was no need for this big episodic distraction.

- Frodo and Sam's misadventure in front of the Black Gates. It took way too much time just to illustrate the camouflage ability of the elven cloaks.

- The detour to Osgiliath. Transgressions to the book aside (which are too great to expound on here), I am not able to see any cinematic value in bringing the action there. The audience knows hardly anything about Gondor or Osgiliath, and feels hardly anything for the Gondorian soldiers, who were earlier depicted as rough and hard people. The Nazgul could not inspire any fear in the audience because they didn't do anything. Faramir's turn of heart did not need to take place there, it could have been done at Henneth Annûn.

In place of these, characters could have been better fleshed out using the talented acting of the cast, scenes could have been better drawn out instead of chopped up. For example, the Huorns could have been included and Entmoot less hasty. The film had to work within the limits of three hours, and knowing this limitation, Peter Jackson could have made better decisions to prioritise secnes to give the story and characters greater depth. I remember feeling the same for FOTR: the impression that too much was being rushed to squeeze the film into three hours resulting in the quality of scenes being sacrificed for quantity. And the worrying thing is that ROTK would suffer a lot more. So many things have been pushed into the third film and so many character arcs have been set up (Arwen, Faramir, Theoden). To wrap everything up in a three hour film would at best be awkward. At the worst, there may not even be a wrap of all the storylines and character arcs, much less a proper fleshing out of Tolkien's themes.

I can only say that the film was a commendable effort. To be fair, there were some exceptionally well-done things which I should mention here. Firstly, the score: the Rohan theme with the fiddle was captivating, and the way the Lothlorien theme from FOTR was turned into a march was a pleasant surprise. The whole depiction of Rohan and Edoras was just right, especially the designs. I loved the way the Ents marching out on Isengard looked like it came straight out of John Howe's painting. Gollum at the Forbidden Pool and Frodo's deception was a wonderful character moment - it was able to make me feel the pity that Frodo had for him.

But that's it. Now I just need to return to the book for a nice good read to recover and rediscover the experience of Tolkien's world.

 

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