On Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to tag along with my wife to a press screening of LOTR: TFOTR, and I was moved enough by the experience to want to post this response (I won’t call it a review).
First off, let me assure you that the movie really is wonderful. Actually, it’s more than wonderful. It is sublime in the true sense of the word: Overwhelming, even awesome, in its sheer vastness. The movie isn’t beautiful; it is too beautiful. It isn’t thrilling; it is too thrilling. It isn’t emotional; it is too emotional. More often than not, in fact, the film exceeds one’s capacity to take it all in — there is just so much of it, and it is almost all glorious. And it isn’t perfect either, thank goodness. In all these ways, the film is very much like the books, both in scale and aesthetic.
But please, everybody, do both yourselves and Peter Jackson (and his cast and crew) a favor and don’t go expecting to “see” the book(s) on the screen. Go instead with a sense of disinterested expectation. That is, go prepared to give yourself over to this particular adaptation — or translation, or interpretation, or reimagining — of Tolkien’s text not on your terms (because those may never be met, and probably shouldn’t be), but on its. They are undoubtedly the best terms Hollywood is capable of giving.
For a number of things become immediately evident within, say, the first half-hour of the film. One is that it was made by people who have inhabited, and been inhabited by, these books as much as you or I have. This film is a labor, not only of love, but of understanding. Another is that, for what can only be called cinematic reasons, the filmmakers have had to priviledge certain rich aspects of Tolkien’s creation — its plot and mood — at the expense of another rich aspect: its accumulation of minute detail. I don’t just mean things like Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wights; I mean things like the Council of Elrond and the symbolic importance of Narsil and life at Rivendell and the melancholy culture of Lothlorien and the differences between Wood Elves and other Elves and Bilbo’s long association with Dwarves and Gollum’s genealogy and the importance of song — all things that might be said to suffer, to varying degrees, in the interests of plot development. So be forewarned: If you believe that the essence of LOTR lies in minutiae, and if you think that to ignore any of it is to do a gross injustice to Tolkien’s creation, then you are bound to be at least a little disappointed in the film — and the fact that it conjures up Middle-earth all the same will probably not appease you.
If, however, you go willing to meet the film halfway, you will find that one of its simpler delights is in admiring how Jackson and company often ingeniously circumvent some of these dilemmas, either through condensation or knowing asides or visual cues. Some of these work better than others, and one or two come close to being too Hollywood for comfort. But all show a profound knowledge of the book and a respect for its spirit, and none, I would venture, rises to the level of a sacriledge. The tapestry Tolkien wove might be faded a bit, but it certainly isn’t torn. Indeed, the casting of the film — and that includes Liv Tyler, who is just fine — is so perfect, and the few liberties it takes so justifiable within Tolkien’s thought-world, that they could only have been realized by people who truly cherish the books. (Sir Ian McKellen, as you have all heard by now, is particularly perfect as Gandalf. He really makes you realize that the true hero of Tolkien’s saga, and its true seat of power, is scholarship.)
So does LOTR: TFOTR the movie do justice to the spirit of the book? Yes, on almost every conceivable level. Is it forced to give some aspects of the book less attention than they deserve? Yes: How could it be expected not to? But does it make up for those absences in other ways, or in its total effect as an independent work of art? Oh yeah. Are you excited about the film? To paraphrase Viggo Mortensen‘s Aragorn: Not excited enough.