The Return of the King is a very good movie. Which is a shame, because I think it could have been a truly great movie, the final installment in what could have been a Legendary film trilogy.
Let me begin by saying that it was spectacularly beautiful to look at. The scenery was stunning, whether it was the peaceful Shire, the Plains of Rohan, or the mountain peaks that sliced upward into the skies of Middle Earth.
The manufactured scenery was equally effective in setting the mood of the film. The White Towers of Minas Tirith were balanced in emotional power by the slag heaps of the Black Land; the Anglo-Saxon splendor of Meduseld was met by the homey coziness of Bag End, the majestic solemnity of Denethor’s hall and the airy fragility of Rivendell played perfectly against the efflorescence of decay that lit Minas Morgul and the brooding horror of the towers of Mordor.
The actors could scarcely have been better cast, and I have learned to think that Elijah Wood was perfect as Frodo, and Viggo Mortensen has won me over at last, his Aragorn growing into kingship convincingly and movingly. Even Liv Tyler, in her nearly silent role as Arwen, got to me in the end, when she and Aragorn kissed–for once and all as if they meant it; passion flared to life between them, igniting the cold stones beneath their feet.
Although I am a bit of a book purist, I am not one who bleats in misery about all the changes that Peter Jackson made to LOTR. Many of those changes were obviously necessary, such as the excision of Bombadil, and the Scouring of the Shire. Nor am I cinephile enough to second-guess most of the changes I disagreed with. Most, but not all.
There have been many critics over the years who have sneered at LOTR, scorning “fantasy” as beneath the notice of anyone who might claim to be educated or well-read. The book has been savaged by the “intelligentsia”, and I often suspected the savaging occurred because the book has been and continues to be so enormously popular. Luckily for me, I read it before I was told it was not worthy of my time; luckily for me, I learned to love it before I was told that marked me as a “geek”.
The chief beauty of LOTR, for me, lay in the language that was the bones of the story. Tolkien was a wordmaster of amazing skill and knowledge; he chose his words with care, fully understanding how to achieve each effect he intended. He made little jokes that only a scholar might understand, such as that the names of the Kings of Rohan were nearly all simply words that meant “king”. (Thank you, Dr. M. Drout, for that delightful insight!) At times of great emotion and drama, he would use what I will call “High English”, ever lifting my heart just to read our common tongue used in such a way.
“But lo!” he writes, “suddenly in the midst of the glory of the king his golden shield was dimmed….” Snowmane is pierced by a black dart, he crashes to the earth, pinning his master beneath and the fell beast settles upon the body of the king’s horse.
Then comes the interchange between the Nazgul and the shieldmaiden Eowyn: “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman……..” Eowyn says. What does she say in the movie? “I’m no man!” I nearly expected to hear her add, “I am woman, hear me roar!” While the scene was affecting, and I was glad to see that Jackson more or less followed the text, how I wish she could have spoken those words that book Eowyn spoke! That the Nazgul had spoken the words of the book Nazgul. The “high English” used here by Tolkien was used deliberately and with deft assurance, adding emotional depth that was missing from the film. It could have been there. It could have lifted this scene from an ordinary special effects exposition and one of easy sentimentality to one of great power.
“It was no Orc chieftain or brigand that led the assault upon Gondor”, writes Tolkien. But in the movie, it was only Orcs. There were no Men, no armies of Southrons and Haradrim, just meaningless masses of CGI constructs and dumpy men in Orc costume, made up to look just as ugly as one could ever imagine an Orc being, but neither frightening nor threatening, just ugly and stupid and made to die endlessly, endlessly. And in a scene that made me cringe, we see Legolas vaulting about on an Oliphaunt, taking what seemed like half an hour to bring the great beast to its knees. What was that scene added for? The Legolas Swooners, or the adolescent boys who were supposedly the main market for these movies?
Minas Tirith, the White City, was beautifully real in the movie. The citizens, particularly the women, had an air of Ancient Rome that was entrancing and fitting. Watching Shadowfax in the streets, racing from the Gates to the Citadel, brought tears to my eyes. Here was the book brought to life! Here, in the book, the speech of the folk and the descriptions of their surroundings was written in that “high language”, setting Gondor apart from the rest of Middle Earth. Tolkien knew what he was doing, there was never any accidental or incidental use of any given word, each one was chosen like a gem to be set in Mithril.
In the book, Peregrin Took offers his sword to Denethor. Gandalf, standing by, tells Pippin the oath, and Denethor gravely and graciously accepts the Hobbit’s allegiance as befits a great lord. In the movie, this lovely scene is utterly spoiled by a querulous Gandalf shoving Pippin rudely aside. Denethor, in the movie, is just a miserable old bully. Surely some of the time wasted on Legolas and the Oliphaunt could have been spent giving a bit of justice to Denethor? Say, a minute? He wasn’t a nice man, he was unfair to Faramir, but he wasn’t the second rate nincompoop loony of the film, ending a less than stellar career as Steward of Gondor by becoming Denethor the Human Torch, taking the high dive from the Citadel. And that after being thumped around by Gandalf Superwizard, using his staff instead of his wisdom; once more the “high language” was gone, once more a scene of great power was reduced to a sort of video-game silliness. How many movies have had men on fire and running? If this was the first time it had been used, I might have understood it, but it is a tiresome cliché, and it spoiled the mood of this tragic moment. Why did Jackson have Gandalf utter those words, “So passes Denethor son of Ecthelion”? A joke, maybe, as the dying man sped “past” him?
What was this nonsense about Arwen leaving Middle Earth? She had promised Aragorn, she had plighted her troth, and now the scriptwriters have her giving in to their version of the father Elrond, no longer an Elven lord of great wisdom and insight but a suburban Dad reading his daughter the riot act about her no-good boyfriend.
In the book, Aragorn leaves Rivendell bearing Anduril, the Flame of the West, Narsil reforged. As Isuldur’s heir he bears Isuldur’s weapon. In the movie, Elrond appears unexpectedly in Dunharrow, gives Aragorn the sword, names the sword, and then announces that Arwen is dying. What on earth was this scene in the movie for? Was Elrond trying to “bum out” Aragorn? Imagine that on the eve of your greatest trial someone brings you the worst imaginable news, taking the heart out of you, and making your possible triumph meaningless. Elrond might not have liked the notion of Arwen giving up the grace of her Elven immortality for the sake of her mortal lover, but would he have ridden all the way to Dunharrow, apparently alone, for no other reason than to frighten and depress Aragorn? Oh, and to give him the sword that he should already have been bearing! Right. Yeah, right.
The journey of Sam and Frodo through Cirith Ungol, the confrontation with Shelob, the road to Mt. Doom, were near flawless. Until we get to the very end, that is, the ultimate moment of the Quest. An oddly unconvincing fight between Gollum and his unseen foe–unconvincing, given the perfection of some other Special Effects—and then, then, to add some false suspense, we see Frodo try to get the Precious back from Gollum, and the pair of ringbearers go over the edge!!! What on earth was wrong with the way it was written? Simple, effective, and blazingly dramatic, in the text: Gollum, mad and careless with delight, steps too far and goes into the Fire with the One Ring.
Two final criticisms. First, Aragorn’s coronation comes, and again the chance is missed to move the emotional depth and resonance of this scene from the commonplace. Gimli silently and dourly bears the crown to Aragorn? Why? Why couldn’t Aragorn have spoken the beautiful words that Tolkien wrote: “By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head, if he will……..”? Viggo Mortenson could have spoken those words convincingly and movingly, momentarily lifting our hearts and spirits into the High Elven realm of ancient times. Lastly, why did Aragorn bend his knee to all four Hobbits? Why were Sam and Frodo slighted in this fashion, after all they had endured? I’m not arguing that Merry and Pippin didn’t deserve recognition, but that was Sam’s and Frodo’s moment, and it was not what it should have been.
The reason these changes, more than others, disturb me is this: it is these changes, and more of a similar nature, that reduced the film from what it could have been to what it was. The beautiful story nearly became what the critics of the books had long contended it was: a shallow tale about a fantasy world, of no moral value, with no meaning beyond entertainment. Dreary bloody battles and swordfighting and Elves and magic, nothing more. Hordes of horrible Orcs, unreal and uninteresting, bodiless omnipotent but not invincible villains. Kid stuff. Video game stuff.
The story was never about monsters and goblins, but about friendship and loyalty and courage. Somehow this shines through in the movies anyway. Somehow the sheer force of the tale saves Tolkien’s incorruptible vision, and for the 192 minutes that Return of the King runs, we are blissfully lost in Middle-earth.