RotK and Iconography

by Dec 23, 2003Reviews

I watched RotK, and, I felt about the same way as I expected to feel. But for different reasons. For the most part the scenes everbody has been raving about were underwhelming, or even lame in some cases. But that was balanced out by the fact that some of the scenes that I thought would be horrible turned out to be ok. Not good, but not particularly objectionable either. And, of course, I expected that the story elements he was working with would be impossible to screw up (though I began to doubt this as the release neared, and more footage was released) and I was for the most part right. It occurs to me that one of the things I like about Jackson and his adaptational approch is the respect he shows to the story. I’ll qualify that in a moment, but I don’t mean it the way you think I do.

First, here’s some of the things I liked.

Shelob, after Frodo thinks he’s escaped. Before I was neutral.

Mount Doom. This isn’t Tolkien’s Mt. Doom by any stretch of the imagination, but it works in it’s own way, for reasons I will elaborate on below.

Parts of Pelennor fields were cool, though over all it was quite underwhelming as well.

Liked the Orc captain Gothmog. He was like an orc version of Patton, and I found his character believeable and interesting. I even liked the way he looked. It’s already obvious that PJ is not going to make orcs the way Tolkien described them, so this was as good as any. I wonder though, whether his deformation was supposed to have been a birth defect, or some old battle wound?

The part where all of Gondor bows to the hobbits. I think it probably should have ended there. The Grey Havens simply aren’t done that well, and the reason for Frodo’s leaving is never clear enough to a non book fan.

Stuff I didn’t like, or was dissapointed by.

The lighting of the beacons. I realize that many people find this scene transcendant, but I don’t. I don’t dislike it, but I don’t think it lives up to the hype.

Ditto for the charge of the Rohirrim. I expected something more primitive and visceral when they chanted death, but I should have known that wouldn’t be the case. PJ has elected to portray them as Gondor Jr. and this film is no exception.

Eowyn vs. the Witch King. I heard that there were people cheering at this part in some theatre’s, but it didn’t happen when I went, except for some girl power teens. It just didn’t seem to have much build up, or resolution. It was over almost before I realized it had begun. Both when she chopped the head off the fell beast, and when she downed the Witch King. THe break between the two killed any tension building momentum that could have been there, though I doubt there would have been much anyway.

Gollum’s backstory. Over acted, and over visualized. What should have been disturbing ended up striving to be disgusting, with lots of squishy noises and saliva. But it wasn’t really even disgusting. I would rather they had left Gollum’s back story tot he imagination, and included the VoS in it’s place.

Denethor. Almost everything about him. I understand why they changed his character, in order to provide more of an obstacle for Gandalf, but it rings false. Plus I think John noble overacted as well. And once again we get the squishy spraying eating scene, which isn’t very effective, even at being disgusting. I realize that they were trying to convey some imagery of his chewing up his people, by overlaying this scene with the suicide charge. But it just doesn’t work that well. It makes his character seem unbelievably piggish.

The Grey Havens. This part drags the movie out for too long, and the way PJ chose to deal with it makes it unclear why this is happening. He sets it up as something of a surprise that Frodo is going as well, but this works against it because it is unclear why he is going. A friend who hadn’t read the books was confused by this part, and I think that probably detracts from any moving qualities. It probably should have ended at the “you bow to no one” scene, and leave the other stuff as a treat for the books.

Pelennor. There is no buildup and this battle needs one. Jackson got it completely backwards. In TTT we get a drawn out and tedious build up for a minor battle, and it hurts that film, and in this one we simply have an army appear at the gates without any real build-up, and it hurts this film. Then there’s a problem with the fact that the battle doesn’t seem to be coherently busy. We see what looks like it should be a set up for chaos in the wide shots, but in the closer scenes everything looks pretty tame.

Everything’s too bright. This is mostly a purist gripe, but I read an early interview where one of the filmmakers was asked if they incorporated the effect of the loss of a normal day night cycle, to which she replied “yes”. But we don’t see it here, so I feel jipped. I imagine that they oginally intended to darken all these scenes, but couldn’t get it to look right, so they just dropped the darkness angle.

However, as I said before, I appreciate the respect that PJ shows to the story in many places. And by that I mean the way he strives to tell the story in the language of movie iconography. This is what Fellowship had going for it, and it is what RotK has going for it as well. In general, in both of these films he has chosen to take seriously what Tolkien wrote, and put it in a language of cinematic seriousness. These films are not groundbreaking. He pulls out all the standard movie tricks. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We get all the fades, slow mo, and implicit refrences to other cinematic moments because Jackson loves these elements of the story. And it shows because of this, which is why it is fun to watch. Showing Gollum sink into the lava was not Tolkien’s LotR, and it was similar to T2, probably consciously so as well. But that doesn’t hurt the film. In fact it works for it. Jackson sees LotR on the same level as these other films he loves, and so he strives to use the same language. This is a touching tribute to a work that I love. However, in the Two Towers, this isn’t the case. Jackson here has lost faith in the characters and story, and chose instead to scrap those fundamental elements of tolkien’s story for what he thinks will be better, and it isn’t. He sticks with the same approach of cliche formalism, but he no longer has the content to back it up. In Fellowship, even Arwen at the Fords was acceptable (but not really good) because it demonstrated a respect for the character that Tolkien wrote. He thought enough of this character to give her a larger part, which was different from the book, but not contradictory.

In fact, the iconography of these films is really the strong point. The script goes from servicible to bad, and mainly functions as a vehicle to set up these iconinc moments from the book, and he portrays them in the way he envisions them. However, his focus on iconography is also detrimental, as it highlights just how expendable the rest of the story is. Mount Doom functions even without the buildup of the slow trudge through Mordor. This is a credit to the scene, but is a critique of the rest of the film, sice we don’t really need it the way we should. His focus on iconic images and scenes makes these elements self contained, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing, when it makes so much of the rest of the film forgettable.

As I said, I enjoy both Fellowship and RotK because of this, but I still don’t think it comes anywhere close to tapping the potential of this story. This story demands the creation of a new iconography, not borrowing from the old. These films are good but not great, and they are by no means the definative take on this story. There will be other visions of this story on the big screen.


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