THE CHOICES OF MASTER JACKSON
Well, the long wait is finally over. I have seen “The Return of the King”. The two years of waiting to see how Peter Jackson would visualize cinematically the scenes in my favorite book of the trilogy have come to an end. I no longer can lie in bed at night imagining in my head what it will be like to see Sam cradling the seemingly lifeless but peaceful body of Frodo after Shelob’s attack slowly coming to the realization that he, too, must become a Ringbearer; or Gandalf `s confrontation with the Mouth of Sauron before the Black Gate; or Aragorn’s healing touch with Merry, Faramir and Eowyn; or Sam and Frodo captured by the Orcs on the slopes of Mount Doom, or Sam’s awakening in Ithilien. Those who have seen the film will know that I will never get to see some of these scenes, because they are not there. Perhaps some of them will end up in the Extended Edition, like the scene showing the end of Saruman; but others will not, simply because the way Peter Jackson saw them is not the way I did.
Overall, there is much to like in “The Return of the King”. The achingly beautiful scenery of New Zealand is there, and the actors who inhabit these beloved characters are all there to enjoy one last time. Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens, and Sam’s return to the Shire, are beautifully realized. But there is much to disappoint. If it was so necessary to make Frodo face Shelob alone, without Sam, was the only way to accomplish this to have Frodo order Sam to go home, and for Sam, who has just delivered that stirring speech at the end of “The Two Towers” about not turning back, to meekly acquiesce? Did Denethor have to be reduced to a gluttonous coward, instead of being a once noble king preyed upon by Sauron through the agency of a palantir, echoing the fates of both Saruman and King Theoden? Did all the Elves die at Helm’s Deep, so that only Legolas was left in the alliance of Men and Elves to fight the final climactic battle for Gondor? Did we need to see Tolkien’s concept of Gollum becoming an agent of the grace of God intervening to save Frodo from his failure to cast away the One Ring altered into one more cheap trick of Frodo almost falling with Gollum into the chasm?
Peter Jackson has finally succumbed to the temptation, which he has been fighting in all three films, to sacrifice the subtlety of Tolkien’s poetry and slow character development for all the slam-bang violence and gore he can put in. Thus we have three drawn-out battles plus the overly long opening scene between Smeagol and Deagol taking up the majority of screen time. Sacrificed are such scenes as Merry’s oath of allegiance to Theoden at Edoras, Aragorn entering Minas Tirith as a healer before he would enter as a king, the courtly romancing of Eowyn by Faramir, and the enormity of Frodo and Sam’s struggles with thirst, hunger and flagging strength on the slopes of Mount Doom. While I accept the filmmakers’ often-repeated explanation that some detail has to be sacrificed to the demands for a commercially viable running time, I find some of these omissions hard to justify. One has only to look at the scenes between Boromir, Faramir and Denethor added to the Extended Edition of “The Two Towers” to realize the contributions these scenes would have made.
I always expected that I would love “The Return of the King” the most of the three films. I find now that I do not. After falling under the spell of “The Fellowship of the Ring”, I found it hard to like “The Two Towers”. But I much prefer either of these films to this one. I wish it well, and I would especially love to see Sean Astin or Ian McKellen nominated for an Academy Award for their acting contributions. But I cannot in good conscience say that Tolkien’s vision has been well served.