After walking out of the midnight showing of ‘Return of the King’, I was immediately confronted by a reporter with a microphone in hand asking for a review of the movie. My response was polite, but I declined and said that I was the wrong person to ask as I didn’t really know what I thought of it yet. Apparently intrigued by this kind of mixed response, he asked me why and before I knew it I was giving a review that I wish I had not given. It was embarrassing really, as I rambled on without being able to express my thoughts properly, and how could I anyways? This movie was the culmination of a big part of my life and the finale was a moving experience but in a way that I had not entirely expected. I have since watched the movie a second time and have thought a great deal about it. I wish I could give that review again, so here goes.
I walked into ‘The Return of the King’ not as an ordinary moviegoer, but as a purist of sorts. I cannot tell you the precise family tree of every character, and I haven’t even read the Silmarillion in its entirety, but a purist I consider myself nonetheless. I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a child and many times since then. There are passages that I have read hundreds of times and can cite word for word. I am not fanatical and have lived an ordinary life, but in my own secret way, I know that this book has shaped my values and my beliefs in how one ought to live life. This has not meant dressing up like Gandalf, or playing role-playing games but rather, studying philosophy, serving in the armed forces, and always standing up for those things I believed in. So when I walked into the theater Tuesday night I knew that I was in for a moving experience. I grew to love the first film of the series, but never quite felt as good about the second. I could tell that the departures from the story were growing and I could tell that a greater emphasis was being placed on special effects and action sequences. Still, I wanted Peter Jackson to end it well and to leave me satisfied.
On my first viewing, I was not satisfied at all. There were great scenes and there were moments that were true to Tolkien, even if they did not follow the story word for word, but there were also glaring omissions and changes to the story that I could see no real reason for. I know that Peter Jackson and the film’s production team keep saying that elements of the story would not work on the big screen, but I disagree. Many of those same elements are elements which many book editors would say don’t work in a novel either, but Tolkien shows us that they do. New Line put it’s faith in Peter Jackson but in the end Peter Jackson did not put his faith in Tolkien’s story or its fans. Why does Arwen’s fate need to be tied to the destruction of the ring anymore than it was in the books? Why does the Army of the dead need to be a green, glowing army of corpses rather than the unseen, dark host Tolkien describes? Why does Frodo need to abandon Sam? Why can the Witch king not confront Gandalf before answering to the Horns of Rohan? Why?
I am no director, so maybe I do not have the knowledge necessary to fully realize how these scenes would seem otherwise. Maybe I keep looking at the film through the eyes of one who has read the book and I cannot tell how the uninitiated would react. Still, I can envision scenes superior to what Peter Jackson gave us and I can see no real reason why he did things differently. The scene where the riders of Rohan charge the orc legions is incredibly powerful, but imagine instead Theoden first being stricken down by the Witch king and Eowyn horribly wounded after her confrontation. The king’s banner is given to Eomer. He is the new king of the mark and grief stricken for his fallen king. Worse yet, he then sees his (apparently) dead sister. He cries “Eowyn?… Eowyn, how come you here? Death, death, death! Death take us all!” he then mounts his horse, and rallies the riders as he should have. “Death! Ride! Ride to ruin and the world’s ending!” It should be now that we hear the grim death chant of the Rohirrim. Is this change minor? Maybe, but why a change at all?
There are so many examples like this one that I could write about them for pages. Why has Peter Jackson felt the need to change this story in any way whatsoever. The really sad thing is that some changes needed to be made only to make up for changes already made in the first two films. Theoden rallying the troops almost made me happy despite the departure from the book, if only because it redeemed Theoden after his pitiful portrayal at Helm’s Deep. Why should he feel not ashamed in the halls of his forefathers if all he did was die at the start of a great battle? And there were some aspects of the story that no changes could possibly fix. We know Frodo showed one of the Nazgul the ring in Osgiliath, so how could Sauron possibly think that Pippin now has the ring when we are told it is a three day ride from Edoras to Minas Tirith. It was a completely senseless addition made in the previous film that nothing in `Return of the King’ could fix.
We are told that six minutes of footage including Saruman was cut but then we are faced with far more than six minutes of slow motion hugging to wrap up the film. Is that footage really more crucial to the story? I suppose an argument could be made that you need a lengthy ending for a ten hour story. Ok then, how about telling it as it was written? Even a lengthy narrative just describing the scouring of the shire and the grey havens would have been great. Show fragmented clips of the shire being retaken and Frodo’s eventual journey while Sam or Galadriel describes how nothing will ever be the same. This would have not only been a smoother ending, but more true to Tolkien.
I am one of those few who believe that this story, in all its complexity could have been presented to a mass audience successfully. Would it make three billion dollars without Legolas defying gravity while killing Oliphaunts, and Gimli making corny jokes? Probably not. But it might have been a masterpiece instead of the movie it was. Entertaining? Yes. Spectacular? Yes. Legendary? No.
By the second time I watched this movie, I had come to an important realization and it was this realization that has brought me to peace with `Return of the King’ and, in fact, this whole trilogy. Tolkien is and will remain the master. After seeing these movies, I now know that those people who are introduced to Tolkien will come to love the books far more than the movies. If the movies had been better, this may not have been the case, and it is that which would have been truly tragic. That is a silly thing to say actually, because it is an impossibility and an insult to the human imagination – The movies could never have been that good. They were really good! It is just that they cannot compete with my own vison. I have been living in Middle Earth for twenty years now and I have my own conception of how things should be that even the most grand of Peter Jackson’s scenes will never fully capture.
If I had made this movie, perhaps then I would be satisfied with it and perhaps Peter Jackson would be ranting about the changes I made. That is my point. As much as Tolkien gave us this story, it is each of us as individuals who make it come to life and we each do so in our own way. I compare these movies now to an Alan Lee‘s paintings of Middle Earth. They can add to our vision, and can help us define this story, but if we see one that we don’t particularly like, we turn the page, forget it, and keep reading.
I suspect tis will always be true of any book adapted for the screen and it is this suspicion that renews my faith in the written word. To Peter Jackson… Thanks, and good job. The movies were good. Far better than I imagined they would have been five years ago when I first heard about this project. Your vision of Middle Earth is an interesting one and some of it has changed my interpretation of this story for the better.
As for me, I am gonna sit down and read a little