Things To Act
Monday, March 01, 2004
A Long-Expected Review
That is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall; for there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain. -Tolkien, FOTR, 77.

The above quote, besides demonstrating Tolkien's knack for dropping profound and memorable lines without seeming to try, captures some of the sense of higher drama and power in the universe of Middle-Earth. This quote, I think, typifies my impressions of the LOTR movies--though far from perfect, they were a monumental achievement that was certainly not 'wholly vain,' if not all it could have been. Indeed, often the gravest shortcomings seemed, to me, to be the failure to capture the sense of awe and meaning that Tolkien can create without seeming to try. Anyone can create a fantasy universe and tell Entertaining Stories (as countless bad fantasy novelists have shown). Tolkien, however, managed to create Myth with history, moral power, and higher purpose dripping off the pages. The movies, alas, often seemed to stoop to the Entertaining Story level (which can make for very good fantasy movies--but which pale in comparison to the original).

I suspect this happened for several reasons. One, of course, is the difficulty of translating words to screen, particularly given Tolkien's propensity to write unnaturally long chunks of dialog and exposition. Another reason would be length requirements (though I think this is arguably a foolish constraint--if anything, the LOTR movies proved that audience doesn't care about the length if the story is powerful enough). And a final reason would be that, arguably, Jackson et al Just Didn't Get It at several key moments, either buying into flawed Hollywood formulas or failing to understand the true power of Tolkien's tale.

Fellowship started the trilogy on a strong note. I had some grievances where things didn't make sense (the orcs surrounding the party, then running away?), but most of the details were close enough that it didn't matter. Some deletions were regrettable (cool as the falling staircase scene was, wouldn't some better indicators of the passage of time filled in the plot better?). Some key opportunities were missed ("What an evil fortune! And I am already weary," is indisputably a better line than 'a big flaming obvious evil thingee' or whatever Gandalf actually said for the benefit of the three dense people in the audience who couldn't tell that the Balrog was a Bad Thing). But my biggest grievances were the reduction of Merry and Pippin to incompetent comic relief (lighting a fire to attract the Nazgul? Whatever), and the insistence on Hollywoodizing the conflict at the Council of Elrond. The moral dilemma of the actual decision--to risk the fate of the world on a slim chance instead of doing countless more sensible but useless things--is far more compelling than pointless bickering by some of the most majestic people in Middle-Earth, yet the movie didn't, IMO, fully illustrate the dilemma.

Two Towers, despite the coolness of Helm's Deep, had its own problems. The less said about the cliff scene, the better (except, of course, to note that every minute we spend destroying one character is a minute spent not advancing plot elsewhere). And the decision to rape Faramir's character, including the whole inexplicable field trip to Osgiliath (and the subsequent nonsensical changing of his mind) was mind-boggling in its stupidity. Further, ROTK showed that leaving the original ending, complete with Shelob cliffhanger, would have made far more sense structurally (the only reason I can think to have mangled two movies in such a fashion was fear of the inevitable Harry Potter/LOTR spider comparisons, fresh on the heels of the troll comparisons from the year before. Which, needless to say, is a stupid reason).

Return of the King, however, sunk to new lows repeatedly. The overall impression is one of slapping it together without caring whether it makes sense. For instance,
*No resolution with Saruman. The palantir just sitting in the water. Whatever. (And Saruman's final defiance before Gandalf is one of the more powerful scenes in the first place, and should have been left in).
*The ineptness of Gondor. Gondor is a mighty military empire which has been fighting Mordor for millennia. Minis Tirith is the fortress at the center of their military might. A civilian could not, repeat NOT, happen to light its warning beacon without getting caught, and, even if he did, there would be a Major Inquiry probably resulting in someone's execution.
*The decline of Denethor. The books portray Denethor's downfall as a more gradual, subtle process. He certainly doesn't abandon hope until A) Faramir is wounded by the Nazgul dart, and, B) he uses the palantir to see the black-sailed ships coming up the river. His portrayal in the movies is ridiculous--there's no way he would send Faramir on a suicide mission, and it destroys the point of his character to portray him as both an incompetent strategist and an uncaring father.
*The above add up to turn Gondor into a caricature of itself. Instead of an experienced empire fighting the Shadow on many fronts (Pippin watches major fortifications before the siege), we get the picture of a few knights holed up in a mountain castle who can't defend themselves ('get the women and children out of the first ring.' Well, if you overlook the fact that they were sent to safety long before the siege...).
*Elrond's trip made no sense as well. Aragorn's kin coming not only sets up important developments later, but having Elrond abandon Rivendell simply doesn't make sense. He keeps one of the Three Rings, and knows that battles will be breaking out all over the North. Leaving his people is highly implausible, as is even getting through so many war zones. The whole 'Arwen dying' subplot, needless to say, was ridiculously stupid. I wouldn't have had any problem with an expanded role for Arwen if she had actually DONE anything, but there was really no point to expanding her role for what we got.
*The Dead. I can accept seeing them upfront rather than in a flashback. But having them come to Minis Tirith completely negates the point of the sacrifice of the Rohirrim. A ghost zombie army (like a mutant tree army) only gets to be used once, not over and over. Why not just have the Dead storm Mordor, if you're going to break the rules?
*The Last Debate was another missed opportunity, with the accompanying moral dilemmas of risk, gamble, and strategy.
*Most of the Frodo/Sam/Gollum interaction I found wearisome and implausible. It's better in the books, but I won't go into detail because it's been too long since I watched the movie.
*Sam's hasty rescue of Frodo from the Orcs didn't make sense, because certain things weren't put in context. A) The Orcs were fighting each other, in part over Frodo, and B) Sam used the Ring to slip in unseen. Neither of those points were established, leaving the impression that the Orcs started killing each other for no reason, and Sam killed the rest with no trouble. The rest of the trip to Mount Doom was handled with similar lack of plausibility, in what should have been some of the most moving and haunting scenes of despair in the movies.
*The scene at the Cracks, complete with the invisible fight, probably wasn't supposed to look as comical as it did. Bad flashbacks to the Yoda thing.
*And, of course, the various wrapups managed to misfire several times, in part because of the lack of adequate groundwork before. The multiple denouements in the books (including the Scouring) felt natural, because there were so many important plot points to resolve. In the movie, since the importance of so many of those key events hadn't been established, the multiple endings weren't as powerful, and left the movie open to mockery by those who didn't know why, if anything, the endings were too short.

So, though I left the theater feeling impressed by the special effects and such, the more I thought about the movie, the more angry I got at how sloppily so many key points were portrayed. The LOTR movies certainly deserve great praise. But, sadly, I am left with the forlorn hope that in 40 or 50 years someone will come back and do the job that, rather than being 'not wholly vain,' completely lives up to Tolkien's vision.

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