The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Beyond my already inflated expectations, this movie and this franchise are one of the greatest achievements in cinema history. When you see this movie, you will see things that you have never seen before, and will probably never see again. You will cheer, weep,and laugh. It just doesn’t get better than this.

Well, we’ve come to it. The end of the story.

Starting back in [[Let’s Party]], I heard that pre-production had started on **The Lord of the Rings*’. I was both excited and nervous. Could this unknown guy ‘*Peter Jackson** who was known for low budget splatter movies pull off what for the previous 50 years was believed to be impossible?
When [[The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring]] came out, I breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t ruined it. Quite the contrary, he had nailed it. But, there were still two more to go, and they were bigger and more complex.
When [[The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers]] came out, I was blown away.

And now this.

Now that the story is complete, I’m going to talk about the work as a whole. Much of what’s written below is from an email conversation between me and a great friend Scott Tibbetts (also a die-hard fanatic). I’ve included some of what he wrote below because of its keen insight. Thanks Scott!

I decided quite a while ago that I wasn’t going to worry about whether everything in the movies matched the books precisely. I was looking for:

# Does he tell the same story. As I read somewhere, if you treat these books as history, the details of a history change depending on whose telling it. Remember, if you buy into the conceit of the books, they were authored by Bilbo and Frodo, so many things in them are second or third hand accounts.
# TRUTH never changes, but FACTS change over time (that sounds kind of weird, but think about it for a minute :-). So, I wanted the TRUTH of the books kept in tact. WOW did he do a beautiful job of that.
# I wanted the details of the world preserved. I.e. do hobbits look like hobbits, do elves look like elves, do orcs look like orcs, do ents look like ents (and not the trees in The Wizard of Oz), did they find Elrond’s house during some archeological dig and fix it up for the movie, do the ringwraiths scare the shit out of you, etc. These are the small details that are so important to the FEEL of the story. As a friend of mine said when he walked out of FOTR, “I never pictured orcs looking like that…. but I SHOULD have.” I felt that way about the entire series of movies
# Were the iconic moments from the books captured well. For instance, Weathertop, “I will take the Ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way”, The Balrog, Helms Deep, “I am no man”, the battle at the Pellenor, the crossroads, etc. Without a doubt, these moments are nearly perfectly in the films.

The details of the story along the way didn’t bother me that much. I was much more concerned with whether or not it worked. For instance, in [[TTT]], I thought Aragorn’s fall and rescue by the horse just plain didn’t work. But, on the other hand, having the people from Edoras end up and Helm’s Deep in the caves during the battle worked brilliantly (I actually liked that detail better than the book).

Of the 3 films, Two Towers had the most wrong with it. Granted, it’s hard to create an independent film when it’s clearly a transition to greater events. But my God, why spend a valuable 5 minutes of film time on a mother and her two displaced children when you could have embellished on Entmoot?

Actually, there’s a good reason that was done. It’s been typical of PJ all along. One of his goals was to humanize the epic scope of the story so that the stakes become very clear. So in this case, you see the mother and her children at the beginning, the reuniting at Helm’s Deep, and the mother and daughter in the caves while the kid goes off to fight. This just raises the stakes.. “Holy shit… if the men fail, that woman and her kid are gonna get eaten!”.

PJ said from the beginning that in order to fit the whole thing in, he’d have to concentrate specifically on the Ring. If you take this view, what does the drinking of the entwash have to do with the ring? Nothing. It’s a nice, fun touch in the book, but in the end it’s just not that important to the story of the ring. I’m glad it made it into the boxed set though 🙂 I also loved the nod to Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow. Very nice. As Philipa said, she didn’t think that Tom would mind if she gave some of his lines to Treebeard, a kindred spirit so to speak 🙂

That being said, Helm’s Deep was outstanding, with few exeptions. Legolas’ stairsurfing was a clear appeal to kids and I winced when I saw it. But as for the rest I thought it was terrific.

One of the big controversies in [[TTT]] was the changes made to the character Faramir. This didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did other people, especially after watching some of the extra material on the DVD (the extra scenes with Faramir and the discussion that Phillipa Boyens has about the changes to Faramir). I read a posting in a discussion forum where a guy said that in his opinion Faramir was played perfectly in the movie. In his opinion, everyone else has it wrong and PJ has it right. He said that everyone should go back and reread that whole section and realize that Faramir wasn’t being nice, he was being very cunning trying to trip Frodo and Sam up, cross examining them like a prosecutor. I reread it and he’s not too far off.

Also, Philipa said that one of the main reason that “changed” Faramir was to give his character more arc. If he had just been this nice guy from beginning to end, he’s boring on the screen. So they gave him his own personal journey.

Also, the extended scenes on the DVD with the flashback to the retaking of Osgiliath with Boromir and Denethor were truly a revelation as to the motivations of that character, and the addition of his release of Frodo in the tunnels under Osgiliath was wonderful. And again, Sam gets his great moment… “Mr. Faramir, you’ve shown your quality, the very highest.” Wonderful.

Return was not so much a movie but a rush to get everything in before 3 hours was up. I thought it was magnificent. It had all the “Oh, shit!” moments I remembered from the books: the Nazgul King, the Battle of the Pellenor Fields, Shelob’s Lair, the Watchers on the Wall, the Secret Stair, the Opening of the Black Gate, and of course the climax on the precipice of Mt. Doom. I thought it was all true to Tolkien’s vision.

I was especially happy to see the death of the Witch King portrayed so faithfully.

The madness of Denethor was another matter. Woefully underdeveloped, it left me scratching my head, wondering if those who didn’t already know the story knew what was going on. They could have tied things together so easily with Denethor if they had only included Gandalf’s correct assumption that Denethor had been poisoned by the use of the palantir. One small scene was all it would have taken. Oh, well. At least Gandalf kicked his ass like he should have in the book.

Also, I imagined the pyre of Denethor to be more of a tragic, melancholic event — a twisted suicide that made you feel for Denethor, who did not have the power he thought he did, who was ultimately corrupted when he could have been healed so easily. Running off the cliff in flames, plunging into the city below, was not the way I thought it should go. It should have been more sad/tragic and less like a circus stunt. I half-expected a pool of water to be waiting for him at the bottom: “Ta-da! That’s why I don’t do two shows a night.”

But I’ll let that go just because of that absolutely magnificent camera move that follows him falling and then backs out over the battlefield. Unbelievable.

What about the lighting of the signal fires! I know it played out differently than in the book, but what a magnificent piece of film-making. And I was glad the Pippin got something more to do as well. I always felt he kinda got screwed in terms of how much he got to do in the story.

Another great shot in the movie was Gandalf, Pippin, and Shadowfax ascending the rings of Minas Tirith. Absolutely astounding. It was so well done. Some reviewers thought that it was a digital city and a filmed Gandalf, but in actuality it was the other way around. The city was a 35 foot tall “miniature” that was filmed and the Gandalf, Pippin and Shadowfax were digital. Amazing.

And what about the charge of Faramir in the futile attempt to retake Osgiliath. I think that the juxtaposition of that with the mournful song of Pippin was absolutely brilliant.

Sams’ return of the ring was good. Not overplayed, as much of the ending was, but more subtle, more like two friends having their friendship tested. And of course, good ‘ol Sam comes through. “I can’t carry the ring, but I can carry you!” Great stuff. The bonds of friendship, something for which Sauron has no use, in the end prove stronger than all the evil in the world. And isn’t that the message, after all?

I have a confession to make. The first time I saw that, my eyes teared up. Sean Astin deserves a nomination for his performance in this movie.

What about Shelob!!! Yikes was that a scary spider! In every showing that I’ve seen, when she stings Frodo a gasp went up and I heard people muttering “but he can’t die!” (obviously people who had never read the book). The whole thing with Sam getting sent home by Frodo worked well I thought eventhough it was very different than the book. It just showed how much the ring was twisting Frodo’s perception… he trusts Gollum but not Sam? Sheesh!

The Army of the Dead sequence played out much better on screen than in the books. Truthfully, I always had trouble imagining what the army of the dead looked like and how they fought. The idea that they could defy physics (riding over water, riding up the back of an Oliphaunt, etc.) was fitting to the idea that they were a powerful secret weapon that Sauron could not have anticipated. Also, the thematic idea of the Hero journeying throught a Dark Place as a test of his heroism, coming out more powerful for the experience, and rising to his proper station was portrayed flawlessly here.

Thank you Joseph Campbell 🙂

And the spectacle of the battle! It made Helm’s deep look like a small skirmish (as it should have)! He captured, perhaps better than I’ve ever seen it, the way the tides of battle shift back and forth. First, the siege… Minas Tirith is toast, right? Wrong, the Rohirrim show up just in time and stomp the hell out of the orcs (chills go up my spine every time I see that scene). The good guys are gonna win, right? Wrong. Enter the Oliphants. Talk about impressive. I loved the way that they just kind of stomped on horses and men as if they weren’t even there and swatted whole groups of horsemen out of the way like flies. Now, the good guys are doomed, right? Wrong, Aragorn shows up with the army of the dead. The whole thing just left me breathless.

At each of the 4 times I’ve seen the movie so far, a cheer has gone up when Eowyn pushes her sword through the witch king’s head. “I am no man!” YEAH! Perfect!!!!

One last thing. Frodo’s overall haggardness, tiredness, the sense of his having carried a great burden that forever changed him, was perfect.
Did you notice the cuts in his neck that were made by the weight of the ring hanging around his neck! A subtle detail that just adds to the whole thing about the weight of the ring.

He really looked weaker, slower, even older at the end, as it should have been. I thought this was crucial. You can’t bear something like a ring of power and not feel the weight of it even after it’s gone. So many movies today have the “everything’s back to normal now” epilogue. I’m greatly pleased Jackson stayed true to Tolkien’s idea that things do not always stay the same, that the Hero’s journey changes the hero forever. I felt as tired as Frodo at the end, too. I really felt a sense of tremendous relief that the series was over and it turned out alright. In a way I carried the burden of worry that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. I was so relieved I cried at the end because it turned out (if not exactly as I hoped) so true to its creator’s vision. That’s the key… some of the details were different, but all of the thematic elements were right on the money.

Here’s a list of things that I’m sure we’re going to see on the extended DVD of ROTK:

# The death of Saruman at the hands of Wormtongue
# The Houses of the Healing
# The wedding of Aragorn and Arwen
# The Mouth of Sauron
# More Frodo and Sam in Mordor
# More battle at the Pelennor

I didn’t realize just how much of a Big Deal this was for me, that they Get It Right. It was unexpectedly emotional, to have waited so long for something and to see it turn out well. We are part of a group of people who will never come again: the Ones Who Read the Books First AND Saw The Movies When They Came Out.