The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Reviewby Cheng-Jih Chen (cjc AT cjc DOT org)
December 19th, 2003
I'll wait until the extended versions come out late next year before passing final judgement on Peter Jackson's rendition of the Lord of the Rings. I found the extended versions much, much better. My opinion of The Two Towers was turned around by seeing the DVD the night after seeing FotR: there are still some quibbles, like the idiotic Ents and Aragorn's near-death experience, but on the whole it's a fantastic rendition of Tolkien, especially after seeing it more than one time.
Probably, I'm reacting in the same way to The Return of the King: on first viewing, there were scenes I expected to see but didn't, scenes there were there but were surprises, and a sense of being rushed towards the end. I got distracted after the first thing that didn't conform well to the books (never mind knowing the filmed fate of Saruman and the Scourging of the Shire), and stayed distracted. Seeing RotK a second time should make most of these distractions go away, and I can enjoy the movie as a movie, rather than the hoped-for rendering of books I read twenty years ago.
Nonetheless, there are some problems that I can't see being worked out from additional viewings or from an extended version. To start with, there are moment of dramatic punch that Tolkien delivers in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that are missing from the film, and we never feel that doom hangs by a thread. Where is Gandalf facing the Lord of the Nazgul after the Gate is shattered? Where is the southern wind that parts the dark clouds at dawn, as the Rohirrim ride in to the sound of horns? Where is Eomer's despair turned into joy when the banner of the King is unfurled? Oddly, the old Bass-Rankin kiddie TV movie effort -- may it be eternally cursed for putting those godawful songs (you know which ones!) into my head forever -- got this closer to the book than Jackson does, though my memory of the cartoon is fuzzy.
Regarding the Witch King and the rest of the Nazgul, they've been handled badly by Jackson, though I'm not sure of Tolkien does much better. The fundamental problem is that they're, well, the Nine, agents of unspeakable terror, but were driven off Weathertop by Aragorn waving a torch, even though their prize was within reach. By the third volume, the Lord of the Nazgul seems about ready to take down Gandalf all by himself. It just doesn't seem credible. Tolkien walked us past this inconsistency by building up the drama of great events unfolding over hundreds of pages, and by showing Aragorn to be the King of Men. Jackson has much less room to maneuver, and his Nine, beyond their winged steeds, aren't awe-inspiring.
And this indicates the most important defect: there's lack of... majesty. Granted, majesty, like the boogeyman underneath the bed, is hard to do on visually. Everyone has a different idea of how it looks, and most likely the on-screen depiction is going to look wrong, hokey or stupid to someone. We saw this, say, in Fellowship, when Frodo offers Galadrial the Ring. She is supposed to be full of terrible majesty as she describes herself as a Dark Queen, but instead looks like she got caught in an "I Love Lucy" episode set in some wacky beauty parlor where the hair dryers have gone crazy. But this scene from Fellowship is minor compared to what should be in the Return of the King, where displays of majesty and inner power follow one upon the other, all backlit by the glow of Middle Earth's long history. Majesty is sometimes in the CGI -- Minas Tirith and the White Tree are dead on, the armies outside the walls are awesome, but Gwaihir isn't -- but not in the actors. In the end, I didn't believe Viggo Mortensen was Elessar, Elendil's heir.
I may be too harsh on this movie, focusing on flaws while leaving out how I did enjoyed it, but flaws are much easier to find, and even if I don't know Quenya and haven't read The Histories of Middle Earth, I can nitpick with the best of them. Note that I don't expect a perfect fan-boy rendition of Tolkien: for a movie, we can cut out a lot of the songs, drop some characters, repurpose others to some degree. I did like the movie -- Shelob was fantastic, as was Cirith Ungol and Orodruin, and many other things both in the theatrical release and what's expected in the DVD -- but this wasn't exactly the movie I had imagined twenty years ago, even if it was mostly so. And that's the main problem right now, the dissonance between my expectations and the film we now have is larger than I would have liked.
Anyway, I am looking forward to the DVD, which will help matters, in particular by making the ending feel less rushed; there might be a lost weekend next November, when I watch all three back-to-back-to-back. We also should keep in mind the brilliant McSweeny's article about the lost audio commentary on FotR by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and the fact that there was no spectacular car chase scene around Mount Doom with vintage Minis. Things could be far, far worse.
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