The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Review

by Michael Turton (turtonm AT yahoo DOT com)
August 10th, 2004

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The Return of the King
Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Brad Dourif, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, John Noble, Miranda Otto, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Karl Urban, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, and Elijah Wood.

Review by Michael A. Turton

Peter Jackson and the Impoverished Vision of
Hollywood: The Return of the King

The ground of good movie storytelling is consistent one-to-one correspondence between the reality as presented on the screen, and the reality as presented in the story being told. The key to this is an unflagging dedication to richness of detail. The story must be steeped in its own reality, or the film will fail utterly. It is thus a paradox of storytelling that mythic power resides not in vast panoramas, casts of thousands, and eons of time, but in single elements and simple shots. Master filmmakers know this instinctively.

In _Lawrence of Arabia_, perhaps the greatest film ever made, the opening scene is a simple one: Lawrence, riding a motorcycle, is killed. David Lean never shows us Lawrence dead; instead, he represents his death by a pair of goggles hanging on a branch. Similarly, at that terrible moment when Titanic hits the iceberg, how does James Cameron show us that a world has passed? Down in the bowels of the ship sits an officer, sipping tea. And in the tea cup is a spoon. And next to it, a slice of lemon. That slice of lemon didn't have to be there, but there it is: the key to the whole shot. For it signifies a whole way of life, complacent, tidy, even a bit smug, whose upset is signaled by the officer's dropping the cup. Only fealty to detail in the service of the story can accomplish storytelling successes like _Titanic_ and _Lawrence of Arabia_ that work on so many different levels.

In the case where the filmmaker is handling what is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever written, a double fealty is necessary. First, to the world as created by the author, and second, to the story as set down by the author. Each supports the other. By abandoning both to use the ideas, characters, and events to tell his own, highly inferior story of a fantasy war based loosely on the Tolkien trilogy, Peter Jackson abandoned all possibility of telling a good story. As Gandalf reminded Saruman, "he who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." And he who breaks the greatest story ever told to tell his own tale is twice the fool.

Jackson's defenders have argued that the changes were necessary to prevent the movie from being too long, or because certain parts of the story would not work on the big screen. As a general principle, there is nothing wrong with the idea of change. Rather, it is *direction* of alteration that is so unforgivable. The changes and elisions of Jackson amount to the systematic debasement of each of the major characters, always in the direction of what is shallow and simple-minded, rife with contempt for what is different and special, too far removed from depth and power in potrayal to retain any force, save in the eyes of those who mistake frenetic energy for strength. This type of impoverished, stereotyped character portrayal, covered with technically superb effects the way a chef hides a poor cut of meat with a thick sauce, is vintage Hollywood, and _The Return of the King is_, simply put, Tolkien: Hollywoodized. In Jackson's clumsy hands, this Hollywoodization is like unto that of Sauron himself: he debases all he touches, removing all possibility of growth, strength, honor, and dignity.

The Error that is Eowyn
Let's plunge right into Jackson's stunted vision of thinking beings by exploring the error that is Eowyn. To begin with, physically speaking, she was poorly cast. Tolkien described her as slender and tall, "grave and thoughtful was her glance...her long hair was like a river of gold....strong she seemed, and stern as a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood." The moon-faced Miranda Otto, who was more than thirty when she was tapped for this role, is the physical opposite of Eowyn as Tolkien presents her. The debasement of Eowyn thus begins with her body. A tall slender shieldmaiden is automatically a warrior goddess and must be taken seriously as a thinking being, but a moon-faced warrior girl in puffy brown clothing is always threatening to become comical, at least in Hollywood.

The typical pattern of Jackson's Hollywoodization, as manifested in Eowyn, is a denial of Eowyn's particular dignity and power. Instead of giving us the powerful inner conflict that Tolkien presents, that everyone can relate to, that of great will and talent denied the opportunity to be used to its utmost, and thus turned inward to despair and death-seeking, Jackson simply re-creates Eowyn as the standard shallow feminist icon. In Tolkien's hands Eowyn had absolutely refused to become a cheap feminist statement:

"Lord," she said, "if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face the peril of battle."
"Your duty is with your people," he answered.
"Too often I have heard of duty," she cried. But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse?..."
"....But as for you lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord's return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no."

The issue is not Eowyn's sex, but her place in the chain of command. When Eowyn petulantly accuses Aragorn of being a chauvinist, he chooses not to reply to that, since they both know it is nonsense, instead striking to the heart of her fears of "staying behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire." The greatness of Tolkien lies in his ability to reveal the depths of his characters; their fears, desires, and loves, in ways both beautiful and tender.

Jackson naturally utterly debases this. Eowyn rides to battle, grinning, with Merry in front of her. Tolkien knew better than to depict Eowyn grinning; her power lies in her gravity and dignity. It is telling that in Tolkien Eowyn laughs only once during this sequence. In the movie she is shown as highly emotional and terrified; overcoming her fear of the Lord of the Nazgul only when she figures out that, as a woman, she has made the Witch-king vulnerable. In every way she is less of a person, and less of a character. Jackson, acting as the perfect Hollywood hack, simply lacks the grace, sensitivity, and guts to handle a grave and powerful woman.

At this point Jackson has already eviscerated the story, destroying Tolkien's incredibly cinematic climax when Rohan arrives even as the Witch-king is entering Minas Tirith to face Gandalf. In the book the Witch-king's appearance at the front is triggered by the appearance of Rohan as he enters Minas Tirith. In other words, the logic of the story dictates his attack on Theoden, which follows immediately. In the movie, no inner logic dictates the Lord of the Nazgul's appearance anywhere. He simply shows up as his army falters. Space is lacking to detail Jackson's ruthless elimination of atmospheric effects; for now we will simply note that the world stays well lit when the Lord of the Nazgul arrives.

In the book as the Nazgul descends Eowyn flays him with the most beautiful insult ever set down on paper: "Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace." But, alas, while a tall, stern warrior maid, grave and strong, could bring off a dozen lines like that before breakfast, it is simply impossible to imagine that grinning cherub, Miranda Otto, spitting out such potent words. In Tolkien the tragic power of this scene lies in Eowyn's greatness: her despairing courage, taking on a foe she cannot hope to defeat, seeking death. But in Jackson's hands all this goes by the board; Eowyn's womanhood, which in Tolkien simply daunts the Nazgul for a moment, is in the movie the reason that the Witch-King dies. There is no need for Eowyn to display high and lonely courage; it is enough that she is a woman. Thus in the film she merely needs to show up, sword in hand, a particular plumber for a particularly nasty problem with the drains. Instead of a woman of great power and beauty going to her death as a final cry of hopeless courage against the overwhelming darkness, we get one of Jackson's many cheap, cowardly betrayals of the complex individuals Tolkien created. "But I am not a man," she cries, turning the slaying of the Witch-king into a tawdry feminist statement battle-cry. In case anyone missed that Eowyn had become a cheap feminist statement, Jackson has her ram the sword into his mouth, an oral rape in reverse.

Not only are both Merry and Eowyn utterly debased by this, but Jackson has introduced a major continuity error (appropriately enough in a scene filled with minor continuity problems). Since it was not Merry who killed the Witch-King, there is now no reason to honor Merry at the end. However, it appears that Jackson is working on the George Lucas dictum that if the story moves fast enough and is full of unusual events, nobody will notice that it doesn't work any more.

The Murder of Merry
What goes for Eowyn could go for any of the other characters. Take Merry. In the book Merry says to Theoden: "As a father you shall be to me," a debt discharged at Theoden's death, where it is Merry who comforts him in his last agonies, as a good son should. In the movie that falls, incorrectly, to Eowyn. The movie Merry, posited one-dimensionally as a prankster with a certain amount of native shrewdness, has become so debased that one could hardly imagine him uttering words of such loving friendliness, and Theoden, as Jackson has made him, an aging Germanic superhero girding for one last killing, could never be the subject of such sentiments. The "kindly old man" of Tolkien who desired to sit and listen to Merry speak of pipe-lore is completely gone.

The Actualization of Aragorn and Faramir
In Aragorn Jackson presents us with the standard conflicted action hero. He doesn't know who he is and doesn't want the responsibility of being king: Hamlet, with better swordfighting skills. In the book, however, Aragorn's conflict is not reluctance to take the kingship, but the two sides of his character, one kingly, dignified, and powerful; the other, the unkempt rake and ranger who wished out loud to Frodo in Bree that someone might take him at his own estimation, and like him for who he is, not for the throne he might occupy or the powers he has. Tokien resolves this conflict neatly by giving Aragorn the reign name Telcontar, Strider, thus preserving that part of Aragorn, the one "unused to houses of stone."

Faramir was similarly debased in the standard Hollywood way, in which the character starts out as X, then undergoes epiphany -- tied to a pointless sequence in which Frodo is hauled to Osgiliath, which totally ignores the reality that Tolkien posits. The whole sequence is completely absurd, and there is no reason for Faramir to have an epiphany in Osgiliath watching Frodo suffer as Sam yells at him. The change did not add any depth to Faramir's character -- he'd have been far deeper as the strong man who said "not even if I found it on the road" and meant it. Why not simply let him go, and show Faramir as a shining example that he is in the book? But no, Jackson must make pointless and destructive changes, he can't stop himself, like a little boy who woke up and found himself on a beach full of sand castles with nobody in attendance.

The Gutting of Gimli
Most painfully for me personally, however, is the gutting of my favorite character, Gimli, pure Hollywoodization. In Hollywood difference, especially shortness, is always treated as license for being the butt of jokes. Gimli was no exception to this deep-seated prejudice. In the books Gimli is a figure of immense dignity, manifested in dour comments and grunts and silences. Pessimistic, quick to take insult, he is also passionately loyal and deeply loving. One of the most important qualities of all of Tolkien's characters is their immense capacity for love, a capacity gone from Gimli of the movie (the capacity for other than male-female love, alas, is not compatible with fantasy war movies). In the book the scene between Gimli and Galadriel is one of intense beauty, devotion, and tenderness. Her reply to Gimli's request for a strand of hair in the book, which recognizes, respects, and validates Gimli's great courtesy and honor, is removed, since it would at once turn Gimli into a complex thinking being instead of the cardboard cut-out foil Jackson desires. Instead, Galadriel simply titters like a schoolgirl. One could hardly imagine the movie Galadriel interceding with the Valar so that Jackson's Gimli could see her face one last time, and when Gimli confesses his great admiration for her in the movie, he sounds like an adolescent caught masturbating over the picture of his favorite movie

Predictably Jackson relentlessly debases the poor dwarf. It is Gimli who is always wrong in every prediction. He who is always made to look shallow and pathetic, the butt of every joke. In the useless battle against the wargs in The Two Towers it is he who is pinned beneath a dead warg. It is he who complains about being unable to run after the hobbits as fast as the elf and Aragorn, joking, you know, because short people are inevitably comical in Hollywood. In The Fellowship of the Ring Gimli is even made to say a dwarf joke, a total anachronism that wreaks havoc with the viewer's ability to suspend disbelief. As if Jackson wishes to rub our nose in the fact that he has no sense at all, Gimli is forced to utter another dwarf joke in The Two Towers. I'd write more, but the destruction of Gimli makes my heart break.

Change without Growth, Victory without Honor
Jackson's elimination of the Scouring of the Shire shows, as if any further proof were needed, that he has no feel for storytelling. Tolkien points out in his introduction that the Scouring of the Shire was inherent in the story from the outset. Indeed, the whole point of the Lord of the Rings is not the destruction of the Ring -- that is merely the action that drives the plot -- but Frodo's realizations about himself and his world, and his journey from innocence to experience. The Scouring of the Shire is the mirror that reflects Frodo's own growth, and his deeper understanding of the world. This is explained to him by none other than Saruman himself, *at his own door*, no less. "You have grown wise," Saruman hisses (the movie Saruman, eviscerated into the standard power-seeking sociopath, was hardly complex enough to utter that line). This theme of Frodo's growing wisdom is first announced by Galadriel in the book, but that line is of course eliminated by Jackson, because real growth would involve treating Frodo as a more complex person than a fantasy war movie can tolerate. Without the Scouring of the Shire, we cannot see that Frodo has grown into great wisdom and understanding. Hence the end, in which he renounces the Shire, simply appears in the movie as a deus ex machina without rhyme or reason to underlie it.

Tolkien's genteel between-wars racism was quite congenial to Hollywood's idea that the world is composed of white people who do important things and the brown people who help them. In the film almost everyone that matters has blue eyes. This is true even of Gollum, who looks more than a little like ET with those big blue eyes, wrinkled skin, and high forehead. The men of the west are all blonde and as for the elves, they are more Aryan than the Aryans. In the book, however:

They [the Quendi] were a race high and beautiful, the older Children of the world, and among them the Eldar were as kings, who are now gone: the People of the Great Journey, the People of the Stars. They were tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, *though their locks were dark*, save in the golden house of Finarfin ...

Tolkien does not tell us directly what color Legolas' hair is, so naturally, this being Hollywood, it defaulted to blonde.

Atmosphere and Background
In order to turn the trilogy from an exploration of character in the face of the corruption of unlimited power into a cheap cowardly fantasy war movie, Jackson must get rid of every piece of history, every hint of atmosphere, every clue that the world is a complex place and things go back a long ways. Gone is the age-old hatred between the men of Numenor and Sauron; there is no clue that there is a history between them. Gone too are the deep antagonisms between dwarves and elves, alluded to only in one or two lines. Defenders of Jackson cannot complain that he did not have time to explain all this; given the vast number of invented incidents, the absurdly long battle in front of Minas Tirith, and the ridiculous sequences with Arwen, there was plenty of time for historical review done by flashbacks. One would have loved to see the wave overwhelm Numenor, and Aragorn as a young man fighting under the flag of Gondor.

Also swept away is the poignant and deeply moving atmosphere of loss and melancholy that pervades Tolkien's work and lifts it above every other fantasy ever written. Such a feeling is inappropriate for a Hollywoodized fantasy war movie where the good guys must win and ultimately the future will be better than the past. In Tolkien the beings of Middle-earth all face long-term loss and decline, and the great irony of Tolkien is that victory may only make things worse. The elves are leaving. The dwarves are no longer as fertile, and cannot work metal as their forefathers did. The ents have no entwives. The lifespan of men is shortening, and their greatness diminished. Minas Tirith holds far fewer men than it once did, and the great army that marches out to confront Sauron at the gates of Mordor is but a fraction of the hosts that the great kings of Gondor once led. None of this is mentioned in the movie, except in a line or two here or there.
Of course, it goes without saying that one cannot have any sissy poetry and song in a fantasy war movie, and so that goes by the board as well. The only permissable song is either prophetic or comic, as when the hobbits sing (being short, they of course cannot be taken seriously as individuals). We get a love song from Aragorn, but significantly, not in the theatre version. Jackson apparently never imagined that people might become bored with watching yet another bad'un speared, seared, sliced, chopped, gored, stabbed, cut, slashed, hacked or otherwise killed, and long for the singing and sharing of Tolkien's world.

On a more practical level, the world of Jackson's LoTR does not work because at its base it is not believable. What do Minas Tirith, Theoden's city, the city of the elves, and Rivendell all have in common? They are isolated outposts in the wilderness, not working cities in the center of a rich hinterland. Tolkien makes it clear that Minas Tirith is a city at the head of a great civilization, and has a constant flow of refugees with loaded wagons, farms and fields, and other assorted indicators of economic complexity in his story:

"Fair and fertile terraces falling to the deep levels of the Anduin....The townlands were rich, with wide tilth and many orchards, and homesteads there were with oats and garner, fold and byre, and rills rippling through the green from the highlands down to the

Not so Jackson. Minas Tirith (for example) simply sits in a desert of green, with no human structures outside it. The viewer finds himself asking: how are these people fed? What do they buy and sell? What does this city control? Where are the roads leading in and out? What about the piles of trash? Jackson's presentation is simply not credible, just simpleminded eye candy.

Jackson also reversed another of Tolkien's most underrated features: his brilliant use of understatement. Tolkien had learned well the great power of restraint from the Germanic legends and stories (see, for example, the death of the hero Gunnar of Hliderend in Njal's Saga). The end of Sauron takes but a paragraph to narrate. The end of the battle of the Pelennor Fields, the top of a page. Boromir dies with only two lines. Not in the films. The final battle drags on and on to ever more unbelievable events, climaxed by Legolas' slaying of the oliphaunt, a hideous imitation of Luke Skywalker bringing down the Imperial Walkers. Even in individual presentation Jackson must go over the top. In Tolkien the Lord of the Nazgul carries a compact and modest mace, but Jackson gives him a massive morningstar. One can only imagine if that time and resources had been spent in telling a better story, instead of wasted killing orcs and oliphaunts.

Jackson's impoverished vision, which mirrors Hollywood's own impoverished vision of fantasy and the future, has grievously damaged this story in two vital ways. First, it has emptied the story of its many meanings and depths, its shadows and uncertainties, and presented it as simplistic fantasy war movie, leaving only a shell of the greatness of Tolkien. But even worse, by making this movie, Jackson has placed a significant roadblock in the way of someone else from taking up the franchise and doing the job right. By failing to humble himself before material that was greater than he was, Peter Jackson has succeeded where Sauron failed: he has destroyed Middle Earth.

*** out of *****

Michael Turton
[email protected]

More on 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'...

Originally posted in the newsgroup. Copyright belongs to original author unless otherwise stated. We take no responsibilities nor do we endorse the contents of this review.