I never reviewed The Politician, Ryan Murphy’s last big, melodramatic Netflix spectacle. For the record, I thought it was actually fairly good – a bit oddly paced, but not a bad series to binge-watch, and it was bolstered by a last-minute cameo from Bette Midler which served as setup for that series’ upcoming second season. But I made the choice not to officially review it, and, occasionally, I regret that decision. I will not make that same mistake with Murphy’s Hollywood, all seven episodes of which dropped on the streaming service yesterday. And that’s because Hollywood isn’t just a soapy drama about cutthroat political activists trying to outsmart each other in a Californian college campus Game Of Thrones – it actually is saying something. It has a hard time saying that something, a lot of the time, and it basically takes a sledgehammer to its own message, but it is trying. It is important, which The Politican never was, in my opinion.
It’d be hard to miss what that something is, to be quite clear, considering that, to put it nicely, the story’s themes are unmistakably interwoven into the plot (to put it not quite so nicely, the theme is a giant neon sign flashing in your face every couple of seconds, from beginning until end). It’s a good theme, thankfully: basically boiling down to the idea that movies and media can change the world, and that that’s why representation in those areas matters, because introducing audiences to what they would think of as “radical” ideas – such as, for instance, a black actress starring in a Hollywood blockbuster, or two men walking down the Oscars red carpet hand-in-hand – can help, subtly, to undermine bigotry and forms of prejudice wherever they lurk. In fact, it’s a really good theme – representation is something I have always tried to fight for, using what little platform I have, because I too understand the power of movies and TV. It’s the way in which Murphy goes about expressing this theme – by looking at an alternate reality in which a small group of diverse, idealistic dreamers and free-thinkers worked to radically change the structure of Hollywood in the late 1940’s or early 50’s, placing women, LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color in charge of the corrupt studio system – that can feel uncomfortably idealistic, as if Murphy is diminishing the stories of the real-life heroes and heroines who fought for social justice and equality in favor of his fictional cast. Murphy does get it right on multiple occasions, but it’s a very mixed bag, as you’ll see.
The series’ greatest asset is its all-star cast, which makes it ironic that its greatest weakness is its refusal to trust in their talents. Instead, an all-too-large number of scenes lean on clunky, hammy dialogue and monologuing, even though the actors delivering said dialogue are perfectly capable of conveying what they’re being asked to say with simple looks and gestures. Murphy’s fictional cast got the memo – one character in the show even directs her star to act with his eyes rather than using excessive hand-flailing – but somehow his real cast didn’t. For instance, one particularly cringy scene (which, let me emphasize, is cringy not because of what’s being said, but because of how it’s being said) involves a main character, black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) turning to her white costar Claire Wood (Samara Weaving) and telling her “I don’t need you to fight my battles for me”, after experiencing racism from an auditorium usher. Such a sentiment could easily have been spoken with a single, meaningful glance: but the unnecessarily stilted language makes the scene fall flat, meaning that the good message gets lost or overshadowed. Far more powerful are the tense, largely silent scenes of diverse families across America tuning into an Oscars ceremony via radio to hear the winners announced, waiting through long lists of nominees (something Murphy gets right is poking fun at the ceremony for its excessive length and slow, pondering pace) to hear the names of their favorite movie-stars.
Speaking of the stars, let’s talk about them. David Corenswet’s Jack Castello, despite being a lovable and charming character, is, as a straight white male, probably not the best choice to lead a series that (a) aims to be all about diversity, and (b) has plenty of diverse supporting talent who could easily have been upped to the lead role: Laura Harrier, for instance, is often sidelined despite having the intriguing responsibility of playing a character playing a character playing a character, and many of her most exciting opportunities for development never even happen on camera – for instance, Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) counsels the young actress at one point to fight a tooth-and-nails campaign for her first Academy Award, which sounds like it would be a lot of fun to watch and pretty empowering: but we never see it. Michelle Krusiec plays Anna May Wong, a Chinese actress who, in real life, lost out on a pivotal lead role in The Good Earth to a white actress who would go on to win an Oscar for the part: Krusiec’s take on the historical figure is promising in the first couple of episodes, and she’s set up to be a major character – but then she just disappears into the background cast. Other members of the ensemble include Darren Criss as white-passing, half-Filipino director Raymond Ainsley; Jeremy Pope as an idealistic young black, gay screenwriter named Archie Coleman; Jake Picking as closeted gay actor Rock Hudson; and Patti LuPone as Avis Amberg, the Jewish wife of a movie mogul (played by Rob Reiner in just three epiodes) who unwillingly settles into a position of power after her husband has a heart attack, only to discover she has a talent for business – Amberg’s small group of advisors, most notably Joe Mantello’s Dick and Holland Taylor’s Ellen Kincaid, are also lovely additions to the cast, and bring a good deal of genuine warmth and good-natured humor to the series. But I’d be lying if I said that one of my favorite cameos, for purely personal reasons, wasn’t an unexpected performance by The Lord Of The Rings‘ Billy Boyd as one of many closeted gay film executives at a party where we also meet notable Hollywood celebrities such as Tallulah Bankhead and Vivien Leigh (the former portrayed as flighty and fun-loving, the latter as a woman struggling with bipolar disorder).
So the cast is fantastic, of course. So is the series’ production design, costume design, cinematography – everything feels historically accurate…well, except for the actual story. If you ignore everything else, the series is actually a really fun look into the workings of the studio system, and what went into the casting process, and the making of movies. And there’s plenty of fun references to contemporary events and characters – one character derides Disney’s Song Of The South for its racist overtones; we meet the editor who secretly stowed away a copy of The Wizard Of Oz with the iconic “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” musical number intact after a producer insisted it be cut from the film; former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris) shows up to make a characteristically memorable speech; the movie that Raymond Ainsley and his crew are making is a story about Peg Entwistle, an actress who committed suicide by throwing herself from the H in the Hollywoodland sign – though I find it very strange that, despite how prominent the story is and how frequently it gets referenced, despite the fact that the movie crew even builds a giant version of the H for their film set, despite the fact that the series intro even features all the main cast frantically climbing the Hollywoodland sign…in all seven episodes, no one actually attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the H. They build the entire set, and no one so much as threatens to climb to the top. I call that a wasted opportunity.
But now for the bad. In any story about Hollywood, #MeToo issues have to be brought up, and this series has a peculiar, even disturbing way of handling them. Jim Parsons delivers an unquestionably good performance as predatory talent manager Henry Willson, but that’s also part of the problem – he is unquestionably good. No matter how many times he sexually assaults and abuses his clients, manipulating, demeaning and blackmailing them, preying on people powerless to stop him, he is always portrayed as a good character, someone who finds himself on the right side of history because…why? Because he has a sob story that he monologues to Rock Hudson? Is that seriously all he had to redeem himself? Not to give away too many spoilers, but the fact that this series has the audacity to end with the resolution of Henry Willson’s storyline is repugnant: did no one behind the scenes think about what they were doing? Did no one stop and realize that the series cast also includes Mira Sorvino, herself an outspoken victim of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein? Did no one think before making Henry Willson a major, sympathetic, character in a story about fighting Hollywood’s corrupt system? The fact that the jury is (at least according to some historians) still out on whether or not the real Willson actually abused his clients possibly makes it even worse: because that means Murphy made the choice to depict Willson a sexual predator in his series, and still decided to redeem him.
It’s an especially upsetting situation sad because so much of Hollywood is actually good and important: especially right now, with setbacks occurring every day. Representation in mainstream media is crucial, if we are to progress as a society – watching Hollywood reminded me of that, not only because we need more quality content with messages like the one in this series, but also because we need more quality content that doesn’t willfully undermine its own message by inexcusably apologizing for sexual abusers.
We’ve gotten to the point where a black woman can, potentially, win the Oscar for Best Lead Actress in a major studio production – but only one, Halle Berry, ever has, in the ceremony’s entire history. We still have a long way to go before it happens again, and I don’t know if a romanticized, fictionalized look into the past is the best way to ensure that it ever will.
Happy Hobbit Day to all of my readers! Today, we celebrate the shared birthdays of hobbit heroes Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, chief protagonists of the fictional world of Middle-earth (you know, unless you’re counting the heroes of TheSilmarillion, like Beren, Tuor, Húrin and Túrin, Lúthien Tinúviel, Eärendil, and so on). And because this is a movie blog, and not a book blog, I will be discussing The Lord Of The Rings movies rather than The Lord of the Rings novels in this post. Typically, I would only consider writing an extensively long post about a movie I disliked, but I have so much to say about these films, and so much of it is good (actually, almost all of it is good).
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, the third film in the classic trilogy, is currently available to stream on Netflix: here’s my review. I’m not going to be doing my usual hardcore fan-frenzy, where everything I write about the trilogy is unintelligible screaming, sobbing and wailing. Instead, I am going to write about the movie in a clear, concise way – with only a minimal amount of sobbing.
That’s going to be an increasingly difficult feat, I’m sure.
So we come to it, the final installment of Peter Jackson’s massive three-part cinematic masterpiece. Return Of The King is most beloved by the industry, which looks at its 11 Oscar wins and billion-dollar box-office intake, and most harshly critiqued by the fandom, who point out some of Jackson’s most egregious changes to the canon yet. As with all the Middle-earth films (except The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies), I cherish this one unconditionally, but I will admit that…well, it has some of the best moments in the trilogy, and some of the worst. It’s probably got the worst pacing in the trilogy, though that’s very much due to the fact that Jackson was trying to wrestle a non-linear story with about a dozen subplots and converging story threads into a cohesive whole that also had to have a clear three-act structure despite the fact that…well, it doesn’t have one – to an outside viewer, unfamiliar with the world of Middle-earth, the film probably looks like a mess. And it is messy in parts, but the messiness is only an obstacle: Jackson works through it in the second act and delivers a crowd-pleasing, rousing finale…and then a second one…and then a third one, and this one is really good…and then one last one, emotional, intense, pulled bravely from the page to the screen with few alterations. See what I mean when I refer to messiness? To us fans, each of those endings are necessary parts of the story: to the film’s (admittedly few) detractors, they were overly long and drawn out, and also too weird for general audiences – why was the hero leaving on some boat? Where was he going? Was he dead?
But, in true Tolkienesque style, it was The Return Of The King, defying all odds, which swept into awards season like a juggernaut with one of the most determined Oscar campaigns ever run: winning (among others) three Golden Globes; one Screen Actors Guild Award for an outstanding ensemble cast; five BAFTA awards; the MTV award for Best Movie; a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award; a Directors Guild of America Award; a Producers Guild of America award; the New York Film Critics Circle Award; the Saturn Award for Best Director; and sweeping the Oscars clean, winning in every category it was nominated, including Best Director, and, of course, Best Picture. It was the first time a fantasy film had ever won that highest honor in Hollywood: it was a landmark moment in the history of genre filmmaking – and yet, we tend to overlook how important it was for filmmaking in general. Lots of attention is lavished on King‘s importance for fantasy, for its influence on the growing number of fantasy adaptations these days, for its effect on popular culture. In so doing, we often overlook the fact that it is, in fact, a great movie on its own, even separate from the genre that birthed it (or that it birthed). Yes, it has magic rings and monsters, but it also has a compelling and thought-provoking story, powerful themes, incredible acting, brilliant directing, cinematography and production design, and all the hallmarks of an instant classic. And yes, it did indeed kick-start 21st Century fantasy, but it’s the film that launched a thousand careers: Weta Digital is one of the world’s leading digital effects companies because of their recognition at the Academy Awards; Cate Blanchett is a two-time Academy Award-winner today partly because of the global recognition she gained from Lord Of The Rings, and Viggo Mortensen is a three-time nominee; Andy Serkis is the world’s pre-eminent expert on motion capture CGI because he was Gollum (and still gets plenty of work just by parodying his own performance); Middle-earth was New Line’s biggest and most successful franchise for years, and still is one of Warner Brothers’ most treasured; and in one case of the movie basically finishing a career, Peter Jackson is now wealthy enough and respected enough to be able to pull a George Lucas and disappear from the film scene almost entirely.
So let’s talk about the movie now, shall we? I could lecture about its impact on the world, on our culture, on society, for hours and hours, but I really can’t wait another moment to talk about the movie’s brilliance.
Any discussion of Return Of The King, in my opinion, has to begin with discussion of the only aspect that was criminally overlooked by the Oscars: the amazing contributions of the actors in front of the camera. And none more so than Elijah Wood, the “hero” of the piece: gifted with porcelain features and ice-blue eyes, the young actor has always been demeaned for his appearance, with critics saying he looked too inexperienced and immature for the role of Frodo Baggins, the rosy-cheeked hobbit who, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novels, is 33 when he stops aging. In response, the film’s defenders come up with hugely detailed essays on the exact science of hobbit aging, which we won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that, even if Wood isn’t the “right” age to play Tolkien’s Frodo, he’s the perfect age to play Jackson’s – and honestly, he resembles an archetype that Tolkien himself was familiar with: the fair young boy who appears in Germanic legend to bring prosperity, peace, and justice to the land, before returning into a divine abode. Wood may not have known about that, but he plays it beautifully: he is almost too pure for this world, and I mean that literally – an innocent hobbit, frozen on the threshold of adulthood, breaking under the strain of dark forces too great for him to control. The toll of the One Ring on him is the mysterious, incurable wound that heroes often suffer in myth and lore: a wound from which, as Frodo himself says, “there is no going back”.
But even though Frodo eventually fails to destroy the One Ring, and instead tries (unsuccessfully) to claim it for his own, he still achieves a great victory on Mount Doom, one which Peter Jackson has invented, but which is nonetheless a beautiful, touching moment. Just as Boromir (Sean Bean) overcame the temptation of the Ring and valiantly sacrificed himself for his friends in The Fellowship Of The Ring, Frodo here is faced with a choice: after the wicked Gollum (Andy Serkis) bites off his finger and takes the Ring for his own, Frodo leaps at him in a blind rage, pushing himself and the giddily-dancing Gollum off the edge of the cliff. While Gollum is too dizzy with glee to notice that he is falling, Frodo has wits enough to grab hold of the rock before he can tumble into the fires of the Mountain. We watch as Gollum sinks, blissfully, into the heart of the volcano, but the Ring stays afloat on the red-hot lava: the Ring itself has no power over its own fate anymore – it will perish, it knows that – but it still has power over the last ringbearer: in the trilogy’s most terrifying moment, Frodo stares down into the flames, and we can read in Elijah’s eyes the hard choice that he must make: all he has to do is let go of the cliff, fall into the fire, clasp the Ring one last time, feel that golden drug again, die in the embrace of Mount Doom, safe with his Precious. He seems deaf to the pleas of his friend Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), who begs him to take his hand, to come back. And Frodo chooses: he raises his gaze to Sam’s face, reaches out his hand, and climbs back up the cliff, redeeming himself and breaking the power of the Ring: all while the Ring is still alive. That is what is truly crucial to the whole scene – Frodo could have leaped, abandoning this cruel world and its torments, but he does not. As he struggles back up onto the solid ground, the Ring finally melts away into oblivion. And it is Elijah Wood who sells that scene: eyes reflecting the gold of the Mountain’s flames, maimed hand bleeding, hope ebbing from his fragile body; and an unquenchable hobbit spirit that rises up in that final moment, vanquishing the darkness within him. The man is an incredible actor, and the fact that he has barely gotten any work since the trilogy is heartbreaking.
And, for what feels like the first time, I have to give praise to Sean Astin as well, who transforms into an absolute powerhouse in the film’s third act: throughout the first part of the film, he’s at an all-time low, and Samwise is an almost unbearably annoying character, but Astin lets himself go wild toward the end of the movie, as Sam’s heart hardens against the obstacles that Mordor throws at them, as he survives through the sheer power of his love for Frodo and his desperate hope to see the Shire again. His speech to Frodo on the slopes of the Mountain, as they climb, exhausted, toward the fiery chasm, is inspirational and heart-warming: I can even excuse Astin’s line delivery on “Let us be rid of it!”, just barely, because of how passionate he is in that scene. But I do still have to disagree with those who claimed that Astin deserved to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor: you simply can’t nominate him, and not Elijah Wood, who gives a consistently excellent performance.
If anybody from King deserved a Supporting Actor nomination, it really should have been Billy Boyd. His performance as Pippin Took is one of the most exciting revelations in the entire film: in Fellowship, he was comic relief; in Two Towers, he was barely passable as a character with actual agency; but here, separated at last from his better half, Merry, Boyd proves definitively that he is the better half. While Merry Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) sinks into obscurity for much of the movie’s run-time, Boyd’s Pippin vociferously devours every scene he’s in, even stealing the spotlight from Ian McKellen on numerous occasions (no easy feat). Frightened and alone in the city of Minas Tirith, Pippin acts out at first, rebelling against Gandalf’s orders by swearing fealty to Gondor: but he soon learns that his position is not merely ceremonial, as he is expected to aid in the last, hopeless defense of the kingdom’s supposedly unbreachable walls. Faced with the overwhelming prospect of certain death, and the agony that grief and depression can cause, Pippin refuses to be bowed down, even as circumstances grow more and more evil: when he sees the Steward of the City about to burn his son alive (long story), he moves on instinct, racing to save his friend, screaming and struggling as he is dragged away from the pyre. “He’s not dead! He’s not dead!” His screams reverberate in your ears, and you can’t help but feel his raw horror at what is unfolding before him, so alien to his hobbit eyes. His conversation with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shortly afterwards, about death and what waits in the afterlife, is heartbreaking: Pippin, whom J.R.R. Tolkien himself called the most cowardly of the hobbits, is no longer afraid of death – instead, he welcomes the thought of leaving the world behind, of flying far away to that far green country under a swift sunrise.
Boyd also displays some incredible physical acting in a scene early in the film’s run-time, when he looks into the magical seeing orb, or palantír, of Isengard, and becomes enraptured by the fiery Eye of Sauron: Jackson makes a mistake filming portions of the scene in slow-motion, because Boyd’s frantic writhing and contortions are much more terrifying in real time. Never one to miss out on the fun, Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn also grabs the crystal ball for a moment and gets to show off some of his own skill at falling and going limp, in an uncharacteristic moment for the composed son of kings.
Speaking of which, Viggo’s acting throughout the film is what saves Aragorn, whose character’s backstory becomes more convoluted by the minute, from becoming a total enigma to the audience. In the first two movies, his whole story seems pretty simple: he’s the heir to the throne of Gondor. But I can only imagine how confused general audiences must be when Return Of The King rolls around, and the movie throws in a whole bunch of new elements, without explaining any of them in adequate detail: the Stewards of Gondor, the mysterious White Tree, the idea that Aragorn actually doesn’t come from Gondor, but from a different lineage, one which Denethor (John Noble) scornfully calls “a house long bereft of lordship”, not to mention the whole story of Isildur and the Paths of the Dead – to add to the confusion, Isildur is mistakenly referred to as the last king of Gondor by Legolas (Orlando Bloom), everybody’s favorite master of misdirection. Nevertheless, Viggo is still a joy to watch, and his performance is captivating: he never quite surpasses his work on Fellowship, but some of his finest moments here come close – particularly his crowd-pleasing speech at the Black Gate, rallying the Men of the West to stand: “This day we fight!”
Not everyone has the privilege of being Viggo Mortensen though (imagine if we all could be: what a world that would be). The first act of the movie is rich in detail, extremely complex, and all very good: but it ultimately sets up more story threads than can logically be explored and tied together in the theatrical editions: the palantír is a good example of this – first introduced in Fellowship, the sphere has little purpose there except as a telecommunications device for Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Sauron. But in the first few scenes of Return Of The King it takes on much greater significance: it catches Pippin’s eye immediately amongst all the wreckage of Isengard, and Gandalf takes it and hoards it away, allowing the mystery even more time to simmer. When Pippin steals it from Gandalf in Edoras and looks into it, an entirely new subplot is set up that goes nowhere: Pippin and Sauron seem to develop some sort of connection, and Merry tells Pippin bluntly that Sauron now thinks he has the One Ring, and will come for him. And yet, by the time Gandalf and Pippin have reached Minas Tirith, everybody has forgotten this fact, and the palantír is never mentioned or seen again…unless you watch the Extended Editions, where Aragorn uses it to contact Sauron and draw his eye away from Mordor before the Battle of the Black Gate in a crucial scene that should never have been left on the cutting room floor. As another example, there’s the Corsairs of Umbar: they’re referenced by Gandalf in some sort of weird, offhand prophecy, and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) tells Aragorn to go to the River Anduin and stop them before they reach Gondor. To do that, Aragorn has to take the Paths of the Dead, which is a hugely important part of the movie and takes up a good deal of screentime: but then cuts away just before the Dead swear allegiance to Aragorn. And when we finally see Aragorn again, what feels like an eternity later, he’s already defeated the Corsairs, and the army of the Dead (or, the army of CGI green soap-bubbles, as I’ve heard them referred to) is fighting for him. Incidentally, this is almost exactly how Tolkien himself handled the storyline in his novel (minus the soap-bubble ghosts), but even he knew that it wasn’t the best option at his disposal, and contemplated rewriting it many times. And again, this is something Jackson did better in the Extended Editions.
So why aren’t I reviewing those, you ask? Well, several reasons: firstly, because they’re intended specifically for hardcore Tolkien fans, and aren’t as accessible to general audiences who don’t know anything about Beren and Lúthien, or the huorns of Fangorn, or what the evening-star signifies in Tolkien’s mythos, etc, as the theatrical editions are; secondly, they have multiple pacing issues of their own, with King‘s Extended Edition alone adding a whopping 51 minutes to the film’s three-hour runtime, most of which is additional backstory, exposition, and scenes from the novel that wouldn’t have fit in the movie; thirdly, they aren’t the original movies that opened in theaters, won over critics and fans alike, and swept through the Oscars like a hot knife through butter – they’re cool add-ons to satisfy a few more purists; and finally, they are, as already noted, much longer, and a much bigger commitment for both me and you. Maybe next year.
One area in which the Extended Editions are a great help, however, is with Denethor and Faramir (David Wenham), who are weak links in this great story: viewers who have only seen The Two Towers and not the subsequently added footage will still find it hard to relate to Faramir, whom they last saw as a villain, trying to waylay Frodo’s quest. At least until they finally get to see his father, Denethor, the Steward of Gondor; a delusional, despotic sociopath, hanging onto his rule by a thread, barely concealing his disgust at the thought of a King ever returning to Gondor – though, as I said, it’s never actually explained why Aragorn was in exile to begin with, and how this sad excuse for a man ever got in power. Denethor is utterly dehumanized, feasting on meats and blood-red fruit while his men perish in a massacre he staged to prove a point, and is seen trying to prevent Rohan from helping Gondor and then blaming them for not coming anyway (at which point Gandalf goes behind his back and lights the beacons calling for aid), trying to inspire cowardice and panic in his loyal soldiers (at which point Gandalf knocks him out), and trying to burn his own son alive (at which point Gandalf pushes him into the flames). Denethor dies as pathetically as he lived, a screaming fireball leaping from the parapets of Minas Tirith while Gandalf watches passively. And yes, every book fan knows that Gandalf and Denethor despised each other, but it’s a bad look for the White Wizard to have him basically murder the Steward of Gondor (though, in his defense, it was to save Pippin). John Noble’s portrayal of the Steward is, however, so slimy and distasteful that it’s hard not to applaud Gandalf’s choice: at least until you remember that Denethor in the books is a well fleshed-out character with deep psychological motivations and a cool, calculating mind.
This leads perfectly into a thorny subject: Jackson’s occasional decisions made in poor taste. The death of Denethor, robbed of its power, changed to be more “cool” onscreen, is only one example of this: another would be Jackson’s affinity for momentarily dramatic scenarios in which we find heroes doubting whether they should help their friends out of an incredibly dangerous situation for literally no reason – usually, only for about 0.1 seconds, which makes the “drama” even more grating and unnecessary. For instance, Théoden (Bernard Hill) claiming that Rohan shouldn’t ride to the aid of Gondor because Gondor didn’t send reinforcements to Helm’s Deep: I’d like to point out again that it would have been impossible for Gondor’s armies to get there in time, even if they had wanted to, but either way, it’s no excuse not to save the world. Or how about the King of the Dead laughing at Aragorn’s claim that he is the true heir to the throne of Gondor? The King of the Dead is eternally bound to Isildur and his bloodline: he would know better than anyone if Aragorn is telling the truth. Or, most insignificant of all, Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) having the audacity to claim, after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, that they should end the war, and leave Sauron to rot in Mordor, despite all the evidence that this is a phenomenally bad idea (a claim made somehow worse by Gimli being seated disrespectfully in the Steward’s seat while saying these words).
Any or all of these would be tolerable – if the same didn’t also happen to Frodo and Sam, in the most worthless, idiotic scene in the trilogy. Apparently convinced by Gollum (Gollum, of all people!) that Sam is stealing food (food that Frodo wasn’t eating anyway), Frodo freaks out at his best friend: and Sam makes the situation infinitely worse by telling Frodo that he’d be happy to carry the Ring for Frodo, if it would help. No, you ninnyhammer, it would not help! And just to make the scene worse, Jackson employs an extreme close-up shot of Sam’s lips saying “I can share the load” in slow-motion – and echoing! The whole effect is bizarre and almost unintentionally hilarious, as Frodo promptly screams at Sam to go away and return to the Shire. “Go home!” Seriously, does he actually think that’s possible at this point? And after breaking down in tears, Sam gets up – and starts going home. Even though he knows that his best friend is caught in Gollum’s grip, and is now entirely alone and helpless, the loyal Samwise turns tail and starts heading back down the stairs of Cirith Ungol, only to make up his mind at the last moment that, you know, maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.
This scene is the lowest low in the trilogy, and it’s mercifully brief, but the damage is done. Perhaps worst of all, it renders Gollum weak: in Two Towers, he is cunning, crafty, and the war between his split personalities makes it impossible to figure out what he’s doing – but here, his plan to separate trusting Frodo from suspicious Samwise is laid bare to the audience in real-time, losing the element of suspense and surprise. And his plan is clumsy, anyway: instead of trying to frame Sam for eating too much lembas, Gollum could at least have staged some sort of scenario where Sam actually tried to take the Ring. As it is, his plan relies mostly on chance and incredibly good timing. And having Frodo abandon Sam halfway up the Stairs of Cirith Ungol also makes it unclear why Gollum even needs to bring Frodo into Shelob’s Lair – with Sam gone, why not just kill Frodo right then and there and be done with it? It’s one of Jackson’s worst offenses, and certainly his most unforgivable.
But enough of the bad! Let’s run over a few of Jackson’s most brilliant choices real quick: the battle sequences being the most obvious. I know that I, at least, have a hard time restraining myself from yelling the war-cry of the Rohirrim when the first light of dawn breaks over the Pelennor Fields, slowly illuminating rank upon rank of the Riders of Rohan (in a scene lifted almost verbatim from the book, minus the rooster). And I still feel a chill when Grond, the war-hammer of Mordor, comes rolling across the plain, accompanied by chanting orcs, while Gandalf’s eyes widen in horror (another nod to the book, as Gandalf recognizes the name of Grond as that of the weapon of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord of Middle-earth). The incredible height of Minas Tirith, and the camera-angles which Jackson uses to emphasize that height, and the height of the siege-towers and hulking Mûmakil are awe-inspiring – everything is big on the battlefield: the trebuchets tumbling from towers and ruined walls, the flying rocks and missiles in the air, the fell beasts sweeping low over the city’s streets and battlements like vast black fighter planes. And, of course, the small, intimate moments: the death of Théoden in the arms of his niece, Éowyn (Miranda Otto), herself fresh from a miraculous triumph against the Witch-King of Angmar – or the reunion of Merry and Pippin in the cold evening, while the “Shire Theme” whispers in the air, reminding us of what’s at stake.
Howard Shore’s score, as always, is one of the main reasons to watch the films in the first place: his stand-out compositions for King include “Gondor In Ascension”, which ripples majestically down the sun-washed walls of Minas Tirith as Gandalf and Pippin first look upon the city; “Shelob’s Theme”, terrifying and psychedelic, reflecting Frodo’s panic as he stumbles through web-choked tunnels and pits filled with corpses; “The Rohan Fanfare”, employing Shore’s beloved Hardanger fiddle; and, of course, “Into The West”, the emotional lament which accompanies Gandalf’s speech about death, and also plays over the film’s closing credits, beautifully performed by Annie Lennox: the song’s lyrics, written presumably from Sam’s point of view, speak of meeting Frodo again in a far away place beyond the sea, where all pain and grief are healed.
The Return Of The King is a story of that pain, which cannot be eased in this mortal life: it is about losing something, making the ultimate sacrifice, so that others may prosper; it is about the valiance and bravery of men and women who risk their lives to keep others safe, to protect something, something worth fighting for. It is about the choices we make in this life, to make sure that those who come after won’t have to make those same choices. It is about Théoden, an old man on the edge of death, dying to save a world he will never know. It is about Aragorn, entering the abode of the dead and righting the wrongs of his ancestors, for his love, and about Arwen giving up the gift of her immortality in exchange for a single life with hers. Éowyn’s sacrifice is for her uncle, and Merry’s for Éowyn; Faramir for his father, and Pippin for Faramir, as payment of a debt owed to Boromir, who lost his life defending Pippin and Merry; Sam for Frodo, and Frodo, ultimately, for the world.
Detractors talk about how not enough characters die in Middle-earth, and thus the stakes are too low. These people have (a) not read The Silmarillion, in which everybody dies, and (b) are also unable to understand that, in Tolkien’s world, death is not an evil. It is a gift to the human race – it is even envied by some of the immortal Elven-folk, who must waste away in a lonely earth for all eternity. Death is something we all need to embrace and accept (unless you want to go all Númenórean, in which case: good luck). It is, in fact, only a challenge to those who are alive: we have a short span of time in which to change the world, to begin something that can outlast and outlive us, to save the proverbial Shire – but not for ourselves. Tolkien and Jackson both say the same thing, and their message is clear: don’t waste what you have been given. Cherish your life, your earth, and your time, and use well the days, my friend.
And don’t worry – someday we’ll all be able to board the grey ships of the Elves, ride the singing waves out into the sunset, and take our own paths into the West.
Happy Hobbit Day to all of my readers! Today, we celebrate the shared birthdays of hobbit heroes Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, chief protagonists of the fictional world of Middle-earth (you know, unless you’re counting the heroes of TheSilmarillion, like Beren, Tuor, Húrin and Túrin, Lúthien Tinúviel, Eärendil, and so on). And because this is a movie blog, and not a book blog, I will be discussing The Lord Of The Rings movies rather than The Lord of the Rings novels in this post. Typically, I would only consider writing an extensively long post about a movie I disliked, but I have so much to say about these films, and so much of it is good (actually, almost all of it is good).
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, the first film in the classic trilogy, is the only one of the trilogy not to find a temporary home on Netflix this month, so you’ll have to purchase or rent it elsewhere if you want to watch it: here’s my review. I’m not going to be doing my usual hardcore fan-frenzy, where everything I write about the trilogy is unintelligible screaming, sobbing and wailing. Instead, I am going to write about the movie in a clear, concise way – with only a minimal amount of sobbing.
To understand The Fellowship Of The Ring, and its place of pride in modern film history, you need to understand what it was at the time it first released in theaters on December 19th, 2001. Nothing like it had ever been done before – and to this day it is still regarded as a monumental achievement. When New Zealand native Peter Jackson, best known for low-budget horror films (and putting Kate Winslet on the map with Heavenly Creatures), was put in command of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, outside viewers were almost unanimous in their condemnation of the undertaking. It seemed impossible that someone with such an uneven and unpredictable track record of small-scale hits and misses could possibly succeed in adapting English author J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive fantasy novel to the big screen: Jackson wasn’t merely being asked to direct a film; he was being asked to helm a trilogy of massive three-hour long movies, which had to be shot simultaneously in his thoroughly unprepared home country, with a combined budget of $281 million dollars: a trilogy that was already a huge gamble for New Line Cinemas, after a tiresome war with Miramax for the film rights.
But instead of bowing to the insane pressure, Jackson and his crew rose to the challenge, turning the sleepy city of Wellington into a movie-making capital; transforming a rag-tag ensemble cast into award-winning celebrities; developing groundbreaking technology that had only been dreamed of previously, in order to perfectly realize the fantasy world of Middle-earth onscreen. From 1997 to 2004, Jackson’s team struggled against unimaginable obstacles, such as studio interference, harsh weather conditions, miscasting, injuries, and even burning birthday-cakes, to bring the series to the screen: with a vast fanbase of Tolkien loyalists watching their every move, sometimes literally spying on their filming locations, Jackson’s team were expected to deliver a final product that was faithful enough to the source material, while also making the film accessible to general audiences. The payoff was beyond rewarding: when Fellowship Of The Ring premiered, it was an instant box-office, critical and pop culture sensation, becoming the fifth grossing film of all time for a while, garnering a 91% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and universal acclaim from critics, and being recognized as one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. It also significantly impacted the economy of New Zealand and made the country a flourishing tourist destination, so it can put that on its resume as well. And, looking at the bigger picture, it reshaped the entire fantasy genre, whether on the screen or on the page, for years to come: all of the dozens of fantasy adaptations coming out in the next few years owe something to Peter Jackson – largely because of his unprecedented decision to make Middle-earth feel like historical fiction, fantasy is no longer synonymous with the cheesy, exaggerated sword-and-sorcery movies of the 80’s and 90’s, but is instead one of the most revered genres of art in Hollywood today, and one that continues to rake in mountains of cash: so much so that Amazon Prime Video is making their own prequel to the series, which will be a similarly-daunting, if rather more organized, task – with a budget nearing $1 billion dollars, that series is expected to be the most expensive show ever produced: another win for the Middle-earth franchise that all began with Fellowship.
So why did Fellowship strike a chord with viewers, soften the harsh hearts of critics, and unite almost all book purists and revisionists in a shared love for Jackson’s vision? Because it’s a great movie, that’s why.
Fellowship is based on a novel, one of the best ever written (in my very biased opinion), and hews closer to the source material than either of its sequels, or the Hobbit movies which followed later. In Fellowship, we can see Jackson, still hesitant about making major changes to book canon, using what he has and expanding upon it with truly incredible results: there are few of the wholly new characters and subplots that emerged later – rather, there are small additions to the lore, minor alterations, and some significant divergences that feel entirely at home in Tolkien’s world, nonetheless. There are missteps, and I’ll discuss them, but for the most part Fellowship doesn’t just resemble the classic 1954 novel, but its story structure is strongly evocative of a novel’s pacing, and layout. Let us examine: Fellowship, the movie, is essentially split into three parts, each roughly an hour long.
The first hour of the film is slow, laced with a brooding suspense: it builds up a mystery of epic proportions, but makes it feel small-scale and intimate at first, allowing us just enough time to get to know our team of furry-footed hobbit protagonists in the warm, hazy environs of Hobbiton – before upping the ante and slowly weaving more and more high-stakes danger into the mix: the One Ring, just a glimpse of gold; the namedrop of Sauron; hints of the miserable creature Gollum (Andy Serkis); all of this while we’re supposedly just enjoying a birthday-party with Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his large family of nosy busybodies, rosy-cheeked gardeners and Proudfeet. But the mystery is constantly boiling up in the background: it grows in size, soon ensnaring Bilbo’s nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). Suddenly, cheerful Hobbiton is no longer bright and sunny: the lighting shifts, becoming moody and atmospheric, almost reminiscent of film noir; or maybe that’s just the giant smoke-ring clouds drifting lazily through the air. Half an hour in, and Frodo is on the move, after learning that he possesses the weapon of the Enemy. The music shivers quietly with anticipation, foreshadowing grander themes to come. We meet Frodo’s friends, Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippin (Billy Boyd). The Black Rider appears in the Shire, and nearly catches Frodo as he feels the temptation of the Ring for the first time. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is captured by his nemesis, Saruman (Christopher Lee), and imprisoned in a vast darkness speckled with the fires of burning trees and the glow of underground forges. Frodo and company arrive in the town of Bree, hoping to find Gandalf waiting: but all they find are strange, watchful men and tidings of the Black Riders that have arrived before them. This first hour concludes with two major events: Frodo putting on the Ring for the first time and seeing the Eye of Sauron, his enemy, wreathed in fire, piercing through mind and flesh – and his meeting, immediately after, with the hooded ranger Strider (Viggo Mortensen), who offers to help him: and then, ever so gracefully, eases into the next hour with Saruman’s monologue about creating an army worthy of Mordor, an army of orcs and gnashing steel; while, imprisoned on the tower above him, Gandalf seeks a way of escape. That first hour could be an entire movie in itself, it’s so well crafted: building the mystery, heightening the tension, constantly keeping our protagonists on their toes, uncertain and doubtful of their choices, is a brilliant move.
In the second hour, the mystery moves to the back-burner: the Ring, having done what it needed to do, is largely hidden away now, ever present but concealed, a lurking threat – delaying the inevitable, Frodo keeps it out of sight, but in those rare moments where it is revealed, the results are disastrous: the Witch-King is made aware of it, and stabs Frodo, nearly killing him; Bilbo sees it in Rivendell for only a moment, and nearly attacks Frodo in a blind rage at seeing it worn by another; Boromir (Sean Bean) sees it twice, and handles it once, and that is enough to drive him into torment and madness; it nearly destroys the Council of Elrond. But while it is not less of a threat, it is less obvious than those presented by physical enemies: the second hour opens with the battle on Weathertop, and moves on through an epic fight at the fords of Bruinen to the high and lofty citadel of the Elven folk: nothing is simple anymore, and the hobbits are out of their element, surrounded by characters who are almost archetypes – Strider’s real name is revealed to be Aragorn, and he sheds his well-worn gear for more noble attire: we learn of his lineage, and his chivalrous romance with Arwen (Liv Tyler), the Evenstar of her people. Gandalf escapes from Saruman’s clutches, riding a literal eagle, and soars across panoramic mountains. The mood and atmosphere change again, and the world seems bathed in light – the music swells and exchanges the domestic for the grandiose. We move through landscapes straight out of a nature documentary, and into the vast caverns of the Dwarves, realized in vivid CGI. But in this huge world, it is Gandalf who brings us back down to earth as the second hour closes, in his whispered conversations with Frodo in the Mines of Moria, and his heroic self-sacrifice to save the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo himself is nearly killed by a cave troll, an innocent and pitiful creature deluded by the Ring into attacking Frodo. This foreshadows events in the third hour rather perfectly.
The third hour blends the suspense of the first with the epic action of the second, and delivers raw, emotional, character-driven drama: helpless after Gandalf’s fall, the Fellowship seeks refuge with the sorceress Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), but begin to split from within, as Boromir wishes to head back to his home country of Gondor – and it is now that the Ring suddenly reappears after its absence, haunting Frodo’s waking days and driving his friends mad with bewilderment: finally, when the Fellowship arrives at Amon Hen, it becomes too much for Boromir, who succumbs to the Ring’s allure and tries to take it from Frodo by force. Fleeing, Frodo stumbles in a blind panic, witnessing the devastating power he carries on a chain around his neck; he will destroy everything he loves, and everyone he cares about, if he does not act. Aragorn is almost tempted, and fights with his instincts for a few dreadful moments before letting Frodo go, and rejecting the Ring outright. At which point, I start crying, because this is when Boromir dies defending Merry and Pippin from Saruman’s orcs – the Chekhov’s gun that goes off with a fateful bang in the closing action sequence – and Frodo and Sam leave the Fellowship to continue the quest on their own. Hard choices have been made all around, the Fellowship is broken, hope is a faint glimmer on the edge of despair; and the movie is over.
There are minuscule flaws in those three hours of pure goodness, and they’re all nitpicks about diversions from book canon. For instance, something that constantly bothers me is the way that Barliman Butterbur looks over his shoulder at Aragorn when Frodo asks him about the strange man in the corner, instead of…(gets out battered copy of The Lord Of The Rings, flips to page 156)…“cocking an eye without turning his head.” Tolkien goes out of his way to mention that Butterbur doesn’t turn around, because Butterbur, the innkeeper, is already well aware of everybody in the place, who they are, and where they’re sitting, because he has to be. That’s the kind of thing that drives me insane in the movie. Nobody who hasn’t studied every page of the book would even notice this, but I have, so I do.
Anyway, the way that Jackson ratchets up the dramatic tension in this movie is insane, and the climax is rewarding and satisfying – and leaves you wanting more (thankfully, The Two Towers is just as, if not more, perfect in every imaginable way, shape or form). The choices he makes, centering the story around Frodo and his relationship with the Ring, giving both characters more agency in the story (for the Ring is a character), are brilliant. Even in that second hour, when Middle-earth suddenly expands from Hobbiton by the Water to a sprawling country of forests, mountains and scenic views, we are watching it almost always from Frodo’s point of view (the only real exceptions being Gandalf and Aragorn). And in Peter Jackson’s opinion, any scene in which the Ring is not the driving focus or at the very least an undercurrent is wasting time: which is why the hobbits’ whimsical escapades with Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, a beloved part of the novel, was cut entirely from the films.
However, Jackson’s choice necessitated other changes to the source material, including one particularly controversial one: the characterization of Aragorn, one of the book’s noblest heroes. In Jackson’s films, in an effort to make Tolkien’s archetypal protagonist more sympathetic to mainstream audiences, and also to make the Ring even more powerful, Aragorn’s character is softened somewhat, and given a full character-arc – raised by the Elves under the care of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Aragorn feels more at home with them than with his own people; weak, easily corruptible Men. In his veins runs the blood of Isildur, the man who fell victim to the Ring’s temptation thousands of years before and bound his descendants to the Ring’s fate – Aragorn’s distrust of himself, and his doubting of his own strength, is a key element of his character in the films, and it is what drives many of his actions: from his dangerous romance with Arwen, to his decision, at the end of the film, to resist the Ring and in so doing save both Frodo’s life and his own.
Viggo Mortensen, thankfully, is a phenomenal method actor, and does a great job portraying the Ranger’s conflict. It is rather unfortunate that the screenwriters felt, going forward, that his character needed to be constantly elevated to the detriment of others, and, in The Hobbit, tried to copy-and-paste him over the character of Bard the Bowman. But it is understandable, when watching Fellowship, why they became so obsessed with him. I would even go so far as to say that Mortensen is the film’s MVP, bringing roguish charm, grace, dignity and his unique accent to every scene he’s in – he plays Aragorn’s internal conflict subtly, using small facial movements (and his wildly expressive eyes) to display unease.
Similar praise can be lavished on Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen, but not, unfortunately, Sean Astin: his portrayal of Samwise Gamgee is consistently one of my least-favorite things about the trilogy, unpopular opinion though that may be. Some of it may be attributable to Jackson’s directing, but Astin’s tendency to shout lines that don’t need to be shouted, or become exaggeratedly happy or sad, begins to make him look like a parody of the over-the-top animated Samwise in Ralph Bakshi’s 1970’s The Lord Of The Rings. He rescues himself in his final scenes with Frodo, but just barely.
For the most part, the ensemble cast is very good: Sean Bean’s Boromir is sympathetic and pitiful; Holm, Weaving and Blanchett are endearing glorified cameos; Orlando Bloom as Legolas is decent, if a bit wooden; the only truly miscast character, in my opinion, is the Dwarf, Gimli. It’s not that John Rhys-Davies does a bad job in the role (how could he?), but the role itself should never have been tailored for an actor like him: in the novels, Gimli is proud, noble and mysterious until he begins to warm up to his traveling companions, and even afterwards he is still distinctly unusual to them, a bit of an underdog. In the movies, he’s brash, reckless and foolhardy, talks far too much, and is constantly the subject of unfriendly jokes (including the notorious “Nobody tosses a Dwarf!” punchline that continues to infuriate book purists to this day). If The Lord Of The Rings had been made after the Dwarf-centric The Hobbit, I think Jackson and his team would have been aware of this and would have cast someone more like Richard Armitage, their Thorin Oakenshield, in the role: but it was not, they did not, and we got Rhys-Davies.
The talent behind the camera deserves a special shout out. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens put together an incredible, multi-faceted script that is true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work (despite the fact that neither Jackson nor Walsh had been fans of the book before starting the project) and makes for an excellent movie even viewed on its own. The film’s cinematography is absolutely brilliant – and Academy Award winning. Ngila Dickson’s costume department outfitted the Fellowship and their supporting cast perfectly (another special shout-out goes to Viggo, who insisted on wearing his Aragorn costume while hiking in the wilderness, sleeping in it, and even mending it to give it a more weathered look: did I mention he’s a method actor?). Weta Workshop designed countless weapons, prosthetics, miniatures, and props under the direction of Richard Taylor, and the now legendary craftsman Jens Hansen was commissioned to create the One Ring itself. Art directors John Howe and Alan Lee brought unique visions to the world-building of Middle-earth. Howard Shore composed a brilliant and emotional score for the film that is widely considered one of the greatest ever, while New-Age singer Enya lent her powerful vocals to the film’s iconic Elvish ballad, “May It Be”. The New Zealand government (both local and national) and army helped Jackson to build sets and gain access to filming locations, provided hundreds of extras, and later promoted the films with every available resource. The thought and care that went into every inch of film, fabric, concept art, set design, stunt-work, music and CGI is incredible.
And, while I’m busy writing this lengthy Oscar-acceptance speech for Peter Jackson, I may as well take a moment to honor the lasting legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, whose story lives on through his novels, and through the succession of films, radio dramatizations, streaming shows and biopics that have followed. Say what you will about Peter Jackson’s decision to cut out Tom Bombadil, or give the Balrog wings, or the “dumbing down” of the author’s philosophical and pseudo-religious views, the truth is that his movie has taken Tolkien’s original message and spread it to an even wider audience. Sales of the novel skyrocketed in the wake of Fellowship‘s release. Tolkien became a household name for people who had never even considered reading one of his books.
Granted, there are still the poor, naive souls who think that Tolkien is “that guy who ripped off J.K. Rowling”, but it’s best to just ignore them.
Tolkien’s message in Fellowship is essentially the same from page to screen: he tells us that our lives are built around choices, especially hard and uncertain ones; choosing between right and wrong, between an easy way and a hard way, or worse, two difficult paths that lead to an unclear future. They are the choices we all make – the choice to adapt a 1,000 page novel into a three-part movie series, the choice to simply walk into Mordor with your gardener and a weapon of mass destruction, and….wait, you’re telling me you’ve never had to make those choices? Anyway, Fellowship is not a happy story, and it does not end happily for any of its heroes: sometimes, the choices we make have real, lasting consequences, and they’re not always good. But it is not an unhappy story either. It is about free will, and about the human privilege of being able to make decisions for ourselves: what a gift that is, that we take for granted! When Gandalf told Frodo, in the long dark of Moria, that “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us,” he spoke truly – we are granted a brief time on this earth to do something great, and to leave a legacy behind us. But choosing to do that is up to us.
And as for Peter Jackson? Well, he’s already done it.
Today is Tolkien Reading Day, the best time of year to go out and read up on the works of the great J.R.R Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. However, if you don’t have access to the books, why not take three hours out of your day to watch one of The Lord of the Rings movies? And since this day is intrinsically linked to things that happened in The Return of the King, Part 3 of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we’re going to be talking about that film.
So let’s start our discussion with a reminder that I am one of those people who read the books first, before seeing the films – but, I am not a book “purist”, someone who believes that everything in the text could have been adapted word-for-word onto the big screen, without any need for changes, additions, omissions, etc.
Now, having watched the film about six-thousand times, I have noticed a number of flaws – little things, for the most part, but we’ll discuss them here: I say “we” because I’m going to be writing this post in Gollum/Sméagol fashion, as an argument between my purist self and my revisionist self. We’ll also discuss a number of scenes that capture perfectly the spirit of the book, and even manage to almost elevate the material (which is so good to begin with).
But, we’ll also talk about the movie in its own right, because it’s just such a good movie. Even if you go into these films never having heard of The Lord of the Rings, or J.R.R Tolkien, you’ll still be swept up into this magical world, and, assuming you’re anything like me, you’ll never leave it again as long as you live. The joy and wonder is still there, every time I open the book or watch one of the movies.
Well, now we’re off at last!
Let’s begin with a breakdown of the plot: the film follows the journeys of a group of Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits as they travel across Middle-earth. Our hobbit protagonist, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), carries with him the deadly but beautiful One Ring, an object of incredible power that contains the very soul of the Dark Lord Sauron. Only by destroying this Ring can Middle-earth be freed from the horrors of war and evil that have been relentlessly assaulting it. The film opens with Frodo and his loyal gardener Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) being led through the dangerous country around the Dark Lord’s realm of Mordor. Their guide? A treacherous and utterly wretched creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis), who once possessed the One Ring and wants it back. Can he be trusted? Can Frodo be trusted? Can anyone be trusted around the Ring? – for the Ring wants to get back to Sauron, and it has the power to corrupt anyone who owns it. By the time we see Frodo here, in The Return of the King, the Ring has betrayed many masters: it was cut from Sauron’s hand long ago but quickly killed its new owner, a man named Isildur – it fell into the River Anduin, and was there picked up by a hobbit named Deagol, who was very soon murdered by his friend Sméagol. Sméagol took the Ring and fled with it into the mountains, and there, dwelling in dark caves and pits, he changed into Gollum – the Ring abandoned him too, though, and was found by another hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), but Bilbo was good enough that he was able to give up the Ring willingly – he gave it to Frodo. But the Ring betrayed one of Frodo’s friends as well, the noble man Boromir (Sean Bean), who tried to kill Frodo in an attempt to steal the Ring.
That is, of course, the main plot: the Ring must be destroyed, but destroying it takes great effort and great willpower. And the only place it can be unmade is in the fiery forges beneath an active volcano named Mount Doom, in the very heart of the realm of Mordor. Sauron dwells here, a giant flaming eye atop a horned tower.
Purist’s Note: in the books, Sauron is not a “giant flaming eye”. He has a physical form, but it is terrible and maimed, because he has been unable to take any shape fair to the eyes of Men ever since he fell into the ruin of Numenor in the Second Age. The Eye is merely a metaphor, in the books, for his piercing knowledge of all things that move on Middle-earth.
Thank you, Inner Purist, for making that clear.
Moving on. Many miles away from Frodo, his other friends are busy fighting Sauron’s vast armies of Orcs, Ringwraiths and Haradrim. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is the reluctant King of Gondor who must rally his people to stand in defiance of the shadow. Gandalf the White (Sir Ian McKellen) is the good wizard entrusted with helping all the Free Folk of Middle-earth. Arwen Evenstar (Liv Tyler) is the Elven princess in love with Aragorn, who must choose between an immortal existence with her family, or a mortal life with the man she loves.
But, the fight for victory will not be easy. Sauron has unleashed all of his forces, and they are heading straight for the greatest city in Middle-earth: Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. Will Gandalf be able to keep the city’s defenses firm against such reckless hate? Will Aragorn reach the city in time to save it? Will Arwen choose love over the promise of immortality? The stakes are so high, they’re incredible.
Purist’s Note:in the books, Arwen had already chosen love over immortality, many years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. She and Aragorn had been betrothed on the hill of Cerin Amroth, and they had rejected both the Shadow of Sauron and the Twilight of the West.
Yeah, well, that’s not the case here. Here, we have a cast of incredible characters – played by an extraordinary cast – who collide with each other in the most brilliant ways. When the hobbit Merry Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) meets Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan (Miranda Otto), will they overcome prejudice to fight in the war for Middle-earth? When Pippin Took (Billy Boyd) swears loyalty to the Steward Denethor (John Noble) will this choice come with a terrible responsibility – to watch as the Steward goes mad and tries to burn his own son alive?
Purist’s Note: well, no, apparently not, because in the movies Denethor releases Pippin from his service – whereas, in the books, Pippin remains in allegiance to Gondor.
This purist is getting on my nerves. You know what, Inner Purist, how about that scene where the Riders of Rohan appear over the hills at dawn and ride down to meet the orcs of Mordor in battle on the Pelennor Fields? Hmm, how about that? Was that not exactly as in the books?
Purist’s Note: well…well, I mean, no, because…
And what about the scene where Gandalf and Pippin discuss the prospect of death, using words directly from the book?
Purist’s Note: okay, that was touching, but the scene itself wasn’t in the books…
How about the scene on Mount Doom? Where Frodo finally stands above the consuming fires, unable to throw the Ring to its destruction? How about when Gollum takes the Ring from him in their last desperate struggle, biting off Frodo’s finger to get the corrupting treasure, dancing madly for joy on the brink of the fire – and falling, to his death? How about that terrifying scene where the Ring sits, motionless, on the surface of the lava, unwilling to be destroyed? And Frodo hangs from the cliff far above, staring down at it, contemplating with himself in those final moments whether he should leap into the fires after the Ring, or if he should take Sam’s hand and be carried to safety? How about that scene?
Purist’s Note: ooh, and how about that tortured look that Frodo gives to Sam as he makes his choice – but then, he reaches for Sam’s hand! And Sam pulls him up! And…uh, I mean, yeah, that scene is fine.
What about the final scene, at the Grey Havens, where Frodo goes off with the Elves to sail across the seas into the West? That emotional goodbye to his friends that has me in tears every time I watch it? That smile he gives as he boards the boat, and you know in your heart that he’s finally going to be healed of all his pain and hurt.
Purist’s Note: and when Sam says “well, I’m back” as he returns to his home, just like in the book…
Well, not just like in the book. If it had been just like in the book, he would have gone home to Bag-end, since in the book he inherited it from Frodo. Also, he should have only had one child at that time, but he had, like, five.
Purist’s Note: well, yeah, but, come on, the emotional heart of Tolkien’s work was all there. Director Peter Jackson could easily have gone for a more traditional route and had them all live happily ever after, but he didn’t. He showed the incredible pain that Frodo went through, and how it could never be healed – unless he left Middle-earth.
Yeah, I know, but Peter Jackson got a lot of things incorrect too. Let’s not forget the infamous scene where Frodo tells Sam to “go home”, which goes against everything in the books. That scene is painful to watch, it’s just so annoying.
Purist’s Note: okay, sure, but don’t forget that that scene was shot really early on, before the actors had any clear idea of the emotional journeys their characters were going on – before Andy Serkis had been cast as Gollum, in fact.
Good point. But how do you explain that scene with the skull avalanche in the Paths of the Dead?
Purist’s Note: wait, I thought you liked that!
I do! But…wait, aren’t you the purist? I feel like things got switched around here. I’m not supposed to be grilling you, it should be the other way round!
Purist’s Note: well, this is pretty normal when dealing with the movies. They’re conflicting, but in the end…they are pretty good movies, even when they’re not great adaptations. And, for the most part, they are great adaptations. Except for…a handful of things.
More than a handful. But, you’re right. No matter how many things might be wrong with the movies, I’m always going to love them. I’m always going to cry when Frodo sets sail into the West, or when Annie Lennox’s beautiful song starts playing over the credits…I’m always going to cheer when Sauron is cast down, and the Eagles rescue Frodo and Sam. I’m always going to feel completely heartbroken after the credits roll, when I realize that the story has finally come to its end. It’s the magic of this movie that makes that possible: you can overlook or even ignore every minor change to a character’s appearance, every faulty line of dialogue, every blunder or misstep. Because the magic is still there.
Purist’s Note: you’re going to tell me what the magic is now, aren’t you?
Yes, I am! It’s the magic of Frodo struggling through pain and torture to do the job that needs doing. It’s the magic of Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom, even when all seems lost. It’s the magic of Aragorn going to what seems like certain death so that he can buy Frodo just a little time. It’s the magic of Merry and Éowyn standing up against the Witch-King. It’s the magic of Pippin leaping into the flames to rescue Faramir. It’s the-
Purist’s Note: you’ve gone on long enough. I get it. It’s magic.
It is, and it’s the sort of magic that doesn’t go away, even after multiple viewings.
So there you have it: my thoughts on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. No movie quite compares to it, honestly. It is everything I love about cinema, all rolled into one beautiful movie. From the opening sequence to the moment the screen fades to black, I am entranced, brought into another world, a world that I know and love from the books: not everything from those books made it onto the screen, but that’s okay. This sort of magic is rare. Enjoy it as it is.