It’s done. Whether you’re a Tolkien fan or not, I think we can all breath a sigh of relief now that 2020 is finally over, bringing an end to 366 straight days of what felt like never-ending chaos. Sadly, the first dawn of 2021 won’t magically heal the pain and hardship we’ve all endured, nor will it bring back the many close friends, family members, and loved ones we’ve lost. But it can start us on a path towards a better future for all of us, and I hope and pray that, if 2020 was akin to the perilous wreck of Mount Doom, than 2021 will be at least a little closer to the Fields of Cormallen, when our war-hardened heroes “laughed and wept”, and a minstrel carried them through song and “sweet words” to “regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness”.
Although I mostly just cover movies on this blog, I wanted to use this special day to give back to the incredible fan community centered around the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, by commemorating some of the Tolkien community’s greatest figures who passed on in the last year, and the incredible, unforgettable legacies they’ve left behind. This brief list is by no means complete or comprehensive, but know that if I have forgotten any greatly significant name, it is an error of my own ignorance that I will happily correct.
Orson Bean: July 22, 1928 – February 7, 2020
The Tolkien fandom was blessed to have Orson Bean lend his vocal talents not once, but twice, to the world of Middle-earth – first voicing Bilbo Baggins in the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit, before later taking on the role of Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo Baggins, in the studio’s adaptation of The Return Of The King (a valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to conclude the animated epic saga started in Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord Of The Rings, which only covered the first half of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel). Bean began his long career in Hollywood as a television comedian, hosting the Basin Street musical radio program in the early 50’s. His ambitions only momentarily halted by an attempt to blacklist him for dating a Communist Party member, Bean continued to appear in films, TV, and theatre well into his 80’s, with guest spots on some of the past decade’s biggest sitcoms and reality TV programs.
Ian Holm: 12 September, 1931 – 19 June, 2020
Similarly to Bean, the great Sir Ian Holm will be recognized fondly by Tolkien fans for both his vocal performance as Frodo Baggins in the beloved 1981 BBC Radio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, and for his iconic portrayal of Bilbo Baggins – a role he solidified in live-action throughout Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and in two brief but memorable appearances bookending Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. His Bilbo is widely regarded as the definitive Bilbo: manic, wild-haired, and charmingly quirky (much of that quirkiness deriving from Holm’s talent for improvisation) – but with a warmth and quiet dignity that Holm made sure to put front and center at all times. Bilbo was Holm’s final role as well as one of his most legendary, but the Tony and BAFTA-Award winning actor received just as much praise for his performances in Alien, Brazil, The Fifth Element, and Chariots Of Fire (for which he received an Academy Award nomination), as well as for his three separate takes on Napoleon Bonaparte – the best by far being in the 1981 cult classic Time Bandits.
Andrew Jack: 28 January, 1942 – 31 March, 2020
Behind every great movie, there is an entire army of great crewmembers putting painstaking effort into every little detail that has to be seen or conveyed somehow onscreen. Andrew Jack, the dialect coach for Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, was one of those tireless soldiers, crafting the enchantingly unique accents of Middle-earth before passing on that talent (as well as an extensive knowledge of Elvish languages) to the actors themselves. That level of detail is part of what makes Jackson’s trilogy stand out, as one of the first fantasy adaptations to take the source material seriously and attempt to build something that was grounded in reality, rather than poking fun at itself and the entire genre. Jack continued working as a dialect coach, while also making a brief but notable onscreen appearance as the character of Caluan Ematt in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. He passed away due to COVID-19 while working on Matt Reeves’ The Batman.
Barbara Remington: 23 June, 1929 – 23 January, 2020
Tolkien fandom has always had a strong artistic component – ever since J.R.R. himself, who sketched and painted extensively. And American artist Barbara Remington deserves to be remembered alongside the greats such as Alan Lee, John Howe, and Ted Nasmith: her beautiful cover artwork for Ballantine Books’ first paperback editions of both The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings quickly became notorious, largely because of how distanced it was from the source material. Remington’s swirling, brightly-colored designs included fantastical flora and fauna such as emus, lions, and a massive pink fruit tree. Tolkien himself was very confused by the art, but, as Remington herself later explained, the embarrassing blunder was due to her not being able to actually read the book before painting the artwork – once she did, she fell in love with the story and said that, not only would she have painted something entirely different if she could, but she might have felt too intimidated to even try due to the scope and significance of the books. Personally, I must admit I’ve warmed up to Remington’s characteristic psychedelic style, and am deeply sorry we may never see the collection of other unofficial artworks based on the books that she designed in her later life.
Christopher Tolkien: 21 November, 1924 – 16 January, 2020
If anyone on this earth lived and breathed Middle-earth, it was Christopher John Reul Tolkien, who dedicated almost his entire life to exploring the extent of his father’s fantasy world. Christopher grew up with the bedtime stories that would later blossom into The Hobbit, and spent much of his childhood and youth reading and critiquing his father’s manuscripts, assisting in the writing process of The Lord Of The Rings even while stationed in South Africa with the Royal Air Force during World War II. Many of the book’s most notable elements can be attributed to Christopher’s input: including the iconic surname of “Gamgee”, which J.R.R. himself wanted to change to the far less unique-sounding “Goodchild”. In 1973, upon being handed the reigns to his father’s literary legacy, Christopher determined to finally publish his father’s true masterwork, The Silmarillion: a collection of epic stories from the prehistory of Middle-earth that J.R.R. had left only partially-completed and hopelessly disorganized at the time of his death. The work took several years and exhaustive edits, but was completed for publication in 1977, and Christopher soon followed with an even longer and more ambitious series of books dedicated to recounting his father’s entire writing process: every scattered note, every rewrite, every idea scrapped and revisited. Unfinished Tales followed in 1980 and became an instant hit, allowing readers a chance to learn more about the Second Age of Middle-earth (which will be the setting for Amazon Prime’s upcoming adaptation). Christopher continued to publish books of this sort up until 2018, with the last of the three “Great Tales”. His harsh views on Jackson’s film trilogy caused quite a stir, but I feel he should be remembered most for his efforts to preserve and protect the legacy with which he was entrusted. For Christopher was a steward of Middle-earth who succeeded in his mission, and now that he has passed on, he has given us all the responsibility to follow in his footsteps and continue that stewardship as we move forward into a new era. And that may be an encouraging thought.
Take comfort in the things that we as a community have gained this year (about which I may write a separate post, so stay tuned), and in the knowledge that those whom we have lost will not be forgotten, but that their legacies will live on. Again, I apologize if anyone has been left off of this list that should have been included, but I ask you to please share that information in the comments. Stay safe and read Tolkien. Until next year, my friends.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ONWARD…AND THE LETTER FOR THE KING…AHEAD
Onward was never really on my radar – when the trailers came out, I thought they were weak, and I never even got to see the film in theaters due to the coronavirus. But now that I have seen it, I can’t stop thinking about this strangely endearing story, which so many other critics have said is merely okay: an enjoyable, but easily forgettable, offering from a studio that has produced instant classics. That may be true for some, but I’m not ashamed to say that Onward is quickly becoming one of my favorite Pixar films.
I’m thankfully not alone in this opinion. But my opinion on the film has grown stronger and stronger with each passing day (and rewatch). And I have a few theories on why this film speaks so much to me, and why I think it has already become one of Pixar’s most underrated offerings: a story that deserves to be exalted, and is instead being bullied for its simplicity, so-so worldbuilding, and subversion of tropes – which has itself become something of a trope, though I maintain that Onward does it in the best way possible, and that’s because it borrows the inspiration (just the inspiration, mind you, everything else about it is different) for its most crucial subversive element from The Lord Of The Rings.
Now, Onward borrows a lot of stuff from J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, it’s true. There are little details hidden all over the richly-detailed fantasy world, and, unsurprisingly, many of them harp back to the man who is described as the father of modern fantasy. Fast-food restaurants serving second breakfast, soft drinks named Mountain Doom (with “explosive caffeine!”), an image of what I believe to be Gandalf versus The Balrog in the back of Barley’s van…basically, all the usual stuff that would make me slightly biased in this film’s favor. But no, I don’t love it solely because of that. Nor do I love it solely because everyone in the film is an LGBTQ+ icon (though, if you’re interested, feel free to check out my non-existent TED talk about how Laurel and The Manticore are absolutely canon, the pawn shop owner radiates big boss lesbian energy, and Barley is a chaotic gay cinnamon roll). Sure, those things contribute to the film’s overall appeal – but what I love most about it is how it finally clarifies that Samwise Gamgee was the true hero of The Lord Of The Rings.
If you don’t already know, let me explain: in the Tolkien fandom, there has always been a war between “stans” of Frodo, and “stans” of Samwise Gamgee – a “stan” being a person who devotes themselves, wholly and unconditionally, to one specific person, fictional character, or thing. I’m not a big fan of stanning anyone or anything, simply because stans often become so passionate about whatever they’re stanning that they refuse to see its faults, and instead become toxic and hyper-aggressive when they see a threat to their idol. In the case of The Lord Of The Rings, it’s either really sad or really unsurprising that a story about unconditional love and loyalty would attract so many stans – who often divide themselves into either Frodo stans or Samwise stans. However, all you toxic Samwise stans are off the hook today, because I’m not coming for you – I’m coming for the toxic Frodo stans, and their idea of what makes a true hero.
J.R.R. Tolkien described Samwise Gamgee as the true hero of his story. Needless to say, Frodo stans have never liked this tidbit of trivia, and typically disregard it, either choosing to scream “DEATH OF THE AUTHOR!,” as loudly as possible, or snobbily remarking that “well, Tolkien didn’t write it that way”. Well, actually, he did – though, admittedly, everyone has differing opinions, and I respect that. But Onward uses the same formula for its hero and protagonist and makes it even less disputable.
In my opinion, what Frodo stans often overlook is that a story’s hero isn’t always its protagonist, nor vice versa. It’s rare to find, indeed, though I can actually name at least one other story this year that has done it…in a way. I say “in a way” because, while Netflix’s The Letter For The King turns the tables on its main character and reveals that one of his supporting cast, a young woman, is actually the hero of prophecy, and destined to defeat the villain, she never actually becomes the hero of the story. She’s a central plot-point, but that’s all she is: she’s just there to fight the big bad. In trying to create a surprise hero reveal, Netflix accidentally made their surprise hero the surprise protagonist of the series, while the character who was both hero and protagonist up until that point became solely the hero.
Because here’s the thing, which I’ve found is true across several different mediums: a hero doesn’t have to be the character whose name is in the title, or who gets to fight all the big sword-battles, or wield all the cool magic powers. From my experience, a story’s hero is often the overlooked beating heart of the story, the character around whom the entire story revolves without us ever noticing, usually until the very end. Sam, for instance, is the hero of The Lord Of The Rings – he represents everything the good guys are fighting for, and, without him, the story falls apart: not only because without him Frodo would have died several times before ever reaching Mordor, but because without him, The Lord Of The Rings isn’t the story of unconditional love, unbreakable friendship and unquenchable hope that we know it to be. Without him, in fact, it’s a pretty dark tale. So Sam is the true hero of that story because he is its core, the rock upon which the story is built, and Frodo is the protagonist: the character at the center of the plot – and he’s important too, because he teaches us about the importance of mercy and forgiveness, and how power corrupts. But when Frodo lies, maimed and spiritually exhausted on the slopes of Mount Doom, who is there beside him at the end of all things? Sam, that’s who. And it’s Sam’s presence there that reminds us what the story is all about: hope enduring even in darkness, and love defeating evil. For me, this is what defines a hero versus a protagonist, and shows how both can exist in one story without necessarily being the same person – a story’s true hero is the character who best personifies the themes and moral of the story, if there is one, while the protagonist is the most important character in the plot.
And that brings us back to Onward, and the case of Barley and Ian. For most of the film’s duration, it seems clear who is both hero and protagonist: Ian Lightfoot. He’s our POV character the entire time; he’s the one who initiates the quest when he finds out he’s the only character who can use magic; he’s the character who fights all the big fights, overcomes all the hardest obstacles, and has the big third-act battle against the fire-breathing dragon. But that doesn’t make him the hero – as it turns out, Ian is the protagonist, while his overlooked and underestimated older brother Barley Lightfoot is the story’s true hero.
It might sound unthinkable. But Onward isn’t just the story of two boys trying to meet their father – it’s a celebration of parents and parental figures in general. That’s why the father is the elusive end-goal of the movie’s plot. That’s why Laurel, the boys’ mother, follows them on their quest and has a key role in the final battle. That’s why there’s a subplot with the boys’ stepfather, whom they initially dislike but learn to accept. That’s why the big revelation at the end of the movie is that Barley Lightfoot has always been Ian’s own father figure growing up, and that Ian always did know his father, through Barley. And that’s why, in a moving act of gratitude, Ian returns the favor by giving Barley, and Barley alone, the chance to reunite with the ghost of their father in the film’s epic conclusion. That’s not entirely by choice – there’s a large dragon headed their way, and one of them has to stop it before it kills them all – but that makes it more powerful: because by that point, Ian’s character arc has concluded. He’s already figured out what and who the story is all about. But Barley still hasn’t: in a noble act of self-sacrifice, he offers to go hold off the dragon and give Ian the chance to meet their dad. But Ian stops him, telling him that now, Barley deserves what Ian always had: a chance to share his life, even for a moment, with his own father figure. Suddenly, Barley Lightfoot is the true heart, soul and hero of the story, and he best represents what the film is all about.
Now, a celebration of unconventional parental figures and older siblings isn’t anything new – the Frozen series and Lilo & Stitch are two other animated movies that give older siblings all the respect they deserve, and in fact Barley Lightfoot shares a couple characteristics with Elsa in particular (make them both gay, you cowards!) – but Pixar’s spin on the material gives it a truly unique twist. And in so doing, whether intentionally or not, they have paid homage to the father of modern fantasy.
And there you have it. At this point I’ve likely angered a fair number of Frodo stans (but don’t worry, I still love allmostsome a few of you), and I’ve rambled on for far too long. Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
Oh, and one last thing. My initial rating for Onward was too low, so allow me to do something I almost never do, and revise it:
Well, before we get into the list, let me remind you all that Amazon’s series isn’t a straight-up adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, the classic best-selling novel. Instead, it’s based on the tantalizing hints, references and scraps of unfinished stories about the Second Age of Middle-earth, a time period in the world’s history when Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor, first rose to power with the help of the One Ring. That being said, Sauron isn’t the only thing you’ll find in this new adaptation that will be reminiscent of previous books, films and video games: characters like Galadriel, Elrond and Glorfindel will all presumably make appearances; locations like Rivendell, Mount Doom and Moria will be visited; events like the War of the Last Alliance and the forging of the Great Rings will be witnessed.
With that out of the way, let’s get to my list.
10: Sorrowful Elves. It’s important to remember that the Second Age ends about three-thousand years prior to Frodo Baggins’ quest at the very end of the Third Age. A lot of stuff happens in between those two points – including the events that cause the Elves to begin their slow decline into sorrow and grief. At the start of the Second Age, however, we should see the Elves in their heyday: a happy, peaceful people with a flourishing culture, working to rebuild after the traumas of the First Age. That means characters like Elrond, best known for being grim and dour, are going to be cheerful, bright and optimistic in the Amazon series; wise, experienced leaders like Galadriel will still be learning, growing, and making mistakes; aged, brooding wise men like Círdan…well, he’ll still be an aged, brooding wise man, but the rest of them will be different. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be singing “tra-la-la-la-lally,” but at the same time it doesn’t necessarily mean that they shouldn’t be, either.
9: A Reliance On CGI. I’m flexible on this issue: on the one hand, I think CGI is an essential element in the making of any fantasy world, and particularly Middle-earth, and I definitely wouldn’t discourage Amazon from using it in many of the same ways Peter Jackson did in his original trilogy (to build fantastical locations, digitally construct armies, certain creatures, etc); but on the other hand, I’d counsel them not to rely on special effects as much as Jackson did with The Hobbit films – practical effects, real location shoots, physical props and sets: for the most part, these can do the job just as well as green-screens and digital wizardry.
8: A Fully Evil Sauron. It would be almost ridiculously easy to depict Second Age Sauron as a purely evil character, but that’s not the Sauron I want to see. Tolkien wrote that, in the beginning, Sauron was a perfectionist, whose plans for Middle-earth were ambitious, but no more evil than those of any reformer’s. He eventually grew to be a tyrant, thinking that Elves and Men could only flourish if they relinquished their own free will and submitted to his rule. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because the Sauron of the Second Age has more in common with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s trickster god Loki (one of the most popular villains there is) than with the flaming eye of Peter Jackson’s films. Sauron, in fact, tried to do good – but his fate had been decided long before, when he turned away from the teachings of Eru and began learning from the devilish Morgoth, whose evil teachings Sauron implemented in his own plans. Amazon could do some amazing things with that storyline.
7: Eru. Speaking of Eru, it’s about time I addressed him. In my last post, I said it would be a mistake to leave the Valar (Middle-earth’s pantheon of gods) out of the series, and I stand by that. But there’s one god I never want to see take a physical form in The Lord Of The Rings, and that’s Eru Ilúvatar, the One Above All. Eru is the highest, mightiest being in all of Tolkien’s legendarium – his song set all of history into motion; his plan is the divine plan, which cannot be undone by any design of Morgoth’s or Sauron’s; near the end of the Second Age, he intervenes one last time in the affairs of the world, reshaping the earth into a globe (it was flat previously), and sending the country of Númenor to the bottom of the sea. But though that means he’ll probably be brought up frequently in conversation, he shouldn’t ever be seen; at most, he should be a voice, but even that feels wrong. Eru is incomprehensible, on a plane of existence higher than any of our protagonists should be able to understand. Keep him offscreen. Leave the mystery intact.
6: Whitewashing. The fantasy genre already has a problem with diversity – series like Game Of Thrones employ one or two people of color in lead roles over the course of several seasons, and the few exceptions to the rule, such as The Witcher, get viciously attacked by an online community that resorts to the same tired excuses for why people of color are simply unthinkable in worlds filled with dragons, elves, orcs and wizards: it’s unrealistic because fantasy worlds are Euro-centric and Europe obviously never had any racial diversity; race-bending white characters is wrong because people of color need to write their own stories if they want to see themselves represented in mainstream media (but whitewashing characters of color is somehow okay?); Tolkien came from a different time period, and the series should reflect that by not having people of color, who clearly didn’t exist forty years ago. The cast of Lord Of The Rings currently includes a handful of people of color – but only fifteen actors have been cast so far, and I hope to see the number increase as more come onboard the project. I want to see Amazon take advantage of the amazing opportunity they have, and use their platform to hire talent of many different ethnicities – not to mention genders, sexual orientations and ages.
5: Gandalf. Gandalf the Grey, along with his partners Saruman and Radagast, were both sent to Middle-earth in the Third Age: to be the enemies of Sauron in that age, and that age alone. They didn’t witness any of the events of the Second Age, and they had never fought Sauron before the attack on Dol Guldur as depicted in The Hobbit; if they had, Gandalf would likely have been able to recognize the One Ring immediately, and Saruman might never have been deceived by Sauron’s lies. Having them arrive earlier in the timeline would be a very bad move – yet people continue to mistakenly assume that Gandalf is either going to be a major character, or a female lead, of the upcoming series. To avoid further confusion, I hope Amazon gives the series an official title soon that differentiates it from The Lord Of The Rings, which immediately brings to mind images of Gandalf and hobbits.
4: Hobbits. Allow me to clarify: hobbits did exist in the Second Age, even though they are only recorded in the Third Age and later. But these hobbits (a) dwelt only in Wilderland east of the Misty Mountains, and not in the Shire, and (b) had no impact on Middle-earth’s history at this time. Most importantly, there should be no interaction between Sauron and the hobbits: he, above all others, should never hear of them or even be aware that they exist. Why? Because the whole reason Frodo’s quest succeeds in The Lord Of The Rings is because Sauron (like Smaug before him) had never dealt with hobbits before. They were the unforeseen heroes of the Third Age, who “suddenly became, by no wish of their own, both important and renowned, and troubled the counsels of the Wise and Great.” So, Amazon: if you want to throw in some hobbits, put them in at the very end of the entire series, during the disaster of the Gladden Fields, when such an appearance might make sense. No sword-wielding hobbit heroics in the Second Age, please.
3: Game Of Thrones. Now, I’m not totally opposed to the series being more mature than the adaptations we’ve seen before: Tolkien’s world definitely isn’t grimdark or gritty, but the Second Age is a time of decadence, vice, violence and horrific evils (including, but not limited to, hundreds upon thousands of human sacrifices). So when I say I don’t want The Lord Of The Rings to be Game Of Thrones, I’m not necessarily saying it shouldn’t include violence (I refer you back to the human sacrifices), sexuality, and/or mature themes. I’m saying it should never revel in these things or use them for shock value, as Game Of Thrones was often accused of doing. So no, I don’t want to see violence against women used to subvert expectations; I don’t want to see nudity used to make exposition-heavy dialogue “more interesting” or whatever the excuse was; I don’t want to see fan-favorite characters get brutally murdered just to prove a cynical point. Tolkien’s world is one where hope survives even against immeasurable odds, where light endures in the darkest situations, where heroes are…for the most part…heroic. George R.R. Martin’s world is bleak, pessimistic, and, at least in the TV series, there is no end to its cycle of death, defeat and petty power struggles. That’s not bad: it’s just not Tolkien.
2: Incessant Callbacks. Often, a prequel to some successful film franchise (such as…oh I don’t know, The Hobbit) fails in part because it never tries to be its own thing: instead, with the help of callbacks, references and hints, it simply serves to remind viewers to go check out another, usually better, film or TV property that came before it. Using The Hobbit as an example: remember the really weird shout-out to Aragorn in The Battle Of The Five Armies that makes no sense, considering Aragorn was a ten year-old during the time of that film? Or how they refer to the recently drowned Master of Lake-town as being “half-way down the Anduin” when there’s no conceivable way he could ever have gotten there from the Lake of Esgaroth, as shown by their own maps? How about that bizarrely contrived scene where Legolas learns about Gimli sixty years before ever meeting him? These things serve no purpose in The Hobbit, except to remind us that, yes, we are still watching a prequel to The Lord Of The Rings, as hard as it is to believe. Amazon doesn’t need to make that mistake: focus on telling a good story first, then weave in some subtle foreshadowing or evocative parallels later (also, for the love of Eru, choose better callbacks: one reason why those in The Hobbit fail is because they’re calling back to the weirdest things – athelas? Peter Jackson’s carrot-eating cameo? Why were these things necessary?)
1: Strictly Movie Canon. We know that Amazon wants to maintain some level of continuity with the classic Peter Jackson trilogy, and at one point they even approached Jackson – either for his help as a consultant, or simply for his blessing. It makes sense: Jackson defined Middle-earth with his award-winning, critically-acclaimed, hugely successful three-film magnum opus. He and his team are widely viewed as experts when it comes to worldbuilding of any kind. But there’s no need for Amazon to feel beholden to his specific vision of Middle-earth: while his is certainly the most iconic, it wasn’t the first, not will it be the last. Amazon should feel free to branch out, to use the books more frequently as source material than the movie, and along the way to establish their own unique take on Tolkien’s world. Let’s not forget: Peter Jackson has broken his own canon on occasion – Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum in the prologue of The Fellowship Of The Ring is completely different to the same scene in An Unexpected Journey: different actor, different scenery, set design, clothing design, everything. Amazon should be able to do that too.
So what do you think of my list? Do you disagree with my picks (it’s worth remembering that I’m a pretty positive person, so it was hard for me to even think of ten things I didn’t want to see)? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
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.