However, we do have this new bit of Lord Of The Rings casting – plus two possible character name reveals for actors already attached to the series. And just like old times, I’ll break it all down for you, as well as give you my thoughts on the situation.
It appears that English actor Anson Boon has joined the project – though his role is still unclear. Redanian Intelligence notes that he easily be playing an elf due to his very defined, somewhat “ethereal” features. I agree with that assessment: Boon’s resume is still small and mostly limited to British TV and stage performances (outside of an appearance in Sam Mendes’ war drama 1917, a breakout hit with critics), so I don’t have much to work with when trying to determine who he could be playing, but I’ll take a guess anyway – let’s mark him down as a possibility for Glorfindel. This character, an Elf from the books and left out of all of Peter Jackson’s movies, plays a significant role in the Second Age of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, when this series is supposed to be set – thousands of years before the events of Lord Of The Rings – depending on which version of Tolkien’s canon you prefer to regard as definitive. As Glorfindel is depicted in the books, “his hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy; his eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music”. It’s a fairly vague description, but it’s enough for me to go on – and I just really want to see Glorfindel in this series, so forgive me if I grasp at straws.
Next up, we have Ben Fransham, a New Zealand actor who, like many of the country’s citizens, worked on Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies – Fransham played an elf in the first trilogy, as well as orcs in both. His casting makes him the first actor from Jackson’s films to cross over into Amazon Prime’s adaptation of the Middle-earth saga, but his role will likely be fairly small. Additionally, he is now a stunt performer, which may be another reason why he has joined Amazon’s series. If I had to take a guess, I’d wager he will once again be wearing orc prosthetics when we see him onscreen.
So those are the castings, but Redanian Intelligence didn’t stop there – they also informed us that both Simon Merrells and Megan Richards, both of whom were cast in The Lord Of The Rings earlier this year, have character names added to their official actor CV’s. Redanian Intelligence cites this as reason to believe they may be official character names, and they may well be, but I’m wary to come to that conclusion – possibly because I’m wary of the names themselves. Merrells is listed as “Trevyn”, and Richards as “May”, and neither name seems to fit particularly well in Tolkien’s extensive network of languages. May, in particular, feels much too modern for the ancient setting – and it has a hobbit-y sound to it that makes me very nervous, considering that hobbits are among the characters I have no desire to see in Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings.
What do you think of these casting announcements, and the names revealed? Do they encourage you, or not? For me, personally, I’m a little nervous about those names in particular, but I’m also keeping an open mind. Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!
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!
The full series cast, revealed today in a series of social media posts from the streaming service (which, inconveniently, didn’t have photos attached, forcing me to look up each actor individually), will include: Robert Aramayo and Joseph Mawle, both from Game Of Thrones; Owain Arthur, a theater actor soon to appear in Disney’s The One And Only Ivan; Nazanin Boniadi of Bombshell and Hotel Mumbai; Tom Budge of The Pacific; Morfydd Clark of Dracula; Ismael Cruz Córdova of The Undoing; Ema Horvath of Like.Share.Follow; Markella Kavenagh of Picnic At Hanging Rock; Tyroe Muhafidin, a new actor on the scene; Sophia Nomvete and Megan Richards, both theater actresses; Dylan Smith, star of I Am The Night; Charlie Vickers of Medici: Master Of Florence; and finally Daniel Weyman, star of Great Expectations and The Happy Prince.
Notably absent from this comprehensive list is Maxim Baldry, who was previously reported to have joined the show in a lead role – I feel it’s safe to assume he is no longer part of the cast (or never was part of it to begin with), but it’s worth keeping an eye out for him later on. While this group of fifteen will surely be the series’ main cast, it’s probable that many more actors and actresses will be added as time goes on.
On the other hand, this cast is a big win for diversity in the fantasy genre: a number of these stars are people (and especially women) of color, and come from a multitude of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, making this probably the most diverse adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works yet.
We don’t yet know who’s playing who, as Amazon has yet to announce any character names: Morfydd Clark is, as previously reported, believed to be playing a younger version of Galadriel, while Robert Aramayo is playing a character known only as “Beldor”, and Markella Kavenagh has landed the role of “Tyra” – both of the latter names could be, and likely are, code-names for more well-known characters from the Tolkien mythos.
Obviously, there are a lot of names to go over here, and I might have to try and break them down individually at some point, because I’m sure Amazon has given us plenty of hints as to who these actors and actresses will be portraying. Already, the cogs in my brain are beginning to rotate – nay, spin – as I piece things together: is Mawle playing Sauron, or could it be the equally fine-featured Weyman? Is Córdova playing an original character, or is it only me who thinks he looks like Gil-galad? Speaking of which, have any of Tolkien’s roles been gender or race-bent? If so, can Boniadi please play Annatar?
So…what do you think? This is the cast, for better or worse: these are the men and women that we will walk alongside into the tumultuous Second Age of Middle-earth, and alongside whom we will (hopefully) spend a long, long time, weathering all the storms of Sauron, the betrayals of Númenor, and the wrath of the Valar. How do you feel, and who are you most excited to see onscreen for the first time? 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 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.