2020 was nothing if not a hellish year that tested us in ways we hadn’t even thought possible back in 2019. But now, with the year finally ending and a new one about to begin, I thought it would be nice to look back and find some things that brought us in the Tolkien community just a little bit of joy and normality amidst all the chaos and confusion. Whether it was casting announcements for the upcoming Amazon series, or familiar faces reuniting for a good cause, Tolkien fans found a respite from the year’s awfulness in small, simple, pleasures that gave us each a smile and a laugh, and/or kept us at least partially sane throughout 2020.
I’ve tried to be comprehensive, but it’s been a long year, and I have forgotten much that I thought I knew. So if I’ve missed something important, be sure to tell me and I’ll happily correct my error! As I am just one Tolkien fan in a very big and very diverse fandom, these are merely my personal experiences. With that out of the way, let’s revisit some of the year’s few joyous Tolkienesque highlights.
As soon as lockdown orders went into place around the world, many of us immediately took the opportunity to crack open our old copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, with the intention of returning to Middle-earth for some much-needed comfort. But actor and director Andy Serkis went further than the rest of us would or even could, reading the entirety of The Hobbit aloud in a hyped-up livestream event with the full permission of HarperCollins (for whom he then recorded a new audiobook of The Hobbit). The 12-hour long livestream was hugely successful – raising more than £283,000 for charity – and hugely satisfying for Tolkien fans, as Serkis was able to trot out his iconic Gollum voice during the character’s single, memorable sequence in the book. I myself have read The Hobbit, The Lord Of The Rings, The Silmarillion, and assorted bits of Unfinished Tales aloud to family members even prior to this quarantine, and can confirm that, while taxing on the vocal cords, it’s a truly delightful experience to partake in (I personally like to do different voices and accents for all the characters, not just the ones I’m especially good at, but, well, I’m not claiming to be a better reader-alouder than Andy Serkis…or am I?)
The rest of us social distancing stay-at-homes, unable to monetize our reading experience in quite the same way, took to social media to share the joys of Middle-earth for free with people we don’t know and who probably don’t want to have their timelines continually clogged by abnormally long Twitter threads documenting our reactions to literally every single thing in each of the books and movies. Some of us did monetize our experiences, and were forced to distort Howard Shore’s beautiful score to avoid copyright infringement. There were too many of these to count, but a few I particularly enjoyed included a first-time viewer’s twelve-part reaction to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, artist and animator Noelle Stevenson live-tweeting the movies while enjoying a lembas bread snack, and a live-tweet of Ralph Bakshi’s cult classic The Lord Of The Rings adaptation that is perfect viewing once you hit that stage of quarantine where days are blurring together and nothing makes sense anymore, least of all reality, so you might as well just roll with the fact that, yes, Aragorn is rocking that mini-skirt.
Not wanting to let Andy Serkis have all the fun, almost the entire main cast of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings reunited for a livestreamed event hosted by actor and comedian Josh Gad, and attended by Jackson himself as well as the trilogy’s lead screenwriter, Philippa Boyens. It was, as they say in The Shire, a party of special magnificence: gathering on their individual computer screens, the Fellowship and more teamed up for trivia, re-enactments of famous scenes, and fond reminiscences. It was all too brief, but by that point we were growing used to brief and fleeting joys, and it felt refreshingly fun. Hearing Sean Astin recite his empowering speech from the end of The Two Towers also provided us with an excuse for a good old-fashioned ugly cry, which was sweet of him.
But even as the old cast was re-assembling, a new cast was coming together in New Zealand – the one corner of the world that was, for the most part, unaffected by COVID-19. Two huge casting announcements for the upcoming Amazon Prime adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work bookended this strange year; the first in January, prior to the pandemic, and the second earlier this very month. We welcomed a number of diverse and exciting actors to Middle-earth, such as Nazanin Boniadi, Sophia Nomvete, Morfydd Clark, Peter Mullan, and Lenny Henry, and we debated endlessly about who they could be playing, here on this very blog and on fan-forums everywhere (speaking of which, the homepage of TheOneRing.com is active again as of this month, after several years). Almost a year into production on the first season, and we still don’t actually know! We’re not even sure if this is the full cast yet, or if more are still to come.
But with production on the season’s two-part pilot apparently complete and director J.A. Bayona having just departed New Zealand, it does appear that production is now underway on the rest of the season after a number of delays due to COVID that forced the entire series to halt filming throughout the spring and summer. Amazon Prime has been keeping this whole project unusually secretive, so much so that we still don’t even have an official title (which, let me tell you, is getting on my nerves). We know it takes place in the Second Age, we know a little bit about the behind-the-scenes crew, and…that’s it, mostly. In the absence of concrete information, rumors have spread like wildfire and driven some pretty controversial fandom discourse (though it gave me a chance to share my knowledge of The Mariner’s Wife with the world, so I’m not entirely unhappy about that). Thankfully, a new YouTube channel named Fellowship Of Fans has been keeping us up to date with consistently reliable news from the set, and I highly recommend you subscribe now so you don’t miss a thing.
One can hope, however, that we’ll learn more official details sooner rather than later – especially with the Tolkien Estate having announced earlier this year that a new collection of previously unpublished writings by J.R.R. Tolkien is coming in 2021, which will provide new insight into a wide variety of subjects, including the Second Age of Middle-earth, something they wryly note will be “Of particular note, given the impending Amazon series”. How much of what’s in this book, titled The Nature Of Middle-earth, will actually be new is up for debate, but I’m extremely excited for it nonetheless.
But the greatest Tolkien-related joy of 2020 (and the one in which I participated the most eagerly) has to have been the Tolkientober event: a month-long art challenge organized by Noelle Stevenson’s wife, artist and animator Molly Knox Ostertag – who, incidentally, was also recently awarded a Forbes 30 Under 30 honor. Tolkientober brought us together through the inclusive power of art, and allowed us a sneak peek of some of the next generation’s great Tolkien artists. I don’t claim to be one of those, but I did have a lot of fun sharing my works with the Tolkien community on Twitter, and it helped me rediscover my passion for drawing and sketching: something I had put aside pre-pandemic to focus on writing. Tolkientober, a casual, judgement-free, noncompetitive event aimed at spreading good vibes around the internet, taught me how to balance my talents better and renewed my confidence in my art, and for that I will always be thankful.
But enough about me. What I want to know is what your favorite moments were: so if my list is any way incomplete, share your own thoughts in the comments below and tell me about your experience as a Tolkien fan in 2020 – see you all in the new year!
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.
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!
With several months yet to go before filming even begins on the first season of Amazon Prime’s hugely ambitious adaptation of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the studio has already gone ahead and renewed the big-budgeted fantasy series for a second season. There are several new details in the Deadline article which broke the news, so allow me to ramble on about them with urgency and excitement. As you can probably imagine, I’m trembling with anticipation.
First of all, we have the news that the second season of the series is already in the works – Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, has confirmed that as we speak, the writer’s room for the series (which includes J.D. Payne, Patrick McKay, Gennifer Hutchison, Bryan Cogman, etc) is currently collaborating on writing the bulk of Season 2 scripts. As is noted in the article, this is really good news because it means that we, the audience, won’t have to wait that long between Seasons 1 and 2. In fact, at the speedy rate that things are going, we could expect to get the first two seasons almost back-to-back. My heart can’t take this.
Additionally, it has been revealed that after J.A. Bayona has finished filming the first two episodes of the series’ first season, the show will go on hiatus for four to five months, allowing time to review the footage and write more material for the second season before moving on with filming. In Deadline’s words: “By going on a longer than normal hiatus, LOTR will be ready with Season 2 scripts so it could possibly film some Season 2 footage during the Season 1 shoot, or even film the remainder of Season 1 and Season 2 back-to-back.” This is, of course, the same tactic that Peter Jackson used when directing his equally ambitious movie trilogy of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. Parallels. Parallels!
The article also notes that the majority of the series is expected to film outdoors, on location in New Zealand, as we suspected. That could mean a return to the practical-effects pioneered by Jackson in his movie trilogy, or it might indicate something else entirely (Deadline suggests that it’s because Tolkien loved the outdoors: I have no idea whether they’re right or not).
So there you have it! This is an extraordinary action by Amazon, as it seems to suggest complete confidence in the fledgling series, which has a long way to go before it gets off the ground. While we wait, leave your thoughts 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 Two Towers, the second 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.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to try and downplay the degree to which these films truly are movie-making masterpieces. The Two Towers is probably the most overlooked and underrated installment in the trilogy, but it still boasts more than most movies can: critics almost unanimously praised it for its epic scope and groundbreaking technology, while the Academy Awards rewarded it for special effects and sound editing (it was also nominated in four other categories, including Best Picture). Audiences loved it, making it the highest-grossing film of 2002, and, for a while, one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It was confirmation, if any was needed, that what had begun with The Fellowship Of The Ring a year earlier was not a fluke: the fantasy genre had redefined itself, stepping away from the shackles of sword-and-sorcery, and become a new, unique form of entertainment – critics debated endlessly at the time about whether it classified as “lowbrow” or “middlebrow” (since, obviously, “highbrow” was out of the question) and it would take another year before The Return Of The King won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, cementing the series in cinematic history and establishing the genre as a respected art-form. But unfortunately, The Two Towers has always been stuck in between its two milestone siblings: it was a crucial step in the process, but it tends to get ignored for that reason. What it did achieve, singularly, is just as important: Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as the miserable creature Gollum, one of the first of its kind, was a stepping stone in modern CGI techniques – for more on that fascinating discussion, see here. It also led to the creation of the MASSIVE crowd-simulation technique, which is still used to this day on projects such as Avengers: Endgame and Game Of Thrones. These days, director Peter Jackson is a rather more unpredictable commodity, having largely withdrawn from the world of mainstream film-making: he is supposedly still working on a sequel for The Adventures Of Tintin (as of 2016, at any rate), and he’s working on a documentary about the Beatles, but his most recent venture, Mortal Engines, was a discouraging box-office disaster. So it’s worth looking back at the director’s heyday for a glimpse of what Jackson can be at his best, and what he can hopefully be again in the near future.
The Two Towers is a spectacular and daring film, and it’s one of the rare films that can appeal to book-readers and general audiences alike, balancing humor and drama almost perfectly, allowing a vast ensemble cast to shine in ways that shouldn’t be possible – even modern Avengers movies have struggled to balance screentime for their sprawling casts: The Two Towers is a great example of how it can be done well. The intricacy with which subplots and story-threads are woven together, the themes brought to life through Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens’ script (we’ll talk more about those later), Jackson’s incredible camera-work: not to mention Howard Shore’s phenomenal score – which is used to great effect throughout the film, but most notably in the Fangorn Forest scenes, the arrival of the Elves at Helm’s Deep, and the last march of the Ents. And at the very end, as Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) monologues about the stories that really matter, and a world worth fighting for, it’s Shore’s score, a grandiose variant on his iconic “Shire Theme”, even more than the narration and the montage of hope triumphing over despair, that brings me to tears every time I watch Two Towers. This score was not nominated for an Oscar because of a long-standing Academy-rule forbidding sequel scores which reuse old themes: a rule that was rewritten a year later to allow Shore’s Return of the King score to win not one, but two Academy Awards. Shore’s score, the most thematically complex in film history, is a true work of genius: even when Two Towers‘ script fails to fully address the theme, hugely important in Tolkien’s original novels, of the earth itself fighting back against those who would seek to destroy it and harvest it for their own gain, Shore’s “Nature’s Reclamation” theme reinforces this message at critical moments, making sure that we are always subtly aware of it.
And that’s just behind the scenes talent. In front of the camera, Elijah Wood’s wide-eyed Frodo Baggins is the underrated MVP of Middle-earth, and his Two Towers story arc is pure gold: he and Samwise Gamgee, leaving behind their friends in the Fellowship of the Ring, set out towards the land of Mordor, searching for a way into the impenetrable realm of shadow and ash – but when they come face-to-face with the wretched Gollum, previous owner of Frodo’s Ring, everything changes. Frodo sees in Gollum a twisted reflection of himself, a terrifying vision of the reality which could befall him if he succumbs to the daily temptation of the One Ring. He reaches out to Gollum with small, simple acts of mercy – which includes calling him by his long-forgotten true name, Sméagol. He has to believe he can save Gollum, because he has to believe he can save himself. As a rift grows between Frodo and the suspicious Sam (who is technically right for mistrusting Gollum, but doesn’t realize he’s basically paralyzing Frodo with fear every time he says there’s no way to save the wicked, scheming creature), Gollum is slowly being forced out of his own stolen body by Sméagol, who succeeds in establishing a tentative control over himself for barely a day or two, before Frodo’s “betrayal” under Faramir’s orders causes him to slip: the terror in Sméagol’s eyes when Frodo leads him into a trap, his sudden realization that Gollum is back, and stronger, is absolutely heartbreaking. Frodo and Gollum are both victims and abusers of the Ring’s power, intertwined in a tragic spiral: there is poetry in parallels, such as when a scene at the beginning of Two Towers, where Frodo draws his sword on Gollum to protect Sam, is mirrored by a scene at the end where he threatens to kill Sam to protect his Ring. And it’s up to Wood and Serkis, especially, to sell this storyline, and they do it: Astin is not a perfect Samwise, by any means (his line-delivery, especially, is…questionable in dramatic scenes), but he is also an important member of this loyalty triangle, and he manages to do just enough good in the role to excuse his flaws.
On the other side of the Middle-earth map, the story is largely Aragorn-centric, but Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the reluctant warrior-king is at its most subdued here, and he delivers less of the Fellowship smolder, and almost none of the crowd-pleasing Return of the King rallying cries. This isn’t a fault of Mortensen’s performance, he’s still excellent, but it does allow his supporting cast to get some more time to shine – especially, unexpectedly, King Théoden (Bernard Hill) and his counselor, Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). Somehow, it is these two who stand out the most to me on rewatches of Two Towers, for a variety of reasons: Dourif, for his obvious pleasure in embodying this sickly, conniving character, who appears almost as a parallel to Serkis’ Gollum; the role could so easily have been played melodramatically, with Wormtongue laughing maniacally and expositing his evil plans – but instead, Dourif pulls his punches, letting his physical acting speak for itself. He is pathetic, a coward, and an utterly despicable traitor: but he feels like a legitimate threat at all times, even when he’s knocked down and bleeding. And as for his liege-lord, Théoden, he is a bare husk of a man when we first see him, shrunken in his mighty throne, devoured by age (strengthening his niece Éowyn’s fears that age and immobility will also claim her if she stays at home and rots while the men of her kingdom fight). But when Bernard Hill comes alive, through some CGI wizardry, and takes back his sword, it’s a spark of hope: up until that moment, Two Towers moves slowly, uncertainly, meandering through several subplots with no clear purpose – the moment Hill moves, the film suddenly moves as well, and finds focus. And Hill’s performance continues to be a highlight of the film right up to his desperate charge from the gates of Helm’s Deep. While his character was rather betrayed by the screenwriters in Return of the King, I can hold onto this Théoden as the definitive onscreen version of the noble king. Flawed, displaying a Shakespearean grief, Théoden is a man forced to fight a war that should, in a perfect world, have been fought by his son – who was cruelly stricken down in his youth. Sam’s line later in the film about how “by rights, we shouldn’t even be here” applies to the King as well: he shouldn’t be there, on the front lines, sacrificing his last hard-won years on the earth to defend his kingdom from destruction – but there he is, and he will do anything to keep his people safe.
Unfortunately, this is more a testament to Hill’s strength as an actor, and less of a compliment to the script, which tries its best to frame Théoden as a well-intentioned but naive military leader, whose plans to lead his people to safety at Helm’s Deep will ultimately backfire when it leads a caravan of women and children into harm’s way. Thankfully, in this scene, Aragorn is there to save the day and right Théoden’s wrongs.
And that’s a problem that the movie often runs into, trying to pose Aragorn as the answer to all of Middle-earth’s problems, and the sole salvation for the human race. In Tolkien’s novels, this is not the case: yes, Aragorn is in a class of his own, but never to the point where his fellow humans feel like they’re not doing their part to save the world – in the books, Théoden is more than willing to ride out to war, and doesn’t waste time worrying about petty grievances Gondor may or may not have caused in the far-distant past; and in the books, Faramir, here played by David Wenham, is completely different from how we see him onscreen. In Jackson’s version of events, an antagonist is needed to disrupt Frodo, Sam and Gollum’s story from its forward motion, and that antagonist is Faramir: who, in Tolkien’s version, is a quiet, mild-mannered pacifist who is not only a trustworthy ally but a good friend. Here, Wenham (who had never read the books before taking on the role) does his level best to make Faramir unsympathetic and unrelenting, threatening the hobbits on multiple occasions, dragging them as prisoners toward his even more tyrannical father, and nearly falling victim to the Ring. In the film’s Extended Edition, a great deal of Tolkien-derived backstory is glimpsed for Faramir, including his desire to have his father notice him and recognize his great deeds: sadly, we see none of that in the theatrical edition, which is the one I’m reviewing here. Instead, what we get is a low-key villain who appears to maybe be conflicted about what he’s doing, but does it nonetheless. This is one of the biggest crimes of The Two Towers, especially since Faramir, on the page, was the character who most closely embodied all of Tolkien’s own beliefs and philosophies, and whose “sea-green incorruptible nature”, as Philippa Boyens once put it, was supposed to serve as a reason for readers to place their hopes in the faith of Men. But no, we’ve got Aragorn to do that – you know, the guy who, according to Jackson, doesn’t even like being a human and wishes he were one of the Elven-folk (for the record, that change to Aragorn’s character is interesting, but it only increases the need for Faramir to be good).
Anyway, while there is some justification for the butchering of Faramir, there isn’t any for the drastic alterations to the character of Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies): one of the giant, mysterious Ents who inhabit Fangorn Forest, Treebeard is the shepherd of the trees, a sorrowing remnant of an ancient world, one who remembers the splendor of the forests of old and is watching as his last corner of the world shrinks under the axes of orcs and the mechanisms of the White Wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). But in the movies, Treebeard is somehow unaware of Saruman’s evil, despite living a few miles from him, and has to be tricked by Pippin Took (Billy Boyd) into seeing the horrors of war firsthand. This one bothers me far more than Faramir, honestly, because (a) it’s completely unnecessary, and (b) having Pippin be the one to outsmart Treebeard only makes the forest-giant look even more stupid, considering that Pippin is not known as the brightest member of the Fellowship. This was justified as a way for Merry and Pippin to have some say in events, but again, it could have been avoided: in the books, Merry and Pippin are the deciding factor in Treebeard’s plans to go to war, reminding him that there are good people in the world outside his forest who still love nature, people who are worth fighting and dying for. Reducing that motivation to a cheap trick robs the story of its emotional impact, and misses an opportunity to reinforce the film’s themes.
There is another missed opportunity in Two Towers that baffles me to no end: while Aragorn and his friends are preparing for battle at Helm’s Deep and Frodo and Sam are captives of Faramir, another subplot is introduced, one that initially appears to fit in with the rest of the story – this being the tale of Aragorn and Arwen (Liv Tyler). Arwen first begins appearing through flashbacks and an unconscious dream-sequence, and the audience has to piece together certain events that are…well, vague, to say the least. Arwen’s choice to give up her mortality so she could be with Aragorn should have been that simple, but Jackson chooses to elaborate upon the framework of their romance that Tolkien built – and his attempts to do so get pretty derailed. For some inexplicable reason, it is implied that Arwen’s immortality is bound up with the Evenstar pendant that she gave to Aragorn in Fellowship, but the flashbacks here suggest that, only a short while after she gifted it to him, Aragorn tried to return it to her, telling her that they could never be together, and that he wouldn’t have her die on his account. But he ended up keeping it, because she told him “it was a gift”, and now he starts possibly falling for his temporary traveling companion, Éowyn (Miranda Otto), who definitely has feelings for him: and then he loses the Evenstar, but then he gets it back, and when he does I guess that symbolically renews his love for Arwen – but off in Rivendell, Arwen is teary-eyed and depressed because Elrond (Hugo Weaving) tells her that even if Aragorn does win the war against Sauron, he is still a mortal, and will die eventually. His speech is accompanied by an absolutely beautiful vision pulled straight from the Appendices of the novel, in which a veiled Arwen mourns at Aragorn’s tomb before abandoning the waking world and departing into the forest, never to be seen again. It’s touching stuff, and Arwen is eventually convinced to go away with the rest of Elrond’s people to the Grey Havens, to set sail into the West and preserve her immortality. Except…she already gave that up, didn’t she? What exactly are the mechanics of giving up your immortality? Isn’t that what the pendant is all about? We don’t get to find out in Two Towers, because for whatever reason Jackson chooses to leave that subplot hanging, until it can finally be resolved in the third film. Then, and only then, do we learn that Arwen doesn’t go to the Grey Havens, but has a vision of her own future with Aragorn, and the family they will raise together – a vision which inspires her to turn around, march back to Rivendell, and angrily confront her father with the truth: instead of fleeing, they have to help Middle-earth. They have to reforge The Blade That Was Broken. That would have been an excellent ending for her storyline in Two Towers, and would have been entirely consistent with the film’s themes – but Jackson, once again proving he had no idea what to do with Arwen, chooses to break up the story between the two films. A little cohesion can go a long way, and Arwen’s entire subplot lacks any.
I could go on and on, nitpicking every little alteration to the story and every single detail that breaks with book-canon: Samwise shouldn’t throw precious lembas bread to Frodo while they’re sitting a few feet away from a cliff; even if the old alliances did hold, Rohan wouldn’t be able to send word to Gondor and receive an army of reinforcements within a few hours, as Aragorn suggested; Legolas (Orlando Bloom) mistakenly refers to the Uruk-Hai heading north-east toward Isengard – that one’s especially funny, considering that later in the same movie, excessive screentime is devoted to studying a map of Middle-earth which proves him completely wrong. But talking about these minuscule nuisances would be petty, in the bigger conversation about The Two Towers and what it’s attempting to say.
It’s a story about hope – about finding something to believe in, and to hold onto, even when all around you seems to crumble into ruin. It’s a story about a disunited world coming together to face unspeakable evil, about people realizing that we are all in this life together, and that it’s our duty to defend those who need our help – and that’s why I can’t, for instance, be too mad about the Elves coming to Helm’s Deep to fight alongside the Men of Rohan: because, while it might not be in the books, it still achieves what Tolkien wanted to say, about how we are the stewards of our earth, and, when in dire circumstances, we will stand side-by-side to protect it. In this modern age, a story like that is more essential than ever.
Or, as Samwise Gamgee would put it, it’s a story that really matters.
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.
Game of Thrones is over, and has left a gaping hole in the fantasy genre – a hole that multiple film and TV studios are eager to fill. Amazon is the favorite to achieve that, with their upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel series based on the novels and other published works of J.R.R. Tolkien, a five-season, billion-dollar commitment that apparently will also spawn a number of spin-offs and sequels.
That all sounds fantastic, but so far we’ve had barely any indication that this project is even still alive. They confirmed the show’s setting and time-period earlier this year through a series of posts on their official Twitter page, which was followed by a report that shooting would begin in Leith, Scotland, later this summer. John Howe, art director on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Tom Shippey, a Tolkien scholar, both boarded the project at some point as well. There has been very little online chatter about the show, unless you (like I) habitually frequent sites like TheOneRing.net. But that might be about to change with the news that broke today, that Bryan Cogman is rumored to be either the director or a chief consultant for the show.
Cogman’s involvement with the series is interesting news for Tolkien purists who want the core themes of the book to be transferred to the screen – he served as “loremaster” for Game of Thrones, working to maintain fidelity to the George R.R. Martin novels, and has won multiple Emmy Awards. This is not going to please everyone, though – Cogman is now the third white male to board the project, following the firing of Sharon Tal Yguado at Amazon Studios. Jackson’s famous trilogy was extremely progressive in that it was largely written by two brilliant women; Jackson’s wife Fran Walsh and friend Philippa Boyens. Cogman, on the other hand, is in part responsible for some of the most controversial scenes in Game of Thrones history, such as the brutal torture and rape of Sansa Stark, something that (a) is undeniably a key element of Sansa’s brilliant character arc, but (b) was not in the original books and does have some suspiciously sexist overtones. Tolkien’s world is much “cleaner” than Westeros, and one wouldn’t expect to find such acts of violence in Middle-earth – though, then again, this series is not going to be set in the Middle-earth we know from the books and movies: this is going to be a story of an empire falling into decadence and decay, a civilization obsessed with death to the point of madness. This is a subject that has already been debated and argued for years, so I’m not going to dive too deeply into it, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide: is Cogman’s involvement a problem, or are you excited about this news?
(Benioff & Weiss, the Game of Thrones showrunners who have been the target of a LOT of backlash these last couple of weeks, are not involved in the show, by the way – nor are they likely to be, since they’re joining the Star Wars franchise).
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.