This is the review I submitted to Tablet for publication in this week’s issue, street date of December 18. I had to cut it to 800 words for them, so I thought I’d run the whole thing here. Issue content there is usually updated online by the end of the following weekend, so compare and contrast come Monday!
One of the many thoughts I remember having at about 9 am on September 11, 2001 was “Those people will never get to see The Lord of the Rings!” I recall frowning at the idiocy of the thought; but as I watched the towers fall, I couldn’t shake it. Last year it surfaced as I watched The Two Towers on Christmas Day. This year, once again, it buzzed around in my mind as I watched the final installment of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of The King.
A summary seems beside the point; yet a reviewer can no more assume knowledge on the part of the reader than a filmmaker. Frodo, who bears a magic ring to be destroyed into great peril, and his companion, Sam, venture into the land of evil, Mordor. They seek a mountain, the place the Ring was created and the only place it may be destroyed. Meanwhile, Elves and Men have defeated the army of the turncoat wizard Sauruman, whose overlord Sauron now seeks to destroy the city of Minas Tirith. The ancient city is located within sight of the heartland of Mordor. The elves are leaving Middle-Earth, and Sauron’s orc and human army vastly outnumbers the forces defending the White City, the seat of kings past. Can good triumph over evil and the reign of men be saved? Your guess may prove unusually accurate.
The first image of the film is an earthworm writhing in the fingers of a character we do not at first recognize. Shortly we realize we’re watching the story of how the Ring came to Smeagol. Andy Serkis appears on screen in person as Smeagol rather than the computer-animated avatar, Gollum. We see his transformation into the creature, in stages, mixing makeup and computer graphics. It’s a canny move, as we carry that memory of flesh-and-blood forward and project it on the computer-generated character.
Nitpickers will be relieved that while significant episodes from the books are excised (Ghan-Buri-Ghan and Tom Bombadil are undoubtedly sulking in the canteen, cursing their agents), no further ill-advised major redefinitions of character have taken place, as in the second film’s reinvention of Faramir. However, those unfamiliar with the books may be puzzled by the wholly unsympathetic portrayal of the ill-starred Steward of Gondor, Denethor. How did such a self-centered and deluded man retain his position of leadership? Jackson leaves the explanation out of the film, presumably to surface on the extended DVD. For those left wondering: Denethor has been partially bewitched by Sauruman, and his character in the film reflects this influence.
Denethor’s utterly wretched, tragic death is the absolute nadir of The Lord of The Rings as written by Tolkien, and a deliberate invocation of King Lear and other mad kings. Yet, Jackson’s version left me unmoved and a little nettled by the final pyrotechnic exclamation point. I suspect this reflects Denethor’s simplified depiction as a loathsome man, rather than a tragic figure undone by loss and pride, the tragic failure to Theoden’s noble success. The mirror image is present even in their names. Jackson’s streamlining has weakened the narrative structure of the work. There may be a trace of political commentary in Denethor’s depiction as the leader of a great nation, born to privilege, blinded to the multiplicity of forms that loyalty can take, a danger to his people.
In Tolkien’s presentation, tragedy piles on tragedy. Jackson has leavened the tale by breaking them up and cutting in events that give hope. Over years of re-reading the books, I have come to savor those black hours. Their lightless depths make the triumphs to come blaze brighter in exaltation. Missing that incarnation of defeat and utter doubt lessens the impact of the final segment of the film.
Elsewhere, Jackson transcends his source material. In the ancient world, signal fires were used to communicate events over long distances at the speed of light itself. Jackson exhilaratingly depicts such an event. The confrontation between Miranda Otto’s Eowyn and the leader of the Black Riders on the plain before Minas Tirith is also a success. Here, as in the book, it’s a remarkable moment, and drew the largest cheer of the film. Otto is remarkable, her character’s experience of fear and determination visible behind her helmet in the jarred and shaking shot. On the other hand, if Gandalf’s grandfatherly twinkles look a bit like shtick, one can forgive McKellen; given the length, a few familiar things are to be expected.
Jackson brings back the war oliphaunts seen in The Two Towers, and in fine cinematic style, they are bigger, better, faster, and larger in quantity. Just as the impeccable visualizations of Minas Tirith are a literate adaptation of early medieval Romanesque architecture, the black-masked oliphaunt riders draw costume inspiration from various non-European and Middle-Eastern cultures. Tolkien’s novels clearly cast the Southern peoples of Middle-Earth as lackeys to the black evil of the lord of Mordor (his ‘Southrons’ are ‘swart,’ among other things). As a consequence, I found myself wondering ‘What would this film look like to an Iraqi?’
Despite my own love for the books I did not find myself moved to cheer during the climactic battle at the foot of the Black Gate. Instead, I was discomfited by the plot’s depiction of an outnumbered force of valiant men facing evil at the gates of hell. I was unable to take Aragorn’s speeches imploring devotion to duty at face value, hearing Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld claim defense while plotting murder, lying to me through Mortensen’s teeth, helpless to keep their specters at bay. Who is the Dark Lord again? Where is Mordor, exactly?
Jackson also presents Tolkien’s image of a tower crumbling as emblematic and factual evidence of defeat and ruin. Tolkien certainly expected his readers to be heartened at this. Jackson clearly understood that the image would have a different meaning to his audience. His visualization is brave, and worthy of the books. There was a perceptible pause in the cheers of the audience as the tower tottered and crumbled, in fear that a direct visual reference would jar.
In the end, if I find Jackson’s epic sweep wanting, it’s because Jackson is competing with a lifetime’s love and familiarity with his sources. It’s because it’s over, and (extended DVD aside), I’ll never have that sense of giddy anticipation again. It’s because Jackson never topped the personal impact of The Fellowship of the Ring, an indelible moment in my experience of cinema. It granted me insight on the emotional impact that earlier epics could carry, an effect largely lost to contemporary audiences.
Middle-Earth was born in Tolkien’s mind amid the muck and stench of the First World War. That moment represented the passing of the old world, the end of an age; Tolkien’s books memorialize its’ passing in fire and blood. Jackson’s films memorialize not only the original work, but by tragic coincidence the birth of our own age, also in fire and blood. Although this time it’s sand and oil – and falling towers – instead of trenchfoot and mud in the role of midwife, unprecedented and unpredictable change is heralded. Tolkien’s books helped two generations make sense of the experiences of their fathers and grandfathers. Let’s hope Jackson’s work helps us to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.