A few days ago, I posted a long review of The Return of the King, after noting that I had reservations about the critical judgments I formed while watching the movie for review. In essence, I did not find myself as emotionally involved in the film on first seeing as I had expected to be; and therefore the specific critical complaints I noted as I viewed the film were both unbalanced in the overall viewing experience and, I suspected, invalid in that they reflected a specific variety of aesthetic experience that differed radically from seeing film either as a straight recreational experience or from approaching the work as a serious, independent, original work of art.

When I see a film for review I generally try not to learn anything about it in advance – something that’s harder than you’d think – because I think that engaging with the film based on expectations – for the stars, writer, director, or effects budget – will make it more difficult to observe myself in the process of absorbing the work, and therefore more likely to reflect not my perceptions in the review but rather those expected of me in the social context, not necessarily the perceptions hoped for by the marketing team for the film but probably not honestly my own vision and experience.

I believe that this phenomenon, of writing to meet social expectations in a review, is the single most widespread and execrable problem in contemporary critical writing, both academic and journalistic. In popular film criticism generally it’s clearest in two manifestations, first, the unduly adulatory review (and attendant flack quotes), and second, the contextually dismissive review (formerly most commonly associated with genre flicks). In either case the critic’s motivation to praise or condemn a film is conditioned not so much by the actual quality or personal viewing experience of the film as by the feedback the critic expects or hopes to receive or avoid.

While I don’t think I was afflicted with either of these problems as I sat down to see the film, I certainly was not ignorant of the film’s context – indeed, of the films I’ve seen over the past few years, it was probably the film I knew the most about heading into the theater, and I believe that this trap sprung on me as I started to watch the film. I’ve never pretended to apply the purist approach to Jackson’s films, as Tolkien’s books are quite literally the first thing I ever read, and it’s clear that while the Jackson team exercised filmmakers’ privilege in re-tailoring the plots and characters they were working with, they were also following Tolkien’s lead and – repeated disavowals on their part aside – both expected and intended that the films would be measured by obsessive nit-pickers against the source material. Therefore I was consciously intending to compare the film, in a general way, to the book from which it was drawn.

However, the experience of The Two Towers‘ quite major plot and character divergence from the book led me to approach the comparison with skepticism, as I firmly believe that the redefinition of Faramir’s character and the nonsensical addition of the scenes set in Osgiliath call into question the benefit of the doubt extended to the filmmakers in the wake of the first film. Thus, when I sat down, I was prepared to note more problems and anticipated them (although I’d resigned myself to the excision, however regretful, of the Wild Men and the Scouring of the Shire). What I had not expected or prepared for was the effect that skeptical note-taking had on me emotionally – I was far from immersed in the film and simply never caught it’s emotional rhythms, something that in itself disappointed me.

The tremendous response I experienced to seeing the first film – far and away the most amazing emotional reaction to a film in the theater I’ve ever had – went a very long way toward setting expectations for Jackson to meet on the next two films. While The Two Towers disappointed, somewhat, my disappointment didn’t interfere with my emotional involvement in the film. When The Return of the King ended, I had a smaller, less pointed list of nit-pickery – the main beef I had was with the over-determined depiction of Denethor, something both required by and telegraphed in The Two Towers‘ redefinition of Faramir – yet I felt uninvolved and disappointed.

My awareness of this distancing became acute when listening to Aragorn’s speech at the Black Gate, as I noted in the longer review posted here earlier. Instead of reacting to the speech within the context of the drama, of the film, I heard it with my own ears, and applied it to the context of my own values and to the political realities of the present day, and it made me shift uncomfortably in my seat. It’s possible that Jackson’s decision to include a bit of straight-up anti-war propaganda in the scene where Pippin sings was as counterbalance to the stem-winding call to duty that Aragorn’s speech is intended to provide. If that was a part of the justification, it was a poor one. It invites the viewer to analyze the political values presented in the film and Tolkien’s work as well.

I think it’s safe to say that most viewers of the film and readers of the book are not monarchists and question the advisability of genocide. Yet, Tolkien adopts mythic approaches and Manichean definitions where entire races are in fact literally evil. These values are presented as belonging to the individuals, characters, and societies that he so carefully detailed in the tiniest particular. It’s hard to argue that the obsessive and realistic detailing of the one thing can possibly mean anything other than that the Manichean idea is meant to be taken at face value. Others more knowledgeable than I, however, don’t subscribe to that idea, and I guess neither do I. But it is an incoherence, in a way, just as the problem of evil is in our own, real, world.

It was a mistake to invite my political values to the table. I regret it, as it undermined the experience of the film. As noted, Jackson helped invite them in; but I’m confident that if I had not been taking notes and generally diligently attempting to fulfill my role as a film critic the film would have been better for it. I suppose that is a sort of newbie thing that all critics have to learn, and so I’m glad to know it now. The second time I saw the film, I did catch the emotional rhythm, thankfully; I look forward to a future viewing, and, of course, to the extended DVD of the final film (which, word has it, will be 4 hours and 50 minutes long, a full hour added to the theatrical version).

4 thoughts on “Review of the King

  1. In my years of studying art on a formal, scholarly level I’ve seldom seen something really moving (or just plain good) that doesn’t contain, in some way, a direct quotation of current events or the artist’s views on same, however small those quotations may be. I don’t know whether this is done intentionally or not. I’m not an artist, I can’t tap into that level of creativity. I wonder if Peter Jackson’s anti-war statements come from a similar place?

    I’ve not read the books. I am now reluctant to do so, because I’m afraid reading the real thing will make me dislike the films (which I love). Your reviews and comments about Return of the King have been very interesting to me. I approach the books with caution.

  2. I’d love to read what a medievalist has to say about the films as a whole – any way you can get that for credit at school, m’lady?

    I agree that great art inevitably invokes current events – there’s no doubt in my mind that Tolkien’s books are in their entirety a response to World Wars One and Two, despite his own rather vociferous protestations that the books are not allegorical. Gods and Monsters indeed. I don’t even think it’s poorly handled or uncalled for on the part of Jackson. I do think, however, that it’s very difficult to make great art that is resonant, rather than deterministic and didactic, if a creator consciously sets out to make art about a current event that espouses a viewpoint. Doing so means that the creator, to one extent or another, will seek to limit and direct observers’ interpretations, thereby limiting the potential of the piece.

    On the other hand, I really like advertising and propaganda as well – they just have different goals than much other art.

    You might be interested in the writing I did last year in the lead-in to the release of The Two Towers. Here’s a list:

    Concerning Hobbits: an intriduction to the following series of essays.

    Learning to Read: See Dick. See Ellessear. A Elbereth Gilthoniel!

    BOOKIE: page turner.

    Preparing the Ground: a movie? For reals?

    Rereading Middle-Earth: re-reading Tolkien.

    The Girl You Love in the Merrie Green Land: Reading Tolkien aloud. Really. The whole thing.

    I can feel it in the water: musing on the release of The Two Towers.

    The Gathering Storm: Mortensen eschews political interpretation of the films.

    My review of The Two Towers, per reader request.

  3. Hmmm, no credit earned but a topic worth exploring and writing about, now that you mention it. I’m currently reading an interesting book which explores the theory that many of the characteristics we perceive as “medieval” are more or less modern constructs. Lord of the Rings trilogy (films) overfloweth with this phenomenon. Did Tolkein set the stage in a pseudo-medieval world? Funny, I never thought of the stories in that kind of a setting. Perhaps this is why I shy away from the “fantasy” genre (although the local Borders has plopped Tolkein in “Science Fiction”).

    Am working my way through your links listed here…

  4. hm, ‘Did Tolkein set the stage in a pseudo-medieval world?’ interesting question. My reflex answer is ‘yes,’ but on reflection that’s clearly a bit off-base.

    Tolkien’s grounding is clearly the Arts-and-Crafts people, who looked to what they understood to be medieval creative practices, to start again without the Renaissance; but of course what they came up with is really Victorian, not medieval, imagery and practices, which employs symbols that they (and to an extent we) perceive as medieval (knights, the Caxton Press Canterbury, etc. etc.).

    Tolkien’s sources are older – Beowulf and Norse material more than Malory, I think – but his drawings situate the characters in the world seen in the movie. Frodo’s hobbit hole is directly based on a drawing by Tolkien, for example.

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