The Return of the King

…also known as The Return of the Franchise.

When we walked into the theater yesterday, the Faramir Offense was all I remembered of The Two Towers. After a truly stunning number of previews, the Franchise opened with a huge hunk of plot that properly belongs to The Two Towers - for example, Minas Morgul (the glow-in-the-dark one) is the second tower of the eponymous pair.

I should note that there is some debate on this point - see for example the Wikipedia entry for The Two Towers, or Tolkien’s letters on the matter - but canon contains a note at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring specifying Orthanc (Isengard) and Minas Morgul as the towers involved. Other options include Cirith Ungol (the orc tower at the head of the eponymous pass), Minas Tirith, and Barad-dur. Two notable towers not usually considered candidates are the Towers of the Teeth, Narchost and Carchost, guarding the Black Gate in the Morannon and blocking Frodo’s way.

No matter which towers you pick, they belong in The Two Towers. The cliffhanger for the second volume is Sam losing Frodo at Cirith Ungol, not some random Faramir character-assassination in Osgiliath. Pippin Wrestling the Palantir also belongs in TTT, where the palantir does not burst into flames, nor does it levitate.

Why did Peter Jackson choose to defang TTT of its second tower and its punch? The fans may never know. Squeezing half of TTT into the third movie didn’t do it much good, either. As a result, there was no room for the real Denethor, nor the real march across Mordor. The Scouring of the Shire was no great loss - having cut Saruman from the final scene at Orthanc, there was no call to bring him to the Shire. And yet the lack of conflict of any sort after the Really Big Eagles scene made the rest of the movie excruciatingly boring for those who hadn’t read the books.

Before the movie, I hadn’t thought much of Tolkien’s skill at writing a novel. His only successful effort from a purely technical point of view was The Hobbit, and that was a children’s book with an omniscient narrator - which is to say it wasn’t exactly in the form of the modern novel, either. The Lord of the Rings, the most beloved literary work of the 20th century, is not loved for its execution or technical merits. Many people, even some like Veronica who have no particular prejudice against fantasy, cannot even read it - yet Peter Jackson’s flaming-palantir version of LotR has given me a new appreciation for the virtues of the original.

There are three things you must love to love the books: epic, worldbuilding, and language. Only the second, the world of Middle Earth, was fully preserved in the movies. Everyone gushes over the landscapes, the cities, the oliphaunts. Even when it’s wrong or incomplete, it’s still lovely. (I wanted to see Morgul Vale, and not every cliff in the book was quite that sheer a drop. People with a fear of heights should avoid the third movie.)

There are moments of epic beloved of the critics (by “the critics” I mean mainly RJ and Naomi Chana): notably the lighting of the beacons of Gondor (for which we forgive even the huge Denethor character-assassination involved in Pippin’s having to do the honors by his pratfalling self), Pippin’s song sequence, and the charge of the Rohirrim (for which we forgive some incredible military stupidity on their part - don’t any of the good guys have archers?). Most of the failures of the movies also come in the area of epic - specifically an omission of the kind of people you find in epics: Denethor is just a madman, not a tragic figure; Theoden has trouble making up his mind; Eowyn isn’t riding undercover; Arwen has some sort of personal Elvish medical problem with Sauron rather than everyone else’s millennia-long epic struggle problem with Sauron; Gandalf doesn’t respect Pippin’s volunteer service to Denethor; Frodo doesn’t trust Sam; Sam doesn’t give the ring back to Frodo immediately; Gimli wants to cheat the Dead; and so forth and so on.

The heart of the books is language but movies are a visual art - language was doomed to lose out. A few stray lines make their way into the plot, but there’s no way to convey on screen the texture given to the books by the eight or ten languages Tolkien invented for the purpose. This is a difficulty the movies share with translations of the books into foreign languages: Tolkien had already carefully translated both Westron and the language of the Rohirrim into English and it doesn’t bear a second translation well, whether into Spanish or into Peter Jackson. Writers are more fascinated by language than the average reader, so while this loss is great in my accounting it’s not really a significant problem for the movies qua movies.

The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge’s fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.
But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

Moving into another medium does mean picking up the problems of that medium - notably, cute people who can’t act. We get reasonably good performances from Gandalf, Elrond, and Pippin, but these only contrast with the problems of Aragorn, Arwen, and Frodo. Maybe it’s the producer who thinks that standing there and looking scruffy/Elven/tortured is enough to sell tickets - and he’d be right. Aragorn and Arwen (and similarly Legolas) can get away with the most here because their characters are just as sketchy in the books - they are part of the epic background, while the hobbits are the more modern, sympathetic viewpoint characters.

Frodo, however, is a huge problem, as I realized while he was standing on the deck of the ship in the Grey Havens, smiling at the shore and looking pretty for the camera. That boy with the baby face was not the 50-year-old Frodo of the books who went looking for the Cracks of Doom, found them, and could not go home again. He was the main character, yet I didn’t care for one minute what happened to Elijah Wood. He was never Frodo to me, especially after he got stabbed on Weathertop and moaned the whole way to Rivendell. Where was his warmth, his intelligence, his endurance, his compassion for Smeagol? Frodo (and in his absence Merry or Pippin) is supposed to be the reader’s linchpin connecting the epic past of Middle Earth to the coming Age of Men, but he doesn’t do that for the movie.

Frodo is not an easy role to play, but another actor might have pulled it off. Pippin, for instance, did hold a nice chunk of RotK together; he also looked the oldest of the four hobbits even though he’s supposed to be the youngest. Merry was underused, and Sam had everything but a proper master. Actors can make or break a movie; Elijah Wood broke The Lord of the Rings. (That is, of course, not his fault but that of the director who cast him.) LotR spiraled apart into a kaliedoscope of pretty scenes because Frodo wasn’t there to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

So my reaction to The Fellowship of the Ring still stands, here at the end of all franchises:

The scenery was wonderful, and the choices of what to cut from the book were not bad choices. However, the choices to rewrite the dialogue, plot and characters were all bad choices - too many to name, but all of them poor indeed. Let me clue the producer in: You’re not J.R.R. Tolkien. You’re not even Christopher Tolkien.

4 Responses to “The Return of the King”

  1. Samuel Kleiner Says:

    I don’t know- I’m more of the opinion that what is really lacking in the movies as such is the illustration of depth in the otherworld. As they are now the films after the first is not even watchable- after Moria the orcs are too dangerous. They should be like rats, and they are like wolves. What is lacking is really the visualization of superhumanity that was so evident in Moria- Despite the swarm-like numbers, they still falter. It seems to me that one lone orc should not even be able to take on a human, and yet a line of orcs charged the line of elves in the initial Gil-Galad scene.

    What was lacking was the implied moral difference from the difference in capabilities.

  2. Jemima Says:

    I did notice that the orc captain seemed to be doing the Nazgul captain’s job of running the siege of Minas Tirith, but otherwise the modern-day orcs didn’t seem to have too much in the way of individual personality or moral presence.

    As for the battle with Gil-Galad, Sauron had the ring at the time and his power was presumably driving those orcs.

  3. Samuel Kleiner Says:

    Yes, Gil-galad was a bad example- But- I don’t remember, it was a while ago I read about it, but wouldn’t Sauron have had balrogs and dragons back then to take the edge off the elves?

  4. Jemima Says:

    I think balrogs and dragons operate as free agents. I’m just inferring from the orcs’ total loss of morale when Sauron just took his attention away from the Morannon (even before the Ring was destroyed), that a more powerful Sauron means more powerful minions.

    This doesn’t really apply to the Pelennor Fields because Sauron was far away and ringless, and the Nazgul captain was (according to the book) driving the orcs before him in fear. Saruman’s orcs were supposed to be super-orcs, though.