Society: Movie: Lord of the Ring
“The Return of the King” is a flawed, disappointing end to Peter Jackson’s exceptional Lord of the Rings trilogy.
BACK IN 2001, in the golden age of cinema, when studios routinely put out classics like “A Beautiful Mind,” “Moulin Rouge,” and “I Am Sam,” Hollywood observers dismissed the Academy of Motion Pictures’ snub of “The Fellowship of the Ring” with a wave of the hand. “Oh don’t worry,” the sophisticates sighed, “Peter Jackson will win for ‘Return of the King’ so that the trilogy can be recognized all in one shot.”
It was a fine sentiment, except for one small detail: Suppose the Academy had taken the same approach towards “The Godfather”?
Which isn’t to say that “Return of the King,” the final installment of Peter Jackson’s brilliant Lord of the Rings, is “The Godfather Part III.” That wouldn’t be entirely fair. But it would be uncomfortably close to the mark.
ONE NEED NOT BE an anti-Jackson confederate to come to this sad and disappointing conclusion (please see here and here and here before you threaten to smite me with your +3 Sword of Blathrug).
It is worth saying, again, that the first chapter in the trilogy, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” is a masterpiece, not merely of the genre but of the form. It compares favorably with every epic film since “Lawrence of Arabia,” and now that the initial gloss has worn off and it’s mostly broken in, it would not be absurd to sneak “The Fellowship of the Ring” into your list of the top 15 or 20 films, all time. A marvel of pacing, economy, dexterity, and grit, “Fellowship” is beautiful, inspiring, and ennobling; it is very nearly a perfect movie.
The same cannot quite be said for “The Two Towers.” The second chapter in the trilogy has two noticeable flaws. For starters, its comic relief is foisted entirely onto a single character, and crudely so. Worse is that for the first time the writing team (comprised of Fran Walsh, Stephen Sinclair, Philippa Boyens, and director Peter Jackson) made a ghastly decision to change a key supporting character, the result of which is to wreck a rewarding subplot from the original Tolkien.
(A note on Faramir: The Jackson adaptation of Lord of the Rings is wonderfully faithful to Tolkien’s work in spirit, if not in actual letter. The lone exception is Jackson’s treatment of Faramir, the judicious, steely son of Denethor. In the film this valiant character is turned into a weak, compromised hot-head, the very opposite of how Tolkien drew him. This will be of little concern to well-adjusted viewers, the kind who live on their own and go out on Saturday nights, but to others, the disservice Jackson does Faramir is nigh unforgivable.)
Still, “The Two Towers” is an exceptional effort, marked by a sturdy narrative structure, an invigorating moral purpose, and beautiful work from the director, cast, and crew. A small step down from “Fellowship,” “The Two Towers” was, nonetheless, the movie of the year, and would be judged so most years.
While making these two films Jackson juggled a number of chainsaws. In a universe filled with strange names and language, the dialogue is never obtrusive and often comfortable and wry. The large cast of characters is well drawn and deftly showcased. Most impressive is the pacing, by turns leisurely, urgent, and taut--in short, perfect, despite the fact that each movie runs in excess of three hours. Jackson was able to cover hundreds of pages of text without either rushing or bogging down. It may seem strange to call a pair of three-hour movies lean, but that is exactly what they are.
“The Fellowship of the Ring” opens today in theaters. It’s the most expensive undertaking in the history of film--and it’s worth every penny.
WE’RE NOT LIVING in a golden age of cinema. Most years there are fewer than ten good movies made and great movies are even scarcer. There are many reasons for this, but I blame the “Waterworld” effect.
In 1995, Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld,” a cross between “The Road Warrior” and Pirates of the Caribbean, became one of the biggest box office bombs in history. With a budget of $175 million, it made just $88 million in the United States. Universal expected to lose big money on the project. But when the foreign grosses came in, and the video rentals were counted, “Waterworld” made back its budget and even managed to turn a small profit.
The lesson is: Big-budget movies never lose money. Movies that cost upwards of $100 million have lots of special effects, and people who don’t live in America will pay money to see them, no matter how dreadful they are. And when $100 million is being spent on a movie, it’s almost always dreadful. Studios put relentless pressure on directors working with big budgets and the results are mostly movies by committee.
All of which makes “The Fellowship of the Ring” very interesting. This is the first of three movies which comprise the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. All three movies were shot concurrently in New Zealand over the course of the last two years. Part two, “The Two Towers,” will be released at Christmas 2002, and the final installment, “The Return of the King,” at Christmas 2003.
As an enterprise, the Lord of the Rings is the most expensive project ever undertaken by a studio, costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million (that number may go up depending on how much the studio, New Line, decides to spend on the post-production and marketing of the two sequels). And the suits at AOL-Time Warner, which owns New Line, will no doubt be sweating this weekend (they’re so fidgety about the prospects for Lord of the Rings that they’ve already fired Mike DeLuca, the guy who green-lit the project). They’re hoping that “Fellowship of the Ring” is an instant hit, and praying that at the very worst, the “Waterworld” effect will save them should it bomb.
And in truth, “Fellowship” doesn’t have the feel of an instant success. It is a long, difficult, earnest movie, whose pleasures are not all immediately apparent. The story of swords and sorcery isn’t very hip and may call to mind unflattering images of pimply adolescents clutching their Dungeons & Dragons manuals. It isn’t clear that “Fellowship” will be embraced by audiences.
That said, it should be. “Fellowship” is the first truly epic movie to be made since “Titanic” and the first great movie in recent memory. Director Peter Jackson’s pacing is superb and his screenplay--even with a three hour running time--is a marvel of economy. In scope and achievement it may fairly be compared with “Lawrence of Arabia,” and while there is no predicting the actions of the Academy of Motion Pictures, it should win 10 or 11 Oscars.
Either way, shed no tears for Steve Case. As they say in Hollywood, even “Waterworld” made money.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.
An explanation of why “The Two Towers” won’t win Best Picture, even though it should.
I WON’T SEE “CHICAGO.”
There, I said it. I’m sure it’s a wonderful movie. John Podhoretz says so. Everyone says so. And besides, it stars Renée Zellweger, who will always be dear to my heart because she was a scrappy point guard in high school. But “Chicago” is going to win the Oscar for Best Picture and once again Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” is going to be overlooked. We can all see it coming.
The bitterness of last year’s slight is still fixed in my gizzard: “The Fellowship of the Ring”--one of the great cinematic achievements of our time, up there with “Lawrence of Arabia”--believe it--was beaten out by the maudlin and historically dishonest “A Beautiful Mind.” Like today, it was clear far in advance that “A Beautiful Mind” would win. And like today, I made a promise to boycott it.
I held firm until one summer evening when I brought it home from Blockbuster and slipped it into my DVD player. It’s a fine little film with a couple of very nice moments. Had “A Beautiful Mind” aired on CBS, it would have been the best movie-of-the-week ever and richly deserved an Emmy.
Of course, “A Beautiful Mind” wasn’t the first undeserving movie to win Best Picture. Just the year before, “Gladiator” won the Oscar, over a trio of movies that could each make a better claim for Best Picture (“Almost Famous,” “Shadow of the Vampire,” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). And the year before that, “American Beauty” won (over “Magnolia” and “The Insider”). And, come to think of it, the year before that, “Shakespeare in Love” won (over “Saving Private Ryan”).
How does this happen? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes for them, that’s how.
The Academy is made up of about 6,000 members of the film industry, who each fall into one of the Academy’s 14 branches (for actors, cinematographers, visual effects, public relations, film editors, etc.). But one doesn’t just join the Academy--you have to be invited and, as the Academy’s website puts it, have “achieved distinction in the arts and sciences of motion pictures.”
The members of each branch vote on nominations for their Oscars: Directors nominate Best Director, documentarians nominate Best Documentary, and so forth (except for Best Picture, for which all members get to make nominations). Once the top five nominees in each category are determined, they are put to the entire membership for a final vote, determining the winner.
It all makes perfect sense, except that membership skews somewhat older, so the Academy has, shall we say, particular tastes. As one Hollywood screenwriter tells me, “I liken Academy voters to an audience of grandparents at an elementary school play--they like ‘Oliver’ and ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.’”
And not only are their tastes outmoded, there’s this: Academy members have quite often not seen the movies they’re voting on. But while they may not drag themselves out to the theater, they do read the trade papers, and at this time of year the pages of “Variety” and the “Hollywood Reporter” are littered with “For your consideration . . .” ads touting potential nominees.
Much like in politics, deep pockets and a commitment to paid media can go a long way in Hollywood. One studio in particular, Miramax, is especially dedicated to lobbying for its products. Miramax has gotten at least one of its movies nominated for Best Picture every year for the last 10 years through pure, unadorned Bloombergianism. In 2001, for example, Miramax spent $1.8 million on ads--targeted at the 6,000 Academy members--for the movie “Chocolat.” The lackluster film, almost universally dismissed by critics and the movie-going public, received a Best Picture nomination nonetheless. But that’s nothing compared with the $15 million Miramax spent lobbying for “Shakespeare in Love” in 1999.
“Chicago,” as you may have guessed, is a Miramax film.
It’s a shame really, because “The Two Towers” already has one large obstacle in its way: patriotism. The Academy Awards are given out by the people who make movies in Hollywood, which is why foreign films almost never win. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is backed by an American company, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a foreign film. It was shot in New Zealand, by a New Zealand director using a New Zealand special-effects house. The actors are mostly Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders--as is almost the entire crew. Giving “The Two Towers” Best Picture would be, to paraphrase William Goldman, a little like workers from the Big Three in Detroit voting to give their most prestigious prize to a Toyota.
Still, I suppose that if the Academy is going to slight “The Two Towers,” it might as well be for “Chicago.” Better that than the hectoring, feminist “The Hours” or the latest Serious Holocaust Movie, “The Pianist.”
Just in case, I won’t see them either.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
“Third time lucky” is not an aphorism generally applied to film -- one need only look at the underwhelming conclusion of The Matrix trilogy or cast one’s mind back to Back to the Future to see how a franchise can run out of steam by the time Part Three arrives.
Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy may have escaped this fate by having been originally conceived as two movies; The Return of the King picks up with all the momentum last December’s The Two Towers built up in its three hours. Battle of Helm’s Deep? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
When last we left the intrepid hobbits Frodo and Sam they were travelling ever deeper into Mordor, where a fiery pit is the only thing that can destroy the One Ring that is Frodo’s heavy burden. Saruman’s stronghold has been destroyed by a forest of angry Ents (think trees only livelier). Gandalf, resident wizard, soothsayer and bringer of portentous dialogue, had helped the people of Rohan turn back an invasion by slimy Orcs.
Now, by this point those unfamiliar with The Lord of the Rings will have given up on this review and gone to do the crossword. That’s OK. This movie is not for the uninformed. (At more than three hours, it’s also not for the weak-bladdered.) Without a passing knowledge of Middle-earth you’ll soon be as lost as a dwarf in the forests of Lothlorien. (See what I mean?) Too much back story would get in the way of all the front story that needs to be told.
First and foremost, there is more fighting to be done. As The Return of the King begins, Legolas (the inexplicably smooth Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies, making up for his co-star in hirsuteness) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen, just hairy enough) help rouse the people of Rohan to assist their neighbour Gondor in its hour of need, as the Orcs attack the city-fortress of Minas Tirith. (There’s a joke in there somewhere: “An elf, a dwarf and a man walk into a bar ...”) Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) precede them to ready the folk of Gondor for battle, leaving Merry (Dominic Monaghan) in Rohan.
All the while, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) push on toward the aptly named Mount Doom, with their not-so-trusty guide Gollum (computer-generated, but given life by the voice and movements of Andy Serkis). This is at once the most intimate and gripping part of the tale, as Frodo, his wits clouded by his evil jewellery, is pulled into a bizarre sort of love triangle by Sam and Gollum. Sam’s loyalty and devotion to “Master Frodo” is so well played by Astin that when Frodo spurns him and he collapses in great fits of weeping, it seems the most natural reaction imaginable.
Those with a taste for battle will not be disappointed. The siege of Minas Tirith features more combatants than the number of people who will see the movie this weekend, and the Orcs batter the city with Flintstones-scale catapults and siege towers pushed by creatures the size of Macy’s parade balloons. It would be easy to berate the filmmakers for hyperbole, what with the giant pachyderms and thundering hordes of horsemen -- if it didn’t look so great.
Jackson’s camerawork is extreme, alternating between closeup and long shot, because on the one hand he’s damn proud of the scenery and the battles, and on the other he’s got a raft of stars, made famous or more so by his trilogy, and people want to see them emote. It’s easy to be blinded to the simplicity of the filmmaking by the scale of the action, but I found myself wishing for a little more visual creativity. The dialogue, however, strives for and sometimes manages an epic cadence, as when one of the hobbits wants to join a battle, and a soldier remarks: “I do not doubt his heart, only the reach of his arm.”
But the film’s elements are simple -- it is a quest and a battle against evil writ large. It has been said that the popularity of the movies has a lot to do with these unsettled times, but it was always thus -- author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote from a memory of the First World War, and readers of the first edition saw parallels with the fight against the Nazis. You may see Kaiser Wilhelm or Hitler or Osama as the cyclopean enemy in Mordor’s tall tower; the story is not specific to a certain time or place here in latter-day-earth.
Gimli and Legolas continue their good-natured sparring (a running gag about who can kill the most bad guys has Legolas bringing down a Zeppelin-sized elephant creature and surfing down the length of its collapsing body, only to be told by his friend: “That only counts as one!”). Aragorn manages an imperious, stoic resolve without turning completely to stone. Gandalf winds up looking a little lost at times, reduced to scurrying between one battle scene and the next, clucking worriedly. When he urges the soldiers of Gondor to fight, it feels forced, like a president donning battle fatigues; you know he’s not likely to be brought down by a mere Orc.
But the story belongs to the hobbits, and always has. They are the chroniclers, the witnesses of great deeds, the foot soldiers. (One early scene of Merry and Pippin lounging outside Saruman’s tower reminded me of soldiers during a ceasefire, officially on guard but taking it easy.) They are the smallest parts of the story -- but try getting your toaster to work without its smallest parts. Even Frodo’s deeds, without which all else would be lost, are played out on the small stage of his conscience, far from the trumpets and clashing armies.
The pace is relentless, with battles and treacheries piled higher and higher as the story progresses. Jackson intercuts the Frodo/Sam/Gollum narrative with the others, staying with each thread long enough for it to unravel satisfactorily. Purists will grumble over instances where book and movie diverge (there is, for instance, no “scouring of the Shire,” a chapter in which the hobbits fight one last battle on home ground). But Jackson has done a fine job, taking an immensely dense book and crafting a brilliant new look for a mythology that was born old. Rating three 1/2
Two years ago, after the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s three-part epic, The Lord of the Rings, I acted as defending attorney in the “mock trial of Peter Jackson for the Desecration of The Lord of the Rings.” Great fun was had by all as we argued the relative merits of Jackson’s endeavors to bring Tolkien’s myth to the silver screen. On that occasion the jury found Jackson ‘not guilty’, indicating that the first of the movies had received a thumbs-up from the twelve good men and true.
That was two years ago. Much water has passed under the Brandywine Bridge since then. Now, with the release of the third of the movies, we can finally judge Jackson’s efforts in their entirety. Does he still merit a thumbs-up?
For my part, I am still happy to act as defending attorney. I believe, on balance, that Jackson has done an admirable job. It is, however, not my judgment that is being sought. What would Tolkien himself have thought of the Jackson production of his myth? This is a much more interesting question and one which, in spite of the cautionary admonitions in my ear from the voice of my better judgment, I am foolhardy enough to try to answer.
The first thing we need to understand is that Tolkien was a perfectionist. He worked on the great landscape of myth, upon which The Lord of the Rings is little more than a mere blip in the foreground, for more than half a century. At his death it was still uncompleted. Such was his meticulous precision, such was his perfectionism, that a single lifetime was not enough to bring his creative vision to fruition. Something of the frustration that he felt at his inability to complete his magnum opus surfaced in his purgatorial allegory, “Leaf by Niggle.” The story’s chief protagonist, Niggle, had spent his life trying to paint a landscape but, at the time of death, had not even finished a solitary tree to his satisfaction. The only thing brought to perfection was a lone leaf. Perhaps, in Tolkien’s judgment, The Lord of the Rings was the lone leaf. To illustrate the same point by switching metaphors, The Lord of the Rings was a sublime movement, of which the composer was justly proud, but the great music to which he aspired was elusive. The movement confirms the maestro’s immortality, but the symphony remained unfinished.
All of this serves as a preamble to illustrate that Tolkien is not merely a hard act to follow but is also a hard judge to please. As such, Jackson was always going to be treading on perilous ground when he chose to follow in the master’s footprints. Whether his decision was the result of fearlessness or folly, or both, his bold ambition stumbles, inevitably, on the footfalls of the very footprints he follows. Quite simply, Tolkien would probably have judged Jackson in accordance with his own insurmountable perfectionism and, this being so, would have found the New Zealander wanting.
A few examples will serve to conjure up Tolkien’s ghost, enabling him to point a phantom finger of scorn at Jackson’s presumption.
Galadriel was modeled, says Tolkien, on his Catholic devotional reverence for the Blessed Virgin; Jackson transforms her into a disturbed and disturbing witch, or an electrifying and electrocuted wench. Faramir serves as an antidote to Boromir’s folly, a veritable saint and model of heroic virtue; Jackson turns him into an ignorant rogue and kidnapper. Treebeard embodies the power and wisdom of living tradition, both etymologically and ecclesiologically; Jackson makes him a buffoon who is hoodwinked by the hobbits. Tolkien despised the emerging omnipotence of technology; Jackson allows his besotted attachment to special effects to take over, leaving the technological tail wagging the dog-eared remnants of the tale. Tolkien stated emphatically that The Lord of the Rings was “of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work;” Jackson barely scratches the surface of the deeper spiritual dimension of the book.
I could go on but will desist. I will also insist, again, that this is how Tolkien the perfectionist would probably judge the imperfections of Jackson’s work. It is not how I judge it, though I acknowledge all the above as flaws. I am more inclined to accentuate the positive and turn a beneficent blind eye to the negative. After all, a Hollywood adaptation of The Lord of the Rings could have been much, much worse. Dungeons and Dragons meets Conan the Barbarian! Perish the thought!
In asking the question which serves as the title to this article I knew that I would have to play devil’s advocate. Perhaps I have played it badly. Perhaps Tolkien’s shade will point its accusing finger at me, muttering in reproach at my own presumption: Get thee behind me Sauron. Perhaps. I am, however, sticking to my guns. Would Tolkien have given Peter Jackson’s movies the thumbs-up? No, I believe that he wouldn’t. Should he? Yes, I believe that he should. But then who am I to question the great man?
— Joseph Pearce is author of Tolkien: Man and Myth and editor of Tolkien: A Celebration, both published by Ignatius Press. He is currently writer in residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and is editor of The Saint Austin Review.
A stirring conclusion to a prodigious movie epic, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” closes the cinematic book on Peter Jackson’s imposing three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological saga with splendid cliffhanging and heroic flourishes.
The longest of the trilogy’s theatrical releases at 210 minutes, “Return” expands the total cinematic immersion in middle earth, the author’s endangered region of Celtic-Nordic-Teutonic-Arthurian antiquity, to almost 9½ hours.
It will be difficult to surpass Mr. Jackson’s achievement as the guiding creative intermediary between a famous set of books and their faithfully sustained and often enraptured realization on the screen. The source material had a jinxed reputation before Mr. Jackson persuaded executives at New Line Cinema that shooting three epic movies in succession might be a practical venture. Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman had given up on live-action projects. Ralph Bakshi had shortchanged an eager public with a dreary animated digest in the 1970s.
Advances in special-effects technology made several kinds of fantastic illusion newly feasible for Mr. Jackson, notably the visualization of beasts and barbaric hordes and characters as damnably strange as the emaciated goblin Gollum, whose schizophrenic derangement reaches a suitably infernal resolution during the finale of “Return.”
Mr. Jackson also has an extraordinary flair for adventure spectacle and fantasy. His aptitude for eerie, extravagant, visionary stylization was evident in such early features as “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners.” With the Tolkien novels, he has sustained a prolonged fairy tale that looks sumptuous yet remains tense and haunted.
Evidently familiar with monumental, overreaching films of the past, Mr. Jackson evokes images and moods from such spectacles as Fritz Lang’s “Nibelungen” saga (a two-part epic of the early 1920s) and Sergei Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible.” His own epic sets new pictorial and melodramatic standards for anyone attracted to similar forms of spectacle.
In “Return” the tenacious heroes endure their final ordeals. The hobbits Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, respectively) carry the insidious Ring of Power, forged by a demonic evil-eye wizard called Sauron, to its only safe repository, the lava pits of volcanic Mount Doom.
Simultaneously, combative worthies rally to the defense of Minas Tirith, the towering, spiraling, cliff-side capital of the kingdom of Gondor. Companions separated by subplots in “The Two Towers” are reunited for a titanic battle on the plain beneath the citadel.
Viggo Mortensen, as the reluctant hereditary prince Aragorn, is now prepared to accept his destiny as the title character; he boldly goes among the dead to recruit a ghost army that helps turn the tide. Orlando Bloom, as the dazzling elfin archer Legolas, gets a fabulous virtuoso battle sequence while climbing and disarming one of the fearsome pachyderms deployed by the enemy.
The hobbits Pippin and Merry (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan, respectively) do themselves proud as squires to the virtuous wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a warrior princess, Eowen (Miranda Otto), whose crush on Aragorn is usefully sublimated in feats of valor, notably a timely sword thrust into the maw of an overconfident fiend.
Tightly and deftly constructed despite its exceptional running time, “Return” recaptures the sort of interwoven momentum that seemed to flag a bit during “The Two Towers,” which needed to keep tabs on a trio of fragmented groups and lost Gandalf during most of the tale. The crises approaching Mount Doom and Minas Tirith seem admirably interlocked now. The huge set-piece battle is also better orchestrated than its precursor in “Two Towers.” The one conspicuous omission is the failure to depict the captivity of Christopher Lee as the evil wizard Sarumon.
There are seven or eight farewell episodes after the heroes achieve their goals. Any one might serve as an excellent fade-out. Although Mr. Jackson is transposing scenes from the novel faithfully, one gets the impression that it’s also difficult for him to accept the inevitability of a title card that reads, “The End.” This project has preoccupied him for seven years. Happily, the results justify the dedication. Among other forms of recognition, Peter Jackson richly deserves a final Oscar coronation.
****TITLE: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”
RATING: PG-13 (Sustained ominous atmosphere; graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details, concentrated in depictions of massive battles in legendary settings)
CREDITS: Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Mr. Jackson, based on novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie. Production design by Grant Major. Costume design by Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor. Special makeup, creatures, armor and miniatures supervised by Mr. Taylor. Visual-effects supervisor: Jim Rygiel. Music by Howard Shore
RUNNING TIME: About 210 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
TORONTO (CP) - Garbed as a “rider of Rohan,” Sarah Clements was clearly conflicted.
Standing with hundreds of other moviegoers outside the Paramount Theatre, she admitted she was excited to be taking in a marathon viewing of all three films in the Lord of the Rings fantasy franchise. But Clements, of Toronto, was also sad at the prospect that when the final entry in the trilogy, Return of the King, finished early Wednesday, that would be the end of it.
Her favourite character from the J.R.R. Tolkien book series is Aragorn - not actor Viggo Mortensen who plays him - but the reluctant monarch, heir to the Kingdom of Gondor.
“Ever since I was a child I thought he was ... there’s something about him that was so different,” she said. “He’s just a strong character with leadership skills that are so attractive.”
Her companion Sara Mellings was dressed as an elf - but without the pointy ears which she found too uncomfortable. Not surprisingly, her fave is the blond elf archer Legolas, another member of the heroic Rings fellowship.
“We were here for the last movie, stood outside for 12 hours,” Mellings said excitedly, adding that she, too, is impressed with the depth of the characters created by Tolkien.
“I was originally a book fan and I understand that the movies are an interpretation of one fan. And therefore, because of that, they can’t be the same. It’s a movie, it’s a lot of fun.”
The crowd, which began to line up before dawn Tuesday, was let into the theatre complex at 11:30 a.m., two hours before the first film started at 1:30 p.m. The three films run roughly 3½ hours each with 45-minute breaks between screenings, finally finishing at about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday - a long time in a theatre seat.
Greg Simpson of Toronto agreed that those adult diapers might have been an option, but he had no intentions of leaving early. Watching all three films is the way the story was meant to be experienced, he said.
“I think it would be kind of pointless if somebody bailed out halfway through these things, because everybody wants to see the last one, that’s for sure.”
Simpson said, too, that with such a slavish fan base, he was surprised there weren’t more Rings nitpickers upset at the few departures director Peter Jackson made when he committed Tolkien’s books to film.
“I think he’s done extremely well,” said Simpson. “If you look on the Rotten Tomatoes meter (www.rottentomatoes.com, a website that grades film reviews) basically it’s 100 per cent. There are no negative reviews.”
And across Canada and North America this moviegoing phenomenon was played out.
In Montreal, Anouk Sauve, 33, took the afternoon off work from her job as a library technician.
“I’m feeling kind of strange because there’s an excitement that has been building up for a long time, since the first time I heard they were making a movie about those books,” said Sauve.
“I love the fantasy aspect of it. We live in a world where there’s a lot of things going on and this takes us away, yet there is still a connection with what we’re living. We can still relate to it, understand what’s going on in that world if we compare it to what’s going on these days, with the wars.”
“I’m really excited,” said Lynne Church in Winnipeg, who described herself as a “stay-at-home mom and ...quintessential Lord of the Rings fan.”
Church arrived more than three hours before showtime at a multi-screen theatre in a west-Winnipeg shopping mall to make sure she got tickets.
She had seen the first two films and had read all the books. But Church said she couldn’t pass up the chance of “being able to drop into Middle-earth and being completely enveloped in it.”
Hundreds of fans also queued at a West Edmonton Mall megaplex.
Thomas Leszczynski and Amanda Pratt, both 16-years-old, ditched school to line up for two hours. Amanda sat in a lawn chair, surrounded by pillows while Thomas sat on the floor, playing with a Lord of the Rings chess set.
“I read the first two books about two months after seeing the first movie,” said Leszczynski. “I’ve been waiting for this day for two years now.”
Pratt said skipping school for the Rings movies had become a sort of yearly tradition.
“My parents don’t have a big problem with it, as long as I catch up on my homework. It’s a big occasion. My parents couldn’t stop me if they tried.”
Danny Greig climbed on a Greyhound bus in Vegreville about 100 kilometres east of Edmonton just before 4 a.m. so he could take in the trilogy.
“Lord of the Rings being the second best thing in the world after Star Wars, it’s pretty easy to sit through 12 hours of film glory for just this little waiting time.”
Andrew Serbin, manager of corporate affairs for Famous Players, said he’d never seen anything like it, noting that, at about $50 per ticket, they were nearly sold out across the country. In fact, Serbin said he bought two tickets himself as a Christmas present for his wife.
“I have to admit I’ve seen the third one already and I’m here to see it again, I loved it that much. And I’ll probably see it another two times, which is really sad.”
Serbin said it would be an endurance test for the patrons but for the theatre itself, logistically it was business as usual.
/ *** 1/2 (PG-13)
December 17, 2003
Frodo: Elijah Wood
Gandalf: Ian McKellen
Arwen: Liv Tyler
Aragorn: Viggo Mortensen
Sam: Sean Astin
Theoden: Bernard Hill
Legolas: Orlando Bloom
Gollum/Smeagol: Andy Serkis
New Line presents a film directed by Peter Jackson. Produced by Peter Jackson and Barrie M. Osborne. Written by Frances Walsh. Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Photographed by Andrew Lesnie. Music by Howard Shore. Running time: 200 minutes. Classified PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images).
BY ROGER EBERT
At last the full arc is visible, and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy comes into final focus. I admire it more as a whole than in its parts. The second film was inconclusive, and lost its way in the midst of spectacle. But “Return of the King” dispatches its characters to their destinies with a grand and eloquent confidence. This is the best of the three, redeems the earlier meandering, and certifies the “Ring” trilogy as a work of bold ambition at a time of cinematic timidity.
That it falls a little shy of greatness is perhaps inevitable. The story is just a little too silly to carry the emotional weight of a masterpiece. It is a melancholy fact that while the visionaries of a generation ago, like Coppola with “Apocalypse Now,” tried frankly to make films of great consequence, an equally ambitious director like Peter Jackson is aiming more for popular success. The epic fantasy has displaced real contemporary concerns, and audiences are much more interested in Middle Earth than in the world they inhabit.
Still, Jackson’s achievement cannot be denied. “Return of the King” is such a crowning achievement, such a visionary use of all the tools of special effects, such a pure spectacle, that it can be enjoyed even by those who have not seen the first two films. Yes, they will be adrift during the early passages of the film’s 200 minutes, but to be adrift occasionally during this nine-hour saga comes with the territory; Tolkien’s story is so sweeping and Jackson includes so much of it that only devoted students of the Ring can be sure they understand every character, relationship and plot point.
The third film gathers all of the plot strands and guides them toward the great battle at Minas Tirith; it is “before these walls, that the doom of our time will be decided.” The city is a spectacular achievement by the special- effects artisans, who show it as part fortress, part Emerald City, topping a mountain, with a buttress reaching out over the plain below where the battle will be joined. In a scene where Gandalf rides his horse across the drawbridge and up the ramped streets of the city, it’s remarkable how seamlessly Jackson is able to integrate computer-generated shots with actual full-scale shots, so they all seem of a piece.
I complained that the second film, “The Two Towers,” seemed to shuffle the hobbits to the sidelines -- as humans, wizards, elves and Orcs saw most of the action. The hobbits are back in a big way this time, as the heroic little Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his loyal friend Sam (Sean Astin) undertake a harrowing journey to return the Ring to Mount Doom -- where, if he can cast it into the volcano’s lava, Middle Earth will be saved and the power of the enemy extinguished. They are joined on their journey by the magnificently eerie, fish-fleshed, bug-eyed creature Gollum, who is voiced and modeled by Andy Serkis in collaboration with CGI artists, and introduced this time around with a brilliant device to illustrate his dual nature: He talks to his reflection in a pool, and the reflection talks back. Gollum loves Frodo but loves the Ring more, and indeed it is the Ring’s strange power to enthrall its possessors (first seen through its effect on Bilbo Baggins in “The Fellowship of the Ring”) that makes it so tricky to dispose of.
Although the movie contains epic action sequences of awe-inspiring scope (including the massing of troops for the final battle), the two most inimitable special-effects creations are Gollum, who seems as real as anyone else on the screen, and a monstrous spider named Shelob. This spider traps Frodo as he traverses a labyrinthine passage on his journey, defeats him, and wraps him in webbing to keep him fresh for supper. Sam is very nearly not there to save the day (Gollum has been treacherous), but as he battles the spider we’re reminded of all the other movie battles between men and giant insects, and we concede that, yes, this time they got it right.
The final battle is kind of magnificent. I found myself thinking of the visionary films of the silent era, like Lang (“Metropolis”) and Murnau (“Faust”), with their desire to depict fantastic events of unimaginable size and power, and with their own cheerful reliance on visual trickery. Had they been able to see this scene, they would have been exhilarated. We see men and even an army of the dead join battle against Orcs, flying dragons, and vast lumbering elephantine creatures that serve as moving platforms for machines of war. As a flaming battering-ram challenges the gates of the city, we feel the size and weight and convincing shudder of impacts that exist only in the imagination. Enormous bestial Trolls pull back the springs for catapults to hurl boulders against the walls and towers of Minas Tirith, which fall in cascades of rubble (only to seem miraculously restored in time for a final celebration).
And there is even time for a smaller-scale personal tragedy; Denethor (John Noble), steward of the city, mourns the death of his older and favored son, and a younger son named Faramir (David Wenham), determined to gain his father’s respect, rides out to certain death. The outcome is a tragic sequence in which the deranged Denethor attempts to cremate Faramir on a funeral pyre, even though he is not quite dead.
Spectacle supplants emotions
The series has never known what to do with its female characters. J.R.R. Tolkien was not much interested in them, certainly not at a psychological level, and although the half-elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) here makes a crucial decision -- to renounce her elfin immortality in order to marry Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) -- there is none of the weight or significance in her decision that we feel, for example, when an angel decides to become human in “Wings of Desire.”
There is little enough psychological depth anywhere in the films, actually, and they exist mostly as surface, gesture, archetype and spectacle. They do that magnificently well, but one feels at the end that nothing actual and human has been at stake; cartoon characters in a fantasy world have been brought along about as far as it is possible for them to come, and while we applaud the achievement, the trilogy is more a work for adolescents (of all ages) than for those hungering for truthful emotion thoughtfully paid for. Of all the heroes and villains in the trilogy, and all the thousands or hundreds of thousands of deaths, I felt such emotion only twice, with the ends of Faramir and Gollum. They did what they did because of their natures and their free will, which were explained to us and known to them. Well, yes, and I felt something for Frodo, who has matured and grown on his long journey, although as we last see him it is hard to be sure he will remember what he has learned. Life is so pleasant in Middle Earth, in peacetime.
At this point, writing a conventional review of The Return of the King seems sort of futile. If you’ve seen the first two installments of the film, why on earth would you not see the third, no matter what I said? And if you haven’t seen the first two installments, maybe you should get back on your medication or contact the authorities so you can get someone to free you from the basement radiator you’ve been handcuffed to.
Regardless, there are some things you probably want to know straightaway, like: It’s really, really good. It’s probably my favorite installment. It goes very fast; indeed, my chief complaint is that it goes too fast. The battles are bigger and better than even the Helm’s Deep conflagration of The Two Towers, and Minas Tirith is extremely cool. The acting strikes me as a bit better than in the first two, but maybe that’s because the characters seem better realized. And that’s probably because we’ve had a luxury of opportunities to get to know them already. So Frodo’s descent into despair needn’t seem sudden, since it’s been building for so long.
But let’s start from the top. The Return of the King wraps up the story of Frodo and Sam as they trek to Mount Doom in Mordor to destroy the ring of power, and also depicts the battles for the future of Middle Earth. King Theoden, finally restored to confidence, understands that he must...oh forget it. Look: If you need these plot outlines, there are countless reviews where the author hits F10 on his computer and spews out the cast and plot from the studio’s promotional kit. And, besides, as I said before, if you need me to tell you what The Return of the King is about, you shouldn’t be reading this: You should be chewing your hand off at the wrist to get free of that damnable radiator.
“The greatest movie trilogy in cinema history.” That’s what one reviewer called the Lord of the Rings saga after seeing the The Return of the King. At first, when I read that, I thought it was hyperbole. But then I started running other trilogies through my head. If the third installments of The Godfather or Star Wars were simply as good as the second installments, then I would say either of them might deserve the title. But Godfather III, while more entertaining than its worst detractors sometimes allow, was still an affront to God (assuming God is a movie buff and liked Godfathers I and II). As for Star Wars, well, Return of the Jedi wasn’t awful, but in retrospect it was like that last vertical bend on a kiddie roller coaster: The delicious anticipation gave way to the realization that everything was moving downhill fast, but not in an exciting way.
But then you start thinking of other trilogies, and you realize that saying “the best trilogy in cinema history” is more like saying “the best Bavarian food in Tijuana.” A few sequels — Empire Strikes Back, Godfather II (according to Martin Scorsese, not me), X-2, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn — are better than their predecessors. But most are worse. And by the time you reach a third episode, the suits have completely taken over, and the films become little more than infomercials for the latest Happy Meal giveaway choke-hazard.
So, I guess it’s true, this is the greatest trilogy in the history of cinema — at least that I am aware of.
If I sound reluctant, I apologize. The Best-Bavarian-Food dynamic notwithstanding, I guess my problem is that I really don’t see the Lord of the Rings series as a trilogy in the first place. I’m on solid footing when I say this because neither did J. R. R. Tolkien (cue crazed-fan crowd roar), nor did Peter Jackson (cue slightly less crazed, but still disturbing, roar). The Lord of the Rings was written as one book — with two fingers, banged on a typewriter for half a million words — and the publisher insisted it be cut into three parts. For various reasons — technical, emotional, financial — Jackson emulated Tolkien and shot the whole film in one giant piece. In other words, this is a ten-hour movie.
Actually, this is more like a 20-hour movie when you measure by the length of the extended DVD versions. I haven’t seen them yet, but several friends have told me that they make the theatrical releases seem like highlight reels. The Return of the King DVD, for example, will supposedly have the seven-minute scene of Gandalf confronting Saruman, which was cut despite the howls of fans around the world. I don’t have the space to get into this here, but I suspect that the Lord of the Rings may be seen by students of the industry as the dawning of a new era in movie-making, where movie theaters become marketing tools for DVDs. What will be interesting to see is whether the DVDs create a full-blown feedback loop where the digital versions get replayed on big screens down the road.
Anyway, when you bear in mind that the Lord of the Rings is really just one movie and not three, you can see why the reviewers are so blown away by this last installment. Normally, movies are made and released. If they do well, a sequel is made. If that does well, another is usually negotiated, sans a few of the original actors and most of the original enthusiasm. The downsides of this process are huge. Usually the noticeably aging actors have to be corralled back with offers of more money, more screen time, or, shudder, more creative control. Who knows what would have happened if Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, and Ian McKellen had been allowed to indulge their personal politics? At best, teams of U.N. magic-rings inspectors would have been dispatched to Mordor before any fighting began. And, since Orcs appear to be all of one sex, and male, perhaps McKellen would have insisted on a brief cameo of an Orc marriage.
That’s all a bit unfair, I suppose. As detestable as I find Mortensen’s politics — which strike me as classic Hollywood faux intellectualism (he brags about quoting Kant in the latest Vanity Fair) — I must say his, and everyone else’s — commitment to the overarching spirit of Tolkien is beyond reproach.
Which reminds me, I do have one complaint about Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. His character is pretty thoroughly bowdlerized to begin with. But the number of important, fun, or memorable pages from the book that had to be torn out to make this film less than 20 hours long is too great for me to get into anyway. However, I could not shake the sense that the power-hungry, half-mad, sweaty, unshaven, deluded would-be king played by John Noble was intended to look and sound a bit like Richard Nixon. Maybe I’m alone on this, but when he is dispatched I almost expected him to give a Nixonian post-resignation wave.
And here’s where I am going to flirt slightly with committing the heresy of film spoilage. I don’t like ruining the movie-going experience for others by telling them stuff that should only be learned in the theater. And I will be careful here. But I think it’s worth dealing with the touchy subject of the film’s departure from the book. If you don’t want to take the risk of reading something you shouldn’t, I understand why you might want to leave now. Come on folks, make some room so they can shuffle out.
Okay. As everyone knows, the book ends with the “Scouring of the Shire.” In the film, the Shire remains intact. It’s been reported that this was Jackson’s least favorite part of the book. I can certainly understand that, because the Scouring was what gave the book its bittersweet ending. The movie still ends on a bittersweet note, but it’s much more Frodo-centric. I’ve gone back and forth about this for a while now, and I’ve decided to forgive Jackson. My understanding of Tolkien’s intent in that final chapter was twofold: The first is to make a (Catholic) point about sacrifice. The second was to communicate Tolkien’s own sorrow about the changing nature of traditionally rural England — which the Shire was always intended to symbolize.
As I noted in my review of the first film, Tolkien loathed technology in particular, and change in general. The Scouring of the Shire was Tolkien’s surrender to the reality that even the coziest refuges are not immune to the real-world changes too many label “progress.” By editing out this chapter, some may think Jackson is Hollywoodizing a non-Hollywood ending. I don’t think that’s how most audiences will see it, but I’m certainly sympathetic to the criticism. Personally, I think Jackson more than amply communicates the melancholy that comes with the ending of this film, and conveys the sense that unwelcome change is part of life. That’s certainly the only reason to include so much dialogue from the elves about the end of their time in Middle Earth and whatnot (one hilarious-but-bawdy reviewer at Ain’t It Cool Newscompared the elf scenes to spending 20 minutes in a candle store). So I’m giving Jackson the benefit of the doubt on this one: Some plot devices don’t translate well onto the big screen. Perhaps if Frodo and Sam had come home to see the Shire as it was in the book, audiences would find it too jarring.
Ultimately, these movies are a love letter to Tolkien. You can get into a huge argument about what’s left out from the book — and why. But at the end of the day, it is inconceivable that any other movie of any commercially viable length would have elicited similar objections.
Two things are important from my perspective: Is it a good movie? You’re damn right it is. And: Is it loyal to the most important and largest themes of the book? I think so. Friendship, loyalty, duty, honor, sacrifice, regret, change, memory, and remorseless Orc-smashing are all there. I still need time to digest the whole epic and see it a few more times. But, I think it’s fair to say even now that this really is the greatest trilogy in the history of movie-making. And, much more impressive, it’s one of the greatest movies in the history of movie-making, too.
Let’s end the suspense: The Return of the King is really good. Go see it.
But if you need a quick Tolkien fix, read on.
The Return of the King begins with a portrayal of addiction, appropriately enough. The opening scene is a flashback to the day when Gollum came upon the One Ring. The very first image moviegoers see is a close-up shot of a worm. That’s a nifty idea: Gollum’s birth name is Trahald, which means “burrower” or “worm” in one of Middle-Earth’s languages. Only obsessive Tolkienites can possibly know this piece of trivia, because we’ve read Appendix F in the book. Little touches like this have made the films endearing.
At any rate, Gollum appears a perfectly healthy hobbit when his fishing partner discovers the Ring at the bottom of a river. Gollum demands the Ring for himself and murders to get it. Then we watch the little golden band destroy him as he descends into the pathetic creature we first met last year in The Two Towers. Before our eyes, he becomes a wastrel who shivers and shakes like a junkie. The Ring is his drug.
If the theme of Tolkien’s book must be stated in two words, it might be: Power corrupts. Before power can corrupt, however, it must addict, and that’s exactly what we watch it do to this deformed companion of Frodo and Sam.
Next we see Frodo, and we remember that Gollum once looked as he did. But we know the Ring is gnawing at his soul as well.
Other observations about The Return of the King:
Director Peter Jackson’s vision of Rohan remains superb, as a blended Anglo-Saxon horse culture. In The Return of the King, there’s a fine moment when Theoden raises his mug in a mead hall and declares, “Hail the victorious dead!” It’s like an outtake from Beowulf.
Minas Tirith, with its buildings of white and people in black, is at once more civilized than Rohan and culturally colder. This is just as Tolkien would have wanted it.
The orcs still look dastardly. They attack Osgiliath across water, in boats that recall the D-Day landings.
The New Zealand scenery continues to be a highlight. Let’s be glad the movies got made when they did. I recently came across this item in The Economist: “When Mr. Jackson decided to make his trilogy here, the New Zealand dollar cost 41 American cents. It now costs 64 cents. Off the record, even sources close to Mr. Jackson concede that today’s exchange rate would probably be enough to stop ‘Lord of the Rings’ being made in New Zealand.”
We all know Aragorn is supposed to settle down with Arwen, but I found myself hoping he’d hook up with Eowyn, played by Miranda Otto. Eowyn is a more interesting character and Otto is a fine actress. I’m not sure if the problem with Arwen is Liv Tyler’s sterility, a challenging script, or a bit of both.
When Merry puts on a combat helmet before riding to Minas Tirith, he looks like Michael Dukakis aboard a tank. At least Merry does some real fighting.
The assault on Minas Tirith is the film’s highlight — especially if you like drum-beating cave trolls, fire-breathing battering rams, and catapult duels. And who doesn’t?
We caught a glimpse of the Oliphaunts in The Two Towers, but here we see them in full action. Their battle owes something to The Empire Strikes Back, when the AT-ATs land on ice-planet Hoth. I’ve always thought that was the best part of the Star Wars trilogy, and it works pretty well here, too.
The Dead Men of Dunharrow, summoned by Aragorn at a moment of crisis, look like they stepped off the set of Eddie Murphy’s haunted-house flick. In other words, they are something of a disappointment. They also fight at the Battle of Pelennor Fields — decisively. This is not what happens in the book, though having them do the work of the southern Gondorians is perhaps a necessary shortcut in a long movie.
Tolkien’s worldview continues to find a place in the script. “I didn’t think it would end this way,” says Pippin, at a moment when all seems lost. “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here,” replies Gandalf. “There’s another path, one that we all must take. They grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back and it will change to silver grass and then you see it.” Pippin: “See what?” Gandalf, smiling: “White shores and beyond them, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” Then the cave trolls burst in and fighting resumes.
The language is refreshingly un-PC. “The time has come for the dominion of men,” says Galadriel, toward the end. Note how she doesn’t say “the dominion of humanity.” The movie occasionally nods at modern feminism, but it refuses to make any galling compromises.
In the book, moments after the climax, Frodo utters a little speech that helps explain Gollum’s purpose: “Do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over.” These words ought to be in the film, but they’re not. I hope they’re on the extended DVD version.
Frodo says all is over, but he’s wrong. The book’s denoument is not short, and neither is the movie’s. There is plenty of wrapping up to do: farewells, leavetakings, hugs all around — “many partings,” to use Tolkien’s phrase. I attended an advance screening full of fans — the sort of people most willing to put up with the extra minutes — and I could detect some restlessness at each new scene, after the main story was essentially complete.
Up to this moment, the movie doesn’t feel too long. It takes about three hours and fifteen minutes to reach the final scene, back in the Shire. Jackson uses it to illustrate some of the things that Tolkien thought were most important in life: families, gardens, and homes. The very last image is a shot of Sam’s round yellow door with a knob in the middle.
The Two Towers — the new movie version, that is — picks up right where The Fellowship of the Ring left off last year. Except for a very short replay of Gandalf facing the Balrog in the Mines of Moria, the latest installment in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy dives right into the ongoing story. There’s no “scenes from the last episode” to refresh memories. Things get going right away.
In keeping with that spirit, let’s declare a verdict: The Fellowship of the Ring was an excellent movie, but The Two Towers is a better one.
I do have something of a bias: The Two Towers always has been my favorite part of The Lord of the Rings — the meaty middle piece is by far the most exciting. If that grand novel has a flaw — memo to Tolkien purists: Everything in this world has a flaw, as Tolkien himself would be the first to acknowledge — it’s that the opening section of the Fellowship takes its time getting started and the concluding section of The Return of the King doesn’t wrap up as swiftly as it might. Indeed, last year’s Fellowship film engaged in a fair bit of throat clearing, and next year’s Return of the King probably will have a long denouement. In other words, The Two Towers may be the best we’re going to get out of the movie trilogy. And golly, is it good!
Director Peter Jackson deserves immediate induction into the moviemaking hall of fame for turning the 20th century’s best-loved book and into a compelling and faithful film. Sure, he takes a handful of minor liberties with the text — a scene cut here, another augmented there. Most of his dabbling is necessary to keep a bulging story within the confines of a three-hour movie. My only disappointment in watching it was the knowledge that it would actually have to end.
Herewith, a few observations that may interest the Tolkien set:
The battle scenes are outstanding — especially the siege of Helm’s Deep, in which 10,000 black-armored Orcs storm a supposedly impregnable redoubt at night and in the rain. Jackson delivers an emotional punch that isn’t in the book: He lets us have a few lingering looks at the women and children who face slaughter if the men of Rohan don’t hold the keep. When the credits roll at the end of the movie, two child actors are listed as “Cute Rohan Refugee Children.” Their innocence is a moral counterweight to the monstrous evil of Saruman and his minions.
Speaking of Rohan, the movie reminded me of one book critic’s comment that Rohan culture is essentially the culture of Tolkien’s beloved Anglo Saxons, with a dash of Plains Indians tossed in. Jackson makes his Riders of Rohan look like they’d be equally at home alongside Beowulf or Crazy Horse. The major difference between them and the Anglo Saxons is that Rohan is also a horse culture. When Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli encounter the Rohirrim, spear-toting riders circle and surround them, like a scene from the Old West.
The Ents are a pleasant surprise. I was worried about them, just as I was worried about the portrayal of Tom Bombadil in the first film. How might Jackson handle the Ents without seeming ridiculous or slipping into parody? Folks, we’re talking about big trees that grow beards and walk around the forest speaking an odd syntax. With Bombadil in the Fellowship, Jackson probably made the right choice: He cut the character out of the story entirely. That would have been much tougher to do with the Ents, because they’re more essential to the plot. Let’s grant that Treebeard and his companions aren’t nearly as amusing in the film as they are in the book — but also give credit for their lifelike appearance, and turning their attack on Isengard into a visual high point of the movie.
Gollum will be the subject of some debate among Tolkien aficionados. Jackson has taken more liberties with this character than any of the others. Gollum made only a very brief appearance in Fellowship. In The Two Towers, we get an extended look at him. He’s big-eyed, wiry, and pale. He resembles nothing so much as a junkie desperate for a fix — which isn’t so far from the truth, given his crushing urge to repossess the ring Frodo carries. Jackson also portrays Gollum explicitly as a doppelganger — a dual personality who has conversations and arguments with himself. He remains a pitiable creature — “Now that I see him, I do pity him,” says Frodo early on — but he’s also a figure of some sympathy, especially when his good side is waxing. His long affiliation with the ring has left him permanently corrupted, but perhaps not beyond a kind of redemption. As we know from the key moment in The Return of the King, Gollum at his end becomes an unwitting and unexpected instrument of goodness.
The casting choices continue to pay dividends. There’s not a weak member in the ensemble, with the possible exception of Liv Tyler playing a rather moodless Arwen. Jackson chose many actors who aren’t well know to the movie-going public. This was smart. I once heard that David Bowie desired to play Elrond in the movies — and thought it was a fine idea. Who looks more like an elf? The problem, however, is that people would watch him on the screen and see Ziggy Stardust rather than the king of an immortal race; his presence would have proved a hindrance. It’s much better that the job went to Hugo Weaving. Some viewers may have known Elijah Wood before he took his star turn as Frodo, but in The Two Towers he shows once more that this is the role that he was born to play. Wood may become the Mark Hamill of this movie series — after Star Wars, nobody could ever look at Hamill and not think of Luke Skywalker. Ian McKellan is, of course, an accomplished actor, but not before now a major star of the silver screen. Christopher Lee remains a wickedly inspired choice as Saruman. Grima Wormtongue, played by Brad Dourif, looks like Ozzy Osbourne.
The Howard Shore soundtrack is once again exceptional, but I must say that Leonard Rosenman’s music for the animated Lord of the Rings film from 1978 is one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Also, “Gollum’s Song,” performed by Emiliana Torrini as the credits roll, doesn’t match the lush beauty of Enya’s “May It Be” from Fellowship.
People who don’t like Tolkien — and they are legion — often accuse Middle Earth’s admirers of escapism. As I’ve argued on the pages of NR, The Lord of the Rings is rooted in reality, though it takes place in a world of imagination. But even if it were pure fantasy, what’s so bad about escapism? As Tolkien once remarked to his friend C. S. Lewis, the people who hate escapism most are jailers.
By John J. Miller
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two Towers, the second movie in the Fellowship of the Rings series (based on the books by J. R. R. Tolkien) is released in movie theaters nationwide today. Last year, John J. Miller wrote on Tolkien for National Review, in the December 31, 2001 issue. It is reprinted here.
rofessor J. R. R. Tolkien was grading papers on a summer day in 1928 when he came upon a blank page in an exam book. Something inspired him to scribble a few words: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The whole thing might have ended there, but it was only a beginning. “Names always generate a story in my mind,” he explained later. “Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like.”
By now, millions of readers know what hobbits are like. They’re the short, rustic, and unlikely heroes of the 20th century’s best-loved book, The Lord of the Rings, as well as The Hobbit, a preceding story written mainly for children. They’re about to become even more familiar: New Line Cinema has just released The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of an expensive trilogy of movies based on Tolkien’s masterpiece. Before long, there probably won’t be anybody left who doesn’t have an inkling of what hobbits are like. This will annoy certain people. If Tolkien has an army of fawning admirers, he also has a legion of fierce detractors. When readers chose The Lord of the Rings as “the greatest book of the century” in a 1997 poll by the British bookseller Waterstone’s, the reaction from the critical class was quick and harsh. “Horrifying,” gasped the Times Literary Supplement. “Novels don’t come more fictional than that,” sneered Germaine Greer. “The books that come from Tolkien’s train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic.”
If the new film version of The Lord of the Rings is seen as a flight from reality, then it has impeccable timing; after September 11, retreating into a fantasy realm of wizards and ringwraiths sounds like a welcome diversion. The movie does fulfill its simple promise of entertainment. Yet the book on which it is based offers the opposite of escapism. It speaks directly to some of the most fundamental concerns of this world: the nature of evil, the lure of power, and the duty of courage. In other words, it considers questions that definitely have not preoccupied the cultural elite for more than a generation.
At bottom, The Lord of the Rings is a deeply conservative book — a fact that may explain the hostility it faces from some quarters. Tolkien is often credited with the radical act of inventing the sword-and-sorcery epic, a genre of literature filed alongside science fiction in the bookstores. Surely he has many imitators; but he viewed himself in an altogether different light, as the heir to a grand tradition rather than the author of a new one. He called his Middle Earth a “sub-creation,” partly in deference to the real Creator (Tolkien was a devout Catholic) but also because he owed so much to writers who lived centuries before him.
Knowing and understanding these writers was his day job as an Oxford University philologist — that is, an expert on the historical forms of language and literature. If Tolkien had never attempted fiction, he would still be remembered for his impressive scholarship: He penned what is perhaps the most influential essay ever written about Beowulf; many of the students enrolled in medieval-English-lit courses probably have encountered his popular translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tolkien was a giant in his academic field, and left a mark that remains there today.
For Tolkien, though, the old stories were more than texts to analyze; they were a vital source of personal inspiration. Characters and events in The Lord of the Rings often echo the half-forgotten poems of the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and their kin. There is hardly a proper noun in Tolkien’s oeuvre that doesn’t derive in some fashion from the ancient manuscripts of northern Europe. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, Gandalf is the name of a good and great wizard; in the 13th-century Norse epic known as the Elder Edda, it is the name of a dwarf. Tolkien borrowed it to indulge his philologist’s love of words, and also to lend linguistic authenticity to his project.
Tolkien intended to create an imaginary world that was fundamentally real, or at least potentially real. He did not want readers merely to suspend their disbelief in hobbits and elves; he wanted them to believe in their possibility. He devised whole languages and elaborate histories of Middle Earth long before he started writing the stories that would make use of them — they filled reams of notebooks that have been published posthumously as The Silmarillion and several other tomes. In the end, Middle Earth became a place that was so real to him that he compared actual places to it, rather than the other way around. (Venice, he once wrote, was “like a dream of Old Gondor.”)
For the rest of us, of course, detailed accounts of wars between dwarves and orcs don’t exactly enhance Middle Earth’s realism. Yet Middle Earth is emphatically not another planet — it is our own world in a much earlier age. We have no specific knowledge of the era because it is so remote from us in time, though hints of it have seeped into our cultural memory through fairy tales and nursery rhymes. As a narrator in the movie puts it, “History became legend, legend became myth.” In the book, Gandalf provides a fuller explanation when one of his companions asks about an odd creature they’ve met. “Is it so long since you listened to tales by a fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question,” says Gandalf. “Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as careless custom.”
Take the word “orc,” the name given to a nasty race of goblin-like monsters. It appears in Beowulf as “orc-neas.” Rendered into modern English from Beowulf’s Old English (a language almost as foreign to our ears as German), it means something like “demon-corpse,” or perhaps “zombie.” But the truth is that even scholars of Tolkien’s caliber aren’t sure of its precise definition or etymology — leaving open the delightful idea that there’s far more to its meaning and background than what is dreamt of in our philosophy.
One of the most famous questions scholars have asked about Beowulf is whether it’s a Christian poem; it seems to have been written by a Christian, but it deals with a pagan society. Likewise, there is no mention of God or even religion in Middle Earth. Yet Tolkien considered the book a reflection of his own faith. “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision,” wrote Tolkien in 1953. “The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” There are many examples of this, though readers frequently overlook them. A close examination of the appendices (there are six, plus indexes and maps) reveals a detail that goes unmentioned in the main narrative: The nine companions who comprise “the fellowship of the ring” begin their fateful mission on December 25 (Christmas), and their story climaxes exactly three months later, on March 25 (in the traditional English calendar, the date of the Fall of Man, the Annunciation, and the Crucifixion). Too much can be read into all this — Tolkien insisted that his book was not an allegory — but it does carry at least a limited meaning. Tom Shippey, Tolkien’s finest interpreter, calls it “a kind of signature, a personal mark of piety.”
The Lord of the Rings, then, is not an explicitly Christian work, but it is entirely consistent with Christianity. This is an essential element for Tolkien. As Joseph Pearce points out in his literary biography of Tolkien, “[his] Catholicism was not an opinion to which one subscribed but a reality to which one submitted.” There is nothing in what he wrote that contradicts Christian belief. Middle Earth is un-Christian only in the sense that everything coming before Christ is un-Christian.
Tolkien does more than strive to avoid contradiction, however; he filled The Lord of the Rings with patchy foreshadowings of a Christian truth that had not yet revealed itself in fullness. Early on, when Frodo says he wishes someone would kill Gollum, a pitiful beast who haunts Tolkien’s heroes, Gandalf objects. “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it,” he says. “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.” Indeed Gollum does, and he contributes to a medley of themes about knowledge, salvation, and eternity.
The Lord of the Rings may be read and enjoyed without reference to any theology whatsoever; it is a wonderful and well-told story. The movie is more or less faithful to it, but only gestures toward the deeper questions. It succeeds mainly as an exciting tale. Yet a full appreciation of Tolkien’s accomplishment requires some sense of what lies behind the book.
The proclamation of any novel as the greatest of the 20th century is as much a burden as an accolade; it sets up the book for all kinds of sniping, lots of it undeserved. Yet it is impossible to deny the extraordinary fondness millions of ordinary readers have shown for The Lord of the Rings over the last five decades, and very difficult to disagree with the simple judgment of W. H. Auden: “If someone dislikes it, I shall never trust their literary judgment about anything again.”
BY JOHN J. MILLER
The movie version of “The Two Towers” opens on Dec. 18, the second installment in what is already a blockbuster J.R.R. Tolkien film trilogy. The new movie begins (at least it did at a recent screening) by replaying part of a scene from last year’s “The Fellowship of the Ring.” As his companions flee, the good wizard Gandalf turns to face the demonic Balrog and yells: “You cannot pass! I am a servant of the Secret Fire!”
The line about the Secret Fire is a curious one. Gandalf certainly speaks it in Tolkien’s novel, but its real meaning is never made clear on the book’s pages, and certainly not on screen. That would seem to make it a prime candidate for the cutting-room floor, since director Peter Jackson must delete all kinds of material to cram Tolkien’s epic into a few hours of film.
Yet the line is there--as it should be. As Bradley J. Birzer explains in “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth” (ISI Books), it is “the most important religious statement in the book.” The Secret Fire, Tolkien once told a friend, is really the Holy Spirit.
Most readers understand that “The Lord of the Rings” is more than just Harry Potter for grown-ups. Some have interpreted it as an allegory of World War II. Others have embraced its proto-environmentalism, reveled in its linguistic complexity or simply enjoyed its grand sweep and scope.
Secular readings of Tolkien, however, yield only so much. Mr. Birzer’s excellent new book is the latest in a bumper crop of studies--including those by Kurt Bruner, Joseph Pearce, Mark Eddy Smith and Jim Ware--that plumb the religious meaning of Middle Earth. Thanks in part to them, it has become increasingly obvious that Tolkien deserves a place alongside T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk and C.S. Lewis as one of the 20th century’s great Christian humanists.
Tolkien’s deep faith is familiar to those who know his life story. When he was eight years old, in 1900, his widowed mother converted to Catholicism, an act that made her a virtual outcast within her family. Tolkien always blamed her death four years later on the resulting stress.
The orphaned Tolkien was left in the care of a severe priest, the Rev. Francis Morgan, who nonetheless secured Tolkien’s everlasting loyalty to the Catholic Church. Tolkien became a kind of evangelist among his academic friends; he was instrumental in convincing C.S. Lewis to become a Christian in 1931.
Between his Oxford lectures on medieval literature, Tolkien invented a mythology of Middle Earth. It was published posthumously as “The Silmarillion” in 1977 but written well before “The Lord of the Rings” first appeared in the 1950s; indeed, it served as a hidden backdrop to this much-loved saga. The mythology of Middle Earth was Tolkien’s own creation, of course, but he strived to make it correlate to events in the Bible. He called it a “sub-creation,” in deference to the real Creator.
Those who don’t realize any of this may still derive enormous pleasure from “The Lord of the Rings,” with its well-told tale of good vs. evil, courage vs. cowardice, redemption vs. ruin. At its core, however, the book is a piece of piety. “The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien once wrote to a Jesuit friend, is a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision.”
Christians have been good at appropriating pagan traditions for their own ends--scheduling Christmas and Easter on pagan holidays, for instance. Tolkien moves in the reverse direction, taking Christian values and pouring them into a pagan world. His heroes aren’t Christians because the truth of Christianity hasn’t been revealed to them. But they do have inklings of it, as when Aragorn ponders mortality: “We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”
Peter Jackson, the director, appears to grasp all this. His films can’t be called religious, but they contain important moments of religious feeling. At the end of “Fellowship,” when Aragorn looks down upon the slain Boromir, he nearly crosses himself--his gesture might best be described as a half-cross. It’s a fitting symbol for Middle Earth, Tolkien’s devotional sub-creation.
Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.
LOS ANGELES — Call it return of the cash. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” took in $34.1 million domestically on opening day, easily beating the debuts of the fantasy epic’s first two installments, distributor New Line Cinema said Thursday.
It was a record debut for a movie opening on Wednesday, surpassing the $28.5 million take for “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” in 1999.
The film also had the sixth-best single-day gross ever, behind “Spider-Man” with $43.6 million and $39.4 million on two different days, “The Matrix Reloaded” with $37.5 million and $34.4 million on two different days, and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” with $34.2 million.
Those films ran far shorter than “Return of the King,” whose three-hour, 20-minute running time limits the number of screenings theaters can squeeze in each day.
By Sunday, “Return of the King” should have handily passed the $102 million that “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” grossed domestically in its first five days last year.
The film also took in $23.5 million in 19 other countries where it debuted Wednesday, including Great Britain, Germany and France. The movie was opening in about 10 more countries Thursday and Friday and gradually expands to other territories over the next couple of months.
New Line executives hope the final chapter of the saga will ultimately top $1 billion worldwide, becoming the second movie to cross that mark, after “Titanic” with $1.8 billion.
“Everyone wants to have closure and see the last part of the story, so I think we should be able to hit that mark,” said Rolf Mittweg, New Line’s head of worldwide marketing and distribution. “People are storming to the theaters. All shows have been sold out virtually.”
Unlike many sequels, which can lose steam with each successive movie, “The Lord of the Rings” has expanded its audience as the story unfolded.
Part one, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” took in $18.2 million domestically on day one in 2001, topping out with a total domestic haul of $314 million and a worldwide tally of $861 million.
The middle chapter, “The Two Towers,” opened last year with $26.2 million domestically on its way to a $340 million domestic total and $921 million globally.
The release of “Return of the King” closes a seven-year odyssey to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s mammoth chronicle about an alliance of humans, wizards, elves, dwarves and hobbits aiming to destroy a ring of ultimate power and stop an evil lord from enslaving the mythical land of Middle-earth.
The films were shot simultaneously in New Zealand by relatively untested director Peter Jackson, who had been best known for a series of cult-horror flicks and the acclaimed 1994 drama “Heavenly Creatures,” which helped launch Kate Winslet’s career.
With about $300 million committed to the production by New Line and other investors, the project was a major risk if the first film flopped. But by the time New Line dazzled critics with 26 minutes of footage at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the studio knew it had a winner.
“This may have been the biggest gamble in cinema history,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. “For New Line, this is a feather in their cap. This is their legacy. To me, it’s the strongest intersection of critical acclaim and box-office success in a series of films that I’ve ever seen.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains spoilers about The Return of the King. Proceed at your own risk.
Poor Frodo Baggins. He just can’t catch a break.
It’s not bad enough that many literary critics and readers of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are always elevating one supporting character or another to the position of hero, completely overlooking the gentle, unassuming hobbit at the heart of the story, the one who has to carry an evil, burdensome, corrupting ring to be destroyed. To add insult to injury, whenever a dramatic adaptation is made of The Lord of the Rings, the adapters can’t seem to resist the urge to tamper with the character.
It happened years ago with the BBC’s prestigious radio dramatization. Ian Holm — who, by the way, plays Bilbo Baggins in the current film adaptations — gave a strong performance as Frodo, at least at the beginning. But by the time they got to the halfway point, whether at the behest of the writer or the director, he was as snappish as if he’d somehow picked up a bad case of PMS along with the ring.
Now, much the same thing has happened again with Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations. Though I’ve enjoyed these three films, I have a bone to pick with the director and his team, a weakness that many other viewers have observed as well. Let me put it this way: Jackson never errs in the direction of making any character nobler. So while watching the second movie in the series, The Two Towers, I started to worry about what they were doing with Frodo, one of my favorite literary characters. I hadn’t a fault to find with Elijah Wood’s performance; he’s been consistently good throughout the films (and, it now turns out, extraordinarily good in the latest installment, The Return of the King. Wood communicates so effectively with his eyes in certain scenes that I’m inclined to think he made an extensive study of Jimmy Stewart’s famous wheelchair-bound performance in Rear Window). Again, it was the adapters who just couldn’t keep their hands off the character. Though the ring Frodo carries is notorious for driving people crazy, it seemed to me he was going crazy too early and too often.
So I wasn’t surprised when, in The Return of the King, Jackson and company added a scene that completely deviated from the book. Here Frodo’s mind is so addled by the ring that he believes the lies of Gollum, his monstrous, corrupt guide, about Sam, his faithful servant and friend, and sends Sam home. Jackson has said that his intent was to punch up the “psychological drama” of the story, a phrase ominously reminiscent of a Lifetime Channel movie. And the scene is dramatic, all right. But it not only weakens the portrayal of one of the strongest, most trusting friendships in literature; it also diminishes Frodo’s character. It’s no wonder that many viewers are thinking of Sam — who follows Frodo at a distance and (as in the book) eventually saves his life — as the real hero of the piece.
The need for psychological drama may also be the reason why Jackson repeatedly stresses the possibility that Frodo might become as possessed by the malevolent ring as Gollum is, whereas Tolkien only provided the occasional intriguing hint in that direction. The story goes that Jackson even shot a scene where Faramir, the young captain who helps Frodo (and whose own sterling character undergoes some shoddy treatment in The Two Towers), has a vision of Frodo turning into a Gollum-like creature. In the end, Jackson left the scene out for fear of confusing the audience, but it hints at another reason for the liberties he took with the story: It may be that he finds evil more fascinating than good.
If this is the case, he’s hardly alone. Our culture is sadly unused to fully realized portrayals of good characters. So was Tolkien’s, in fact; when he created his hobbit hero, literary anti-heroes were very much in vogue (which may help explain why his own books were so popular). As he put it, “Goodness is . . . bereft of its proper beauty.” Now we’ve gone so far down that road that, for the most part, we seem to have run out of the resources we need to portray a really heroic hero. We find our heroes much more palatable — or so the entertainment industry assumes, anyway — with a few major flaws thrown in, perhaps to make us more comfortable with our own.
So in the movies, though we still get a brave and good-hearted Frodo, we get less of a sense, for instance, of exactly why Sam is so devoted to his master and friend and why he looks up to him. Tolkien, on the other hand, had no trouble at all explaining it, in passages like this: “It had always been a notion of [Sam’s] that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness. Of course, he also firmly held the incompatible belief that Mr. Frodo was the wisest person in the world.”
Tolkien’s original Frodo, though he starts out a bit naïve, is a morally rich, exceptionally mature character. As he struggles against the ring’s control, he actually grows in wisdom and moral stature, reflecting what Tolkien called in a letter the theme of “the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble.” And though he is not always able to be as steadfast as Sam, the often overlooked truth is that Sam doesn’t have to fight the same battle Frodo does. Which is why I’ve always thought that honoring Sam over Frodo — honorable and faithful though Sam is — is a bit like honoring Simon of Cyrene over Christ.
The comparison isn’t such a wild exaggeration as it may appear. The truth is that Frodo has many of the characteristics of a Christ figure, chiefly a willingness to sacrifice himself, to forgive others, and to bear an awful burden for the sake of others. And that hardly means a lack of drama. When the ring takes control of Frodo one final, terrible time at the climax of the story, it is in such sharp contrast to what we’ve come to expect from him — especially without our having been subjected to the kind of foreshadowing so dear to Peter Jackson’s heart — that we fully grasp the horror of the situation. As Baylor University professor Ralph C. Wood puts it in his new book The Gospel According to Tolkien, “Tolkien demonstrates that the mightiest evil can summon forth the very highest good in a character like Frodo, even as it defeats him.” Moreover, as the scene plays out, we grasp three truths that are fully in line with Tolkien’s deeply Christian imagination: that moral strength can carry us farther than we could have imagined possible; that even the greatest human moral strength cannot stand against the strongest evil (a Christ figure is not Christ, as Tolkien would have been well aware); and that there is a Power in the world greater than we can understand, great enough to save us when we can’t save ourselves.
Tolkien emphasized qualities in his hero — an iron will, unfathomable courage, humility, selflessness, and wisdom — that help to make these points. Jackson and his writers, though they did include all these qualities in some degree, chose to deemphasize them for the sake of their modern conception of “psychological drama.” Their movies, moving and powerful as they undoubtedly are, are nevertheless the poorer for it.
— Gina R. Dalfonzo is a writer for BreakPoint and a graduate student in English at George Mason University.
Lo! (Cue heraldic music here.) Out of Hollywood rises an epic of courage and hope so thunderously wonderful that it is almost enough to redeem a year’s worth of pop-culture detritus, to make us forget endless reality-show hot-tub scenes, Gigli, and even Paris Hilton as we marvel at what can be wrought by the entertainment industry when it uses its powers for good.
The occasion for such effusion is The Return of the King, the third installment of the movie adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It is (with apologies to Elf and Bad Santa) a perfect Christmas movie. Its themes of sacrificial love and redemption reflect Tolkien’s Christianity and point to a Providence. But The Lord of the Rings is not a sectarian work. Some 50 million people have bought the books, and millions more will watch the movies, beguiled by the tale’s artistry and its statement of human longing and purpose.
The story’s outline is familiar: A great battle rages in Middle Earth over a Ring of Power. Two hobbits, Frodo and Sam, seek to destroy the ring to deny it to the Dark Lord, who fights to establish a reign of darkness throughout the land. For all the fantastic creatures — elves, dwarves, giant spiders, etc. — that prompt eye-rolling from cynics, the story has a ring of truth. Tolkien believed that fantasy was only a vehicle for a deeper reality, and grounded his work in what he thought were the fundamentals of our existence.
This gives The Lord of the Rings, written in the 1950s and chronicling a time before history, a timelessness. Indeed, The Return of the King can seem shockingly relevant. You could be forgiven — putting aside the anti-Bush ravings of some of its actors — for thinking that the movie was released as pro war-on-terror propaganda. One character speaks of a “sleepless malice” rising in the East. Sounds familiar. The forces resisting the Dark Lord are arrayed in the West, and their leader’s battle cry has a special post-9/11 resonance: “By all that we hold dear on this Earth I bid you stand, men of the West!” Hurrah!
But The Lord of the Rings resists easy political categories. Tolkien’s work has always been rejected by the literary establishment, partly because its depiction of a battle between good and evil is supposedly too “simplistic.” This is an egregious misreading. For Tolkien, evil is very real, but it is also pervasive, meaning it can tempt and corrupt anyone. Even the hobbit hero of his tale, Frodo, struggles with temptation, at times unsuccessfully.
The story’s hobbits are meant to be like us, middle class and unprepossessing. At four-feet tall or less, they seemingly stand no chance in a hostile world of wizards and monsters. But they soldier on and, in remaining true to their duty, help save the world. For all their weakness and failings, they are part of something larger that infuses their struggles with purpose. This is what we all want to believe of our own lives, and when we do, we have hope.
The word “hope” is studded throughout The Return the King. The leader of the forces of the West is told: “The men have found their captain. They will follow him to battle. Even to death. You have given us hope.” At a dark moment, a hobbit asks Gandalf, a wizard who has achieved a kind of saintliness: “Is there much hope for Frodo and Sam?” He replies, “There never was much hope, just a fool’s hope.” Ah, but the beauty of The Lord of the Rings is its message that such hope can be realized, that a beneficence beyond our understanding underpins the universe.
As the world paused last week to celebrate a holiday marking the birth of a Savior born in a manger, it is the season for cherishing the hope of fools.
— Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
The Christian virtues of humility and sacrifice filter through a tarnished triumph.
By Jeffrey Overstreet | posted 12/17/2003
“The road goes ever on and on,” sings Bilbo Baggins. So also will feverish debate among readers and moviegoers now that Peter Jackson’s ambitious cinematic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is complete.
The Return of the King, the final installment, delivers on the promise of grander spectacle, higher intensity, and a marathon of emotional resolutions to the story’s elaborate plotlines. It also introduces more controversial changes, which will surely throw fuel on the fiery tempers of Middle-earth purists.
But there are also some problems created by the filmmakers’ adherence to the text. Some things just work better in literature than they do onscreen, like the concluding parade of tear-jerking reunions and farewells. Nevertheless, Jackson’s big-screen victories far outweigh his failures.
The movie opens with a prologue that portrays Smeagol’s disintegration into Gollum (played by Andy Serkis), a tormented wretch obsessed with and addicted to the great Ring of Power. In this surprising flashback, Serkis plays the as-yet unspoiled Smeagol unenhanced by effects, and it becomes clearer just how much of the actor’s brilliant work indwells Gollum’s animated expression. This reminds us of where the Ring is taking our story’s ring-bearer—Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood)—whose every step Gollum follows with malice and deadly intent.
As we watch brave Frodo march toward similar spiritual ruin, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), his steadfast companion, gets to “show his quality.” When Gollum cleverly separates the loyal companions, Sam demonstrates newfound courage and loyalty in confronting Shelob, film history’s most frightening spider. When Frodo’s will teeters on the edge of an abyss, Sam perseveres. Resisting the temptation to carry the burdensome Ring himself, he vows instead to carry his master.
While Sam’s determination is truly inspiring, the determining factor in the quest and the conflict is, in the end, the compassion Frodo has for suffering Smeagol, a quality that provokes an unlikely but profound conclusion. The saga’s central thread is one of longsuffering and mercy, with violence as a grievous and questionable alternative—notwithstanding some misguided reviewers’ view that Tolkien’s epic is a mandate for the United States to send Muslim extremists “to an early grave.”
It is hard to imagine actors who could have played Frodo and Sam better. Few films have ever portrayed a friendship as intimate and as powerful. Their transformation from simple whimsical folk to battered, beleaguered survivors is heartbreakingly convincing. Astin will likely earn more acclaim and attention for his part; tearful breakdowns win awards. But Wood’s emotional performance is a riveting picture of disintegration.
Frodo and Sam are not the only dynamic duo divided in this chapter. Merry and Pippin, who so far have served as comic relief, are separated as well. Eventually they join an exhilarating exhibition of an army on horseback en route to Minas Tirith. The city is besieged by an orc army that is commanded by a monster resembling a mix of a giant, evil Elephant-Man and Yoda. The parts they play there lead to a showdown that earns the film’s biggest cheer.
Pippin (Billy Boyd), meanwhile, pledges his service to the despairing Steward of Gondor, Lord Denethor (John Noble), and sings a haunting song at his command. (Yes, that is Boyd’s real singing voice; in fact, he composed the song.) He too finds opportunity for heroism.
These adventures are only a few in a film that tests the limits of audience endurance. If viewers had any trouble following interweaving plots in previous installments, they’ll be disoriented by the many additional characters, monsters, races, places, talismans, histories, and prophecies presented here. Tolkien fans, however, will be enthralled by Jackson’s vivid depictions, unless their insistence on adherence to the books—chapter and verse—is too strong.
Parents should be aware that The Return of the King surpasses Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and The Matrix Revolutions as 2003’s most violent movie. Jackson has intensified the battle scenes and duels, and the result may indeed deserve a stricter rating than pg-13. Further, some Christians may be troubled by the indulgently ghoulish spectacle awaiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) in a haunted mountain.
Tolkien once wrote, “The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.”
The Return of the King’s weaknesses do stem from exaggerations and intrusions that belie the screenwriters’ misinterpretation of Tolkien’s convictions. In the film’s culminating moment, a simple and profound demonstration of pride’s deadly consequences is compromised by the filmmakers’ desire to amplify one hero’s bravery. This contradicts the book’s portrayal of that hero’s failure.
The filmmakers continually emphasize that humanity’s hope lies in, well, humanity. Tolkien insisted, “One must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good.’” He added: “The Writer of the Story is not one of us.”
Nevertheless, we can be thankful that the truth shines through this finished work as brightly as it does. The Christian virtues of humility, sacrifice, and faith filter through. The triumphant epilogue offers tangible hope rather than mere Hollywood sentiment. We can look back now and see that, while this edition of Tolkien’s epic is clearly tarnished, it stands alone as the most rewarding and accomplished fantasy trilogy ever filmed.
What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffery Overstreet
from Film Forum, 10/30/03
Are you counting the days until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? With just over a month left before the December 18 unveiling, the Internet is buzzing with trailers, news, photographs, interviews, and hype. What are your concerns about the final episode in Peter Jackson’s filmic trilogy? Or have his previous interpretations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories turned you off to the whole project? Let me know.
An update at TheOneRing.net announced this week that the film’s official running time will test the endurance of even the series’ most devoted fans: 210 minutes!
And yet, the films’ fanatical audience is showing unprecedented enthusiasm for the series. On Wednesday October 8, New Line Cinema made tickets available for a special one-day-only event in 99 locations across the U.S., a marathon run through all three Lord of the Rings films. It’s been nicknamed “Trilogy Tuesday.”
“Rarely, if ever, in the history of movie making has a studio gone so far for its fan base,” TheOneRing.net reported. “And yet, the small number of theaters tapped for the event guaranteed fierce competition for tickets. Fan anticipation was great, and demand extremely high. Tickets went on sale in 99 locations across the United States and with a few exceptions, they were gone a few hours later.”
Those who snatched up tickets for the event, scheduled for December 16, will have the privilege of sitting through The Fellowship of the Ring’s extended edition, previously only viewable on DVD. That’s a 210-minute production. After an intermission, they will sit through the extended edition of The Two Towers (due on DVD on November 18). That’s another 208 minutes. Following that, they will stretch and reload their bags of popcorn for the screenings of the three-and-a-half hour Return of the King, 48 hours before it opens for the rest of us.
(Keep in mind that the extended edition of Return of the King is not finished and will not be available on DVD for perhaps as long as a year. You can bet that keeping you on the edge of your seat for more than four hours!)
For those discouraged by the scarcity of event tickets, there is good news. In many locations, the extended editions of Fellowship and Two Towers will each have a whole week in theatres before Return of the King arrives. Tickets are already available, in many places, for these showings.
Film Forum will keep you posted on Middle Earth matters in the coming weeks with reviews of the Two Towers extended edition DVDs and with early buzz on The Return of the King. For detailed, regular updates on upcoming Lord of the Rings film screenings, locations, schedules, and tickets, visit the official website.
Meanwhile, some religious press film sites are already covering the landmark release. No such site has devoted more attention to the trilogy than Hollywood Jesus, which features commentaries by Greg Wright, who recently published his own study of Tolkien’s Hobbit-heavy tomes, Tolkien in Perspective.
from Film Forum, 12/11/03
Many Film Forum readers already have their tickets for the third and final film in … oh, you know what I’m talking about.
I joined several Christian press film critics in Los Angeles last week to see an early screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The screening was an overwhelming experience—the film surpasses its predecessors in many ways, especially in the Department of Jaw-Dropping, Eye-Dazzling Spectacle. But regarding the way that Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh adapt this chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s story, they have made many changes that must be discussed. Check next week’s Film Forum for some in-depth debate.
The day after the screening, most of us were still a bit bewildered from having seen such an awe-inspiring work, so we had to struggle to concentrate on the job of the day: interviewing the cast and the crew. My full review will be posted at Looking Closer on Monday, and excerpts from the interviews are being added to the site over the next two weeks. Some of the best interview bits will be included in next week’s Film Forum as well.
A particularly interesting aspect of the interviews: Tolkien’s Christian worldview seems to have gone either ignored or almost entirely unnoticed by many of the cast and crew. In fact, the themes of the story seem to have had very little influence on their thinking. Indeed, actor Andy Serkis told CNN.com in an interview this week that if he had the Ring of Power in his grasp, “I would banish all religions first of all.” In response, Steven D. Greydanus quipped, “The actor who plays Gollum thinks it would be better to be a Sauron than a Frodo.”
Some of the religious press critics who saw the film have already posted their reviews. Steve Beard, for example, has summed up his experience at the premiere on his site Thunderstruck.
Two of them came away with startlingly different responses. (Strangely, they sat side-by-side at the same screening.) Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, “It’s hard to overstate the soaring achievement of Peter Jackson and company in The Return of the King. To call it the grandest spectacle ever filmed is no exaggeration; it may also be the most satisfying third act of any film trilogy, completing what can now be regarded as possibly the best realized cinematic trilogy of all time. It’s the most ambitious [of the three]; it may also be the most emotionally affecting, and perhaps the most flawless.” But Barbara Nicolosi, Christian film blogger at Church of the Masses and the director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, feels very differently. “This film is … the most self-indulgent of the three projects. [It] ends at least seven times that I counted, each one bringing tear-filled eyes and the loving gripping of shoulders. I’ll give you that it certainly is a spectacle in the way that Cleopatra and Intolerance were spectacles. … But it isn’t great spectacle in the way that Lawrence of Arabia or Gone With the Wind [were], because in the end, I just don’t care too much about any of the people on the screen. The spectacle only serves itself.”
Mainstream critics are, for the most part, waiting until the release date to publish their reviews, but there is a full examination posted at The Hollywood Reporter.
from Film Forum, 12/18/03
“The board is set. The pieces are moving.” The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King looks poised to conquer box office records, and it may be on a path that leads to Oscars. Judging from the euphoric praise offered up by mainstream press critics, it looks like director Peter Jackson has triumphantly completed the greatest adventure film trilogy ever made.
Many of you—perhaps most of you—will be seeing the movie this week. (I’ve got a hunch a good number of you have already seen it.) When you do, let me know your opinions: Do you agree with those religious press film critics who are heaping superlatives on Jackson’s effort? Do you think it is as successful an adaptation as The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers? Do you have any complaints? Further, why do you think the trilogy is striking such a chord with viewers, and what sets it apart from other films in this season saturated with epics? Send me an e-mail.
The film follows the last days of the quest of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) across the span of Middle-Earth. This hobbit from the quiet and innocent region called the Shire has been beaten down and nearly destroyed, sapped by the wicked and alluring power of the One Ring he is seeking to destroy. Helped by his faithful friend Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Frodo has arrived at last in the blasted wasteland of Mordor. Within shouting distance of Mount Doom’s destructive lava flow, the only force that can destroy the Ring and prevent the dark lord Sauron from ruling Middle-Earth, Frodo finds himself facing both his own weakness and the malevolent designs of the Ring-obsessed wretch called Gollum. Gollum has devised plans for foiling Frodo’s quest. They include deceit, violence, and a particularly nasty spider.
Meanwhile, the rest of the heroes focus their attention on buying Frodo some time. The only way they can do that is by keeping Sauron’s attention on the city of Minas Tirith, where a war of unthinkable proportions is being set in motion. The wizard Gandalf, Pippin the Hobbit, the armies of Rohan led by King Theoden, and a couple of warriors who disobeyed orders to join the resistance, dig in their heels for what seems to be a doomed cause. They must face fearsome winged monsters called Fell Beasts, the demonic warlords called Nazgul, and the poisonous disillusionment of their own leader—a sour-spirited man called Denethor.
The survival of these heroes depends not only on the Ringbearer, but also on Aragorn, the inheritor of the throne of Gondor. With his trusty companions Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Aragorn must enter the bone-chilling caves that lead through the Paths of the Dead. There he must wrestle his own reluctance and lay claim to the kingship, a title that could earn him the allegiance of a much-needed force that dwells forgotten within the mountain.
The last chapter of Tolkien’s series plays like a three-hour finale, featuring some of the most awe-inspiring battle sequences ever created. Jackson wisely fills the film with quieter exchanges between characters so that the drama remains intimate and personal, the threats ominous and intimidating. Howard Shore’s glorious soundtrack underlines the epic quality of this astonishing spectacle. In spite of the filmmakers’ misguided meddlings with the story, admirable themes shine through.
Religious press critics are almost unanimous in their praise of the film. My own in-depth examination is posted at Looking Closer. (A shorter version appeared yesterday here at Christianity Today.)
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) praises its superiority in the film trilogy: “Certainly it’s the most ambitious; it may also be the most emotionally affecting, and perhaps the most flawless. For all Jackson’s reimaginings and elaborations, for all he does and does not do, Tolkien’s saga is in these films honored beyond all reasonable hope. The spirit of Tolkien’s work is honored in the transposition—imperfectly, yes, but brilliantly and transcendently in what it accomplishes.”
But he does admit, “Peter Jackson’s … fingerprints are everywhere, notably in his flair for the hyperdramatic.”
Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus), author of the book Tolkien in Perspective, calls it “Symphonic. I can find no better single word to describe the design, execution and impact of The Return of the King. Other classic films of the past, of course, have also felt symphonic—Amadeus, Apocalypse Now!, Lawrence of Arabia, even Saving Private Ryan. What distinguishes Jackson’s magnum opus, however, is that the tempo of his cinematic symphony’s final movement is largo—very slow. And Jackson’s daring pace, perfectly in harmony with the spirit of Tolkien, pays off in a terribly satisfying and haunting experience.”
Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) expresses some concern over the way Jackson and Company “crank up the conflict and tension whenever they can, and in doing so, they risk subverting the purity of Tolkien’s characters and concepts. These changes can be especially awkward when the conflicts they introduce have to be resolved immediately so that the story can point back in the direction it was always going in the first place.”
Nevertheless, he concludes, “The films are remarkably true to Tolkien’s deepest themes.”
“Not only is this epic film the leading contender for best picture of the year,” writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), “[but] Jackson may very well have just completed the best movie trilogy ever made. The triumphs of the cast, which perform brilliantly, are presented to us on a silver platter. The production design is magnificent; realizing not only Peter Jackson’s vision but … Tolkien’s as well. It is a story well told on every level. Though Tolkien himself often said that The Lord of the Rings should not be taken as a Christian allegory, it is impossible not to recognize that it is rife with Christian influences and principles.”
Jeremy Landes (Christian Spotlight) goes farther, calling it “the best film of the … trilogy, this year, and, perhaps, this decade. Prepare your heart to laugh, cry, and shout. Return of the King brings you to the climax of the characters’ struggles and leaves you dizzy with wonder, grief, and joy. [It] promotes character traits like self-sacrifice, unwavering friendship, and mercy.”
Frederica Matthewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) says the movie is “a crowning conclusion to the trilogy, and also arguably the best of the three films.” Praising Tolkien’s achievement, she examines why the story endures. “What becomes a legend is a story that is made out of elements already within us: awareness of a great battle that is going on, that involves us somehow already, as well as invisible powers far stronger than us; the need for others to help us in this journey, and a love for them in all their failings; a sense of our own capacity to turn traitor at the last moment, despite our high-flown claims. All of these are elements of the Gospel story, the story we’re born carrying inside, ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told.’”
Mainstream critics are heralding it as an achievement unlikely to be matched in the genre of adventure filmmaking. Elvis Mitchell (New York Times) calls Jackson’s film “a meticulous and prodigious vision made by a director who was not hamstrung by heavy use of computer special-effects imagery. It’s been a long time since a commercially oriented film with the scale of King ended with such an enduring and heartbreaking coda: ‘You can’t go back. Some wounds don’t heal.’ It’s an epic about the price of triumph, a subversive victory itself in a large-scale pop action film.”
But Mitchell also sorely misquotes Gandalf as saying that Frodo’s quest is a “false hope,” when in fact he calls it a “fool’s hope.” Big difference. Further, Mitchell makes the odd claim that “the movie isn’t as exclusionary as the books’ implicit Christian forcefulness, which made Middle Earth a re-creation of the Crusades.”
Middle-Earth’s Stars, Filmmakers comment on Tolkien’s spiritual themes
At a Los Angeles press junket held two weeks ago, religious press writers had opportunities to meet with the cast and crew of The Return of the King for interviews. Transcripts of those interviews are being gradually posted at my own Web site, Looking Closer.
Commenting on the way that Tolkien’s Hobbiton represents all that is good and pure in the world, Sean Astin (Samwise) says, “If Hobbiton is a place, an ideal, worth wanting to manifest in real human life, now … it can’t happen without some awareness of what’s going on in the real world. It’s maybe a little bit sad that children just can’t be children in a pure kind of world where there’s no danger and there’s no threats. But it’s the responsibility of the mature to preserve the sanctity of a world worth living in.”
Astin is also challenged by the nobility and longsuffering qualities of the character he portrays: “If I’m really honest with myself … I’ve been disappointed in myself and my own inability to be more like Sam with my friends. I don’t know if I can in order to survive, in order to be a good husband and a good father and have a career. I try, in moments, to manifest the better angel of my nature with my friends, but I’m not as good a friend to my friends as Sam. It’s a little bit hard to be the sort of emblem, to portray the character as an emblem for those things, and to know in my own life that I can’t. Or maybe, if I can, it’s going to be somewhere in my future when I’m more mature.”
“In playing a hobbit,” says Elijah Wood (Frodo), “I was at the very center of [Tolkien’s] ideology, his perspective of what was good and what was wrong with the world. I agree with his perspective on the fact that there all these wonderfully good and pure things that are being threatened by Mordor, which is (in my estimation) the modern world threatening all that is good and pure. Those themes that are very important in the story to Tolkien became very important to me. I think I agreed with them before, but especially after working in New Zealand … working in a country that is so lightly populated and is so pure in terms of its ecosystem and its nature … I think we all have a better perspective of the state of the world and that it needs to be saved and preserved.”
When asked about the film’s culminating scene (which Jackson has made more ambiguous onscreen than it is in the novel), Wood has strong opinions about the events leading to that crucial turning point: “It’s mercy. Had Frodo killed Gollum, he would have possibly gotten to Mount Doom, [but] he would have kept the ring for himself and the world would have been doomed. [It was because] he saw a kinship in Gollum and had an understanding and an empathy with Gollum that Gollum stayed alive.”
Screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens commented on how they tried to stay true to Tolkien’s sentiments about faith. “We have the ability within us to fail,” says Boyens. “Faith requires us to believe in a higher power.”
But in whom should we have faith? Looking at the story, Walsh says, “I think it’s about the enduring power of goodness, that we feel it in ourselves when we perceive it in others. And that’s a good reason to hope that it has significance for all of us asa race, as mankind … that we’re evolving and getting better rather than becoming less, diminishing ourselves through hatred and cruelty. We need to believe that. We need to have a sense of perfection.”
Tolkien would have disagreed. He wrote, “One must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’.” But he also added, “The Writer of the Story is not one of us.”
This week, Terry Mattingly sums up the junket experience and the differing interpretations of the film in his own column.
from Film Forum, 01/15/04
Two weeks ago in World Magazine, Gene Edward Veith looked at the timeliness and resonance of The Lord of the Rings films.
“Fellowship … showed terrifying Dark Riders breaking into the peaceful, complacent world of the Shire only a few months after Sept. 11, 2001,” he observed. “The Two Towers showed the battle joined between the ‘free folks’ and the forces of the Shadow, just as Americans were reacting to the destruction of their Two Towers by fighting the war in Afghanistan. This year, The Return of the King portrays a victory, in the aftermath of our own overwhelming but incomplete victory in Iraq, opening only a few days after the capture of the Dark Lord, Saddam Hussein. The movie even features a ‘spider hole.’”
But in accenting the epic’s parallels to violent world events, Veith overlooks one of the primary themes of The Lord of the Rings: That our only hope lies in the destruction of tools of great power. In doing so, he contributes to a growing misinterpretation of Tolkien’s work. Tolkien would have been grieved to hear that his story was throwing fuel on the fire of the United States “pre-emptive attacks.” His story shows that the solution to the world’s ills is not to put destructive power in the right hands. The solution is to eliminate that kind of power, to reject it, to refrain from seizing it.
The salvation of Middle-Earth is brought about through our compassion, our patience, and our humility in the presence of our enemies (Gollum.) As Tolkien understood, war is sometimes necessary. But it should never be the first impulse. Although this scene is not in the film, Tolkien’s heroic ranger Aragorn walks out on the wall of Helm’s Deep and extends the orcs a chance to surrender. The orcs! In the novels, Aragorn is a reluctant war-maker. He seeks first to give his enemy a chance to be redeemed.
Perhaps the sound and fury of Jackson’s war-heavy Lord of the Rings films have deafened some viewers to its quieter, but ultimately more important, themes.
Meanwhile, in USA Today, Michael Medved looks at the different political points-of-view offered by two of the leading Lord of the Rings actors. He describes Viggo’s soft-spoken argument as “ill-timed political posturing” and “pacifist preening.”
You can read for yourself a fuller transcript Viggo’s thoughts at Looking Closer. Is it “preening” to suggest that leaders should act without arrogance? Is it ill-timed political posturing for a person to suggest that a powerful nation should show respect for the U.N.?
He also includes quotes from the more conservative perspective of John Rhys-Davies, who makes some powerful observations as well. (A full transcript of that interview is available here.)
from Film Forum, 03/04/04
Tolkien fans would like to thank the Academy …
“It’s a clean sweep!” Steven Spielberg exclaimed when he opened the Oscar envelope and saw the name of this year’s Best Picture winner—The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
Throughout its history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been notorious for choosing realism over fantasy. No fantasy film has ever won Best Picture.
That all changed when the third Rings film to be nominated for the award finally earned the appreciation of Oscar voters. To make the victory even sweeter, the Best Picture award was the eleventh Oscar given to the film that night, tying the record set by Ben-Hur and Titanic, and bringing the trilogy’s Oscar total to a whopping seventeen—the most Oscars ever collected by a franchise.
With a sizeable crowd of the actors, crew, and the two screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens smiling and teary-eyed behind him, Peter Jackson accepted the award with his characteristic humility, gratitude, and sincerity. He joked about the broadcast “delay” that was in effect (in case of “wardrobe malfunctions” or inappropriate language) saying, “Fantasy is one F-word that the five-second delay won’t do anything to.” He thanked the Academy for “seeing beyond the trolls, wizards and hobbits.”
For Lord of the Rings fans, there may have been a twinge of sadness as the program closed. This will be the first year since 2001 without a new Middle-earth movie that can qualify for competition, even though a DVD edition of The Return of the King promises to add another hour (!!) to the film’s duration. (Jackson has reportedly completed a four-hour and twelve-minute cut.)
Peter Jackson’s masterpiece is, for many Tolkien fans, a dream come true. Count me among them—I’ve been a fan of hobbits since I was eight years old. As a teen, re-reading the series, I hoped for an Oscar-caliber adaptation of the saga, even dreaming that Ian Holm would someday be cast as Bilbo Baggins, and wishing that somebody would make it look like Alan Lee’s Middle-earth artwork. Holm was cast as Bilbo, Alan Lee was hired as a designer, and oodles of Oscars have been won. It seemed a ridiculous dream, but it all came true. It seems there really is “another will at work.”
In my Oscar predictions article for CT Movies, I had guessed that Oscar’s anti-fantasy bias would continue to hold and the over-the-top performances of Mystic River would give it the edge over Rings. It was the only major award I failed to guess correctly. I have never been so happy to be wrong.
Christianity Today Movies did not review this film, but here’s what other critics are saying …
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 05/17/01
The rest of the world is only now beginning to feel the tremors. J.R.R. Tolkien fans, however, have been feeling them for a while. The buzz has been building for more than a year, and last Friday even industry naysayers became enthusiastic about director Peter Jackson’s three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
A select audience at France’s Cannes Film Festival was treated to a 26-minute preview of footage from the still-unfinished film trilogy. The scenes presented were reportedly so astonishing that Rings has eclipsed dozens of finished films competing for the Palme D’Or award. “The best movie at Cannes isn’t in competition,” says a report at Mr. Showbiz. The Age, an Australian newspaper, reported, “Coming out of the cinema, back to the real world of Cannes cafes, the same line was repeated everywhere: ‘I can’t wait to see more.’” The wait won’t last long; the first of three installments—The Fellowship of the Ring—reaches theatres this Christmas.
It must be a great relief for the folks at New Line Pictures, who have watched the cost of the trilogy climb to $270 million dollars. Robert Shaye, founder of New Line and CEO, personally presented the preview. A seven-minute summary came first, introducing Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin), and other major characters. Then came a 14-minute action sequence in which the heroes journey through the Mines of Moria, assailed by terrifying armies of orcs and, finally, a winged devil called a Balrog. The preview concluded with a three-minute collage of moments from the second and third chapter. (For further information on the preview’s screening, visit TheOneRing.net’s Cannes Festival page. The official movie Web site is www.lordoftherings.net.)
Even if the movies are as profound a cinematic achievement as optimists predict, perhaps their greatest influence will be to draw a new generation to the books themselves. Tolkien’s storytelling, like that of C.S. Lewis, does not last merely because it offers frightening conflicts, memorable characters, and dazzling settings. Dozens of fantasy novels are compared to the works of Tolkien every year, and very few remain popular a decade later. What sets The Lord of the Rings apart?
This is a question I’d encourage readers to ponder as they read the trilogy before the film arrives in December. And yes, I’d encourage you to read it before December. The films may be spectacular, but Tolkien’s language, something that can only be distantly echoed by a movie, is one of the great delights of his work. Reading The Lord of the Rings won’t spoil it for you any more than reading the Bible can spoil The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told. Tolkien wrote for the love of what he called “co-creating with God,” using his imagination for the sheer pleasure of it. Like a traveler returning from another world, he was compelled to share, in excruciating detail, what he beheld there. If the movies do succeed, Peter Jackson’s achievement will be a signpost pointing the way to some of literature’s finest mirrors of God’s truth.
from Film Forum, 09/28/01
It might not even be a hard-realism saga that preserves for our children the heights and the depths of today’s tragedies. If you see The Fellowship of the Ring when it opens in theatres this December, I’d encourage you to remember that World War II was very much on the mind and heart of J.R.R. Tolkien as he wrote The Lord of the Rings and sent chapters to his son, who was in the military at the time. from Film Forum, 12/06/01
The Fellowship of the Ring opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, December 19, bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s work to the big screen whether the Tolkien family likes it or not. Buzz is building after last week’s screenings, and fans are gaining confidence that director Peter Jackson might have made the first decent Middle-earth movie.
David Ansen (Newsweek) believes the movie is “too violent for little ones,” but he raves about it anyway: “Jackson’s fierce, headlong movie takes high-flying risks: it wears its earnestness, and its heart, on its muddy, blood-streaked sleeve. It transcends cheap thrills; we root for the survival of our heroes with a depth of feeling that may come as a surprise. It leaves you with your wits intact, hungry for more.” Ansen also becomes the first to see the film as timely. “[Frodo] must form a coalition among the races of Middle-earth … to battle the armies of the Dark Lord. Is there an echo here of our current world?” (It has been a recurring phenomenon since the successful series was first published that each generation interprets it as relevant for a different reason—The Lord of the Rings has been called a parable of the wages of addiction, racism, industrialism, and more.)
Tolkien’s fans should count it the most encouraging sign of all to hear that Ansen left the theatre “thinking a trip to the bookstore to pick up The Two Towers might be in order.”
Variety predicts the movie will “please the book’s legions of fans with its imaginatively scrupulous rendering of the tome’s characters and worlds on the screen, as well as the uninitiated with its uninterrupted flow of incident and spectacle. Jackson must have convinced someone that he would do it right, a view thoroughly borne out by what’s up on the screen.” There are compliments for everyone involved, and high praise for Howard Shore, whose musical score is “constantly supportive, creative and complementary to the action. As such, it represents an object lesson that handily points up how unnecessarily intrusive and insufferably distracting John Williams’ work is in Harry Potter.”
The Hollywood Reporter says the film “rarely takes a wrong turn.” In a tempered review, the writer concludes that the film is “so well-made and well-cast that one can have no reservations about the rest of Jackson’s monumental creation.”
In the first official review offered in the religious media, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, “The intensity of the battle scenes and the depiction of evil is so vivid that the PG-13 rating seems inadequate. This is no children’s fantasy.” But he assures grownups that this is an exemplary fantasy. “It is the visual artistry which takes the focus rather than any individual performance,” he writes. “Tolkien’s book is rich with descriptive details and Jackson has helped to give each unique part of this world its individuality. Credit Tolkien for originality but give Jackson and his team their due for realizing Tolkien’s vision and putting it up on the screen.” From the film’s compelling story, he draws this observation: “We can’t always choose the events of our lives … all we can do is choose how we will act when those events occur.”
Film Forum will feature more reviews in the coming weeks, as this is just the beginning of the response. In the meantime, there are always the books. If you live in or near Seattle, click here to read about “A Hobbit’s Holiday,” a celebration of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien taking place this Saturday, December 8. (I’m hosting the event.)
from Film Forum, 12/13/01
Pre-screenings of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring continue to ramp up the excitement about the epic’s big December 19th opening day. But this week, Peter Jackson’s ambitious $250 million dollar project gained its first official complaints.
Film Critic’s Christopher Null is the only naysayer thus far, but what a lot of nays! “The obvious digital backdrops that start to wear you down … the fights are not particularly well-choreographed, either. You don’t get a good sense of scale of the big battles, and the in-close fighting is edited too frantically to follow well.” He boldly claims that “most moviegoers will find it overly long and just too exhausting.”
So far, though, Null is a minority of one. Just listen to the other mainstream reviews:
“The Fellowship … is thrilling,” exclaims Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, “a great picture, a triumphant picture, a joyfully conceived work of cinema that would appear to embrace Tolkien’s classic with love and delight, and rewards both adepts and novices … Every detail … engrossed me. I may have never turned a page of Tolkien, but I know enchantment when I see it.”
The highest praise yet comes from ScreenDaily’s Emanuel Levy: “Jackson’s Ring cycle generates the kind of epic cinema excitement encountered in the films of Abel Gance (Napoleon), Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, Ran), David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), and arguably last seen on the American screen in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It certainly far surpasses the standards of popular epics like Braveheart or Gladiator, the Oscar-winners of 1995 and 2000, respectively.” It contains “a moral and emotional significance” and is “bound to assume a place of honor in film history.” Even though it’s a fantasy, it “remains grounded in reality, dealing with relevant human themes of loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, and responsibility.”
“Fellowship … is an unqualified triumph, its status as the best Western fantasy film ever made all but indisputable,” says Nev Pierce at BBC Films. “I have no doubt the series will get better now that the groundwork is laid.”
At MSNBC, Todd McCarthy raves that the film “is an epic by any standard and looks to please the book’s legions of fans, as well as the uninitiated. Jackson must have convinced someone that he would do it right, a view thoroughly borne out by what’s up on the screen. [He] keeps a firm hand on the work’s central themes of good versus evil, rising to the occasion and group loyalty in the face of adversity, and always keeps things moving without getting bogged down in frills or effects for effects’ sake.”
“At last, smart movie making, with a real sense of creativity, style, wit, and texture. You can’t ask for anything more,” says Roger Friedman (Fox News). And he’s not the only one who sees visions of little golden statues. “Are there Oscars waiting for Fellowship? Certainly for special effects, costuming, makeup, and other technical categories.” But he adds, “What Lord of the Rings really revels in, though, are the characters and their relationships.”
Calgary Sun’s Kevin Williamson simply declares, “Lord of the Rings, folks, rules. And while perhaps Harry Potter’s spell will grow stronger as later episodes of the planned marathon of Potter flicks unfold, for now anyway, Lord of the Rings stands the taller of the two—a mythic, sprawling fable with a palpable sense of doom … It begins to fully dawn how much George Lucas, um, borrowed from J.R.R.”
Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir says, “The handful of Tolkien purists likely to pillory Jackson for his various departures from the sacred text are missing the point on a world-historical scale. This isn’t a doggedly literal adaptation, along the lines of Chris Columbus’ competent but spiritless Harry Potter. It’s an interpretation that seeks to capture Tolkien’s magic in a new vessel, an epic with grimy hands and a core of mystery. It’s a work of art created on its own terms.”
from Film Forum, 12/21/01
Merry Christmas, readers and moviegoers. It would be good, in these days of frenzied merchandizing, to remember the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, which he included in a letter to his son Michael in 1962: “Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no ‘commercialism’ can in fact defile—unless you let it.”
Speaking of Tolkien, Christmas, and commercialism, you may have already noticed the flood of Hobbit-related toys, trinkets, T-shirts, soundtracks, posters, and Burger King glass goblets that are helping to hype the long-awaited movie trilogy. (Collectors, take note: The ring used in the movie is currently available on a German eBay site, winning an early bid of $46,000.) New Line Cinema has a lot riding on the success of The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring, which opened this week. They’re determined to convince you that one movie rules them all.
They needn’t worry. In a what many people have called one of the worst movie years in recent memory, critics almost unanimously agree that Fellowship is one of the best, if not the best, cinematic experience of the year. Film enthusiasts invoke revered titles like The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Lawrence of Arabia in their comparisons. Perhaps Tolkien would have been pleased. He confided to his publisher in 1957: “I should welcome the idea of a … motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization; and that quite apart from the glint of money, though on the brink of retirement that is not an unpleasant possibility.” If he were still with us, he would stand to receive some hefty box office percentages.
Stephanie Zacharek at Salon.com struggles for the right superlatives: “The most heartbreaking thing about faithful moviegoing is that awe, beauty and excitement, three of the things we go to the movies for, are the very things we’re cheated of the most. The great wonder of The Fellowship … is that it bathes us in all three, to the point where we remember—in a vague, pleasurably hallucinatory sensation from another lifetime—why we go to the movies in the first place. It would be an insult to say the picture merely lives up to its hype; it crashes the meaning of hype, exposing it as the graven image it is. Advertising is dead: Long live moviemaking.”
“The film does full justice to Tolkien,” says Christopher Tookey (Daily Mail). He calls the film “a landmark in cinema, an awesome feat of imagination and daring. Critics who gave five-star ratings to … [the] uninspired Harry Potter movie are going to have to find ten if they are to do justice to The Fellowship. Here is landscape photography of a grandeur and emotional resonance that we haven’t witnessed in the cinema since John Ford revolutionised the western or David Lean took to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. The movie has a mythic grandeur and a profound understanding of human corruptibility that makes the Star Wars movies look like kids’ stuff.”
Christopher Howse (Telegraph) calls it “easily the most impressive fantasy film ever made—at least until next Christmas.”
David Denby (The New Yorker) registers a few complaints: “Too many blackened caverns … too much chanting by a male chorus on the soundtrack. The movie … repeats itself more often than a talkative cabbie driving out to the nether regions of Middle-Brooklyn.” But after that complaint, he joins the applause anyway: “I have to admit that I capitulated soon enough. Once it gets going … [the movie] is consistently beautiful and often exciting … surely the best big-budget fantasy movie in years.”
Ed Gonzalez (Slant Magazine) writes, “Jackson has stunningly authenticated Tolkien’s mythic landscape. There is a sense of belonging here, as if we’ve finally stumbled across that old friend we’ve only seen in dreams and read about in the thumb-worn pages of Tolkien’s novels.”
It has even won over religious critics who, earlier this year, condemned onscreen wizards.
Lisa and Eric Rice (Movieguide) write, “Fellowship … is a wonderful ‘epic’ movie that vividly captures most of Tolkien’s vision, including his moral vision.”
Paul Bicking (The Dove Foundation) says, “The visually stunning film and enthralling adventure will capture audiences with its tale of bravery and friendship.” (In spite of this, he concludes, “the graphic, gruesome battles, while true to the book, prevent our recommendation.”)
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) has mixed feelings: “I had expected to either love it or hate it and instead found myself squarely in the middle. It’s an engaging tale told with panache, but it’s not without its flaws. At three hours, it often feels too long, and yet I was disappointed when it was done.”
Peter T. Chattaway at Canadian Christianity reports, “The film paints a vivid, compelling portrait of an ancient world and the fascinating creatures that lived, fought, and died there. The film gets even better when it settles into its main story, and for one simple reason—despite the vast sums they spent on sets, props, and special effects, the filmmakers pay close, careful attention to the relationships between individual characters, and the actors, almost without exception, do a marvelous job of bringing the inhabitants of Middle-Earth to life.”
I cannot offer a completely objective perspective on the film. I first read Tolkien when I was 7, and I remember more specific details from Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’s journeys than I do about my own childhood. Tolkien gave me strong metaphors for the battlegrounds of my own life and my own heart, for the forces in conflict that are described in Ephesians 6:12. Every reader’s imagination is different, and different viewers will respond differently, but when I saw Fellowship on Wednesday night, it was as though director Peter Jackson had tapped into my memories. With the first sighting of Gandalf moseying into Hobbiton, I felt right at home.
Almost everything was just as I had imagined it. Okay, maybe I imagined Aragorn as slightly darker, more weatherbeaten. But Ian McKellan’s performance as Gandalf seemed flawless, from the gleam in his eye to the ferocity of his temper. The Hobbits are perfectly childlike, the Ringwraiths and the Balrog perfectly terrifying. Most Tolkien devotees will quibble over what director Jackson got right, what he got wrong, what should have been left in, what should have been cut.
But good literature and good movies are two different things. If the film had included all of Fellowship’s beloved events—Tom Bombadil, the Barrow Wight, Bilbo’s songs, and Frodo’s dance—detail-obsessed fans would have nodded knowingly while others might have lost interest or gone for more popcorn. Tolkien once said of movie adaptations, “The failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.” Jackson has admirably and efficiently streamlined the story, while honoring the book’s “core.” This is his interpretation of Tolkien’s romance, just as Arthurian legend has been interpreted by T.H. White, Thomas Malory, Steven Lawhead, and Monty Python. As moviegoers are drawn to the book and its sequels, those gaps will be filled.
Where the movie is flawed as a movie is in its pacing. In an admirable attempt to include as many scenes as possible, Jackson moves extremely fast. This robs us of an accurate sense of time passing—in the books this journey takes months, but onscreen it feels like a few desperate days. When the Hobbits grimace at having to leave the Shire or Rivendell, I sympathize. We also miss out on the complexity of many central characters. Hobbits Merry and Pippin, and Gimli the Dwarf, are reduced to sidekicks with the occasional zinger.
But these complaints are minor in view of what Jackson does accomplish. His adventure has a distinctly different style from Spielberg/Lucas-brand adventures. Viewers are not invited to enjoy the battles the way we gasp and thrill at Star Wars shootouts. There’s real fear and desperation in the conflict. We experience frightening pursuit and frenzied battles just the way the adventurers themselves do … as sudden, chaotic, life-threatening crises. No time for cocky movie-star nonchalance here. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) isn’t a wisecracking Han Solo; he’s the kind of guy you’d choose to defend you if the fate of your family, your nation, and a natural paradise were on the line.
The effects are standard-setting; Jackson and WETA Studios have stolen the torch from Lucas and ILM with this awe-inspiring work. But some sequences are clearly stronger than others. I was left shaken and breathless by the fellowship’s flight through the cavernous Mines of Moria, the film’s most spectacular scene, but kinder, gentler places like Lothlorien receive very little attention. (When the Lady Galadriel is tempted to seize absolute power, we’re given a vision of what she might become—and frankly, it looked like a bad cartoon.) Fortunately, New Zealand’s natural beauty makes the argument for Middle Earth’s goodness; it’s the film’s finest special effect of all.
Even though Tolkien regretted the loss of his privacy in the rising tide of fame, he once said, “It remains an unfailing delight to me to find my own belief justified: that the ‘fairy-story’ is really an adult genre, and one for which a starving audience exists.” Longtime fans and newcomers alike should be grateful that this, the grandest of fairy tales, has fallen into Peter Jackson’s capable hands. He’s given us a feast unmatched in the history of cinema—jaw-dropping visuals, compelling storytelling—and in 2002 and 2003, we’ll get second and third helpings.
from Film Forum, 12/27/01
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring ruled the box office so impressively, moviegoers can count on Tolkien-mania returning in force next Christmas, when the film’s sequel—The Two Towers—opens. (The Return of the King will wrap up the trilogy the following Christmas.) The first film in Peter Jackson’s riveting big screen adaptation continues to draw more raves than any movie since Titanic. A lot of these reviews have been mentioned in Film Forum over the last three weeks (1, 2, 3), so let’s focus on newer releases this week.
from Film Forum, 01/17/02
For me, it was an unforgettable year, if only because the literary world I loved as a child finally came to the big screen in a worthy adaptation with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings—The Fellowship of the Ring. It is remarkable how the actors bring each beloved character passionately to life. Viewers can’t miss the story’s emphasis on moral responsibility and the seductive nature of evil. It has its flaws—Jackson struggles with the size and scope of the novel, and inevitably rushes things along at a breakneck pace to try and encompass as much as possible. We’re left rattled, exhausted, and Tolkien fans complain about how the film skips some favorite episodes. But that harrowing cliffhanger ending sent almost everyone I know to the bookstore or the library, eager to find out what happens next, unwilling to wait until The Two Towers opens next December. Any movie that makes people read great literature is a reason to celebrate. I can’t wait for the DVD release, which reportedly features 40 more minutes of essential storytelling.
from Film Forum, 02/21/02
It’s a debate that won’t go away. I continue to receive e-mail from angry readers who don’t think I should have dared explore the issue Harry Potter and witchcraft here at Film Forum. Many Christian organizations continue to describe Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as “soft porn” promoting the occult. But some writers and moviegoers are questioning how these critics can say such things while, on the other hand, praising films like Return to Never Land and The Fellowship of the Ring, which, like Harry Potter, show heroes using magic to achieve their goals.
This week, Michael G. Maudlin of Christianity Today’s Books & Culture Corner addresses the ongoing debate over the alleged dangers of Harry Potter. Maudlin writes, “This primitive shunning of Harry Potter is made all the more strange when contrasted with the Christian response to The Lord of the Rings.” He points out similarities in the series, including how “magic is seen as a neutral instrument that can be used for either good or evil. And both authors allow their heroes to make full use of magic in their cause. So why are not both condemned equally?”
Anti-Potter propagandists claim that the age-old tradition of magic as a literary device is an invitation for readers to experiment with occult practices. If this is true, then one thing is very clear: Tolkien’s world is more dangerous than Rowling’s. After all, Lord of the Rings has arguably served as the primary literary source of trends like Dungeons and Dragons and other cultural phenomena that indulge their participants’ curiosity about the occult. Maudlin reports, “One Web site even sells Lord of the Rings Tarot Cards. Have some people used Tolkien as an entry point to the occult? The answer must be yes.”
He concludes, “Neither series makes much sense apart from a Christian ethic. Both works convey a palpable sense of Providence; both lift up agape love as the highest virtue; both flesh out what it means to have noble character; both see evil as coming from the heart and not ‘out there.’ So why does Frodo get a pass while Harry is demonized?”
Good question. To follow the logic of Movieguide’s Ted Baehr, we should be condemning not only Potter, but also The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and the Arthur legends with their heroic wizard, Merlin. Fairy godmothers use magic wands in Cinderella, and there is magic everywhere in the Christian-themed works of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle. I grew up a Disney fan, and as a child I loved to sing along with a seemingly innocent little cricket: “When you wish upon a star / makes no difference who you are / Anything your heart desires will come to you.” How then was I saved from a lifelong obsession with astrology?
The magic of fairy tales is an essential metaphor for miracle, mystery, talent, and spiritual gifts. It is quite a different thing from the foolishness of the occult. If young readers are taught discernment and the value of symbolism, these stories will give them strength. But children tend to develop curiosity about things they are told to fear. Therefore, brethren, fear not the stories of Muggles, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
from Film Forum, 11/14/02
This week, New Line Home Video delivered a package that will be on a lot of Christmas wish lists. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring—Special Extended Version DVD set—four full discs—improves upon the theatrical release, fills story gaps, and offers pleasant surprises. Fans of Tolkien’s classic series will be delighted to see that several episodes from the book are now included in the film.
On top of more character development and extended scenes, the new version also offers a more leisurely, informative, and comical introduction to the hobbit lifestyle, and the camera lingers longer on the astonishing set design—village design, really—which was crafted to seem if these cultures existed for centuries before the filmmakers arrived. When Gandalf warns that Sauron threatens all the lands of Middle Earth, we now know more and appreciate better what beauty, joys, and traditions the enemy may destroy in future episodes.
In addition to the extended film itself, there is such a wealth of information here that Tolkien fans will explore for hours on end. Documentaries focus on Tolkien’s immersion in languages, how his passions helped him endure after the loss of both his parents, and Peter Jackson’s long quest to get the three movies made. But there is so much more as well.
I can’t think of a better way for moviegoers to prepare for the opening of The Two Towers next month than to settle in with this sprawling, beautifully realized work. No home video package has ever offered such an in-depth look at the creative process or the way excellent storytelling can influence an audience.
from Film Forum, 11/27/02
That other fantasy saga continued to draw raves as well. I applauded the new DVD Extended Edition of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptation The Fellowship of the Ring last week. This week, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) offers his own rave review. “For the new expanded edition of the film, Jackson didn’t simply splice in some thirty minutes of additional footage, but reworked the film to incorporate the restored material as effectively as possible, even including new musical material written and recorded by composer Howard Shore for the new version. Far from feeling padded, the new version of the film actually improves on sequences that felt rushed or incomplete in the trimmed theatrical version. Given the richness of the source material, there’s virtually no fat even in the deleted scenes, and Jackson’s economy of storytelling remains very much in evidence. Some of these newly restored scenes add so much to the film that you wonder how Jackson was able to cut them in the first place. Of course a four-hour theatrical release would have been prohibitive, but still the choices of what to cut and what to retain must have been agonizing.”
Christianity Today Movies did not review this film, but here’s what other critics are saying …
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 12/19/02
You cannot hide from the hype of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The commercials, toys, posters and more are all a part of the Christmas rush. Bookstores are seizing the opportunity to convert moviegoers into Tolkien-bookworms.
Meanwhile, critics are predicting that that the sequel will grab a Best Picture Oscar nomination like its predecessor. Regardless, many moviegoers have been nervous: Can director Peter Jackson deliver a second helping as spicy and fulfilling as the first?
The answer is, for the most part, yes. Two Towers is packed end-to-end with helter-skelter action, jaw-dropping New Zealand scenery, standard-setting animation, and a stirring score. But the film unfortunately falls short of Fellowship’s emotional impact. Super-sized portions of violent conflict cost us precious periods of intimacy with the characters. Further, Jackson goes beyond the skilled abbreviation of the novels evident in Fellowship and begins revising plotlines to mixed results. Action fans won’t mind much. Purists, however, will be disgruntled.
Nevertheless, Towers will have moviemakers striving to match its brilliance for years to come. They will only succeed if they recognize that the saga’s greatest strength is the profound spiritual foundation on which this mythology is constructed.
My review for Christianity Today can be read in its entirety here, and a lengthier treatment of the film is posted at Looking Closer.
Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, “Along with Fellowship, this film delivers much of what is great about the book, and remains an order of magnitude above all previous cinematic efforts at “fantasy” or epic fairy-tale mythopoeia … [but] this film is also destined to be more controversial than its predecessor.”
Other religious media critics are celebrating without reservations. J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) calls it “one of the most thrilling movies of the last year. It’s difficult to write a review of a movie you positively love and not sound somewhat foolish. I promise the movie … won’t disappoint. It’s hard to miss the obvious Christian symbolism on display here.”
Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP, (The Tidings) focuses on the themes: “Can good and evil exist within the same person or society at the same time? At what cost? How do we discern what is right and just? What are we to do?” She points to surprising parallels between Towers and another popular sequel — Terminator 2: Judgment Day. “Note themes like the destruction of the environment; the incursion of the machines and technology permitted by people who do not consider consequences; the process of dehumanization brought about by war and the worship of technology; the physical, moral and ethical conflict/dilemma between the violence of oppressors and violence of those who seek to preserve the good. [These films] are not so very different at all.” In a follow-up article, she discusses Tolkien’s avoidance of clear Christian allegory, and explores Christian values that shine through the tale anyway.
David DiCerto (Catholic News) says, “Two Towers is a veritable passion play, with Frodo serving as a Christ figure. The story’s overall message of hope in strife, and the ultimate victory of light and goodness over darkness, are as reassuring to our troubled times as they were when Tolkien wrote it during the horrors of the Second World War.”
Ken James (Christian Spotlight) highlights its emphasis on “the bonds of friendship, the continual battle against evil, redemption of those who seem perhaps beyond hope, the choices one can make to choose the right, concern for the environment, and one word: HOPE.”
Critics at Movieguide are disappointed by ‘New Age’ elements they saw in The Two Towers. They admit the film is “a four star movie,” but claim the film does not do a good job of highlighting redemptive aspects. “For example, there’s a New Agey resurrection shot of Gandalf, whose hair and raiment have turned almost completely white from his experience of death and resurrection. The movie version also heightens the nascent environmentalist notions that appear in Tolkien’s masterpiece.”
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) quotes cast members and director Peter Jackson. Jackson says of Tolkien’s novels, “I think they’re very timeless. It’s depressing that 50 years after he wrote this book … the world really hasn’t moved on. And I suspect 50 years from now it won’t be much different.” Vaughn also posts a discussion with Andy Serkis, the actor who portrays Gollum. Serkis muses about the conflict in Gollum’s heart and the echoes there of Cain and Abel’s story.
Mainstream critics sing the film’s praises, just as they did for Fellowship last year. To find a compilation of raves, visit Rotten Tomatoes.
from Film Forum, 01/02/03
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers continues to inspire religious press critics as it continues to dominate the box office. Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, “Towers is just as powerful … and even more eye-popping than its predecessor. It’s an epic achievement. What stuck were poignant lines and unique situations that challenged me to think more deeply about human nature, morality, world events, and biblical truth. With the proper parental input, mature teens may have a similar experience.”
Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin post a review at Cinema in Focus, saying, “The symbolism of this quest is clear. Writing from a Christian worldview, Tolkien presents the nature of the spiritual struggle. Evil is a destroyer of life. It not only creates inhuman creatures from deep within the fires of the soul, but it also corrupts pastors and priests (wizards) and darkens the minds of kings and leaders. To be free from such a force, good people must stand together and fight the evil that resides both within each of our souls as well as in the towering powers around us.”
Peter T. Chattaway (Vancouver Courier) raves, “Jackson is as good a director in … intimate character moments as he is in the film’s more spectacular scenes, and despite its length, The Two Towers is over in no time at all. It will leave you itching for more.” He is, however, bothered by one aspect of the film: “There is something about the simple moral dimensions of this battle—humans good, orcs bad—that perhaps should give us pause in these war-on-terror times. Apart from the multicultural friction between humans, dwarves, and elves, the heroes in this story are pure and noble to a fault, and if they have any dark tendencies, these can usually be blamed on someone else: the Ring, Saruman, Wormtongue, whoever.”
Want a very different opinion from a Christian press reviewer? Cameron Strang (Relevant) is unimpressed. The reviewer writes, “From a spiritual standpoint, Lord of the Rings is supposedly full of rich allegory and subtext. I guess some people think ‘good vs. evil, and good is better’ makes for a compelling storyline. Personally, I don’t see how it’s any different from Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky. I was intently looking … and it’s impossible for the layman to clearly see any biblical parallels, no matter how visible the hardcore fans say they are.”
from Film Forum, 11/20/03
By the time you read this, you may already have seen The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Extended Edition, the new four-disc DVD set, released this week, that expands the second episode of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy into a 208-minute event. This new edition fills in many gaps in the story told by last December’s 175-minute version.
It’s a chance for newcomers to see a more cohesive, complete film, and for fans of the film to see more Treebeard, Gollum, Faramir, and even more of The Fellowship of the Ring’s tragic hero Boromir. Those who are picky about Jackson’s faithfulness to the original novels will be delighted to see some favorite episodes and memorable moments that were cut from the theatrical version of the film, including (click here to go past some spoilers):
* Merry and Pippin’s visit to Treebeard’s home, where he blesses them with a deep drink of the nourishing (and growth-inducing) Ent draught;
* Frodo and Sam making use of the remarkable rope given to Sam when the fellowship parted company with Galadriel in Lothlorien;
* Discoveries of Shire-property in the cellars of Isengard after the overthrow; and,
* perhaps most exciting of all, an explanation of just what became of those orcs who fled the battle of Helm’s Deep.
Next week in this space, I’ll post the responses of readers and Christian film critics to this enhanced edition. Has Jackson improved the movie? What does The Two Towers have to say to us? Send your thoughts and brief reviews.
from Film Forum, 11/26/03
Middle-earth fans gathered around for their first viewings of the DVD experience The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers—Extended Edition this week, and were quickly comparing their opinions and impressions online the next day.
Matt Oquist responded, “The extended Two Towers is wonderful. Several plot changes and logistics are better explained and more dramatically important, interesting, and consistent.” He is especially pleased by a scene that further elaborates on the conclusion of the battle of Helm’s Deep. “This was the scene which I most missed in the theatrical release, and while I could imagine something a little more amazing, I’m willing to be content with what the extended version offers. I guess the filmmakers have to do what they can with the time that is given to them.”
Alan Willcox responded with dismay at his discovery of a hidden feature—an “Easter egg”—in which the computer-animated Gollum steals an MTV Movie Award from actor Andy Serkis and unleashes a tirade of profanity.
Diane Rose says, “I loved it. I didn’t have major problems with the theatrical release, so this one’s like icing on the cake (with just a few exceptions—poor Gimli, some of his new lines are groan-inducing). The documentary on Tolkien, including bits about his friendship with Lewis, was quite nice.”
At Movieguide, a reviewer makes an unusual complaint about “a New Agey resurrection shot of Gandalf.” He is also troubled by “environmentalist notions.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Giles (Newsweek) gives us a sneak peek at The Return of the King, the movie and the efforts leading up to it.
The Lord of the Rings: The Least Becomes Greatest
Concepts: Courage; Greatness; Humility; Leadership; Sacrifice; Servanthood; Service; Weakness
Scriptures: Psalm 110:3; Matthew 23:12; Mark 9:35; Luke 9:46-48; Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Philippians 2:1-10; 1 Peter 5:5-6
The Scene: from 1:29:00-1:31:30 on the video
In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, based on Christian author J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous books, we see the classic conflict between good and evil set in a mythical land called Middle Earth. After a great battle in ancient times, the Dark Lord Sauron was temporarily defeated and his most dreaded weapon, the Ring of Power, was lost for many ages.
A character named Bilbo Baggins—from a race of small beings called hobbits—found the ring and, unaware of its true identity, passed it on to his nephew Frodo as part of an inheritance. Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) plays the central role in the story—and he is an unlikely hero. Full of humility and hesitation, he embarks on an epic quest to destroy this most powerful tool of the Dark Lord.
At one point the rulers of the nations have gathered in a council to decide what to do with the ring, which sits before them on a stone pedestal. The fate of the world hangs on their decision. Under the strain of the decision and the seeming impossibility of the task, bitter infighting breaks out in the council.
“The ring was made in the fires of Mount Doom,” says the head of the council. “Only there can it be unmade. It must be taken deep into Mordor and cast back into the fiery chasm from which it came. One of you must do this.”
But one council member objects, “One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its black gates are guarded by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep, and the great eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire and ash and dust. Not with 10,000 men could you do this. It is folly!”
The council members begin to protest, bicker, and accuse, standing and pointing at each other, until a small voice is heard that silences them all. Frodo stands and says, “I will take it. I will take it! I will take the ring to Mordor.”
The members of the council are stunned into silence, and one by one they pledge themselves to be a team supporting Frodo. Thus is born “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
Frodo, the smallest, least powerful, and humblest of them all emerges as the greatest, because he’s willing to do what must be done, regardless of the sacrifice.