16 December 2012

TOLKIEN ON FILM: I AM GLAD YOU ARE HERE WITH ME. HERE AT THE END OF ALL THINGS.

My primary objection to the massively successful, award-winning, generation defining The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003's conclusion to the film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's multi-volume fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, is not an original one, nor a clever and insightful one, nor a bold one. My primary objection is that it's too motherfucking long, and in particular that it takes an irredeemably long time to end. And that is a criticism that has been leveled at the film since pretty much the second that it premiered. So it's probably lazy of me to bring it up, but it looms so large in my feelings about the movie - and, I gather, in very nearly everybody else's, good or bad - that it would be disingenuous to put it off.

It's all part of the same weird adaptation fandango that left The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers covering only something like two-thirds of the book whose title it shared (and changing the meaning of that title, into the bargain), for it leaves us with quite a lot of leftover Two Towers material to fit in - the first actual Return of the King scene takes place 32 minutes into the 201-minute theatrical cut, and the remainders of The Two Towers don't wrap up until well beyond the half-way mark - and thus quite a bit less space for The Return of the King, even with its running time inflated from the already-generous preceding films. That was still not enough space for the last 40-odd pages of the book, and at some point the decision was made - I assume the details are somewhere in the hours and hours of making-of material available on the fancy DVD sets - to cut out an entire chapter, "The Scouring of the Shire". And that had all sorts of ramifications that we'll get to, but one of the nastiest ones was structural - see, the thing that bothers a lot of people about the way the movie Return of the King ends, that it's what feels like several hours of wrapping-up and goodbyes and fervently homoerotic slow-motion pillow fights, that was already in the book, and cannot be blamed on anybody but Tolkien. The difference being, Tolkien broke up what takes, onscreen, just 22 minutes - though they are an unbelievably ill-paced 22 minutes, with three separate fades-to-black and a garish amount of slow-motion, and a general lingering feeling that even makes the regular-speed material feel slow; it is, altogether, the most frustratingly-edited sequence in the entire trilogy - with a big action sequence, so even if there's a lot of talky denouement, it leads up to something. The movie doesn't; the ending just spools out, listlessly, and that is the structural problem I meant. And the hell of it is, there's really nothing you can do about it: if Jackson had cut the very final sequence, the Tolkien faithful would have burned him alive, and pretty much every frame of that 22 minutes is absolutely required to get us from A to B. It's boring as hell, but irreplaceable.

Having dealt with that, let's skip all the way back to the beginning: when last we left everybody, hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) were being escorted into the evil land of Mordor by untrustworthy mutant Gollum (motion-captured Andy Serkis), heading to destroy the evil ring that Frodo bore; human king-in-exile Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and resurrected wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) had just helped King Theoden (Bernard Hill) of the rural kingdom of Rohan turn back an evil army; B-list hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) had been present at, but largely uninvolved in, the destruction of the industrial hellhole ruled by evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee, who only appears... but let's wait for that). The new film shuffles up the characters a bit: now Pippin and Gandalf travel to the great fortress city of Minas Tirith, to force craven steward Denethor (John Noble) to rally his army to make one last stand against evil, Merry joins Theoden's army as they travel, much more slowly, to Minas Tirith for that battle; Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas prepare an alternate plan to reach the same battle; Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are unchanged. That gets us to the midway point, at any rate, and the midway point of The Return of the King is already further in than a great many narratively dense feature-length movies.

I find it fascinating that this movie won (as part of its record-tying eleven-statue haul) the series' first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, because it has the weakest script. Now with four subplots to keep in mind, for a very large portion of its running time, Jackson, Fran Walsh, & Philippa Boyens are obliged to spend an inordinate amount of time shifting focus, and while it succeeds on the bare level of keeping up with the story, the success is wholly mechanical: there's no real logic involved, no rhyming of moments or telling overlaps. It's all functional storytelling, and that, in and of itself, is more than a little bit impressive: there's a mad amount of story happening, and keeping it all straight could drive a weaker person insane. But it is only functional storytelling. And there are issues all throughout with scenes that feel rushed, particularly in the Frodo/Sam plot: Sam's infiltration of the enemy stronghold of Minas Morgul - the original second tower in The Two Towers - is a highlight of the print Lord of the Rings, but gets pushed through so quickly here that you'd think somebody was embarrassed of it. Even worse are the omissions: having, by the time that this film was in post-production, found that The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was an amazing success that permitted him all sorts of liberties, particularly in the case of releasing extended DVD editions of the movies, Jackson abused the power thus granted to him by cutting out important material, material that would almost certainly never have been taken out otherwise. Most famously, I refer of course to the matter of Saruman: both in Tolkien and Jackson's iterations of the story, the backstabbing wizard was made the primary "tangible" villain of the story, what with the dark lord Sauron being almost entirely offstage and deliberately nebulous. Ignoring the fact that what Tolkien did with the character is not remotely like what the filmmakers did, the fact still remains that he's a major element of the plot; and in the theatrical cut, he's dismissed in a couple of lines and a ghastly shot that makes it really, really clear that they're making a point of not showing you what's going on.

Weakest script or not, the film does, admittedly, have a lot going on in its favor: the spectacle is ramped up here more than in the preceding two movies combined, and the design and execution of Minas Tirith in particular is the very reason we go to fantasy movies: I do not hesitate in declaring it my favorite location in the whole series. There's one absolutely tremendous action setpiece, in which Sauron's armies lay siege to the walls of Minas Tirith, with the aid of a huge, deliciously baroque iron battering ram and a whole mess of catapults (resulting in a POV shot of a large piece of mortar flying out of one such implement that I'd have happily seen cut out, but then, all three of the movies have a projectile POV, and it would, I gather, have been upsetting to skip one now). Frodo's encounter with a giant spider is, bar none, the finest giant insect sequence* in all of cinema. Also in the spider sequence, and in a haunted mountain pass, Jackson gets to show off his skills with horror style like nowhere else in this franchise. In fact, perhaps because they were largely shot in sequence and thus he'd had the most practice by this point, I think that The Return of the King is overall the best-directed of the three movies: Jackson and Andrew Lesnie still have an addiction to spinning the camera up and around and all over that is spastic more than it's cinematic, but there are not so many sweeping helicopter shots as in The Two Towers, nor the profound and consistent mismanagement of tone of The Fellowship of the Ring: here, unlike that moment, when things need to be scaled back to a human size (or half-human, as needed), Jackson knows how to do that; a haunting moment where Pippin sings a hobbit lament, cross-cut with battle, is a little on-the-nose but only in the very best tradition of populist blockbuster cinema, and it's maybe the most sensitive and emotionally true scene in the trilogy.

But for every moment that goes right, something goes equally wrong. Minas Tirith is an impeachable triumph of design? Yes, but Minas Morgul is a gaudy joke of protoplasmic greens, my least favorite location in the series just as certainly as its sister-tower is my favorite. The initial siege of Minas Tirith is almost as good as the stunning Helm's Deep battle in The Two Towers, but then the much larger and more ambitious Battle of the Pelennor Fields comes along and it's kind of terrible: rampant with obvious CGI in the form of ridiculous large elephants (Tolkien, in imagining the beasts, presumably was not as influenced by the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back as Jackson), and desperately bad quips by our heroes, and the low point of the whole franchise, when Legolas abruptly becomes an obvious animated effect and kills one of the big animals; though it's edited better than the fights in Fellowship, so we have to give Jamie Selkirk (third movie, third editor) that much credit. For every improved performance - Boyd and Monaghan, given more to do, are so much more alert, complex, and alive in their characterisations that they're virtually unrecognisable; McKellen's Gandalf was never better, mixing dry humor, impatience, fear, anger, strength, etc. etc. - there's one that's in a tailspin - Astin, never the strongest member of the cast, cannot handle the heavy emotional lifting he has to do in this part, Wood swoops from greatness to giggle-inducing incompetence often in the course of a single scene, Mortensen straight-up isn't trying and his accent keeps sliding. Jackson's tighter direction isn't above a spectacular miscalculation like the Monty Python-esque sight of a flaming Denethor running off a cliff, in swooping wide shot. And the CGI, weirdly, is much worse here than in the previous films: the Pelennor Fields battle especially, though the video-game framing of much of the action doesn't help that out, while the attempt at a darkening sky looks like plastic, there are some painful shots involving lava near the end, and even Gollum, the pinnacle of the art form when he was introduced in The Two Towers, is badly composited in two separate shots. Of course, there's plenty of truly awe-inspiring CGI as well: that's what makes the bad stuff stand out.

It's that way with the film as a whole: everything that made any of the films in the series exciting fantasy adventures is present and amplified, and the stakes are raised through the rafters; but the flaws, which were more at the level of niggling and nitpicking before, are just as amped up. The same weird balance of very good and very misguided would dominate Jackson's post-LOTR epic, King Kong, and at a remove of so many years, I actually find that my response to Return of the King is closer to that film than to the movies it's actually related to: there's so much that's amazing popcorn movie delight that I have to like it, but there is a lot going wrong.

Some closing thoughts on the extended edition: after all I said up top, it might seem like I'm in favor: after all, does it not button up the Saruman hole? And it also gives us much more, richer material with Faramir (David Wenham) and Eowyn (Miranda Otto), giving those characters more of a presence and a reason to be - and boy, is it weird how badly Faramir, a fantastic character in the extended films, is treated by the theatrical cuts.

Not hardly! In fact, Return of the King is the only film in the trilogy that I think is unambiguously worse in its extended version: the Saruman scene is necessary, but it has been crudely edited in, the most galling insertion in any of the films. And that's ignoring how much of the extended material is so deeply unnecessary: five seconds of Gandalf having a coughing fit? Wow, thanks. Or the kind of tacky, gross Mouth of Sauron scene.

The net effect of all this is twofold: first, it makes a three-hour and twenty-one minute film reach the ungodly length of four hours and eleven minutes, and I mean fuck off. You have to cut it off somewhere, and surely four hours is that point - when a movie crosses four hours, it's probably doing it as a deliberate means of testing the audience and putting us in an abstracted mental state. And The Return of the King is many things, but Rivette ain't one of them.

Besides that, the sheer volume of tiny, generally insubstantial additions - of the three, this film has the most time added by little bits and pieces rather than full scenes - serves generally to completely mess with the pacing; the theatrical Return of the King doesn't fly by, but it flows. The extended edition clomps.

And last, begging your indulgence, some closing thoughts on something I have in general tried to shy away from: directly and judgmentally comparing the movies and the books. Jackson was doing his thing, I get that, it's fine, and they make for awfully fun adventure movies, and I am happy they were made. But I've loved Tolkien for a long time, and it's hard not to wonder about all the things the movies skipped on, to more or less deleterious effect. In 2001 and 2002, I sort of shrugged it off: aye, I would have enjoyed seeing Tom Bombadil, but it would have been poor drama; the shifts to The Two Towers were in its best interests as a screen story, and so on.

But it was with The Return of the King, and particularly its extended edition (which revealed not just what Jackson hadn't included, but what he never intended to include), that I realised just how much these films don't get Tolkien's point or themes, or morality, or anything. They are movies that read The Lord of the Rings and think, "what a sprawling adventure!" But that's not the book: the book is a Catholic anti-war screed written by an aging philologist and Old English fancier who had served in World War I and spent most of his time composing this novel under the nightmare of World War II. And sure, Tolkien himself denied that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory, but you'd have to be completely ignorant of the context or stunningly inattentive not to see any echoes of the wars of the 20th Century in the text (certainly, I'm not the first person to spot a trace of the notorious No Man's Lands of WWI's trench warfare in Tolkien's description of the barren, ash-covered Mordor).

At heart, The Lord of the Rings is about the temptation to violence, and resisting or not resisting that temptation; and it is about saving what is good and peaceful from what is crushing and destructive (the staunchly traditional Tolkien having a slightly patrician idea of what "peaceful" living consisted of, but no matter). In the case of the latter, we have the matter of the Scouring of the Shire; on one reading (the one I subscribe to), the point to which the entire plot is building from its very first line - a group of innocents goes and fights in the wars, and then returns to find that their beloved home has been corrupted, and then they must fight there, innocence being irrevocably conquered by experience. And the Scouring of the Shire, of course, isn't here - it's in the shitty 1980 Rankin/Bass cartoon The Return of the King, but it's not here.

And on experience replacing innocence, and the other theme of violence and morality: there's a thread that goes not just through The Lord of the Rings, but The Hobbit as well, and it's conveniently flagged in multiple speeches. In the books, three hobbits become, for some period, the Ringbearer: Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee. Every one of them feels some measure of pain for their contact with the ring; every one of them is given the chance to travel to the West, symbolically a place of healing and peace before dying (this is only implied as some indefinite future for Sam in the narrative, but spelled out in the appendices). Every one of them, and this is the biggie, the one that gets specified in writing, has the chance to give in to the ring's evil, and kill the craven Gollum, and every one of them chooses not to do so: "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand", says Gandalf of Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring; "now that I see him, I do pity him", echoes Frodo in The Two Towers. "He could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched", we read of Sam in The Return of the King.

The not-very-secret is that Sam, and not Frodo, is our entry into The Lord of the Rings: he has the final word, is the last one standing, and in letters, Tolkien observed that it was Sam's "domestication" of the sprawling mythos, appreciating everything in a common, rustic way that was meant to be the reader's way to access the familiar, living world of the story, rather than the arch, inhumane setting of the unpublished, unpublishable Silmarillion material. We are not Frodo; we are Sam. Sam's moral journey ends up being the most interesting, because Sam is the one we encounter the story through - when, given the choice between a limited third person voice that favors Sam, or favors Frodo, Tolkien nearly always picks Sam. Thus it is that the third act of mercy towards Gollum is the one that "pays". It is also why, of all the scenes in the whole 1000+ pages in which someone is tempted by the ring and either acts on that temptation (and typically dies), or resists, the only one written at a level that feels, rather than announces itself in grand, cod-medieval language, is when, in Return of the King, Sam is tempted by visions of using the ring to become a great gardener. It's simple to the point of rustic comedy, except stripped of any of the exaggerated homeliness with which Sam is frequently written: it's the point in the book where Tolkien is not offering the ring to a character, but directly to the reader. It is, in a way, the moral center of the book; certainly, between this scene and Sam's subsquent mercy towards Gollum, the moral message of The Lord of the Rings is at its clearest and brightest and most moving.

And, just like the Scouring of the Shire, those two scenes are not found in either version of the movie.

Do any of these omissions make Jackson's The Lord of the Rings bad epic moviemaking? No, not hardly. But they make it bad Tolkien, and it's all the reason I need to be glad that the Tolkien estate is so unlikely to ever let Wingnut Films get at any of the author's Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales materials, because that would be a fucking atrocity.

12 comments:

Brian said...

I remember watching it in the theater (having arrived just before show time opening weekend, sitting off to the side in the front row. Head turned for 3 and half hours. So painful) and being just absolutely stunned and pissed when they got back to the shire and it was just... Fine. Pristine. Home. Holy hell, you missed the whole fucking point, Peter!

I got over it over time, and I do enjoy all three movies a lot. But the end will never sit right with me, for much the reasons you laid out. The journey changes everything, Peter. EVERYTHING. Not just you, but your home as well. We see that to a much smaller (and funnier) extent when Bilbo returned home in The Hobbit to find that he had been declared dead, but here it's such an important point, and it's just gone.

The other thing that will always bother me about the films is the way Merry and Pippen just kind of accidentally wound up on the journey, rather than having decided right from the start that they would stand by their friend, no matter what. I think they were robbed of so much richness in order to make them comedic sidekicks.

Still, judging the films as films, and not adaptations, I like them. Other than the end of ROTK, cause holy fuck, without the Scouring, that thing just goes nowhere, and spends forever getting there.

RickR said...

Not having read the books, I can't speak to how the movies function as adaptations. Going by the films, I always thought the two towers referred to the twin edifices in Eisengard and Mordor.

My favorite structural choice in RotK was to put Smeagol's "origin story" at the beginning. It gives a great, emotional epic feel to go along with all the visual epicness on display, though it does come dangerously close to making the film, and perhaps the entire trilogy, Smeagol's story. Still, I thought starting the movie with that was pretty great. I can't remember whose idea that was, but I seem to remember it wasn't Jackson's original idea to put it there.

I'll disagree with you about Sean Astin. I think he is good to great throughout, and never better than in the climactic scene inside Mount Doom. I was on the edge of my seat, and he brought absolutely the right emotional intensity to the scene.

As far as the length goes- yeah, it is one long-ass movie for sure. And leaving out the Scouring of the Shire sounds like a bad choice. Perhaps RotK could have been served by being split into two films with more reasonable running times. But in 2003, splitting the final book in a series into two movies wasn't yet A Thing.

The.Watcher said...

Tim, how do you know about the estate's wishes to not give/sell those two sources to Jackson? Have they publicly said as such?

I ask because those movies make a lot of money, and so it will be kinda weird if the estate says no. Especially because the LOTR movies (and Hobbit, if moviegoers' opinions of it are any indication) are typically very beloved and treasured within the fan communities, so there's no real reason for them to deny Wingnut 10 more films.

DerFuhrer said...

1. To start off with, I love the design of Minas Morgul. It's basically a smaller version of Minas Tirith, a white fortress with these garish jagged black plates that symbolise anything Mordor-ian stuck to them. And since biophosphorescent green is one of the most sickly colours I could think of, it really does lend well to the eerie look of the place. But, I suppose we'll have to disagree on this point.

2. I'll agree that Sean Astin is not the best member of the cast, but I'll go on to say that his scenes on the slopes of Mount Doom and in the Cracks of Doom are nigh unimprovable in my opinion. I never believed that he was the character more in the entire trilogy than when he gives the line reading for "I can't carry it for you but I can carry you!"

3. Having watched the previous two movies and watched enough behind-the-scenes material to know exactly how far off the mark Jackson is when it comes to the theme of Tolkien's work, I was already anticipating the cutting of the Scouring of the Shire, and making the Mount Doom/Black Gate sequence the climax of the entire trilogy. He said he did not want two climaxes for the movie, which indicates he missed the point. That aside, that climax really is one of the best-edited sequences of the series, cross-cutting between the two parties to emphasize the fatigue of the good guys and later on, their desperation. Meanwhile, Howard Shore goes crazy and borrows liberally from Wagner and it's all awesome.

4. So, it seems fitting to follow that up with the worst-edited sequence of the trilogy. We can all agree that it is the editing which kills the ending sequence. If we could speed up the slow-mo stuff, make the tickle fight less embarrassing for everyone involved, take out the fly-by/map stuff and take out the fucking fade-to-whites/blacks, and we will still have an overly long ending sequence, albeit a less annoying one.

5. So, yeah, we still agree on the main points and instead of a meditation of the horrors of war, we have three perfectly fine fantasy movies that bring in the excess of spectacle unlike anything we have ever seen to date and possibly will never see again in our lifetimes.

And that even includes the Hobbit movies. Goddammit.

Malte said...

Rick, I'm right with you on the opening - what an improvement over the admittedly cool-looking non-beginning of The Two Towers and the well-done-but-still infodump in Fellowship.

I think Tim's review gets right to the heart of why the films don't sit quite right with me, but I wish more ink had been spilt on the production design, and all the visual homages to classic genre cinema (both The Return of the King and King Kong are full of references to 7th Voyage of Sinbad). It's weird: Jackson profoundly loved what he was doing, but he didn't get Tolkien at all.

Too-Tickii said...

Other than the pretty much unfixable poor decision that is the pillow fight, it's definitely the editing that breaks the closing sequence. It's the ending for the entire trilogy, and I can understand closing out 9 hours of story with a 22 denouement. There's just no reason for those 22 minutes to crawl and trudge on like they do.

I'd take it over Harry Potter's "ah voldemort is dead, quick, time to fuck off to the epilogue" though.

Too-Tickii said...

*22 minute

Tim said...

Brian- Happily, I knew well in advance that the Scouring was cut, so at least I wasn't waiting for it. But it was still bitter when it showed up.

A good point about Merry and Pippin falling into the plot; it annoys me so much when it happens, but then there are so many hours of movie after that, I tend to forget.

Rick- In the movies, that's exactly what the towers are, and Tolkien himself had dubious feelings about the tower in any place.

Totally right about the Fall of Sméagol scene. One of the best parts of ROTK, and one I would have mentioned, but the piece was already getting out of hand.

The.Watcher- Christopher Tolkien, the author's youngest son and executor, has made it extremely clear that he dislikes Jackson's first trilogy very much and would have prevented The Hobbit if he had any legal leg to stand on. Hard to say what his own heirs will do after he dies (and he is not young), but I get the impression that they'll go along with his final request on the matter.

DerFuhrer- The climax is, for sure, some great editing, especially after such a lot of sort of wobbly, aimless cross-cutting. And I'll concede that the Sam scene you mention is easily my favorite moment in Astin's entire performance.

Malte- Production design was one of those things I just didn't have energy for, in the end. But it's certainly a great part of the whole, maybe even the greatest.

Too-Ticki- Not to mention, the Harry Potter epilogue is quite possibly the worst passage in the entire seven-book series, and the movie manages to make it even worse.

james1511 said...

I've clearly missed something after reading Return of the King twice, cos I've always hated the Scouring of the Shire and frankly welcomed its absence from the film. To me it's like "good Christ, the story ended a hundred pages ago, why doesn't Tolkien know where to stop"; if Jackson missed the point of it, then I've been missing it for a couple of decades too...

Mark said...

The honest truth is that having sat through it the first time in theater, I decided there is no redeeming reason to sit through the last 22 minutes when I've re-watched it. It is so hollow, tone deaf, and utterly misconstrued from the source material that it really doesn't merit a 2nd viewing. I am generally not one for skipping over film scenes I don't like, but in this case, I like the move much better if I just "pretend" it ends 22 minutes early.

K Wild said...

I liked the Smeagol origin story, too, but I think it was a mistake to have "normal" Smeagol speak in his Gollum voice from the beginning. The Gollum voice should have been something he acquired throughout the years.

Vianney said...

Not much to add to the above thousands of words that would sound intelligent, but I'm just curious if any of you have read "The last Ring-bearer", a russian novel depicting Mordor as the good guys.
I haven't read it myself but always was intrigued by the concept.

Also, Tim, this is as good a place as any for the yearly reminder that some of us probably still are looking forward to your completion of the HP book reviews, and the long-coming Pratchett essay :)