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Peter Jackson's The Return of the King:
Humanity, Horror, Haste, Heroism

A common criticism against J.R.R. Tolkien is that his characters lack human realism. The complaint is that they are too black or white, too high or low, too noble or common, too Good Guy or Orc, as it were. Ironically, Peter Jackson's rendering of those same characters draws criticism for their very humanism. For starters, they're filthy. Viggo Mortensen's stringy, oily hair, the hobbits' dirty fingernails, everybody's general all-around grime … yuck! Then there's their audacity in having human failings: they doubt and question their leaders, make jokes at inappropriate times, treat badly those around them. Well, how clean would you be if you spent about a year living outdoors with no tent and walking hundreds of miles, fighting battles along the way?

Peter Jackson's The Return of the King is far and away the best of his three Lord of the Rings films, though I can't decide if that's because it's really that much better or if it's because I'm three times more inured to his way of doing things. These films seem to cast a spell on me quite apart from my assessment of the value of each departure from Tolkien. It's partly the effect of the New Zealand landscape, partly the great casting, and partly--yes, it's time to admit it--Jackson's success in bringing so many different elements of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to life before my very eyes.

Once again Jackson uses to good effect his trick of showing us things Tolkien mentioned but did not elaborate upon. In The Two Towers it was Theodred's funeral; in Fellowship it was Boromir's death; here it's the flaming of the beacons of Gondor. All three scenes are more than stirring; they're grand in the best tradition of heroic fiction. Too bad he couldn't resist the physical comedy (and silly plot feature) of having Pippin sneak up to light them.

Once again Jackson's love of heroic battle (read: massive action scenes, no pun intended) serves him well; the Riders of Rohan drawn up on the edge of the Pelennor, their call to battle, their king saluting their spears with his sword as he exhorts them to valor were moving to the point of tears. Too bad he and his ham-fisted dialogue-writing cohorts came too damn close to ruining Eowyn's big moment with ridiculously dumbed-down dialogue.

Once again we are reminded that Jackson is first and foremost a maker of horror movies. In many places his love of gore is appropriate--Shelob? Shudder! But in many others it's just gratuitous yuck. There are only so many latex orcs with slime dripping from them that we can look at. Was it just me, or did the lead baddie on the Pelennor resemble Sloth from Sean Astin's childhood triumph, The Goonies?

However, Jackson's less savory tricks also make their return. Once again he trots out that tired favorite, making us think people are dead or dying, to little sense and less use. This time Arwen Undomiel is his primary target. Excuse me; Arwen? Could I be less impressed with that selection? The readers scoffed; the viewers should have. The irony here is that he went out of his way to make her a strong character in her Fellowship incarnation. To turn her around into a wimpy little girl back home, dying of … what exactly? She seemed to return to full health pretty quickly after Aragorn attained the kingship. Further irony is that the impact of the only two "Ack! [S]He's dead! …no, wait, [S]he's alive" threads that Tolkien himself ever wrote--those of Frodo under Shelob's lair and Eowyn under the fell beast's shadow--are lost in the pile that Jackson has already presented.

And speaking of Eowyn, Jackson lost a perfect opportunity to really put one over on folks who hadn't read Tolkien; raise your hand if you've heard of Dernhelm. Where was he? It would have been an amusing inside joke for the readers and a nice filmic surprise for the viewers if he had made an appearance. Oh well. Too subtle for stupid 21st-century moviegoers, I guess.

The story of The Return of the King is, in the last analysis, more compact and lends itself better than the previous two to film--especially the kind of film Jackson most prefers to unspool: action. With at least three enormous battles, death and maybe-death scenes left and right, the story flowed along at a much more consistent rate than either Fellowship or Towers. However, the pacing still left a lot to be desired. Haste seemed to be the hallmark, haste to get through the word-heavy passages of dialogue between friends and foes so that we could get right back to the slime-dripping orcs. After watching the storybook Academy Awards sweep and seeing RotK pick up two highly undeserved Oscars--Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Song--I just have to wonder: are Jackson and company really that unaware of how heavy-handed and inane a lot of their dialogue is? They took a book with the most emphasis on beautiful language of any in the 20th century and reduced it to chop. This complaint is not exclusive to RotK, of course; I guess I was hoping they would somehow manage to salvage more of the language than they ended up doing. Silly me.

For the record, I have no problem with the dropping of the Scouring of the Shire. Before I even saw the movie, I knew it could not end with another battle after the climax (the Ring's destruction). It just wouldn't make for good viewing. What I do have a problem with is the alteration of the characters of Sam and Frodo to such a degree that Frodo would order Sam to leave his side and that Sam would actually do it. On the very border of Mordor, no less! What a crock! Jackson et. al. have made some rather sweeping character changes in the past (see also Faramir), but this really took the lembas.

For the record, I have no problem with the dropping of Saruman's death scene. I can certainly live without what would have been, after all, just another gratuitous change from Tolkien's story and moreover would have had no good place since they were dropping the Scouring. What I do have a problem with are the dead warriors. Over and over we're reminded that Jackson is a horror/action movie maker. The dead just went into Minas Tirith and swarmed over all the baddies in about thirty seconds? I'm thinking that if the orcs and trolls had actually made that much of a breakthrough into Minas Tirith, there would have been nobody left inside to save.

But all told, Return of the King put me under a spell the other two had come close but not quite achieved. The last third or so, including the army's approach to the Black Gate and Gollum's fight with Frodo at the lip of the Cracks of Doom, were as masterful as anything we've seen so far, including Gandalf's death in Moria. Sam and Frodo, both before and after the deed was done, were heartbreaking--as they are meant to be. The humanity in them--grimy faces, dirty fingernails and all--shines clearly. Tolkien's characters not human? Bah, I say. Jackson showed us all of their humanity and more. Bravo. Bravo, I say.

But did he really have to make Rosie Cotton a barmaid?


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