Peter Jackson has done it again. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is nothing less then an epic success, its brilliance and passion shining as brightly as the Phial of Galadriel. Reactions from fans that we read on the Internet range from euphoric to depressed to offended, depending on the perspective and experience of the viewer.
Simply put, for the Tolkien purists, I say this: take what is, expect no more and certainly no less. One cannot simply walk into the theater and expect to see the images that Professor Tolkien hacked out on his typewriter letter by letter -- which later became imprinted on our minds in youth, adolescence, and adulthood -- appear the way they come into the imagination. It's just not a possibility. It's also unrealistic to expect a movie production of this magnitude to employ Tolkien's text to the letter; there must be a final offering that is accessible to a wide-ranging global audience, from those who have read the story to those who may not even be able to read. That means a story that paces well, appeals to both genders and a spread of age groups, and contains essential elements of character development, relationship arcs, plot revelations, putting at risk who and what the audience holds dear through action sequences or by other means, and a satisfactory conclusion of events.
My theory is that the LotR filmgoer must be prepared to accept what is. And oh, what IS! To be honest I was let down by The Two Towers, perhaps expecting more fealty to the original text, and it took me many views to get past that initial impression. However, adjusting my expectations to match the reality of what the film offers was more about me than about Peter Jackson or anyone else who created these great works. I was prepared for the same feeling for my first viewing of Return of the King, and in doing so, perhaps that helped me to not be disappointed in any way. Sure, there are things that I would have preferred to be included, or dropped out, or done differently
but the cup is half full, dear readers, and at the same time, it runs over.
I have seen RotK four times now. The first was the best, as I was fortunate to be at the Trilogy Tuesday marathon. Seeing the extended FotR and TTT together with RotK was for me a little dream come true. Connecting the films in one day helped me feel the bonds between characters to the extent that the depth of the emotional acting, the fine nuances of facial expression in muscle, jaw, mouth and eye, was magnificent. When Frodo tells Sam to go home, it is like being hit by a freight train; when Smeágol is duped once again by Gollum his face can be read like a map; Pippin's fear and Merry's frustration and anger are palpable at their parting; and when the Fellowship perceive that the Quest is accomplished, and that Frodo and Sam must have surely died in the end, the heart is pierced with a mixture of sorrow and joy.
Personally I think that Elijah Wood has been an ideal Frodo. I think he is overlooked and under-recognized for his efforts. The spectrum of emotions he experiences and thereby evokes in the audience is deep and wide. From his last look of innocence as he pulls the Ring out of Bilbo's old trunk in FotR to the crazed struggle with Gollum at the edge of doom, Elijah Wood has had to dig deep and deliver time and time again. In RotK I am also impressed with the work of Andy Serkis and Sean Astin, as well as Dominic and Billy. Billy Boyd's work greatly reveals the depth of transformation his character Pippin undergoes and I was pleased that he had so much screen time in RotK. I celebrate the work of each and every member of the cast for their performance in RotK and the films as a group.
Indeed, my hat is off to the cast and crew for the work they've done on the trilogy. It's hard to truly appreciate the challenges faced by this group of actors, from the culture and emotional shock of relocating one's life to the physical hardships of filming in extreme weather conditions under all those pounds and hours of makeup and costume. The crew too withstood great physical and mental challenges, including the stress of timelines, story revisions, issues with New Line, and inevitable technical and human glitches, to name only a few. Then of course there was the incessant fandom microscoping every rumor, sneaking onto sets, even going through the trash for bits of casting calls
and they put up with us marvelously, marshalling our passions, keeping us coming for more, and even using us toward their own ends.
Each time I see these films in the theater I just have to applaud when the credits for WETA roll upscreen. It's been my great fortune to meet a handful of this team and they are an amazing group of talented, creative, friendly, and funny as hell people. I believe the feat they have accomplished in RotK and the entire trilogy is much of the magic that enables the entire production to capture audiences and take them on the Journey. The details, the obsessive eye to subtlety, the continuity and internal consistency within cultures, locations and scenarios, all come together to create a Middle-earth that seems so very undeniably real. I'm amazed at the huge pains and expenses that went into this aspect of the production -- how much time went into the Moria orcs, the Corsairs, the sets and scenery that only grace the screen for scant moments? It is the kind of thing that is done so artfully well that it's easy to take for granted.
I guess I've strayed way off a review for RotK and am instead looking back at these movies as a single production, much as Tolkien's story is really one book that belongs between two covers. It is hard for me to separate the films from one another and I'm waxing a bit nostalgic with the close of the trilogy, as are many of us at this time. Pardon the indulgence!
I remember in 1999 having discussions with friends both online and off about how the movies might change the reading of the book for ourselves and for future generations of readers. I worried that being so immersed in someone else's imagery would taint my own. Now I find myself greatly anticipating some quiet time to reread this great story, believing that the movies will only enrich the text. I did not guess that the films would in their turn compliment and deepen my love for the text itself. Instead of feeling pangs of loss that the film trilogy has nearly come to an end, I find myself excited by the prospect of delving back into the book. With the booming voice of John Rhys-Davies ringing in the back of my mind, the delicate tapestries and carpentry of Rivendell on the back of my eyelids, and so many amazing images of the land beating in my heart -- just to name a few examples -- I believe that future readings of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings will be richer and more rewarding because of the work, the passion, and the professionalism that went into crafting Jackson's Lord of the Rings.
In the end it all comes back to Peter Jackson. Everyone who played a part, from the Flying Trestles to the guy who schlepped the boom mike through whatever ungodly location, had to have been touched by his hand. The arm of PJ has grown long! A director and producer live a gestalt sort of lifestyle: they are the sum of their parts, and they are equally responsible and deserving of credit or shame. The incredible work of Howard Shore, the sound and lighting technicians, the post-productions crews and companies, the special effects wizards
it all points in one direction, right back at Peter Jackson.
Gaffer Gamgee is fond of saying that the third time counts for all. If Return of the King did not live up to The Two Towers and The Fellowship of the Ring (my personal favorite of the three films, and the books for that matter), the sense of this creation as a film trilogy would shatter. It is the incredible vision and professionalism of people like Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor who have the talent, passion, and just plain courage to see a masterpiece like this come to fruition. I thank them for their great good works.
Tolkien says that all things must come to an end
so too, this essay, and this wanderer's ramblings. I will forever hold in gratitude all the many people who brought this story to film, and I thank, too, my friends from TheOneRing.net who have enabled be to touch the flame so closely. Thank you for the experience of a lifetime. May we all be the better for it, and may we remember one another clearly and kindly until the end of days.
Farewell, wherever you fare.
January 1, 2004