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Peter Jackson's The Return of the King


Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not really seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.

--J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories 

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings has always been a book that requires the sort of literary belief described here. Those who love the work are just those people who are willing to believe in the world that Tolkien created, to experience it from the inside; those who are indifferent or hostile to it seem to be just those people for whom the magical art of “Sub-creation” somehow fails, whether because they insist on (what they call) realistic worlds, or are put off by the prose, or the pacing. Whatever the reason, the art has failed for these people, and if they cannot manage to suspend (or stifle) their disbelief, the reading of Tolkien's tale does indeed become intolerable.

Peter Jackson's interpretations of Tolkien's work similarly demand that the viewers believe, for a few hours, that they are watching a true story: that Frodo and Sam, Sauron and Gandalf, are all real individuals whose tale is unfolding before our eyes. If the magic works, we are carried along in the story, responding in turn with wonder, fear, anger, excitement, and joy. But when the spell is broken, or fails to take effect in the first place, we can see only actors, scenery, scripted lines, costumes, props, and (nowadays) digital artistry. And no matter how impressively executed these are, they are no match for the “real thing”. It seems that those who are fans of Tolkien's books are those most likely to experience this effect when we first see all three of Jackson's films of The Lord of the Rings. On that first viewing, we are more likely to be asking questions like, “Is he going to show Bombadil? How will he portray the Balrog? Why does Galadriel light up like that? Is that how I picture Gollum? Why are they in Osgiliath?” and so on. Each time we ask these questions, we are no longer watching Middle-earth; we are watching a movie in a theatre. The second time around, when we know what is coming, it is a more relaxed experience, and we can sit back and experience it as it is intended: we can watch Jackson's version of Middle-earth from the “inside”, and experience its magic in full measure.

For me, this dichotomy was far more pronounced in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King than in the previous two outings. I cannot explain why this was the case, save that it seems to have been a reflection of my own mood at the time of my first viewing, watching with a more critical eye than before. Perhaps I was trying to watch the artistry of the film (and hence, always had at least one eye firmly fixed in our Primary World), rather than simply experiencing the work on its own terms. And in that frame of mind, the film was a disappointment. While I could name several scenes that I thought were well executed, and admired the technical aspects of the film, I had a list of complaints: it was too long; the prologue with Sméagol and Déagol added little to the film; the battle scenes seemed repetitive, and more exhausting than exhilerating; the Army of the Dead was too overpowering and undermined the presence of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas; Frodo's awakening in Minas Tirith was more like the ending to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz than the joyous scenes I had hoped for; and the final parting at the Grey Havens left me cold, impatient as I was to get out of the theatre. Note that little of this was from a so-called “purist” standpoint; I simply found the storytelling to be inferior to the previous films.

My estimable collagues Quickbeam and Asfaloth read my opinion, and strongly suggested that I give the film another chance, reminding me that the previous two films had also improved on the second viewing, and suggesting (correctly, I now think) that I had not allowed myself to experience the movie as an entertainment rather than simply as a piece of cinematic art. So at their urging, I saw the film again; perhaps not incidentally, in a much better-equipped and comfortable theatre than where I first had seen it. And when the film was over, with a lump in my throat, I asked Quickbeam, “So, I don't get it: what was that disappointing film I saw the first time?” Because the film I saw the second time was an entirely different experience from the first time I saw it, although every frame was the same. Where the lighting of the beacons of Gondor (possibly the best non-book-canon scene from all three films) was “very well executed” the first time, it was quite literally breathtaking on the second viewing; where the muster of the Rohirrim out of Dunharrow struck me as “quite impressive” the first time, it made my breath catch the second time. And though Gandalf's “Do not weep: for not all tears are an evil” parting line first did get a nod of approval for being accurate to the book, on the second viewing it had me at the verge of tears.

In a way, I got to see the movies from both points of view: one akin to that of the staunch purist who judges the movie from the harshest critical standpoint, and the other that of the movie fan who is able to simply get into the film without the distractions of over-analytical judgement. Even from the former viewpoint, there is much to admire (though, of course, not love) in the present film. Nobody can fault the sheer craftsmanship of the film. The detailed costumes and props; the magnificent sets; the unprecedented CGI imagery of the battle of the Pelennor; and Howard Shore's score. Gollum is still a milestone of CGI characterization. Shelob's attack on Frodo is an astonishing piece of work: even the “critical Ostadan” was pulled in enough by its apparent realism to think, “Yes, of course, that's exactly the way a giant spider wraps her prey in webbing.” The sheer logistical audacity in staging the ride of the Rohirrim exceeds anything that Cecil B. DeMille could ever have hoped to accomplish in his wildest dreams. On the second viewing, the dramatic moments became more apparent: Sean Astin's performance as Sam hits all the right notes for that character (“I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well.” — sniff! — that's our Sam!); the aforementioned scene of the lighting of the beacons is one of the most powerful scenes in epic cinema; Arwen's vision of Elessar and Eldarion is a beautiful and touching moment; Aragorn's confrontation with the King of the Dead is a striking moment (no pun intended) as Aragorn claims his place as Elendil's heir. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the temptation here to simply catalog the many “favorite” moments (some from the book, some not) in this film. But one surprise worth mentioning separately here is the unexpectedly meaty role for Billy Boyd as Pippin, who rose to the challenges of the role very nicely indeed.

Some of my objections to the film do remain, even after the second viewing. I think it is too long; or rather, a film this long is taxing to those with long legs or small bladders, and requires an intermission, just as the long films of the past had (Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has an intermission, and only ran 139 minutes, cut back from 156 minutes, according to IMDB). This uninterrupted length accounts, I think, for the peculiar situation where the denouement simultaneously appears to be drawn out — many have spoken of the multiple false finishes — and yet very sketchy compared to the book. It is not that the ending is long; it is that the viewers are physically tired by this point, and are a bit too eager to be on their way. I also think that the flashback prologue (which a non-reader friend of mine simply found confusing) does not carry its weight in contribution to the whole film. It would be outstanding as a bonus stand-alone item on the DVD, but delays the start of the film as it stands.

Therre were also some bits that were jarring enough to take me back, temporarily, to the Primary World, even on the second viewing. I did not particularly mind Frodo dismissing Sam, though it is a change from the book; but it strained my belief when Sam — who was willing to drown to accompany Frodo — consents to this and turns for home, leaving Frodo alone with the hobbitcidal Gollum. I was expecting him to secretly follow, and was shocked when he did not. And why should finding the lembas make him change his mind? Didn't he already know Gollum was a traitor? The character of Denethor was also jarring. Partly because he lacked the grandeur (albeit wounded) of his book counterpart; but also because it was difficult to see him as anything but an obstruction. Indeed, it seems a pity that one of the moments that draws audience applause and laughter is when Gandalf behaves in a most un-Gandalfic manner and pummels the Lord of Gondor into submission. Jackson took the step, controversial to some, of making the book characters more conflicted and complex for the film. Yet the book Denethor is already the most conflicted and complex character that we find in the books, and Jackson chose to simplify him to a crabbed madman. A pity.

The movie badly misses the Houses of Healing (presumed to be restored in the extended DVD). As it stands, the seemingly important characters of Eowyn and Faramir get no closure, except for a cameo-like appearance at Aragorn's coronation (I do hope that when the scenes are restored, we will see Faramir immediately recognize Aragorn as his king when he awakens. The contrast with Denethor would mitigate the problems with the Denethor portrayal somewhat). And it would have been good to see more of Merry; for three years we have seen him swear fealty to Theoden in the trailers, but we must wait still longer to see that scene in its proper context. Also presumed to be on the extended DVD is the Mouth of Sauron. The present version of the scene, with Aragorn riding up to the Morannon, only to ride away when it opens, borders on unintentional humor.

But these criticisms — critical for those who remain in the Primary World and can merely tally the virtues and defects of the film they are watching — are minor for those who allow themselves to be caught up in Jackson and Tolkien's magic and become part of Middle-earth for a few hours. For them, Jackson has created a towering work of imagination, encompassing those elements of Fantasy, Escape, Recovery, and Consolation that Tolkien wrote of in his seminal essay on Fairy-stories:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed acoompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

Jackson has turned Tolkien's masterpiece into what will likely be his own life achievement, a monumental work that will endure and bestow upon its viewers those pleasures peculiar to the fairy-story for generations to come.

(And thanks, Quickbeam and Asfaloth, for helping me back into Jackson's world.)

-- Ostadan


I have referred here to Tolkien's seminal essay, On Fairy-stories. While this essay, first published in 1947, is sometimes difficult reading, it represents a kind of manifesto of Tolkien's philosophies about fantasy and its importance in the human psyche. It can be found in The Tolkien Reader, a volume that should be of interest to all serious Tolkien fans.

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