Tolkien, J.R.R. (film, 2003). The Return of the King. Los Angeles: New Line.

Reviewed 31 December 2003

The astoundingly large Rohirrim army To my deep regret, Jackson's The Return of the King was a major letdown, even after the hints of turgidity and the misediting of The Two Towers. (Aside: Remember that experiment I proposed in the review of The Two Towers, of programming a DVD player to play either the theatrical or extended edition in "book order" instead of Hollywoodish headhopping false simultaneity? It worked; aside from a few continuity problems that true reediting would have fixed, it was a better film, a better story, a better work of art.) I was most displeased with the overemphasis on action, on battles that bear no relationship to reality (despite the scrupulous care in reproducing period equipment), and the alterations of the relationship among Sam, Frodo, and Gollum. They changed this story from a book about the nature of personal choice to one about the nature of preindustrial warfare without any of those inconvenient questions of logistics. This was not just annoying; it represents a considerable misunderstanding of what The Lord of the Rings, in its midcentury English Catholic way, was grappling with.

Whatever else it may be—like all novels, LOTR has its flaws, such as the absence of grey areas in morality and politics and the necessity of a Y chromosome to be an independent character—LOTR is about the horror and the grandeur of internal struggle. This is nowhere more apparent than in Frodo's journey in The Return of the King, which is less than 30% of the screen time despite including significant episodes from The Two Towers. Perhaps that accounts for the less-obtrusive headhopping: there is simply less of Frodo's story told, so it doesn't get cut to as often and the surrounding material maintains greater internal integrity.

A swell battle scene The on-screen writer depicted in one of my favorite unappreciated films diagnoses the problems with the theatrical release of The Return of the King both glibly and devastatingly accurately:

You've got another scene. I'll write you another scene. It won't make a goddamned bit of difference. The studio'll cut 'em all out like they do everything else. All you'll have left is a bunch of swell battle scenes—which, when I was back there last time, they said looked just terrific.

The Stunt Man (1979)

The central images of the theatrical release of The Return of the King are those swell battle scenes, when instead the real struggle of the book (and the script, too, although not so apparently) is the struggle not just over, but with, The Ring itself. Perhaps, as with The Two Towers, the extended edition will be truer to itself. I say this not from the perspective of a "Tolkein purist," but from the perspective of someone who thinks about narrative structure. For example, I don't particularly care about the omission of Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring, or the omission of the scouring of the Shire from this film, or from the greater dramatic development and roles given Arwen and Eowyn in the films.

Mirror, mirror... The central image of the film—of the whole trilogy, for that matter—is the struggle of Frodo for enough power over the Ring to destroy it, reflected in the internal struggles in Gollum. This is the real stroke of genius in Jackson's version of LOTR. I could have gone to The Last Samurai and watched a perfect-toothed white man bring the Japanese into the nineteenth century, or popped Aleksandr Nevsky or Ran into the DVD player if I wanted magnificent battle scenes. Jackson's creation, depiction, and use of technology in putting Gollum on screen is the real achievement of this set of films.

Purism aside, what is the literary value of this film on its own? (I think it unfair to judge the trilogy as a whole until the extended edition of The Return of the King becomes available.) Given the competition from Hollywood this year, it is comparatively high. That, however, is uncomfortably like praising ethics in a field of politicians. The theatrical release of The Return of the King was among the better films of the year; however, in my judgment, it was not among the five best. My judgment usually gets trashed at Oscar time, though.

Overall rating: 3 stars
. Perhaps when the extended edition comes out in about a year, we'll get to see this film the way it should have been done. And I'll outgeek myself by putting the whole trilogy through the "resequencing" that I did with The Two Towers—if only to see if Jackson should have divorced himself even more thoroughly from Hollywood conventions than he did. I am sick to death of people claiming "But we can't tell it that way on film," just because Hollywood executives wouldn't sit still for it. Jackson's earlier work, in particular Heavenly Creatures with its marvelous realization of the girls' fantasy world, shows that perhaps he was the only logical choice to do The Lord of the Rings. In the end, though, the theatrical versions are somewhat a sellout to convention. And that is a shame and a waste of talent.

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