A [as a story by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens]
C+ [as a story by J.R.R. Tolkien]
The Two Viewers
This time, I didn’t go to the midnight opening (I did for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). I went to a matinée yesterday with two friends, one an enthusiastic fan who had seen a preview show and knew she would thoroughly enjoy a second viewing, and one a disappointed first-time viewer. They’re both right.
As a longtime Tolkien fan, it’s hard not to wonder what non-Tolkien viewers experience. If I didn’t know the books, I would probably think the movie excellent, if mildly self-indulgent. I would attribute some excessively long moments to Peter Jackson’s relative youth as a director. Artists grow by learning discretion.
In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu, there is a moment when Juliette Binoche sits in a café and dunks a sugar cube. Kieslowski wanted the cube to melt. He knew that if it took too long a time, the viewer would lose contact with the film; if it took too little, the peace of the moment would not be expressed. Five seconds was enough to make his point and keep his audience. His crew tested multiple brands, seeking a five-second sugar cube, and the moment is perfect. Bleu was Kieslowski’s forty-seventh film. Depending on how you count (measuring The Lord of the Rings as three films or one), The Return of the King was Jackson’s seventh or ninth full-length directed piece.
Continuing as an imaginary viewer, free of Tolkien’s writing through time or ignorance, I would be entranced by battles, impressed by details, and weep through moments such as the lighting of the bonfires. I might be dismayed by the length, and think several moments a little too sentimentally long-drawn. Probably I would leave very happy, thinking Jackson has successfully captured a beloved story in which I was not as invested as a Tolkien fan.
But then, I am a Tolkien fan. And the more I think, the more I mourn. Peter Jackson’s love has accomplished a great deal, it has even brought Middle-earth to the silver screen—but it has left Tolkien’s story behind.
Be warned: the following is written for those who have seen the movie, or know the books fairly well, or both. Spoilers abound for everyone else.
Will the real Denethor please stand up? And the real Aragorn, Gandalf, Faramir, Gollum…. I sound angry. I am.
I understand the necessities of transforming a book into a film. I even admire some of the ways Jackson creatively accomplishes this. In The Two Towers, he inserted a family separated by war in Rohan, then reunited later. The characters were non-existent in the books, including appendices, but their brief appearances gave the audience something to track in a complicated series of raids, battles, and travel. It was useful, clever, and in keeping with the storyline and theme.
What I don’t understand are changes which don’t just alter but diametrically oppose Tolkien’s books. Taking them one at a time:
Gollum, Frodo, and Sam
I’ll tackle this first, since it upset me most. In the movie, Gollum is trapped by his desire for the ring. He’s incapable of resisting this impulse, and actively works to pit Frodo against Sam. Now, Sam also tries to get Frodo to distrust Gollum. Helping to explain this is a moment when Sam overhears Gollum talking to himself, plotting against the hobbits. Gollum succeeds in separating the two, tricking Frodo into believing Sam finished the companions’ elven food supply behind Frodo’s back, and causing Frodo to tell Sam to “Go home.” And Sam goes! On the back doorstep of Mordor, having survived Nazgul, storms, orcs, trolls, and a Balrog, Sam turns around to leave and give it all up.
Jackson shows Gollum’s history, the centuries of corruption by the ring, and his loss of self over time. The viewer is invited to feel compassion, but also to remain untrusting. Gollum will not change, and is in no danger of doing so. He serves Frodo because Frodo has the ring. The only better situation would be to possess the ring himself. In The Two Towers, we see Gollum try to be good. By The Return of the King, this chance is gone.
In the books, there is no pinning-the-crime-on-Sam moment. Sam is not certain of Gollum’s perfidy because he overhears him, but because he has a deep emotional distrust. There is no rift between Frodo and Sam, and Gollum is not so foolish as to try to create one. And right up to entering the caverns leading to Mordor, Gollum’s heart is uncertain. Sam’s unreasoning prejudice and cruelty drive Gollum over the edge. Later, Sam carries the ring briefly, and comes to understand what Frodo, all too familiar with the burden, understood all along about Gollum. These are not black and white characters in a clear-cut world of Good and Evil, Light and Dark. Gollum and Sam are complex people in a complex struggle, both wanting to do the right thing, both failing, both succeeding.
For those who have seen the movie but not read the books, or not recently read them, I offer Tolkien’s final scene on the stairs, before entering Shelob’s (the giant spider) lair. Read the below, then consider Jackson’s breadcrumbs, and ask yourself if the movie added or detracted from the story.
Having climbed the stairs of Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam rest while Gollum scouts ahead in the caverns. They are exhausted from the climb. Sam tells Frodo to sleep while he keeps watch.
And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee — but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum—”pawing at master,” as he thought.
“Hey, you!” he said roughly. “What are you up to?”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Gollum softly. “Nice Master!”
“I daresay,” said Sam. “But where have you been to — sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?”
Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.
I’m glad I’m not the only one to feel anger over Denethor. LiveJournal’s minirth discusses the “great sucking wrongness” of the film’s treatment of yet another complex Tolkien character, reduced to a simplistic Jackson villain. I don’t want to recreate the argument, but here are my personal complaints.
Gandalf’s treatment of Denethor and Pippin.
Gandalf would never hit anyone with his staff except in battle (and then he usually employs his sword). Not only is this level of discourtesy impossibly out of character, but Gandalf is a steward himself, of Middle-earth! Although not discussed in the movie, his character is not human, but a lesser angel (as are Sauron and Saruman), whose purpose is to combat Sauron and ready Middle-earth’s inhabitants for their own “stewardship” of their world. (This, by the way, also explains Gandalf’s preternatural strength and agility, otherwise incomprehensible in an old man, as Roger Ebert pointed out on Ebert and Roeper.)
Also wrong is Gandalf peremptorily bumping Pippin with his staff when Pippin offers service to Denethor in repayment of Boromir’s death, and Gandalf’s dismissive treatment of Denethor. Here are Tolkien’s words on the subject:
Pippin and Gandalf have left after Pippin’s first encounter with Denethor, Steward of Gondor. Pippin has not only offered but sworn allegiance to Denethor. Gandalf is speaking.
“He [Denethor] is not as other men of this time, Pippin, and whatever be his descent from father to son, by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him; as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir whom he loved best. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those who dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.
“Remember that! For you are now sworn to his service. I do not know what put it into your head, or your heart, to do that. But it was well done. I did not hinder it, for generous heart should not be checked by cold counsel.”
Denethor was a great man, of the same kind as Aragorn, strong, intelligent, deep-seeing, and disciplined. He was not a glutton, hunched over as if in imitation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He certainly did not flinch from his decisions. In the books, his cynicism springs from his use of a palantír (like the orb Pippin picks up early in the film), which Sauron twists and uses to show misleading information. The resulting despair drives him to attempt suicide for himself and his wounded son.
From the book. Faramir has already been removed from the pyre:
Swiftly he [Denethor] snatched a torch from the hand of one [a servant] and sprang back into the house. Before Gandalf could hinder him he thrust the brand amid the fuel, and at once it crackled and roared into flame.
Then Denethor leaped upon the table, and standing there wreathed in fire and smoke he took up the staff of his stewardship that lay at his feet and broke it on his knee. Casting the pieces into the blaze he bowed and laid himself upon the table, clasping the palantír with both hands upon his breast. And it was said that ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands withering in flame.
Much more intense, and adding no more time to the story, had Jackson spent less time studying the Jacksonian Denethor’s eating habits.
Denethor was another complex character, a good man twisted by deceit and his own pride. He was brilliant and misguided. Gandalf would not treat him with disrespect; for Jackson to treat the character as he did is an insult to the audience and the story.
Aragorn, Arwen, and Éowyn
I still don’t understand the need to undermine Aragorn and Arwen’s faith in each other by having Arwen leave for the Grey Havens. It adds to the length of the story, reduces the romance, and gives less reason for Éowyn’s despair and longing for battle.
There are two pages in the books which completely express Aragorn and Éowyn’s thoughts. Read them here, and then consider Jackson’s revision. There are some fantastic lines, such as Éowyn’s complaint of the role of women; and Éowyn gets the last word.
The sons of Elrond have arrived with a company of Rangers from the North, to help Aragorn. Elrond sends word to “Bid Aragorn remember the words of the seer, and the Paths of the Dead.” At dinner Aragorn announces his intention to take these paths. Afterward, Éowyn confronts him alone.
[Aragorn] turned and saw her as a glimmer in the night, for she was clad in white; but her eyes were on fire.
“Aragorn,” she said, “why will you go on this deadly road?”
“Because I must,” he said. “Only so can I see any hope of doing my part in the war against Sauron. I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering, in the fair valley of Rivendell.”
For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean. Then suddenly she laid her hand on his arm. “You are a stern lord and resolute,” she said; “and thus do men win renown.” She paused. “Lord,” she said, “if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.”
“Your duty is with your people,” he answered.
“Too often have I heard of duty,” she cried. “But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?”
“Few may do that with honour,” he answered. “But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord’s return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.”
“Shall I always be chosen?” she said bitterly. “Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?”
“A time may come soon,” said he, “when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”
And she answered: “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear pain or death.”
“What do you fear, lady?” he asked.
“A cage,” she said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
“And yet you counselled me not to adventure on the road I had chosen, because it is perilous?”
“So may one counsel another,” she said. “Yet I do not bid you flee from peril, but to ride to battle where your sword may win renown and victory. I would not see a thing that is high and excellent cast away needlessly.”
“Nor would I,” he said. “Therefore I say to you, lady: Stay! For you have no errand to the South.”
“Neither have those others who go with thee. They go only because they would not be parted from thee — because they love thee.” Then she turned and vanished into the night.
The Paths of the Dead
Another incomprehensible change. The book is much more eerie and frightening. I think Jackson’s horror film background (The Frighteners, Dead Alive) overcame his good sense at this point.
In the book, the entire company of Rangers, Elrond’s sons, Legolas, and Gimli accompany Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn does not need a sword to pass; the same magic that holds the Oathbreakers to their ghostly existence lets them know that this is Isildur’s Heir, come to free them. Aragorn’s leadership shows itself as all follow him, including horses, and do not give in to fear or madness. Along the way they find a corpse outside a closed door, and Aragorn says: “…Through all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall every know! For that is not my errand!” he cried, turning back and speaking to the whispering darkness behind. “Keep your hoards and your secrets hidden from the Accursed Years! Speed only we ask. Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!”
The company rides through the ravine and out into a valley, where they ride past villages and and farms on their way to the Stone. It’s too good not to offer here:
Lights went out in house and hamlet at they came, and doors were shut, and folk that were afield cried in terror and ran wild like hunted deer. Ever there rose the same cry in the gathering night: “The King of the Dead! The King of the Dead is come upon us!”
Bells were ringing far below, and all men fled before the face of Aragorn; but the Grey Company in their haste rode like hunters, until their horses were stumbling with weariness. And thus, just ere midnight, and in a darkness as black as the caverns in the mountains, they came at last to the Hill of Erech.
Long had the terror of the Dead lain upon that hill and upon the empty fields about it. For upon the top stood a black stone, round as a great globe, the height of a man, though its half was buried in the ground. Unearthly it looked, as though it had fallen from the sky, as some believed; but those who remembered still the lore of Westernesse told that it had been brought out of the ruin of Númenor and there set by Isildur at his landing. None of the people of the valley dared to approach it, nor would they dwell near; for they said it was a trysting-place of the Shadow-men and there they would gather in times of fear, thronging round the Stone and whispering.
To that Stone the Company came and halted in the dead of night. Then Elrohir gave to Aragorn a silver horn, and he blew upon it; and it seemed to those who stood near that they heard a sound of answering horns, as if it was an echo in deep caves far away. No other sound they heard, and yet they were aware of a great host gathered all about the hill on which they stood; and a chill wind like the breath of ghosts came down from the mountains. But Aragorn dismounted, and standing by the Stone he cried in a great voice:
“Oathbreakers, why have ye come?”
And a voice was heard out of the night that answered him, as if from far away:
“To fulfill our oath and have peace.”
Then Aragorn said: “The hour is come at last…when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart forever.”
But didn’t Jackson have a lot to fit into a short amount of time? Aren’t these changes justified by the necessities of film?
No, no, and no! First, let’s look at how many scenes/plot lines were added which never happened in the books:
- Arwen’s trip to the Grey Havens, in which she “sees” her future child by Aragorn, and turns around to go back.
- Arwen’s “dying” because of the war of the Ring.
- Elrond’s meeting Aragorn in Rohan to tell him this, in which he and Aragorn bizarrely quote Aragorn’s mother (“I gave hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself”).
- Gollum setting up the classic Breadcrumbs-on-the-Cloak Gambit.
- Pippin’s sneaking to set the beacon ablaze. Tolkien’s Denethor had the beacons lit before Gandalf and Pippin arrived at Minas Tirith.
- Pippin and Merry singing about the Green Dragon pub.
- Pippin singing to Denethor. Though this was a nice way of covering an explanatory montage with Faramir and Denethor, Tolkien’s Denethor was ill-served by it. I do have to say Billy Boyd did a wonderful job.
Next, let’s examine some changes which did not have to affect time at all, but did affect characterization and theme.
- Denethor’s gluttony, ineffectual behavior, and cowardice at the pyre.
- Aragorn and Arwen’s temporary loss of faith in their relationship.
- Elrond’s deceiving Arwen (!)
- Frodo and Sam’s temporary loss of faith in each other, to the point that Sam starts to go home.
- Gandalf’s inexcusable rudeness to Pippin and Denethor with his staff.
- Language. In Tolkien’s books, characters speak as they think. Andrew Rilstone points out in his review of the The Two Towers that Tolkien greatly disliked the casualization of speech in some translations. Characters have a tendency to get more formal as they express deeper emotions, using the language to show the importance of the thought (see the appearance of “thee” in this exchange between Aragorn and Éowyn, also linked above).
In Jackson’s world, people are more casual and less careful of each other. The only reason I can see for this is a distrust of the audience’s ability to parse Tolkien’s words, which seems somewhat arrogant, since those are the words that made the books as beloved as they are.
On some profound level, Jackson’s psychology needs a simpler world. He is uncomfortable with formality and so must his characters be. He is uncomfortable with nuance, and so a “whispering darkness” must become glowing green ghosts. He is uncomfortable with shades of grey and so his characters must be black and white. He is uncomfortable with trusting friendship or love, and so Aragorn and Arwen lose faith, and so do Frodo and Sam. This, when one of Tolkien’s major moral themes is support and trust despite imperfections and disagreements.
Perhaps the best choice for Tolkien fans is to simply love Middle-earth. As my fiancé pointed out, Tolkien wanted to create an English mythology more than he wanted to write a work of fiction. If we look at Middle-Earth as a world unto itself, then we can choose between Tolkien’s interpretation and Jackson’s, and delight in their differences. It’s a deeper way of being true to Tolkien, and celebrating Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings as the work of love it is.
December 20-21, 2003
Originally posted on alexfiles.com, my online home from 1999–2018.