Sunny Days in Heaven
Spiritual/Political/Philosophical Blog on the Nature of Truth and Falsehood and Heaven

Friday, December 19, 2003  

Return of the King falls flat

I find myself sadly in agreement with this negative review of the Return of the King.

Having just seen the movie yesterday, I was disappointed in the overall treatment of the LOTR by Peter Jackson. He proved once again that a great many movie makers know all about film, but not enough about life to tell a compelling and profound story.

People often comment on the multilayered themes of Tolkien's epic, the various Christian threads which different characters represent, but in actuality, the story can be boiled down to a very simple dilemma - do you want power or love? You can't have both. You must choose, and in this fallen world almost everyone chooses power; and they cannot save themselves from this choice - it is decided, in essence, by original sin.

Jackson fails to convey this dilemma, and also fails to illustrate what it is about the Ring (power) which is so alluring, seductive, and finally compelling and obsessive. Regardless of how hateful it is to own it, possess, wear it - it gives immense pleasure, it fills the mind with grandiose ideas, and personal glory.

It is like the temptation of Christ in the Wilderness - here is the world and all that is in it and it shall all be under your command and power. You shall be God on earth.

Jesus could resist this lure (false or not), but no one else can. Not Frodo, Gandalf, Galadriel, Faramir, or Aragorn. The best that we can say of some is that they refuse to touch it, because they know to bear it is for them to fail. Frodo's strength is not that he is better than anyone else, but that he is simpler, less imaginative, less adventurous, and can bear the ring further than anyone else precisely because he is less susceptible to schemes of self-glorification (or the pride in thinking he can use evil to accomplish good).

Even that, though, is not enough to prevent his ultimate corruption.

The sadness inherent in the ending (and I deeply missed the Scouring of the Shire although I thought I wouldn't), Frodo's existential sadness is his new knowledge of himself, his remorse in seeing his own soul's essential rottenness. He is saved, but not by himself, and his knowledge elevates him from any joy in his former life.

Jackson illustrates nothing of this.

A few other minor points. The characterization of Denethor is abominable. Nothing he does is explained or motivated as it should be. Super hero feats of Legolas are not pleasing, but detracting. The mind revolts at such impossibilities such as the silly nod to pop athletics when he snowboards down the stairs in Two Towers, and nimbly climbs the elephant in ROTK. It worked well when he vaults a horse in TTT because it looked possible for someone incredible agile as he is, but other feats beggar the imagination.

Jackson has also super feminized our heroes and men. They all look they're about to kiss each other half the time, as they gaze soulfully into each others' eyes. Aragorn in particular plays like a swaggering nancy boy, super sensitive without steel or fire, just yearning looks and sad longing. Rather than seeming like the whole man he wants to seem, he looks weak and effeminate

Study the movie, Gunga Din, for manly camaraderie, or The Man Who Would Be King, for masculine friendship properly depicted.

After ten hours or so of the same music, I was sick of it.

The addition of having Gollum plot so that Frodo rejects Sam is not only silly, it's an abortion. Frodo doesn't need any help in learning paranoia at this point, and it only makes us lose sympathy for Frodo. Gollum's evil and duplicity didn't need any further help, either. It was completely gratuitous, and hurt rather than helped the story.

Every time Jackson comes to an actionless moment, he interminably extends the scene and keeps underlining it. At Mt. Doom, Frodo is at the edge. Cut to Sam looking at Frodo. Cut to Frodo staring at the ring. Back and forth, back and forth. Get on with it! After Gollum has the ring, Frodo doesn't keep fighting for it, and we have to watch Gollum in jubilation many moments. Finally Frodo goes at him and knocks him off the edge.

All wrong! Gollum gets the ring hops around and falls off on his own - is the way it should go, and it should happen quickly at this point. This is a climax. We spent a long time getting here, and it should happen fast because we are tired of waiting for the denouement.

A few minor problems I had with the Fellowship of the Ring demonstrate what happens when you aim at a mark and are slightly off at the start. The farther the arrow travels, the farther off the mark it gets. That's what happened with Jackson's LOTR. What seemed like small deviations at the start turned into wide misses at the end.

The action is very intense, and at the final climb up Mt. Doom, you are literally trying to pull Frodo up there by force of will, but I felt that it was too forced and tense. We still don't know why Frodo should be so weary at that point. We don't have any sense of what this inner battle does to a person, so we wish he'd just get on with it and quit being a baby. Intercut with the battle scenes at the Black Gate - well, it simply exhausts your patience as movies tend to do these days with action sequences that never conclude when they should.

The pace needs to quicken in a climax, but Jackson keeps drawing it out. You don't need to manipulate the action here, because the story has done everything for you. We want it to end, we're ready for it to end, we don't need it to increase tension - it's already there and has been there from the start.

The ROTK is the shortest section of the trilogy even with the Scouring and Epilogue. Why? Because Tolkien knew he had to end the story and there was no point in straining to extend it.

I also notice that the men and people of Gondor are depicted as fearful, and full of panic. This is Jackson again trying to be "realistic" about war. But people with their backs truly up against a wall are fierce and determined. Not cowering and cowardly - certainly not in Tolkien's Middle-Earth.

We missed what should have been many strong moments on the battlefied and elsewhere. Eowyn and Merry kill the Nazgul king, but he simply melts like the wicked witch when his death should be consequential and great. I don't think we've ever come to much care for Theoden, and so his death, which ought to move us, doesn't. We are only moved by Eowyn's reaction. (But it's not ours also.) Pippin finding a wounded Merry should have meant more, too.

Jackson and his writers (women) never really seemed to understand how people express their affection, fear, dread, worry, and joy with each other. What shines forth so strongly in the books here is effeminate.

It may be that Jackson, like many wimpy men, don't know or like the company of other men. There is a humor, directness, lack of emotionalism, and toughness which is very enjoyable for men. Not barbarianism, either, but a certain hard headedness which is pleasing. Jackson's movies never capture this about men.

Aragorn's line to Gandalf, "What does your heart tell you?" Made me want to puke. Men don't talk to other men (even if they're wizards) like that. It's a girly-boy piece of dialogue.

As I said, I missed the Scouring of the Shire. It is ridiculous that the Shire should have remained untouched by the War of the Ring. Also, the four hobbits do not get to demonstrate that they have changed, become fierce and courageous. Having them sitting in the tavern like a group of soldiers returned from foreign wars which no one knows or cares about is simply absurd. They need to take command and put things in order, that is the kind of people they have become. Among men, they were little folk. Among their own, they should be like princes. They have earned prestige and it should show.

We never really see or understand why Frodo should leave. His deep disgust with himself and life as it is now is never fully realized. We don't know how hard it is to carry such a burden of evil. We never identify with Frodo in the movie as we do in the book. In the book, we love the ring, too, and would want to wear it for fun; and then, after learning how dangerous it is, we would like to be in a company of heroes set out to destroy it.

I never really see Frodo as me in the movie, though. I just see him as a character in a story - and not my story. That is Jackson's fatal flaw. He tells a story, but it isn't my story. And if it's not about me, why should I care? Tolkien understood that Frodo was Everyman with many helpers and antagonists.

I am disappointed after all with the LOTR. The production and design was superb, but casting, script writing, and interpretation had many flaws - some fatal.

posted by Mark Butterworth | 3:00 AM |