Return of the King (spoilers)

There’s a bluster on today. Dark clouds are scudding across the storm-gray sky, spitting wind and rain into my face. I huddled deep into my coat on the walk over to BART this morning, thankful for its warmth and resistance to the elements. Many thanks to my mother-in-law for the timely gift.

I wrote longhand in my paper journal on the ride this morning, purple ink tracing across the page, bumping up every now and then from unevenness in the tracks. There’s something cleansing about putting words on the page, getting everything out in the open, even if what I write is never read. Some things aren’t necessarily meant to be shared with others, but just need to be expressed. I guess that’s why even with an online journal, I’ve never abandoned the practice of writing in a diary.

I’m listening to the Return of the King soundtrack now on repeat play – the theme song from the film has been repeat playing in my head anyway, so I brought the disc in to rip it onto my work PC where I can play it over and over again to my heart’s content. It’s beautiful music, all of it, and it’s helping to keep my mood buoyant today, despite the fact that much of it is actually heart-rendingly sad.

I don’t actually have much to write about today except same old, same old – I’m tired, Vic didn’t let me sleep much, I had to get up early, there’s too much to do, I’m still sick, yada, yada, yada, so instead of whingeing in public, I figure I might as well get my impressions of Return of the King down. I’ve been putting this off until I had just a little bit more distance from the film, a chance to digest it and double-check a few things in the book. I’ve also been waiting to give some of my friends who hadn’t yet, a chance to see it, given that I didn’t exactly see it on opening night myself and begged others not to spoil it for me too.

So this is your fair warning y’all. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading after this.


Summary
Overall, I liked the movie quite a lot. It certainly got the job done and my hat is off to Peter Jackson (PJ) for pulling off what was a nearly impossible feat: he made the films as faithful to Tolkien as possible without falling off the edge into boring (a distinct possibility given the nature of Tolkien’s writing – don’t get me wrong, -I- love it, but I’m an ancient epics junkie. I read Beowulf for fun), without losing sight of the spirit of the books AND made it all quite accessible to the general audience.

I wept, I laughed, I shook with fear and I cheered. I didn’t even notice the first hour going by, I was so enthralled that I didn’t realize how much time had gone by until I glanced down at my watch during a quiet moment and blinked in startlement.

The Bad
Most of what I disliked were things that were cut that I didn’t think should have been and things that were added that didn’t need to be. We could have well done without some things in order to have the original bits left in, basically. There’s also two glaring mis-treatments that I think most fans of the books will agree about.

Faramir – Portrayed only vaguely better in this film than in Two Towers. Poor Faramir still doesn’t really get a fair shake here and not nearly enough screen time. I was disgusted with the way they handled his role in Two Towers and peeved that he doesn’t get the fairer treatment he deserves in this film. Not to mention the cop out at the end regarding his relationship with Eowyn. That’s some of the most beautifully romantic stuff in the books and it’s completely absent from the films. I could well have done without Aragorn’s dream sequences in Two Towers in order to put some of the things that were in Return of the King back into that film instead and leave more room for Faramir and Eowyn and the entire Houses of Healing sequence, or at least part of it.

Denethor – What a betrayal of a fabulous character. As written by Tolkien, Denethor is actually a human shadow of Saruman. Another character whose pride is his downfall, an example of the ways in which Sauron works to undermine people from within. In the film, he’s just plain crackers. No reason given, no connection to anything to put his character into context except for Boromir’s horn. The meaning of Pippin’s gift of his service is basically lost/glossed over as an act of a guilty conscience instead of the valorous act it actually was. The nuances of the Pippin/Denethor relationship are lost and that really left a bad taste in my mouth.

Sam Leaving Frodo – Sorry, but Sam would NEVER have abandoned Frodo willingly. I get why PJ decided to do what he did with the climax of the Cirith Ungol sequence, but I don’t really like how he handled Sam in this particular instance. It rings false in the face of everything else he underlined with the character all along. I was also peeved that PJ decided not to play out the whole laying out of Frodo’s body post-Shelob vanquishing. That’s one of the most touching scenes in the book and if done properly could have saved on some repeat scenes of Sam continuing to be devoutedly loyal and upholding of Frodo as they cross the plains to Mount Doom.

Saruman’s No-Ender and the Palantiri – Another GLARING omission, there was no wrap up to Saruman’s story line. There’s the truncated scene at Isengard where the palantir is picked up, but no resolution for Saruman. Christopher Lee isn’t even listed in the main cast credits, though he may have been in the longer listing at the end. The Isengard scene felt really chopped to me, as if they’d only left even that bit of it in to show us that Merry and Pippin get picked up by the Fellowship again and to bring up the palantir for later. I’m fairly confident that the longer version of this scene will show up on the DVD, but in the meantime it was a bit of a shock to see this reworking of it. Saruman just sort of vanishes off the face of Middle Earth after that and the palantir as a plot point is sorely underused in the film. I’ll also quibble about the fact that Pippin steals it from Gandalf while housed at Edoras instead of on the road. Basically, that whole element was mishandled IMHO and also ties into the mishandling of Denethor given that the Minas Tirith palantir is never seen and is a major component in Denethor’s downfall.

Signal Fires – I was scratching my head over how this was handled. It was a beautiful scene of Pippin climbing up there, to be sure. But it seemed a little bit out of place. Also the hopping from one mountain peak to another was endless and IMHO, all the fires were much too high up. Could have saved much time for other things here.

Merry and Theoden – Unless I missed it, Merry never pledges allegiance to Theoden in the film. The parallels between what Merry and Pippin do, the one in Rohan, the other Minas Tirith are important IMHO. They’re both dealing with “broken kings”, though Theoden was released from Saruman’s sorcery by Gandalf, he’s still deeply affected by tragedy and the situation he now finds his people in. In the books, it’s clear that the hobbits, their optimism and great courage are part of what helps both Theoden and Denethor keep going. Theoden goes on to die valiantly having reclaimed his identity as king, Denethor eventually loses the battle for his own soul. But the hobbits made a difference and while the characters still develop in that direction, I found myself missing the parallels.

Cracks of Doom Shenanigans – They added stuff here and they didn’t need to. Precious minutes were lost here while Sam is trying to haul Frodo back over the edge of the Crack of Doom in a terribly clichéd moment. I mean, how many films over time have made use of the “character falls, other character saves him” gimmick. We already get that Sam is Frodo’s salvation, the walking embodiment of his lost conscience. We really didn’t need to have it hammered into us with this scene.

I also didn’t like the lingering over the destruction of the ring and Gollum’s slow burnup. Unnecessary. Sure it might seem a little anticlimactic the way the book does it, but really, I was fine with Gollum going over the edge mostly unseen.

The Rings – The three rings of Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf were not addressed. You finally see the ring on Gandalf’s finger in the Grey Havens scene, but there’s no explanation of the elven rings other than in the first film.

Endings – As a longtime fan, I was glad to see all the different little bits in there. But I was really feeling the absence of the Houses of Healing and the Scouring of the Shire. If those bits had been in there in some form, the endings would have been broken up and paced better, instead of having so many thread ends following one right after the other. The film sort of tripped to a halt as a result and that was somewhat disappointing, no matter how lovely the Gray Havens were.

The Good

Smeagol and Deagol – I was SO happy to see this bit of the backstory as the opening of the film. It set the tone just right IMHO and it was way cool to see Andy Serkis in the flesh, not just behind the mask of CGI. He did SUCH a good job of bringing Gollum to life. My only quibble here, is that I wished they’d used a more normal sounding voice for him before his transformation into Gollum.

Shelob – Scared the pants off me as well she should. One of my friends pointed to a parody of the film that stated it quite well:

ARACHNOPHOBES IN AUDIENCE: Oh…dear…God.

ARACHNOPHOBES are whimpering somewhere under their theatre seats.

I had to watch the Shelob bits from between my fingers in other words.

The Eagles – Gosh were they ever beautiful. This whole scene was exactly how I always imagined it.

Paths of the Dead – Not how I imagined it, but cool nonetheless and a bit of extra character development for Aragorn that I felt was needed.

Battles – Gory and ugly. I was flinching a lot. Loved the Mumakil, but was sad to see them getting hacked to bits.

Pippin’s Song – Despite my quibbles about the handling of Denethor, this scene was masterfully done from a cinematic point of view. It was a shockingly beautiful, sad and ugly moment all at once. PJ’s vision is amply clear here and boy was it ever effective.

Sam and Frodo – Sean Astin and Elijah Wood really nailed the evolution of their characters in this film. They did some really beautiful acting and I was totally there with them through the journey.

Labyrinth Goblins – Okay, so it’s kind of wrong, but I was HOWLING with laughter at what I perceived to be a bit of a tribute to Jim Henson and Brian Froud when Sam and Frodo don the orc armor after leaving the tower of Cirith Ungol. Seriously, they totally looked like the goblins from Labyrinth in this scene and it was funny. The levity didn’t feel totally out of place though – I guess it was kind of needed given the heavy doses of direness going on.

Eowyn – Miranda Otto kicks butt. She really dug Eowyn. I love the portrayal of this character – it was one of the most faithful to the books as a matter of fact and it was just plain cool and exciting to see Eowyn done right.

Arwen – A lot of people will scratch their heads over my opinion here, but I thought that what they did with Arwen here was rather beautiful and also a lot more hopeful than what Tolkien actually leaves us with. Though not as potent in her scenes as Eowyn, of course, PJ managed to give Arwen a gravitas that was missing in the books. It’s a gentler sort of courage, but I loved Arwen’s vision of Aragorn and their son and how it made her turn back, even though she faced death.

Landscape – Gosh is Middle Earth/New Zealand ever beautiful. One of the best things about these films are the visuals of Middle Earth. PJ and his crew really bring to life Tolkien’s descriptions through Alan Lee’s art, so that you really feel as if you’re there.

Bilbo and Frodo at the End – I loved seeing Frodo writing in the Red Book. I loved the passing on of the book. The scene with Frodo and Bilbo going to the Havens is beautiful, I was crying again. Frodo’s face as he boards the ship. I did mention that Elijah Wood is amazing right?

I could go on and on really, but that’s probably enough for one entry.