Thursday, December 16, 2004

ROTK and LOTR: Jackson's Masterpieces

Timothy Burke was luckily able to approach Return of the King in the best way possible: he was one of those who saw the film on its original release immediately after having watched the extended editions of previous two, all on the big screen. (The Nielsen Haydens did too.) This gave him the perspective necessary to write what remains, I think, the single best assessment of ROTK's strengths and weaknesses, and some of the strengths and weaknesses of Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy as a whole. I can't do what he did, but I've just finished what might be the next best thing: watching the extended edition of all three movies in a row, over a period of about a week. My report follows.

I think there is little dispute among fans of both film and J.R.R. Tolkien that Fellowship of the Ring was, as far as the original theatrical releases are concerned, the tightest, most coherent, best movie of the three. The sacrifices Jackson & Co. made to the storyline of the first book, and their innovations in communicating and weaving together those threads of narrative which they emphasized (or just plain invented) were both complementary to the spirit of the whole and excellent on their own terms. The creative use of the Palantir, the "mad scientist" visualization of Saruman, the confrontation with the Balrog, the journey down the Anduin, the parting of Aragorn and Frodo: all, as Tim says, just about perfect. The materials which the extended edition of FOTR adds--some good stuff with the hobbits back in the Shire, but primarily scenes which from Rivendell and Lothlorien which deepened and complicated Aragorn's story, and his complicated relationship to men, elves, and his own destiny--were great, but not transformative: anyone familiar with Tolkien who thought much about FOTR when it first came out quickly realized that this Aragorn was "modern" in the sense of having an existential dimension: rather than being an actor in a broad historical saga, he was going to have to struggle with his doom. Well, so be it; the "modernity" of Jackson's vision is apparent in many aspects of the films (the substitution of a sometimes overwrought "love" between Frodo and Sam to take the place of Tolkien's much more unambiguous--and, of course, idealized--master-servant relationship being the prime example), and the extended edition doesn't alter that direction; it simply allowed Jackson to further his take on the hobbits and Aragorn in an excellent but not-necessarily-crucial (from a narrative point of view) way.

The Two Towers is a different case. While some--mostly those who either weren't familiar with or didn't care for Tolkien's sweeping historical vision--thought this film the best of the three on its own terms, a lot of us agreed that it had some real narrative and thematic problems. The Ents looked silly, but more importantly their actions were forced; they seemed to do little else besides provide a ham-fisted set-up for heroic speeches from Merry and Pippin, and then burst onto the scene as a deus ex machina at the end, which was both demeaning to the characters and less than thrilling overall. Jackson's occasional tendency to play fast and loose with time and distance were on full display as well--early on we are given a sense of the size and lay of both the lands of Rohan and Fangorn forest, but by the end those Ents and Huorns nonetheless seemed to be able to zip around pretty quick. And the total reworking of Frodo and Sam's encounter with Faramir, while perhaps justified in light of the aforementioned "modern" interpretation of Aragorn, as well as by the narrative demands of Jackson & Co.'s depiction of Denethor, ultimately felt pretty contrived also--not that everything in that whole sequence rang false, just that the pluses (the sharp, nail-biting scene where Frodo puts Sting to Sam's throat) were outweighed by the minuses (Faramir scaring off a Nazgul, which was only about five feet away from the ring at the time, with a single arrow shot, which really makes you wonder how useful or tough these guys really are). Of course, overall the movie still rocked. Helm's Deep, the brilliant realization of Gollum and his interactions with Frodo and Sam: all of it first-rate. But I'd disagree with Tim in thinking that the changes to TTT actually were pretty significant--and unfortunately, not repaired by the extended edition. Gandalf's speech to Gimli in Fangorn, and the flashbacks to Boromir, as well as some other introspective scenes with Faramir, do add some significance and coherence to what Jackson gives us at Entmoot and Osgiliath...but not enough. As before, most of the best additions have to do with Aragorn: Aragorn and Brego, Aragorn and Eowyn, etc. TTT remains, even in its extended edition, the flawed chapter of the trilogy.

Of course, the flaws of ROTK, in its original release, were legion. The rhythm was often wildly wrong: rushed and confusing scenes followed one after another, then a big shift into prolonged and interminable endings. Tim accurately captures many of the problems with the choices Jackson made in adapting the final book: the way Faramir and Pippin are seemingly moved around like props for the sake of depicting Denethor's petulant descent into madness; the "pell-mell incoherency" of the battle at Minas Tirith (what time of day, or night, is it? which gate have they broken through? where's the Witch-King?); the simplistic treatment of Frodo and Sam's crossing of Mordor and the equally weak "diversion" at the Black Gate; the showy treatment of Legolas in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields at the expense of everyone else; and so on. Let's be clear: the battle at Minas Tirith is nonetheless spectacular, even superior to the one at Helm's Deep; and Jackson got so very, very much right in his adaptation of ROTK, and what he invented so often worked so well (most especially the terrific and poignant tension between Frodo, Sam and Gollum), that it seems somewhat churlish to complain. But still: the 3 1/2-hour movie Jackson put into the theaters had something to bother everybody (why was the Balrog a superbly conceived demon, but Shelob--who is even older and darker than the Balrog--just a great big spooky spider? what was the point of the whole Arwen-is-dying subplot?), and bother them it did. Repairs were needed.

The extended edition of ROTK delivers just about all the needed repairs, and then some; the troubling or less-than-satisfactory elements which remain are, in my view, reduced almost to mere nitpicking. The final confrontation with Saruman at the beginning of the movie, and Aragorn's mastering of the Palantir after the battle at Minas Tirith near the end, were both absolutely necessary scenes that should have been in the original movie. Not just because they're great scenes--which they are--but because they so superbly and compactly set up and deliver on a set of consistent themes throughout the films: the weakness of men (and wizards!) before the lures of Sauron, the fears and doubts which everyone--from Elrond to Sauron to Aragorn himself--had about whether of a true king of men could ever emerge with the strength and determination of the Numenorians of old; the constant and fearful watching and passing of secrets and suspicions, all revolving around a sense of corruption which lurked near and in the hearts of all the major characters. If, as I think can't be denied, Jackson basically wanted to tell a story about the triumph of men (with hobbits helping out), then he needed these crucial scenes. But the extended edition gives us even more: it gives us a wonderful encounter between the Mouth of Sauron and Aragorn, which--along with the additions to the last debate before the march on Mordor, makes it clear that even wizards can doubt (and thus fall); in the end, it is Aragorn, who apparently believes Arwen is dead and the last light of the Eldar gone from Middle-Earth, who holds everything together, as a man of the West and a king. Tremendous stuff.

But Aragorn isn't the only human who benefits from the extended treatment: Theoden and Denethor are both far more fleshed out. Denethor can't be improved that much; still, his madness is given a little more grandeur, his pride a little more bite. Some additional lines here and there (especially the wonderful inclusion of his contempt for Faramir as a "wizard's pupil"), and the very helpful scenes of exposition between Gandalf and Pippin, at least give us a sense (and leads us to believe that Denethor, in some twisted way, also has a sense) of what the real stakes in the war for Gondor truly are. But Theoden especially is magnified by the extended edition. His exchange with Saruman and Wormtongue at the beginning of the movie is great stuff. And, of course, he benefits from a far more coherent and well-rounded battle before the gates of Minas Tirith. Really, it's difficult to describe just how good the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is now. The cavalry charge is more easily followed, Theoden's commands and actions against the Easterlings and the Mumakil now appear both reasonable and even somewhat effective, and the Army of the Dead doesn't seem quite as monolithic as before. Notice, for example, how Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are running along with the Dead, shouting at one another, engaging the armies of Sauron without joining with or even acknowledging the Rohirrim: that's a sensible presentation of the confusion of battle from their perspective, without necessarily mixing up our own. (I thought it was delightful that Gimli and Aragorn could take out the head orc without noticing Eowyn, Theoden and Merry laying wounded near them, or even realizing who it is they've just killed. Also, the way Aragorn actually directed Legolas to the Mumakil lessened the sense of showboating; instead, it just seemed like on-the-fly strategy: "Legolas, since you can climb, take out the oliphant while Gimli and I stick to the ground troops.")

And then, of course, dozens of little touches: Pippin finding Merry on the battlefield, as well as Merry's expression of worry and love for Pippin to Aragorn back at Edoras (where, delightfully, they slipped in an insidery reference to the hobbits' ages). The drinking scene with Legolas and Gimli was silly, sure, but at least it fit: a continuing development of the friendship between an unworldly, intimidating elf and an earthy, often underestimated, very worldly dwarf. The additional scenes of the House of Healing wasn't enough, but at least it was there. Frodo and Sam's reunion at the Tower of Cirith Ungol and their journey across Mordor is far more affecting and logical now; you can feel the weight of it, whereas you didn't before (a very nice shot of Sam and Frodo, realizing that there will be no return journey from the Crack of Doom, casting aside their orc armor and throwing it down over a cliff really emphasizes this well). Overall, the development of all the characters, without exception, now fits in with the whole sweep of the trilogy marvelously well.

It's been commented that Jackson has taken the advantages made available by dvd technology and re-invented the epic. It's true. Not that old-style epic cinema is gone forever; there's no reason why someone couldn't try to pull off a David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia-style movie, where a single character pulls together a single, unbroken cinematic creation. But the new epic is a more diverse and interconnected one; the demands of the big screen are not final. Now you can take use the dvd to fill in nooks and crannies of narrative that previously would have needed to be streamlined into a single continuous visualization. The problem, of course, will be the temptation to turn a story which really doesn't contain or need all of these angles and elements into the sort of massive cinematic sprawl which Jackson has done to LOTR. (Arguably, this is the tragic fate of the The Matrix: a great sci-fi flick whose creators felt impelled, given all the tricks and extras which dvd technology makes possible, to transform it into a huge multilayered epic, with rather poor results.) Fortunately, Tolkien's world does contain multitudes, and it is possible to visualize all those multitudes, when placed in their proper context, as part of a grand, sweeping story. And Jackson has showed us that such multiplicity and detail, which previously most had assumed could only be made to cohere on the printed page, can be rendered in a film idiom, give enough time, room, and creative editing. Not that he did it perfectly: TTT remains the weak link, and the prolonged, multiple endings (complete with what Tim rightly pegged as the strange and slightly squirm-inducing moment when all of Gondor bows before all four hobbits, as opposed to just Frodo and Sam) of ROTK will still bother some. But overall, the extended edition of Jackson's final LOTR film truly is a masterpiece, and moreover, it pulls out from the whole 10+ hour creation a masterful new kind of epic film. Like Tolkien's epic itself, these movies are for the ages, no doubt at all about that.


Anonymous said...

THANK YOU FOR THIS REVIEW! Now I'm even more eager to see this film! Man oh man oh man I can't wait. 

Posted by danithew

Anonymous said...

Finally catching up here. Lovely commentary, and you bring out a lot of why the extended edition does so well to repair the flaws of the theatrical.

In a few cases, I'm absolutely baffled about why Jackson didn't include this material in the theatrical. The most pressing is the really quite brief but pivotal scene of Gandalf's confrontation with the Witch-King. It improves the pacing of the Minas Tirith sequence, explains Gandalf's general attitude with Pippin as they await possible death, and even Gandalf's relatively passive yielding of the command to Aragorn in the last part of the film. Unlike some of the other material which all hangs together and needs to all be in or not at all, this one scene could simply have been in the theatrical as-is.

Three things I didn't care for so much in the extended: the drinking contest, which is just weak; some of the extended material along the Paths of the Dead, which strikes the wrong tone; and the Houses of Healing montage. That last is just me being retentively attached to the book: I really loved the sense that those who strike the Witch-King suffer a crisis of the spirit for it, that there's a sacrifice there that goes beyond just getting physically hurt. That doesn't really come through, especially with Merry just saddling up and riding off to the Black Gate with everyone else.

Also I thought the bit with Gorbag pulling himself towards Eowyn after she kills the Witch-King and her crawling for her blade was a kind of silly horror-movie trope dragged into the middle of a very good battle scene.

But most of the additions are marvelous and as you say, very much enhance and deepen the "modernity" of Aragorn and the narrative arc of the "triumph of Men". Other things are much enhanced as well: now the trek across Mordor really does feel enormously difficult.

Now here's one thing I think I noticed, and I'm curious if anyone else noticed it: did Jackson digitally alter Gandalf's face for the extended edition in the scene where Denethor is immolated? I'm amost certain that he did to make Gandalf look haggard and depressed as opposed to what I remember in the theatrical, his almost gloating or exultant demeanor about Denethor's death. If I'm right, that single change has a huge impact in terms of making the entire scene tragic once again. Along with a few small additions, that change also gives back Denethor some of his gravity as a character.  

Posted by Timothy Burke

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim.
Thanks for the review Russell. We watched the extended films back to back the day after christmas. very nice. your review helped motivate me & my wife to set the time aside. :)  

Posted by lyle