Peter Jackson’s three-part film of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) may or may not please votaries of J. R. R. Tolkien’s prose epic, but it is a godsend to anyone like me. I love the book’s “northness,” its landscape of towering forests and monster-housing caves, and the creatures that inhabit that landscape; my problem is with the prose that conveys this world. Though Tolkien could write well—witness the charming prose of The Hobbit and the incisiveness of his scholarly essays—LOTR the novel contains too many sentences like this one: “The onslaught of Mordor broke like a wave on the beleaguered hills, voices roaring like a tide amid the wreck and crash of arms.” The author certainly can’t be accused of mixing his metaphors but this is too much of a wet thing. LOTR is lengthy, and a lengthy book needs fresher language than Tolkien could provide.

In the film adaptation, of course, the prose is gone, and Middle-earth floods into movie theaters by way of gorgeous photography and the latest digital tricks. For some, the movie will seem a desecration precisely because it is so visually forceful. You thought you knew what the wizard Gandalf looked like as he took shape within your mind as you read? Well, gaze on Sir Ian McKellen for just five seconds and kiss your inner-eye wizard goodbye. This movie isn’t merely an adaptation; it’s a coup d’etat. It overthrows our reading responses with a giant’s sneer and brushes aside our psychological collaboration with the author. So, caveat lector.

Rather than write a formal movie review, I’m just going to walk around the film trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) and point out interesting features, just as I would walk around a hydroelectric dam or a new skyscraper. Do these comparisons imply something inhuman, or at least grandiose about this movie? Perhaps, but like Gandalf, let us not be petty in the face of a monster.

Narrative: Tolkien’s book wasn’t just a literary endeavor but a huge verbal Lego project that he assembled in his study with the quiet fanaticism of a child putting together a toy monster or a train station. He gorged the reader on Middle-earth genealogy, flora and fauna, weather, culture, hobbit music, dwarf etiquette, elf ethics, giant cookery, etc., etc., and the whole project spilled over into Tolkien’s Silmarillion, a prequel set in the same universe as LOTR. Fiction or mythic anthropology? Narrative propulsion was the goal for the moviemakers, not mythic saturation. I’m not surprised that Miranda Otto (who plays the human princess Eowyn) remarked, “I don’t like to think of Rings as a fantasy, and, actually, Pete [Jackson] wanted to shoot it like a historical [piece].” Indeed, the whole thing comes across very much like one of those medieval adventure stories you saw in your youth—Prince Valiant, The Black Shield of Falworth—only much, much bigger and much, much better.

Long though the movie trilogy is (9.5 hours plus—not counting the extended DVD editions), Jackson has been able to compress Tolkien’s material, simply by keeping track of who is doing what where. For instance, he realized that, though Tolkien placed the hobbits Frodo and Sam’s fight with Shelob the giant spider many pages away from the siege of the citadel of men Minas Tirith, the two actions are actually happening at exactly the same time. So the director shifted Shelob ahead and cut back and forth between the spider fight and the siege, which not only saves time but maximizes action and suspense. This is Tolkien on a skateboard. Other rearrangements aren’t just exciting but illuminating, as when, after getting used to the loathsomeness of the schizoid creature Gollum throughout The Two Towers, the audience then encounters the seemingly agreeable hobbit, Smeagol, and watches him transform into Gollum after possessing the ring of power in the flashback that opens Return of the King.

Nonreaders of LOTR may occasionally be puzzled, however. As in the book (albeit one of its appendixes), Aragorn marries the elf princess Arwen, but does the human princess Eowyn get a consolation prize? During my first viewing of Return of the King, I blinked and missed the split-second shot of Eowyn and Prince Faramir standing together like a loving couple. I caught it the second time around, yes, but surely this is compression taken too far. And what is the meaning of the crystal ball–like object that the hobbit Pippin finds and that Gandalf treats with trepidation? I found the brief verbal explanation incomprehensible, but readers will know that several of these orbs are used by the arch-fiend Sauron both to spy and to impose false predictions upon gullible creatures such as the steward of the human kingdom of Gondor (the royal line of heirs has been broken-—hence the need for the king to return), who comes across on screen as an unmotivated psychopath rather than a man deceived. This is a compression that distorts. Nevertheless, the scriptwriters, Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, must be praised for generally keeping a lengthy movie both richly textured and sleek.

Acting: With dozens of roles so well cast and acted, one hardly knows whom to single out. For that very reason let me bypass the usual accolade-gatherers (McKellen, Sean Astin, Elijah Wood) and draw attention to players who might be overlooked. Because she is so beautiful, Liv Tyler has always been scanted as an actress. But in The Two Towers, Arwen’s scene with her father (who is trying to dissuade her from loving a mortal ) is made truly poignant by Tyler’s acting, and she achieves this while speaking a language that doesn’t really exist (though Elvish sounds like Welsh). Not for nothing do acting teachers make their students study subtext so that the phone book may be recited as if it were Shakespeare.

King Theoden of Rohan is such a sere figure that Bernard Hill’s underplaying may be overshadowed by the more flamboyant performances, but if you watch him closely you’ll find a fascinating portrayal of a man temperamentally drawn to despair yet determined to fight the good fight.

There really is an actor at the core of Gollum and he’s called Andy Serkis. Peter Jackson’s special-effects house, Weta Digital, took Serkis’s performance, caught by motion-capture cameras, and overlaid the computer-generated monster we see on Serkis’s movements. And whatever sound engineering did to the actor’s voice, there is a human note somewhere in there. Gollum comes across as a Dostoyevsky character who’s been given a makeover by the Brothers Grimm, and Serkis surely deserves some credit for that kernel of complexity.

Imagery: Yes, the computer-generated work is impressive, occasionally overwhelming. Still, some of the most memorable shots are simply good camera setups of actors delivering the emotional goods, just as in nonfantasy movies: Merry the hobbit riding to war while seated in front of Eowyn, his face alight with the discovery of a new way of being in the world; Aragorn (now the returned king), exhausted before the final battle, suddenly smiling at his troops and quietly uttering the mildest of war cries: “For Frodo.”

But there are too many camera arcs over rolling plains as the Fellowship theme swells up on the soundtrack. And if I ever have to look at another troupe of horsemen clattering through castle gates, I may throw myself over the nearest battlement.

Feminism: It’s not that the film invented the warrior princesses, Eowyn and Arwen. They’re in the book too, but Tolkien always seemed a little theoretical in his presentation of women. Here the actresses playing them make them specific, mercurial, and commanding. When Eowyn confronts the Lord of the Nazgûl, he who cannot be killed by any man, with the fact that “I am no man,” and then thrusts her sword in his face, I could feel battalions of women cheering her on. I cheered too.

Humor: We can feel a fatherly smile pervading the books, but the movie grins. The body-count rivalry between good guys Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf is typical of boys’ adventure tales but it leads up to, “That still counts as only one!” which, in context (Legolas has miraculously taken down a gigantic mammoth-like beast carrying scads of enemies), is one of the funniest movie lines of the decade. There is also dry wit, as when (in Towers) Aragorn impulsively embraces an elf general for coming to the rescue, and the fastidious warrior registers fleeting repugnance at being hugged by a—ugh!—human.

Themes (spoilers follow): The literary LOTR contains many themes but I venture that the leading one is the necessity to cling stubbornly and absolutely to virtue (no matter how modest) in the face of absolute evil. (This is what makes Tolkien basically conservative. Liberals don’t believe in absolute evil.) The movie’s climax is the same as the book’s: Frodo’s failure to throw the ring into the fires of Mount Doom shows that he lacks absolute devotion to virtue, but this very human failure is rescued by Gollum’s greedy intervention. Ironically, good comes out of evil; fate is stronger than character.

However, because the movie’s script and Sean Astin’s wonderfully unfissured performance spotlight Sam’s absolute devotion to Frodo, the preclimactic scene in which Sam carries Frodo up Mount Doom conveys an emotional charge that the morally messy climax doesn’t. So Sam emerges as the true hero of the film trilogy, and the most important virtue, it seems, is the capacity for friendship, not the more general devotion to abstract virtue.

Though the creator of Middle-earth feared and hated many aspects of technology, the technology of the movies has treated Tolkien with respect. Peter Jackson, master of technomagic and generalissimo of a thousand technicians and actors, has made of Tolkien’s deliberately archaic epic a fresh, bracing revel.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2004-01-30 issue: View Contents
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