Our penultimate Lord of the Rings re-read post, this time on the movie of Return of the King. (After this will be a general wrapping-up post.) This post is actually two in one: first, we have a guest review from LaShawn Wanak, who won the opportunity in a charity auction lo these many months ago, and then we have my additional comments. Spoilers for everything Tolkien, as usual, after the jump.
Guest Review by LaShawn Wanak
To start off our discussion, here is a guest review by LaShawn Wanak, who comes to the movie from a very different perspective than I do and who has some very interesting things to say about it as a result.
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I must confess: I never cared for The Lord of the Ring books.
I read the trilogy in 7th grade, and I just never got it. It was all a confusing mish-mash of hard-to-pronounce names, rambling histories of dead kings I cared nothing about, and too many people breaking out in spontaneous poetry. I was more a C.S. Lewis fan. I discovered the Chronicles of Narnia around the same time, and back then, a talking lion-god named Aslan made more sense to me than a bounding man-fairy.
Not that I didn’t stop trying to understand The Lord of the Rings. Not caring so much for the book made me more open to its alternate retellings. I read The Hobbit and I found it more enjoyable. I watched the Rankin Bass version of The Hobbit and found it fun. I watched The Lord of the Rings Bakashi version on VHS and found it disturbingly creepy. I even played the Interplay PC game, but I could never get past Weathertop because the game kept crashing.
When Jackson’s version came out in the theater, I watched all three. Then in the theater, I stood up and applauded at the ending credits. Because for the first time, I got it. I finally got it!
Since then, I have read the book, and well, yeah, I can see where Jackson took liberties. Some of the changes made perfect sense (I’m sorry Tom Bombadil fans, but I don’t like him. Something about him creeps me out in all sorts of unpleasant ways, so it was no skin off my teeth to care about his omission from the movie.). Others had me scratching my head, while still others...well...hm....
So when I won the Con and Bust Auction, one of the things I begged to do was to do the movie review of Return of the King. The extended version. This is a frickin’ long movie. So long, I’m not going to bother with an analysis of each scene. Instead, I’ll do what Kate did with the first movie and make lists of what worked and what didn’t...in no particular order.
(Oh...by the way, I love Sean Astin. I see it as no coincidence that Sean’s name sounds phonetically similar to my own, and in fact we were both born on the same day and year. I sincerely believe that in some alternate universe, he and I have hooked up and fight super evil villains that are trying to take over the earth. I’m just saying.)
Things the movie got right
The Mordor army marches out of Minas Morgul
What an awesome scene, and one I think that corresponded extremely well with the book. That brief silence before the gate opens? Bonechilling. Absolutely bonechilling. And when the witch king comes out and lets out that scream—we were all writhing with Frodo and Sam in the theater with our hands on our ears. I also loved the quick cutting between here and Minas Tirith, as Gandalf and Pippin stares in horror as they watch Mordor’s army emerge from afar.
Looked exactly how I pictured it in the book. Broad and sweeping. Granted, it gets trashed up good, but towards the end, hey, everything’s fine again and it’s looking just as “purty” as ever.
Frodo and Sam’s encounter with Shelob
Gripe all you want about this movie, but the scene where Frodo gets stabbed and Sam comes to the rescue is awesome, both in the book and the movie. Jackson utilizes his horror experience well in this scene. When Shelob stalks Frodo silently above him, you know full well what’s about to happen, but her attack when Frodo gets stabbed, the silence and shock of it still takes the breath away.
I can still remember the helplessness I felt when Shelob starts wrapping Frodo up (I don’t think this was in the book, but it makes perfect sense—Shelob is a giant spider after all, why wouldn’t she wrap up her food?), and then SAM COMES TO THE RESCUE WITH THE LIGHT OF GALADRIEL AND STING! YAAAAAYYYY!! KICK-ASS SPIDER BATTLE FOLLOWS! I HEART SEAN ASTIN SO MUCH!!!!1!!
And of course, we get the whole “Don’t go where I can’t follow” speech. Which had this fan swooning. Beautifully done. I’m even willing to overlook the fact that Sam doesn’t put the ring on after the orcs take Frodo. But hey, Tolkien had the gall to end the second book at this very spot, so frankly, it’s a fair trade, dig?
“I can’t carry the ring for you, but I can carry YOU!”
::diesdiesdiesdiesdies in absolute squee::
Frodo and Sam in Mount Doom.
Let’s face it. It is cool to watch Frodo go Super Saiyan and we do get to see that one...brief...moment when Gollum is finally, finally happy.
Things the movie did that the book didn’t, but I’ll forgive Jackson because it looked so freaking cool anyway
The origin of Smeagol/Gollum
In the book, RotK starts off with Gandalf and Pippin riding into Gondor, and later on Sam searching for Frodo in Minas Morgul. Here, Jackson replaces it with a flashback on how Smeagol becomes Gollum. What would’ve been a clichéd infodump is transformed by Andy Serkis’s only onscreen performance. His transformation from Smeagol into Gollum is creepy and effective. And at the end, with him purring “my prrrrrecious...” Brrrr!
Pippin lighting the Minas Tirith beacon
I know doesn’t happen in the book, but it does give us some wonderful scenery porn. Plus, it sets up this awesome scene:
Aragorn: Gondor calls for aid!
Theoden: . . . and Rohan will answer.
Pippin sings as Faramir rides out to face Mordor’s army.
I actually consider this the best scene in the movie, possibly the entire series. Never mind that in the book it takes Faramir several days to fight. Having Pippin sing while we watch Faramir and his men riding off to battle, with the orcs watching and raising their bows, intercut with Denethor crushing tomatoes with his teeth. Absolutely heartbreaking.
Eowyn slays the Witch-King
Two words: kick-ass.
Okay, so her and Merry riding around on the field hamstringing oliphants is not in the book. But come on. The woman is doing it with two swords. Two swords. It’s so nice to see someone other than Legolas doing some cool fighting theatrics (and indeed, the movie doesn’t let us forget that Legolas is supposed to be this oh so cool fighter—when he appears to strike down an oliphant with his arrows, I was well and truly sick of him).
Some more words: I seem to recall Eowyn speaking more words after the “I am no man” declaration she makes before killing the Witch-King in the book. Her speech is shorter here in the movie, which makes absolute perfect sense, because hey...when you have a huge Witch-King Nazgul about to spear you through, it’s probably not a good idea to go on a rambling history lesson.
Aragorn et al. challenging Sauron at the gates of Mordor
First of all, did Aragorn always have an accent? It seems to become more pronounced as he’s giving the final pep talk in front of Mordor’s gates.
Second of all, The Mouth of Sauron. Out of all of Sauron’s minions, this dude is my favorite. Maybe it’s because he gives off such a Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe.
Third, Merry isn’t supposed to be there...he was supposed to be back in the House of Healing. But for some reason, when Aragorn goes charging off to meet Sauron’s army, I’ve always appreciated that the next ones to charge is not Legolas and Gimli, but Merry and Pippin.
And finally, when the ring gets destroyed, and Sauron falls (Visine will get the red out), that look everyone gets of “YAYYY! FRODO!”...followed by “Ohhh...crap.” Followed by “OHHHHH...CRAAAAAAAAP!”
The final parting at the docks of Grey Haven
I really don’t remember how the book ended. I do know that with Saruman’s death moved up, the hobbits returning to the Shire is more subdued. But the movie ending is done very well to me and always gets me emotional.
Things that got me scratching my head and going “Um, okayyyyy...it didn’t happen that way in the book....”
Pippin looking through the palantir
A bit overdramatic with the fiery ball of DOOM, but at least they got the part of Gandalf sleeping with his eyes open just right.
Aragorn and his trusty sidekicks head down the Paths of the Dead
I can’t remember how this was handled in the book, but if I recall, it wasn’t really that big of a deal. Well, it was a big deal, but the dead agreeing to accompany Aragorn was more like, “You’re the heir of Isildur? Okay, we’ll fight.” instead of the overblown scene from the movie (sea of skulls, huh? Riiiiiiiiight). On the other hand, I preferred this scene in the theatrical version than the extended, where the scene continues to where we get Aragorn’s LOOK OF TOTAL DESPAIR when he sees the ships, and then the ghost king comes out as if saying, “Okay. Change our minds.” Definitely in keeping with blowing a simple scene way out of proportion for the sake of Hollywood.
Denethor plunges off “Suicide Point.”
I was going to put this under the “it looks cool anyway” category, but every time I watch this scene I can’t help but think how stupid it is. We never learn that the reason why Denethor goes nutso in the first place is because he had a palantir too and spent too much time looking into it. So his madness is internal, not brought about by Sauron.
Then there’s the logistics. There’s no way Denethor would run all the way down that length of rock to jump off the edge without succumbing to his burns. In the book, his decision to lay down and die shows the absolute despair he had, in that he was literally giving up, and laying down to die. In the movie, his death was just...stupid.
But on the other hand...we do get to see Pippin be the hero and save Faramir from the pyre...so I don’t know.
Things that made me want to go up to Jackson and cram the book into an unmentionable place. Hard.
The death of Saruman
Really? Really Jackson? Really?
I can understand bumping his death up in the story. I’ve always felt that Saruman’s presence at the end of the book was like Tolkien looking through his notes and realized, oh crap, he forgot all about him. So he wrote in the scene where Saruman comes to the Shire and wreaks havoc. Granted, it shows how pathetically low Saruman had sunk, but by that time, I was ready for the book to end already.
But really? To have Saruman fall and land on that big wheel? Dude, really? What was that supposed to be? What a stupid way to get the palantir to fall into the water (as opposed to the book’s other stupid way of just falling into the water in happenstance). And of course, the hobbits get robbed of the honor of killing Wormtongue, thanks to Super Legolas and his super archery skillz.
Arwen becomes mortal...or something.
I can only echo what everyone else has said here. The parts with Arwen? Dumb. Real dumb.
So in the middle of a forest, she suddenly realizes, wait a sec, if she and Aragorn get together, there...might...be...CHILDREN?! So she rides all the way back to tell daddy he sucks. He responds that future is almost gone...and I would’ve gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for that kid and dog named Scooby-Doo! Cut to DRAMATIC BOOK FALLING, and then, EXTREME SWORD FORGING!
What’s truly stupid is that suddenly “Arwen’s fate is tied to the ring.” Oh, pleeeeease. Why isn’t she the one going around purring, “My prrrecious”? Obviously it was a way for the writers to try to give Arwen more screen time, but really, they should’ve just done how Tolkien did it—leave her out until the end.
Sam beating up Gollum
Why does everyone want to beat up on poor Gollum? We saw this with Faramir and his gang back in The Two Towers (oh, don’t get me started on what the movie did with Faramir’s character). Up until now, we’ve seen Sam being apathetic, even hen-pecky in a strangely jealous sort of way. But I was willing to put that aside because it was SEAN ASTIN I HEART HIM I HEART HIM SO MUUUUUCH.
But then, as they climb the stairs of Cirith Ungol and Gollum sets Frodo against Sam by crumbling the last lembas wafer, well, Sam just loses it. He whales on Gollum until Frodo breaks them up, then he sends Sam away. The whole thing feels nasty, and furthermore, I don’t really see the purpose in it. In the book, it was on the stairs that we see Gollum’s last shred of...uh, humanity? Hobbitry? When he watches Frodo and Sam sleep and feeling pity, touches Frodo’s knee. True, in the book Sam does speak roughly when he wakes up and sees this—but then, Sam apologizes. He treats Gollum with more respect. In the movie, Sam basically becomes a bully, then a blubbering baby. It makes this part excruciating to watch, even for me.
(Now, for the record, when Sam discovers the broken pieces of lembas and, realizing he’d been tricked, looks up the stairs to where Frodo and Gollum have gone, that part was somewhat cool.)
Aragorn looking into the palantir to taunt Sauron and getting frightened off by a vision of Arwen dead
Random tidbits about the movie I can’t think of putting anywhere else.
Upon watching the extended version, I never caught the scene where Merry gets a horse of his own when he rides out with the Rohirrim, and is kicking his heels trying to get it to move. Surprisingly funny.
When Frodo is in Shelob’s lair, listen for the Spielbergesque strings.
When Grond breaks through Minas Tirith’s doors, Gandalf’s expression of “oh crap” is particularly divine.
When Frodo puts back on the ring, is it just me or did anyone else thing he experienced an orgasmic moment there?
...and wow, both Frodo and Sam look realllllllllly grimy through most of the movie.
I’ve always found Frodo batting away imaginary things in the home stretch of their journey a little heartbreaking.
At the end, when Frodo wakes up in Minas Tirith, did anyone else besides me think “AND IT WAS ALL JUST A DREAM”?
I just now realized that the last time Frodo saw Gandalf was him falling in the Mines of Moria, so all this time, Frodo would’ve thought that Gandalf was dead. His laughter, then, is not unfounded. He truly is overjoyed. In contrast, Sam’s entrance after all the others come in is silent, subdued, but Frodo’s exchange of gazes speaks volumes.
When Aragorn is crowned and all of Minas Tirith comes, and everyone bows to the hobbits, watch how the other hobbits look astonished and pleased, except for Frodo who looks like he’s about to throw up. A nice touch on how deep his wounds go which sets us up for the final parting scene at the Grey Havens.
And finally the sketches during the credits...EPIC WIN.
And that’s it. Would love to know everyone’s thoughts. Overall, despite the slow motion and the annoying character reversals and MOVIE TENSION, LotR is, and will always remain, my favorite fantasy movie trilogy of all time.
At least, before The Hobbit comes out.
I saw The Return of the King three times in the theater and watched the extended edition once before this rewatch. Previously, my general impression was that Fellowship was the best as a movie, a single coherent thing, but that RotK had some of the most amazing moments of the three movies (possibly the most amazing ones), even though I had problems with many elements and never felt that it gelled, flowed, hung together, what-have-you.
As I said in the beginning of the post, I found LaShawn’s comments really interesting from the perspective of someone who isn’t as deeply familiar with the book as I am. (Also someone who is a Sean Astin/movie!Sam fan, which I am not.) I particularly noted her comments about Denethor, which was my biggest change of opinion on this rewatch. Previously I had thought the death scene was stupid, but Denethor’s overall portrayal hadn’t been on my list of problems with the movie. This time, having come to the conclusion that he gets the fullest, most psychologically complex and realistic characterization of anyone in the book...well, I was seriously disappointed in the direction the movie took the character. We have no sense that he ever had any heights to fall from. We are only given this incredibly twitchy (seriously: John Noble’s facial muscles jumping around was amazingly distracting), overemotional, irrational, hasty, and undignified man who is an obstruction, a danger, and then a laughingstock. It’s a sad waste, because I think Noble could had done a good job with the character in the text—his voice on the “No tomb” line gave me chills—but Denethor now strikes me as one of the biggest flaws of the movie.
I was also interested that the Paths of the Dead and Saruman’s death—what I think of as Jackson’s roots as a schlock horror director showing through—similarly stood out as missteps to LaShawn. The whole scene with Saruman is just ridiculous: Saruman shouting down from the very tippy-top of Orthanc is absurd, and his impalement on the water-wheel is needlessly gross and too symbolically heavy-handed, and all in all there were just far better ways to have killed Saruman in Orthanc.
The Paths of the Dead were neither eerie nor interesting (except insofar as I distracted myself by wondering about the extreme disproportion of skulls to other bones), and generally are my exhibit A for why I believe the extended editions aren’t the “real” movies. I think that the discipline imposed by the theatrical running times was a good thing, that a lot of what was cut should have been cut, and that overall the second and third movies would have been better served if the filmmakers hadn’t had the possibility of the extended editions as a fallback and were, accordingly, forced to murder their darlings (e.g., all eight million years of Helm’s Deep; that damn Warg attack/river fall).
(Exhibit B used to be “Aragorn would never kill a messenger,” but this go-round has been replaced with something simpler: why would you bother even trying an ordinary battering ram against the gates of Minas Tirith if you had Grond?!)
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One of the things that RotK is really good at, as a movie, is moments of spectacle, many of which I think there are broad agreement on. If I inflicted my raw notes from this rewatch on you all, you could spot them by my resort to all-caps without any explanation. They are:
- Minas Tirith. Breathtakingly gorgeous.
- The army marching out of Minas Morgul. Edge-of-my-seat tense and creepy.
- Lighting of the beacons. (La la la logistics I can’t hear you.) This is a really good example of how the visual medium can take a fairly throwaway bit from the book and turn it into something iconic.
- Shelob. Okay, I will inflict one bit of my notes on you: “OMG LOOK UP,” because I couldn’t help myself even though Frodo wasn’t reading over my shoulder.
- The charge of the Rohirrim at the Pelennor Fields. That right there? Justifies the existence of the entire movie. Also never fails to make me tear up.
- Éowyn, Merry, and the Witch King. Okay, fell beasts not having blood is mildly distracting, but I will forgive that for the shot of the Witch King standing up, and up, and up, and for the two of them being awesome, and for Éowyn getting to talk to Théoden before he dies.
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Before I talk about the end, I have two questions for any people reading this who didn’t know the books at all before watching the movies. (Are there any?)
First, did you believe that the Orcs had taken the Ring from Frodo? That’s why Sam never puts it on, to preserve that suspense for new watchers, and I’d like to know if it worked for anyone.
Second, when Sam and Frodo are on Mount Doom after the Ring is destroyed and there’s lava everywhere and the screen fades to black, did you think or fear that they were dead?
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Okay, the ending. Well, really, two endings, the destruction of the Ring and Frodo leaving Middle-earth.
The destruction of the Ring: Gollum clinging to invisible Frodo looks ridiculous and I don’t understand why they didn’t do the scene from Frodo’s POV in Wraith-o-vision instead. But more significantly, the Cracks of Doom in the movie is a scene “in which it is demonstrated that while some may fall, others are pushed” (to borrow a phrase). On a thematic level, I am mildly sad that evil is not the seeds of its own destruction. But considering the medium, I’m not sure that the book’s version of Gollum just falling might not have felt too flat, easy, or fortuitous. And it is consistent with the darker Frodo in the movie. So I’m ambivalent about this change; I can understand how others might be very upset about it, but I don’t feel that strongly myself.
Which leads neatly into my last topic, the handling of Frodo after the destruction of the Ring. The second time I saw the movie in the theaters, I devoted many words to the proposition that the movie doesn’t depict Frodo’s damage in enough detail and depth to make the Grey Havens seem logical and necessary. I’m not going to rehash my reasoning now, because it’s at the link and because it didn’t bother me as much this time—possibly my energy was all taken up with Denethor and the Paths? I still believe that it could have been handled better, however.
(This is one of the reasons I like “The Mountain,” a vid by Melina and Astolat to the song of the same name by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer: it explores Frodo and Aragorn’s parallel journeys and ends Frodo’s section with what I think is the proper note of haunted sadness. Also, it’s a lovely, accessible vid to an eerily appropriate song.)
I do note that for some reason, Frodo’s awkward voiceover says it’s been four years since Weathertop, when in the book it was just under three at the Grey Havens. My entirely unsupported guess as to why is that Sean Astin’s real-life daughter plays Elanor, and she would’ve been too old to play a six-month-old at that point (Elanor’s textual age). And Shadowfax is not with Gandalf on the ship, boo hiss.
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I think I can sum up my experience of the movies neatly, actually, by referring to the first behind-the-scenes footage from The Hobbit that was recently released. As I said elsewhere, my reaction through most of it was that it was, you know, fine: some cute moments, but didn’t feel very new after the LotR DVD extras, and was getting a little long.
Until the last twenty seconds, which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
For all that I have reservations about the LotR movies, and indeed about the forthcoming Hobbit movie, they still get some things very, very right. And as far as I’m concerned, in the end, those things more than justify the movies’ existence and the dozens of hours I have spent watching them.
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.