The Return of the King
Sunday Night Journal — January 4, 2004
I finally went to see The Return of the King. I have to begin any discussion of the Peter Jackson’s filmed version of The Lord of the Rings with the observation that it surely is the best possible screen treatment of the book. I do not mean that in a philosophical Panglossian but rather in a very straightforward sense: it is the best for which we could reasonably have hoped. When I first heard that Hollywood was planning a big-budget (to say the least) version of the book, my first thought was that I would not see it. I fully expected that the movie industry could not touch such a work without soiling it.
As I heard more about the project, I began to hope that I might be mistaken. I was pleased to admit, after The Fellowship of the Ring, that I was indeed mistaken, and that the films were going to be at least respectful of Tolkien’s vision. Peter Jackson deserves quite a lot of praise for this. I am happy to be able to say that my numerous criticisms of the films do not include the one I most expected to level—that of a fundamental misunderstanding and distortion—and are instead concerned with specific decisions and strategies.
After Fellowship, I spent, like most devotees of the book, a fair amount of time (too much, my wife would say) analyzing the rights and wrongs of the film: which cast members were and were not well-suited to their roles, which aspects of Middle Earth were and were not portrayed fittingly, which liberties taken with the story were and were not justified. After The Two Towers we had pretty much exhausted that topic—I certainly had— and I find that without going over all that ground again I really do not have a great deal to say about The Return of the King.
It is at least as good as any of the others. It eliminates a few of the most annoying things in the first two, most notably the propensity for making Gimli far too broadly comic and, worse, a vehicle for anachronisms not only intrusive but stupid (e.g. “Nobody tosses a dwarf!”). It suffers as much as they from the requirement that much be left out, for which the filmmakers are not to blame, and from an overall tendency to make everything as loud and spectacular as possible, for which they must surely be at least partially to blame. I would like to think that some of this was against Jackson’s better judgment, and done to help insure the box-office success required to justify the film’s enormous cost and allow him to continue in the business. Whatever the reason, the entire series contains a lot of lily-gilding, if that is not too delicate a term to use for such heavy-handed work. The films seem driven by a compulsion to overstate and overdo, to crowd every possible moment with action, to pile more and yet more noisy dangers, yet more unconvincing physical stunts, onto the story: the combat between Saruman and Gandalf in Fellowship, which ought to have been something subtle; the endless fight with the cave-troll; the unnecessary and unbelievable leaps among the falling stairs in Moria; Frodo’s standard Hollywood fall-and-hang-by-the-fingers at the Crack of Doom. All of this imparts a cartoonish quality to much of the film and has exactly the opposite of its intended effect on me: rather than compelling my attention it breaks the spell, and provokes the rolling of eyes.
But let that go. As Terry Teachout said recently in National Review, Hollywood does not make movies for people who read books. The films are not the book, and never could be, even with the best of intentions and the greatest of skill. But with all their flaws they still attain a vision of pure and noble heroism, and they leave one with images of “beauties that burn like ice and pierce like swords,” if I am correctly recalling C. S. Lewis’ praise. Thanks be to God. And it is time I read the book again.
By the way, my friend Daniel Nichols suggests that the films might rightly have been billed as “The Lord of the Rings, starring New Zealand.”