Monday, February 07, 2005

I just realised that I haven’t written a review of Lord of the Rings in over a fortnight....

I learned one thing from watching the extended cut of Return of the King. Whatever else Peter Jackson may be, he is a very good editor. When he decides to consign something to the cutting room floor, the rest of the world should have the sense to leave it there.

The extended Fellowship of the Ring felt very much like, well, an extended Fellowship of the Ring. The same film, with a couple of new bits added. The opening “Bilbo does exposition” passage was a self-indulgent error, as was Sam’s recitation of his verse from “When evening in the shire was grey...”. But it was nice to get some back story about Aragorn’s mother, Beren and Luthien, and Elves going to the Grey Havens. The additional scenes also sorted out several point of internal continuity, such as “Why is everyone wearing elvish broaches in the second half?”

The extended Two Towers, on the other hand, was a very different film compared with the un-extended version. While most of my first order questions (e.g. “What the heck happened to Tolkien’s book?”) were left un-answered, most of my second-order questions, such as “What’s the deal with the horse?” were sorted out. The extended movie may not have had a great deal to do with the second volume of Lord of the Rings, but it did make sense on its own terms.


One of the best bits of the extended Two Towers (hereafter X-TTT) is the flashback to Faramir and Boromir at the battle of Osgilliath. It is a very Good Thing to see Faramir and Boromir together as two brothers. (If they weren’t going to do a scene together, why not get Mr Bean to be do both roles?) It’s nice to see Denethor in a Daddy role to both of them. It established all the things we needed to know about the characters – Denethor is barking, Faramir and Boromir really love each other although they see each other’s faults; Denethor, quite unfairly, prefers Boromir. And it explains why Faramir speaks the line “A chance for Faramir son of Denethor Captain of Gondor to show his quality” as if it has some significance. (In the book, he’s quoting a remark made by Sam. In the theatrical Two Towers (T-TTT?) the line comes from nowhere and is pretty meaningless. But in X-TTT it turns out that he is remembering something his father said. Cool.) Of course, no such scene exists in the book, and arguably Denethor was never at Osgilliath. But that only demonstrates that you can be Very Faithful to Tolkien and still Make Stuff Up.

The X-TTT flashback shows Denethor sending Boromir to the Council of Elrond. This is also Good Thing. One of my complaints about FOTR was that none of the subsidiary members of the Fellowship are properly introduced. Legolas gets no back-story beyond “he’s an elf.” (Aragorn subsequently reveals that he comes “from the woodland realm” and Gimli calls him “a princling”, but that’s it.) So by all means, tell us how Boromir came to be at the Council. And ever skip over the “Seek ye the sword that was broken, at Imladris it dwells” part, if you like.

But, but, but, but, but.

In the flashback, Denethor already knows that Isildur’s Bane is a the One Ring; and he is specifically sending Boromir to Rivendell so he can bring it back to Gondor. This retrospectively changes Boromir’s character. The implication of the first film, as with the book, is that Boromir has major misgivings about the idea of destroying the Ring; but that he sincerely, albeit reluctantly, promises to fulfill the will of the Council, and in the end is tempted by the Ring and attacks Frodo. This new flashback implies that he was Denethor’s spy the whole time, under orders from Dad to pinch the Ring. When he promises that he will help Frodo go to Mordor; either he has his fingers crossed behind his back; or else he is consciously reneging on the promise he made to his father. This puts a whole different slant on the “Boromir picks up the ring in the snow” scene. He’s not a good man being tempted by the Ring’s intrinsic evil: he’s a hypocrite thinking “Should I obey Dad, or obey Elrond.” It means that Sam is largely mistaken when he tells Faramir that “He tried to take the ring from Frodo after he had sworn an oath to protect him.” It would have been more accurate if he had said “He tried to take the Ring from Frodo, because he had sworn an oath to his father to do so.” (Did Sean Bean know that this was his character’s motivation when he played out those scenes?)

Various people have compared Denethor with King Lear: both are old; both of them go mad; neither of them are blind; and both of them are Kings, except Denethor. But it occurs to me that the “mad-old-king who stupidly sends his good son away and puts his faith in his bad son” does have some resonance with the story of Lear and his daughters: more so with the Gloucester sub-plot. Is it possible that Tolkien had read Shakespeare?

End of digression. Back to Return of the King.

Nothing in X-ROTK radically changes the structure of the film. I was hoping that the extended version might clarify some of the grosser absurdities of the theatrical version, but I was mainly disappointed. The bit about “Arwen’s fate being tied to the ring” was gibberish in T-ROTK, and remains gibberish in X-ROTK. The new version adds a pointless scene in which Aragorn looks into the palantir and sees, first Sauron’s eye, and then Arwen lying mostly dead on the ground. I have no idea what this scene means. Neither, I imagine, does Peter Jackson. Some explanation must exist, because there is a bit in the trailer where Elrond says “You gave away your life’s grace...”, which was presumably going to tie Arwen’s illness back to her rescue of Frodo in FOTOR. But this doesn’t make it to either version of the movie. (Merry and or Pippin doesn’t ever get to say “We will see the Shire again!”, either.)

A couple of plot-lines are slightly fleshed out. There is an extra scene of Aragorn talking to Eowyn, which tends to confirm my impression that film-Aragorn is a bit of a cad. Book-Eowyn is basically living out an inverted courtly love story. She falls in love with someone far above her station; who is in any case promised to another: he does nothing to encourage her, but she pines and is devoted to him, until she finally transfers her love to someone else. Movie-Aragorn’s one true love has told him that she is sailing to the Undying Lands; and so he flirts with Eowyn on the rebound. He hears that Arwen has not left Middle-Earth after all and dumps Eowyn two minutes later. At least Faramir and Eowyn actually get to meet before falling in love, but the scenes are pretty perfunctory. It turns out that the wise women in the houses of healing like to have crap pop music playing in the background while they work.

Positively good scenes included a meeting between Faramir and Pippin; and a couple of scenes of Frodo and Sam in Mordor, including a quite affecting shot of them throwing their un-necessary gear into a crevasse. I was pleased to see Gandalf confront the witch-king, although I thought it was rather pathetic that they had to come up with an “action movie” motivation for it. (No scene can appear in a movie unless it represents an obstacle which the hero has to overcome. In the book, Gandalf blocks the Witch Kings way at the gate of the city. No obstacle for the hero. Bad. In the film, the Witch King blocks Gandalf’s way to Denethor’s funeral pyre. Obstacle for hero. Good. Is our view of story really so mindlessly simplistic?)

Tolkien-geek-Andrew was pleased to see Jackson’s miniatures team having a shot at visualising the broken statue of the king which Frodo and Sam see at the cross-roads. But movie-fan Andrew honestly wonder’s what it was there for. Frodo’s line about the king’s crown of flowers showing that the orcs cannot conquer forever is deleted, which, typically, seemed to remove the main point of the scene. Sam still gets to say “Look, the king has a crown again”, which begs the response “We can see that you fool.”

But an awful lot of the “new” scenes served only to slow down an already top-heavy film. I am really, really, sorry, Christopher: I know that you are fine actor, and that you speak fluent elvish, and might have been an opera singer if you’d had the Latin; I know that you once met the Professor personally and that Attack of the Clones wasn’t your fault -- but truly, Mr Jackson was quite right to cut your big moment. To begin Part 3 with death of the villain who was defeated in Part 2 does indeed feel tedious. Saruman’s death has no dramatic tension. In the book, the main point of Saruman is that his voice can bewitch people, so during the parley in the tower there is a real danger that he will corrupt the party – for a moment, those present think that Gandalf is going to go over to his side. This aspect of Saruman has almost vanished from the movie; so there is very little drama or threat in the scene. Nothing comes of it except that Saruman throws down the Palantir.

While Theoden and Saruman were shouting at each other, I half expected Saruman to reply “Now go away or I will taunt you a second time.” But the confrontation between Gandalf and the Mouth of Sauron was even more pythonesque. I take it that by “mouth”, Tolkien simply means “herald” or “spokesman”. Jackson decides, as ever, to take the text as literally as physically possible. Having interpreted “the eye of Sauron” as a huge glowy thing on top of the tower, he decide it would be a good thing to spend most of his time in extreme close up of the Mouth’s mouth, presumably so we can consider the results of failing to brush our teeth regularly with fluoride. The Mouth has a funny accent and a silly hat. It felt like a horrible hybrid of the Trade Federation from Phantom Menace, and Samuel Becket’s Not I. Of course, the parley with the herald at the gates of Mordor violates Jackson’s Second Rule: several seconds pass without anyone thumping anyone else. But Jackson has an ingenious solution to this problem. When the Mouth shows them Frodo’s mithril coat, Aragorn does what any chivalrous future-king would do under the circumstances, and chops his head off on the spot. Why oh why couldn’t the Mouth have said “Tis but a flesh wound, I’ve had worse” at this point? It would have been so much funnier than Gimli saying “Guess that concludes negotiations.” And humour is what you need at the climax of a twelve hour epic.

Ah, Gimli, Gimli, Gimli: a filmic catastrophe of Binksian proportions, undermining every, single scene he appears in. (Why the hell is he sitting in the stewards chair? Has he no respect for Faramir? Has Gandalf? Has Aragorn?) Yes, Peter Jackson, you were so, so right to cut out the “drinking competition” between Gimli and Legolas from T-ROK. What on earth possessed you to put it back in? When someone is drunk in a movie, why does it invariably happens that they say “I am perfectly sober” and then fall over backwards? Have you ever seen a real drunk behave like this? So why put it in your movie? It’s not big. It’s not clever. It sure as heck isn’t funny. Exactly the same clichĂ© turned up in this years Vicar of Dibley Christmas Special, a programme which provided the final clinching argument for abolishing both the BBC license fee and the ordination of women.

Gimli is there, too in the extended build-up to the “Paths of the Dead” sequence. Spooky tendrils of mist form in the air and reach out to him, he blows very hard to disperse them, and they form again. He says “Ya-ya-ya-yoiks”, and Legolas throws him a Scooby Snack. He’s even there in the ruddy closing credits, making an anachronistic, vernacular “okay” sign. Showing his contempt for us all. Mocking us.

One could also mention the structural cock-up of showing us Aragorn boarding the Corsair’s ships, which served little purpose except to make his arrival at Minas Tirith a soupcon less dramatic. When he threatens to board them the pirate king says “You and whose army?” and Aragorn says “This army!” Making ancient world characters use modern turns of phrase is very funny in Carry on Cleo, here, it just gives the impression that you don’t give a shit.

Similarly, when Frodo tells Gollum that he swore on the Ring to obey him, the CGI sprite replies “Smeagol lied!” Does anyone want to enumerate how many movie-villains have made this joke over the last 20 years. (“But you promised.” “I lied”) If an oath taken on the Precious doesn’t mean anything to Smeagol, then a large chunk of the last 6 hours is rendered meaningless – Frodo wasn’t showing mercy to a pathetic character who was, at some level, trying “to be very good”, but being naively taken in by a conniving little liar. Which means that Frodo was wrong, straightforwardly, from the beginning, and Sam was right. Which totally undermines their characters. But who cares; it was a funny one liner. And funny one liners is what you need on Mount Doom.

Another thing which both increased and decreased my respect for Peter Jackson were the documentaries on the DVDs. I confess to only having ploughed through X-FOTOR so far. In the positive column, I was fascinated to learn about the massive amount of really thoughtful detail that had gone into the movies, asking questions like “What would Dwarfish weapons be like” and getting Tolkien experts and historians in to come up with good answers. But on the other – a slapdash disrespect for the world he is working with. Apparently, Alan Lee spent some weeks making sketches and models of what Moria ought to look like. But one of his sketches showed a hole in one of the stair-wells. Upon this hint, Jackson decided that there should be collapsing stairs, chasm leaps and, yes, dwarf tossing. None of which was in the original script.

“Make me the most detailed simulation of Moria you possibly can – and I’ll turn it into a sodding fairground ride, see if I don’t.”

People sometimes ask me why, if I feel this way about the movies, I watch them so carefully, so critically, and so, er, frequently.

The answer is rather obvious. Because of the good bits.

Has the idea of a camp parody of Lord of the Rings featuring Gandalf the Gay already been thought of? Is there at least a nightclub somewhere called the Gay Havens?
If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of Do Balrogs Have Wings?, which contains all my essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including some previously unpublished. Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.


Andrew Rilstone said...

Just before things have a chance to get completely confused: "Andrew" is a completely different person from "Andrew Rilstone". Similarly, "Sam Gamgee" is a different person from "Sam Dodsworth" and "Kevin" is no longer a teenager.

Andrew Rilstone said...

...oh, and "blogger" is confused about which time zone we are in. :)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I wonder if it's confused about me?

After watching T-RoTK, I went back and read the LotR. Or, at least I started it.

But what was done to Gimli in the movie spoiled it for me. Gimli is grim, dammit. Any humor he presents is of that strange kind that regards cutting the nostrils of an enemy as funny. Over and over again, the books say something like, "Someone smirked at the sight of this short, hairy person demanding to be taken seriously-- and then they realize that the axe is aimed at their own throats and start showing some respect."

In fact, I rather wish the "real" Gimli could have paid a visit to Mr. Jackson while script development was going on.


Anonymous said...

"Similarly, when Frodo tells Gollum that he swore on the Ring to obey him, the CGI sprite replies “Smeagol lied!” "

Rather than Smeagol lying when he took the oath, maybe Gollum lied about Smeagol.


Tom R said...

I liked the "Sons of the Steward" scene at Osgiliath. It fleshed out the characters greatly, and was a highlight of Jackson/ Walsh/ Boyens adding to and improving on Tolkien's original work (like having Narsil/ Anduril as a holy relic in a shrine at Rivendell, rather than it being Aragorn's workaday half-sword). I suspect the scene was modelled, probably consciously, on that famous B&W photo of a Russian soldier in 1945 raising the red flag over the Reichstag, high above the shattered ruins of Berlin. Boromir's speech was good, rousing neo-Agincourt stuff (I felt like cheering him), nicely leavened by his and Faramir's off-duty humour ("nice and short". "More time for drinking!")

I also agree with the Rilstone Of Brisingamen that what was done to Gimli was a travesty. Turning him into a pint-sized version of Klingon Chancellor Gowron... urrgh. I kept expecting Gimli to call out "More bloodwine!" and then knife someone. The sad irony is that John Rhys-Davies, from his interviews, seems to be one of the cast members who was done the most serious analysing of what JRRT was really trying to say.

Anonymous said...

(Did Sean Bean know that this was his character’s motivation when he played out those scenes?)No, I think. The Osgiliath scene was filmed in pick-ups for the Two Towers.

Anonymous said...

Gandalf the Gay? Perhaps not, but are you aware of Bored of the Rings, a short satirical novel chronicalling the adventures of the four Boggies, Frito Bugger, Spam Gangree, and Moxie and Pepsi Dingleberry. The Fellowship consists of such characters as Gimlet, son of Groin, and Arrowroot, son of Arrowshirt (that's apparently funny if you're British), led by Goodgulf Greyteeth. (Which is apparently funny if you're in the 1960s.)

Still, replacing the Palantir with a Magic 8-ball does sound pretty humorous.