December 18, 2003


Saw LOTR 3: Frodo's Revenge last night, and I have to say I'm partial to the Jon Last analysis in the Standard.

It's not that the movie isn't a lush and remarkable visual spectacle... some of the images haunted my dreams all night. But in terms of actual story-telling, it's weaker than the other two movies, and far weaker than the text. In the end, given the power of the visuals and Howard Shore score (in retrospect, a key element to all three movies), I was still almost wholly unmoved.

The movie does, it should be said, faithfully follow the book, particularly in the retelling of Frodo and Sam's stations of the cross across Mordor. I really can't fault them for anything there. But I have some sympathy for those who have said there are far too many lingering closeups on crying eyes. The final farewell scene is deeply painful. Regular film reviewers have largely forgiven this, saying it's Jackson's treat for the fans. Um, I'm a fan... a big one... and I was looking at my watch along with everyone else there.

It probably didn't help that the other false endings before it are also overly full of slow-mo and weepy closeups. And Aragorn's coronation scene is just bizarre, with the Mauling of Arwen(tm), a bizarrely weepy Agent Elrond Smith, a Frodo who looks throughout like he's worried he's left the stove on, and an unpardonably cranky Eomer (what, the guy's king of Rohan now, couldn't he crack a smile for once?) Yes, I know the original book is focussed on the manner of people's goodbyes, too, but at least there the enlarged Fellowship parts and re-parts with some attempts at dignity.

Anyway, that's not the real problem. I'm actually going to go out on a limb here and say that the extended version of The Two Towers is the deep movie in this box-set, with far more lasting value than the others combined (I have a lot of respect for Fellowship, too, but I don't feel it's markedly better than the second, as some do.)

I disagree, however, that this is a result of the scale growing larger, as Last suggests. Rather, at least in the case of my own emotional reaction, there was something far more primal at work, specifically relating to the whole House of Theoden subplot.

The Edoras family story, of a king restored, an heir killed, a courtier banished, a people's hope renewed, and the ongoing triad of father and surrogate son and daughter, ending in a duel with the Witch King and the offering of a new family to Faramir, who has lost his own, is... deeper than the rest of LOTR in a way. In its rough-hewn love, its deep fatalism, its balancing of honour, fealty, and free will, it brings unbidden to the unconscious mind all kinds of connotations from earlier stories, some of which we seem to know in our hearts even before we hear them. Wagner's somewhere in there, and Homer, and Malory; Roland and Beowulf both.

I joked to my companions before the movie that if we had taken our ancestors 50 generations back out for the LOTR triple bill last night, my Irish/Scottish/English/Swedish forbears would likely have appreciated Fellowship as a well-told children's story from their day, with cute supernatural creatures doing supernatural things. But when the scene shifts to Edoras in The Two Towers, I think they'd have sat up and noticed. This, to them, would have been the real point of the whole epic. From the moment you first look on the hill city, you're deep in Joseph Campbell territory, in a story that, for all our superficial civilization, I'm convinced we remain almost genetically programmed to be stirred by. It's somewhere deep in our hearts... a place of smoky huts on a cold night, an endless dark outside, and a life that can only ever be nasty, brutish and short.

I think once you're in that headspace, communing on some unconscious level with the experience of the vast majority of your ancestors through history, it's hard to go back to the children's story. But in his third movie, Jackson gamely tries to refocus our sympathies on the four hobbits. I'm afraid I simply couldn't easily follow him back into their realm of the comic.

Without spoiling it, what remains of the Edoras subplot in the third movie is rather unsatisfying. Bernard Hill is very good again, and Miranda Otto is superb (She reminds me of someone, but I can't say who) but they have simply too little to work with. Eomer remains a cipher, and his own journey to kingship, paralleling Aragorn's, is left on the cutting room floor, along with Faramir's finding a family and a future again after his own has failed him. The emphasis is skewed... the Edoras plot is not just about a nice king with a rebellious, loving daughter, but in the end that was pretty much all that was left here. I suspect my hypothetical ancestors would have said, "nice CGI dragons," and headed back to the concession stand for mead refills.

I loved and revered The Fellowship movie largely because I was just so happy that this kind of movie could be made, of a book I truly loved, in my lifetime. But it was the second, I felt, that brought me in touch with something deeper inside myself. The third is a wonderful spectacle, worshipful of Tolkien again... but by that point I was dealing with raised hopes I'd find something more.

UPDATE: Perhaps the reason the two previous movies sank in for me more was because they really made me appreciate Lord of the Rings in new ways. Specifically, re the Edoras subplot, it was only after I saw Two Towers that I really grasped that this family was the second group of *regular people* in the books... the first being, paradoxically, the hobbits. Where the hobbits show the virtues of friendship in a crisis, Theoden's clan shows the virtues of family, as a series of ever more bizarre and supernatural events washes over both groups. 2,000 year old Gandalf, 150 year-old Gimli, 87 year-old Aragorn, these are mystical characters, incorruptible, magical: we identify with them, if we do, the way we would with angels, or saints. The events these mystical beings are part of setting in motion snatch a group of run-of-the-mill friends from the Shire and change them... in Rohan, those same events also smash like waves on rock onto a patriarch and his heirs, and profoundly alter each of their lives, as well. You see this (in the book) in Eomer's wonder at running across the fellowship, and in the movies in Eowyn's unrequited love for the unattainable Aragorn. In the end, you can do everything you want to humanize the nearly supernatural Aragorn and his friends, but in the end people can't really identify with a person trying to decide whether to take up his 1000-year old inheritance of world domination, and what that will do to his romance with an immortal being... at least not as easily as we can grasp the various all-too human problems of the Theoden clan.

Posted by BruceR at 10:57 AM