AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on the Cinematic Katzenjammer in December, 2018.
“You’re a critic? What’s your favorite movie?”
I’m asked this a lot, and I often suspect that people are looking for an obscurer answer than the one in my pocket. But it also feels like asking “what’s my favorite dream.”
Although Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is obviously a trilogy, the three installments together embody one wholesome accomplishment. A masterclass in adaptation; each film stands on its own merits as a near-perfect screen novel and complete narrative with its own individual development and climax. They break precisely when they must, yet reverberate into each other gracefully and naturally.
This trilogy, alongside Sam Raimi’s emotionally brilliant Spider-Man, laid the groundwork for the shared cinematic universe and modern adaptive blockbuster. Spider-Man and Rings are similar in more than just their blockbuster nature. They both stem from studios that struggled in the ‘90s to get franchise adaptations off the ground until helmed by professional geek prankster filmmakers known mostly at the time for quirky, low-budget splatter horror comedies. They both arrived in a new century and faced the sudden and unexpected turn of audience expectations in the immediate aftermath of an unthinkable terrorist attack at the heart of the civilized world. That high-art/low-art blend previously foretold two and a half decades before by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’s Star Wars took on a new form with these films; Raimi and Jackson were no less playful. Audiences welcomed them for their good-natured simplicity, sunny optimism, cathartic escapism, and upright morality. These films delivered when they were most needed, but today’s landscape of cinema has also sprung from their enduring example.
That landscape is now a barren desert, but twenty years ago, I was there for the best of it. These films were birthday presents, high points of my life, and nothing I was ever prepared for.
I saw The Fellowship of the Ring before I had read a single word written by Tolkien. I spent the next year reading nearly every word he ever wrote. While Middle Earth is, beyond anything else, a world built from literature, its reality is so vivid that it lives in all of our imaginations. Any effort to adapt it, whether it’s a sex romp from Amazon or a cast from the BBC, has its own identity and experience. Past articles of mine have discussed the rules of adaptations. I’m a capable Tolkien buff, but there’s enough on the internet about what from the lore Rings gets right and wrong. Films intended as adaptations are obligated only to their source’s spirit, but the silver screen demands autonomy. For example, The Two Towers as a “book” (remember that the trilogy was originally written as a single novel) is an awkward middle child. The movie is my favorite of the three largely because it is not.
I therefore begin with Towers. It is the least perfect of the three films and the most difficult entry to structure. Its conflicts simultaneously face the paradoxical dangers of repeating marks already hit by the first and being too eventful to make for a satisfying finale. In the scope of that challenge, it affords itself beautifully, yet as an added bonus it bears within its shrunken scale the beating heart of this great epic.
That heart was embodied by the duel of duals: Sméagol and Gollum.
A character equal parts funny and tragic, he is the One Ring’s greatest victim – the drug addict too deeply in love with the Ring and the pain it subjected him to because that pain was all he has left after losing everything through his devotion to it. The Ring beckons him like a seductress calls the hapless ex-lover she constantly spurns. Though tainted by its evil, there remains a flicker of light within him that inspires hope – Sméagol struggling to break free from his slavish shackles.
Sméagol defeats Gollum through perseverance, love for Frodo, and the will to believe in the strength of a greater good – the same virtue Samwise tearfully exalts in the big speech. Then Faramir shows up to be himself tempted by the Ring as it calls to his desire to impress his father who always favored Boromir over him. Ever a fragile creature, subjected to the cruelty of men at a time where he is most dependent upon his master’s kindness, Gollum returns.
Faramir cannot empathize with Gollum, but he can come to terms with Frodo’s struggle even if Galadriel has to narrate over it. As the darkness arrives to the doorsteps of men, the will to keep fighting fades no matter how many enemies they’re able to ambush in the wilds. Amidst the noise of a siege upon Osgiliath, he sees the Ring do to Frodo what it did to Boromir, and realizes that Frodo is fighting the same battle he is. Men with difficult relationships with their fathers will recognize that turmoil. Growing up in the shadow of his elder brother’s gallantry, his abilities and achievements are given no credit or recognition. Denethor dismisses him and clings to a memory Faramir learns to be fiction. Later Faramir will sacrifice himself because it is all he has left to give his maddened father. It is in Towers, however, that he finds the heroic strength to do what Boromir could not, forfeiting the one and only opportunity he will ever have to get his father’s love.
In a film about the will to persevere these are beautiful character arcs, which is why Towers’s worst flaw is the relegation of the Sons of the Steward flashback to the Extended Edition. You may not feel like it’s missing in the theater, but Rings as a whole doesn’t work without it. They speak to the corruptive and poisonous effects of the Ring, and man’s obsession with power that makes him so prone to its allure.
Moreover, it puts into context the struggle witnessed in the West. Treebeard and Théoden must face the fact that open war is upon them. Treebeard remains in denial about it, believing the war will not come to him and his kind. Théoden runs and hides in a fortress he pretends is impenetrable. Commanding as he is, he turns out to be even more vulnerable after Gandalf releases him from the frail shell of the man in which Saruman had cocooned him. Cue the poem.
Where is the horse and the rider?
Where is the horn that was blown?
They have passed like rain on the mountain,
Like wind in the meadow.
The days have gone down in the West, behind the hills into shadow.
How did it come to this?
It’s almost ironic to see such a turn by actor Bernard Hill, whose most famous role before was his portrayal of Captain E.J. Smith in Titanic, proudly accelerating the pinnacle of human achievement to its doom and then quietly despairing as it unravels around him. Théoden is the reverse of this. Awakened from spellbind, he must see Rohan through an encroaching doom bearing down upon it, and in that task he is (almost) alone. Thus he speaks a twist on the old Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, which also echoed Tolkien’s own mid-war musing about cavalry and standout leadership having been stripped away by machines. A perfect contrast to Saruman’s monologue at the beginning, gleeful at the prospect of pioneering the very industry that creates those machines. Neither can see the strength that is slowly awakening throughout Middle Earth in response to that incursion.
That’s where Treebeard, the Ents, and the Elves come in. Haldir and the Lorien reinforcements may have not been in the books, and don’t have much function in the battle other than to die honorably, but their dispatch constitutes a critical next step in the supporting arc of Elrond of Rivendell. He isn’t quite ready to reforge Narsil or let Arwen stay behind yet, but he and Galadriel can at least send some cannon fodder to help Théoden beat back Sauron’s puppet before the Ring finishes working its dark magic on the hearts of men again.
But where Elrond’s arc is about using what little remains of the waning strength of the Elves to help, Treebeard’s arc is about him discovering his own and learning Edmund Burke’s lesson. In those interactions with Merry & Pippin, Towers comes really close to falling apart from what may at times feel like time-killing meandering and overwrought exposition. But the imagery is what matters. You have the tallest, most physically impressive creatures in all of Middle Earth getting talked down to by the smallest and least influential beings ever. In many respects, that’s one of the film’s greatest strengths, especially when you consider that Merry & Pippin tagged along initially just for comedic value, and started out their Towers arc in Uruk-Hai custody. They’re underdogs, and their coming into their own is an incredible reward.
In the grandest sense, Towers feels like the fullest picture, even though it covers the shortest set of chapters by far in the overall story. The book is great, but it drags like sweatpants on a swimmer because it was never written to be its own novel. In the film, everything relates to something else. Everyone feels journeyed and completed on an appreciable level as the pieces on the board align for the final conflict. And it fine-tunes the tonal balance between cute adventure and militant gravitas.
Of course, it also helps that it opens immediately with a wizard battling a giant fire demon in freefall, and then goes: “okay, here’s the movie.”
It helps even more that the Battle of Helm’s Deep is probably the single greatest blade & arrow battle sequence ever put to film, both in terms of the spectacle of action as well as the dramatic character choices that drive it. It is Aragorn’s first test of leadership. He commands the fiercest loyalty from everyone around him but did everything he could to avoid becoming King. A ragged ranger, cloaked, observant, and operating under an alias is the man we meet in the beginning. This is as good a transition as I can manage to shifting from the least “perfect” entry of the trilogy to the most perfect – The Fellowship of the Ring.
The best structured of the three, it holds several points of transition that each carry strands of the full quilt that is this great epic. But the most understated one is the introduction of “Strider.” You can compare this to the introduction of Han Solo in the original Star Wars. In the near-hour of runtime before Strider, we have a grim, mythical prologue that mostly looks like background decoration for a scary but whimsical adventure with four midgets in way over their heads. The hobbits and Gandalf are the only real characters, and the Ringwraiths just look like spooky ghost figures on horseback. You’ve met no dwarf, no elf except possibly seen in passing, and no man with more than a pair of lines. Then we get a glimpse and quick description of Strider, and suddenly the intrigue factor skyrockets. If you know his identity, you’re anxious to see the traits you’ll recognize. If you don’t, you immediately want to know everything about him. He’s a natural magnet – the first person who looks like the protagonist you’re used to seeing in other movies. What else is there to say? He’s awesome.
What makes Aragorn stand out as a screen presence is that he’s unpredictable without being a rogue. Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and John Rhys Davis’s Gimli could not more perfectly fit the exact stereotype of the elf and dwarf in almost ultimate-style comic book form. You’re used to expecting bursts of exposition from Gandalf and the endless tricks in his sleeve. These aren’t people with much to hide. But Aragorn? He goes from ninja to torch fighter to brooding, romantic prince. All of it feels like real growth even when parts of it are repeated in Towers.
If this is the first time you ever saw Viggo Mortensen on screen, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that he was born to play the role. In reality, he was nobody’s idea of it. He’d been an actor for 15 years, going largely unnoticed except as a scene stealer torturing women leads as Lucifer in The Prophecy and the chief in G.I. Jane. These are not roles that normally lead to stardom, even for a guy good looking enough for superficial chemistry with Sandra Bullock in 28 Days Later and Diane Lane in A Walk on the Moon. But now you will never so comfortably envision anyone else in the role of Aragorn for the rest of your life.
And if you think Mortensen was the only example of Jackson’s outlandish yet precise casting, you should see the roles Elijah Wood has taken on since.
The key trait that Aragorn and Frodo have in common that defines their inner strength and their bond as characters in Fellowship is their lack of desire for power. Aragorn has been pursued for his secret royal blood since birth and hounded by expectations throughout his life. Always he had turned away from it, which is why the Ring will not work on him. Frodo, meanwhile, is as pure neutral-good as a hobbit can be. Hobbits do not have power, and more importantly do not know it. They have never known it, for they have never had ambition outside their hill holes, gardens, and basic comforts. They don’t even like traveling beyond their borders.
Fellowship is a favorite for many in part because as the first impression of Middle Earth, the aggressive visualization and lighting dynamic in both the big and small scale are noticeable yet impeccably cohesive. Concerning Hobbits comes immediately after the dark and tragic prologue involving Sauron, Elendil’s death, Isildur’s corruption and death, the poisoning of Gollum’s mind, and the shadows ebbing their way back to the world. All that, then suddenly it’s a beautiful green Eden with a community full of happy folk planning a birthday party. The whole movie is like this, going from open country hills to treacherous snowy mountains to dank caverns.
This dynamic keeps the pace brisk yet leaves room for the heavy stuff. A riveting adventure movie, its characters are tossed into one impossible scenario after another, all building to the Fellowship’s doom and Frodo’s acceptance of responsibility for the Ring as his sole burden.
And from within that experience spawns a clear concluding point of emphasis: the Fellowship is impossible.
The Ring promises power and preys upon desire and power hunger. As long as there can only be one ring bearer, the others may protect him but cannot help him. Frodo is on his own, even when his best friend nearly drowns himself like ascension to the heavens to stay with him. Whether you’ve read the books or not, you know this would-be team of colorful warriors is doomed from its start. Fellowship lets you have guilt-free fun with the tension building at the group’s seams. Most of these characters seem to know that, which makes the fact that they just seem to be biding time against whatever is supposed to come later kind of a problem. That is, until Gandalf puts that issue to rest when he gently iterates the film’s moral: “All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”
Speaking of time, Rings totals anywhere between 9 – 12 hours depending on which versions you’re watching. In another article I will delve more deeply into the mechanics of story structure in cinema. For now, a simple illustration.
Close your eyes and take yourself back to the moment in Return of the King when Pippin sings “Edge of Night” to Denethor. The steward slaughtering his own dinner intercut with his only living son and a paltry host of knights futility charging at an overrun city, to be ripped to pieces by arrows before they even reach the walls. An attempt that can’t even be called desperate; just mad, callous, and pre-suicidal. The tomato red is dripping from Denethor’s mouth when the arrows loose.
If there exists a better all-is-lost moment than this, I have yet to see it. In a normal movie, a thing like this is saved for close to the end, only for a character to return with a convenient solution just after. This sequence is only a third of the way into King and it’s one of the most breath silencing moments of the entire trilogy.
Rings has approximately 25 major characters. More than half of them have long-form arcs. Even with the shared universe more popular than ever before, thanks in part to these films, studios still have difficulty with this. “How can audiences keep track of five characters they already know?!” Marvel Studios asks itself. But somehow it never feels like work to keep track of where Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Elrond, Arwen, Saruman, Galadriel, Théoden, Éowyn, Gollum, Faramir, Denethor, and Treebeard are both geographically and emotionally.
It’s the structure that lets everything from your intake of New Zealand scenery to your understanding of character wash over you. It’s what gives Middle Earth its epic, dreamlike quality, and your experience in it an accessible and emotional one.
Tolkien structured The Lord of the Rings first by constructing character profiles, then by building and exploring the world, and then finally by constructing climactic action with all the elements of suspense, despair, triumph, and resilience that we associate with heroism and catharsis. There is a tendency among critics to describe structure as though a film can be broken down into essentially three major events, which they call “acts.” Worse, some films are structured so poorly that that’s exactly how they feel. But every Rings film is so eventful – always moving and roving the landscape, always leaving characters right before we might get tired of seeing them where they are, and returning to them right before we might miss them – that they feel action packed even when they aren’t. Even when you hit a lull, which by my count only happens once in Towers, you can tell that the film is working towards its payoffs. Not every story can construct its waiting games with the verve of Die Hard.
I say all this because as big as the films are, the world and stories feel even bigger. Feel is the key word here because films succeed or fail by their ability to elicit feeling. After twenty years, I still remember how The Mirror of Galadriel ripped my heart out with the revelation that this beautiful idealistic team of strangers from distant lands was crumbling, and that nothing could save it. Note how Galadriel gives almost each member an individual gift in anticipation that they will all be alone at some point later on. What follows is a final battle that is framed entirely as a last hoorah for the Fellowship and a fitting saving grace to the one most responsible for breaking it. That feeling overwhelms the rest of the trilogy. Even after I had read the books, I still remember the pit that hit my stomach two movies later when the reunited fellowship made that hasty decision to ride to the Black Gate without knowing if Frodo and Sam were anywhere near Mount Doom. I remember how the scene was framed as maybe the silliest set of tactics anyone has ever devised – to get themselves intentionally surrounded and die1 – entirely so that the film would make that distraction battle an inevitability of its own to raise the stakes for our main characters. I can watch scenes over and over again until they’re imprinted into my intestinal lining. But that feeling sticks in my mind forever.
Which brings me to “defending” the ending.
The Lord of the Rings is not a war movie. It’s a fantasy epic that just so happens to feature a massive war. Fully realized with the clash of steel, the whirring of arrows, the blowing of battle horns, multiple castle sieges, and the biggest cavalry charge ever filmed. But the war itself was always just a distraction.
It would not have done the story any good to simply close the book after Aragorn’s crowning. Sure, it’s “cleaner” but it would’ve made the bow feel like a mere nod. This is a story about good people brushing up against evil, resisting its lure, and pushing it back. That evil leaves scars, some that never heal. It was foretold by Gandalf and Elrond that Frodo will carry the wounds of Weathertop and the Ring forever. Tolkien may have been a moral traditional, but he did not believe in walking off into the sunset. Few who survive the trenches of World War I would.
One of my favorite personal moments of the entire series was that moment in Fellowship when everyone in the Council of Elrond is screaming at one another, and finally the camera pans over to Frodo. You see his heart sink even as he rises. When I first showed the film to my mother, I’ll never forget her reaction: “It has to be him!”
That sacrifice is more than just a knife wound and a sore neck. It’s the weight of all evil that could ever exist in what was left of a dying world thrust upon his shoulders in a task that no one else could bear. Tolkien doesn’t do allegory, but some metaphors are unavoidable. You can leave the war but it doesn’t leave you. The home you return to, no matter how much you miss it, doesn’t feel the way it used to. Frodo is still as short as a hobbit, still looks like a hobbit, still drinks like a hobbit, and can even return to the Shire, but the hobbit life he once knew is dead. In an ironic way, the attitude of hobbits so beautifully espoused in the “Concerning Hobbits” chapter came true. He went on an adventure and changed forever, mostly for the worse.
A story like that does not end with him just reentering his home and closing the door. That’s Samwise’s ending. And it certainly doesn’t end with Frodo being bowed to in the one moment during which he and the other hobbits stand taller than all others. It ends with his smiling departure.
At the end of all ages, these films embody with their landscapes, sounds, music, characters, and storylines, the purest of fantasy real and unreal. When I was young, I aspired to be Aragorn and Éomer, but I behaved more like Merry and Pippin.2 As I have gotten older, my relationship with every character is richer for the experience, yet my relationship with Middle Earth is unchanged.
So what makes these my favorite? Part of it is the memory. At the dawn of my youth, I got to dream bigger than ever on every birthday for three years. I read nearly everything those years, played every game, and exhausted my DVD player. I talked about them with friends, drew up battle scenarios and sketched scenery by myself, and built sand castles of Helms Deep and Minas Tirith on the beach. One of the things I’m most looking forward to if I’m lucky enough to become a father is reading the books to my kids and doing the voices for them.
Part of it is also my having developed as a critic. Study enough film and criticism thereof, you find that most interesting movies get both better and worse the longer you stare at them. Rings never got worse, not even when its own prequels were made. There may be more to nitpick, and I can tell what certain moments were based upon in ways I couldn’t before. But that’s just trivia. Then again, in a certain sense, everything written above is its own nitpick because I have taken the moments and strokes of the story that carried some of the deepest resonance and hopefully given them their due in my own way. The wonderful thing about Tolkien and these grandiose films is that there are seemingly infinite to choose from. What if our country disintegrates even further than it already appears to be doing? Perhaps the exodus of the Elves will be even more identifiable than it was already. The real world has no dark lord, but it seems to have plenty of Nazgûl. Make of that what you will.
But in the end, these are the films I can not only revisit the most, but the films I can bring more of myself into than any other. I find new things to appreciate every time I put them on. No matter what mood I’m in, I can feel at one with an entire world as soon as I re-enter it.
I put on The Lord of the Rings and I can dream again.
- On that subject, it still annoys me that we never saw the Easterlings in combat after watching them march through the Gate in Towers. Did Sauron eat them or something? Where were they?
- I did not have much game with the ladies during that age, but I remember how many of them aspired to be like Éowyn. She spoke to them not only as an eager warrior, but as someone who had to learn to deal with heartbreak, loss, leering, and encaging. She probably still does.