Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was born up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For the morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoods of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing was fair and terrible even to the City. (RotK)

So instead of writing three separate blurbs, I've decided to just write one big ass mega-review of the trilogy as a whole. Additionally, I'm going to discuss the three movies in here as well. Those who know me know that I'm a film guy. It's my preferred form of story-telling. I think that, in many ways, it's more difficult to make a great film than a great book. A director doesn't have the luxury or the leeway of a reader's imagination to give form and depth to his creation. Think about it: When you read a story, there's never any cheesy acting or laughable costumes. All the action flows as smoothly as you can imagine it to. Film is not so forgiving. How easy would it have been for the Lord of the Rings films to look like this? So forgive me if I spend as much (if not more) time on the films as I do the books.

I'm reading the trilogy for the first time, but I saw the movies as they were released in theaters. I enjoyed them, but not exceedingly so, and I never watched them again on DVD or on television. I was able to borrow from someone the Extended Edition of the entire trilogy, so it is with those that I compare Tolkien's trilogy. After over 1000 pages of reading and over 11 hours of viewing, I'm ready to discuss the project, and then be done with the lore of Middle-Earth for good. Or, at least, until I share it with my kids one day.

The Fellowship of the Ring: In the first installment, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Tolkien's original story has even more of an epic feel than Jackson's re-imagining of it, if that's possible. We find that the story stretches over decades, not weeks or months as it appears in the film trilogy. The fact that Frodo lived with the burden of the ring for about 17 years before setting out to destroy it makes the difficulties he has in parting with the ring that much more believable.

You can tell right from the beginning that this is a work of unsurpassed ambition. Besides Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, I've never come across a s with a scope as wide as Tolkien's trilogy. The man must have been a nerd of earth-shattering proportions. The man created vivid histories and lineages that traces back hundreds of years in his appendices. He invented a language, Elvish, of which I am proud to say I don't know a single world. All joking aside, it's one thing to weave a tale of wizards and elves and dragons. It's another to create an entire world, an ancient world with centuries of history, and chronicle the events of that world as if in a historical text. That's what Tolkien accomplished with The Lord of the Rings.

I thought the characterization in the novels was surprisingly weak, although I suppose that happens often in epics. Everyone from Frodo to Aragorn to Gandalf come across as a cardboard archetypes, seemingly devoid of emotion. Upon the wizard's demise, supposedly a great friend to Aragorn and the Halflings and all the rest of the fellowship, none of the characters spare a moment of grief. As much as I think Elijah Wood did an awful job in these films (Almost Nicolas Cage-esque in his overracting), I still think he humanized Frodo better than Tolkien did. That said, the books paint Frodo in a much more heroic light, and I don't think that came through in Wood's petulant performance.

One thing I found missing from the films was the feeling that Middle-Earth was a partitioned world where Men knew little of the magical realms around them. In the books, most of the human characters are amazed upon meeting the Hobbits of the shire, Legolas of the Mirkwood, and Gimli of the Lonely Mountain. In the novels, the world of men is awakening to find a world inhabited by Elves and Wargs and Ents, creatures from which years of isolation have faded from history to legend to myth, to paraphrase Gandalf.

The Two Towers: The second installment in the film-franchise was perhaps the most 'hollywoodized' of the three films. You've got all your classic movie tropes: flashbacks of a love that could not be (Aragorn and Arwen), the character that everyone thinks fell to his death but actually didn't (Perhaps best executed in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and the great battle of epic proportions where a vastly outnumbered host must hold on against insurmountable odds for a finite and declared amount of time (Look for Gandalf on first light of the fifth day or whatever it was). None of these scenes were actually in the books (save Aragorn and Arwen's flashbacks, though those appear in the Appendix) but they do a good job of adding life and interest to what is essentially a story without a beginning or an end. I thought The Two Towers was the only film better than it's literary counterpart.

I have to talk about Gollum here. When I first saw the films in theaters, every second he was on stage was agony for me. After reading the books, I still hate its screen time, but I now appreciate how perfectly Jackson captured Gollum's character, thus making the creature at least slightly bearable. Save that one scene where Gollum and Smeagol have a 5 minute conversation with themselves. That was just obnoxious.

One thing missing from the film that I really enjoyed in the novel was the discord between the forces of Saruman and those of Sauron. In the movies, you get the impression that everything is hunky dorey among the evil allies. In the book you get the sense that they are two distinct forces who have come together for one fell purpose but have not joined without friction.

The Ents were also much more interesting in the books than in the movies. I found them to be Tolkien's most ingenious creation. The tale of the tree warriors, slow to anger but incredibly powerful, was particularly interesting. When you think of how easily roots can destroy all matters of stone over long periods of time, the idea of that strength accelerated is an intriguing one.

It is in the second book that you really see that Sam is the true hero of the trilogy. Sean 'Rudy' Astin did a great job of portraying Master Gamgee, it was really the fault of the screenplay and the director that Sam's character comes across as a little flat and overly accusatory of Gollum. The books make it much clearer that Gollum drives Frodo and Sam to Shelob's lair because of his boundless desire to reacquire the ring rather than Sam's constant mistreatment and Frodo's apparent betrayal, as it is seen in the second film.

Oh, and one of my favorite features of the Extended Editions was the expanded role of Wormtongue AKA Doc Cochran of my much beloved Deadwood.

The Return of the King: I don't have much to say about the film version of RotK, as it was more or less perfect, in the sense that it was just about completely true to the source material and everything from the scenery to the individual performances was top notch. In fact, the final film perfectly exhibits one of the film's primary improvements over the novels. For the final two books, Tolkien split up the narratives of Frodo and Sam's journey to the Cracks of Doom and Aragorn's battles against Sauron's forces. I found myself far more interested in the efforts of Aragorn, Gandalf, Gimi, Legolas, Merry, and Pippin than I did the plodding pace of Frodo's journey. In combining the two timelines and alternating between scenes, Jackson created a more unified storyline and actually made Frodo and Sam's exploits more interesting by breaking them up.

Return of the King actually surprised me greatly at its end. I enjoyed the books as I was reading them, to be sure, but I was taken aback at how attached I found myself to the characters as the story came to a close. The 'Many Partings' of the story's close left me feeling like I was saying goodbye to friends of my own.

Tolkien's Highlights: The Ents, Théoden, Gimli and Legolas' interactions, The Scouring of the Shire
Tolkien's Lowlights: Complete lack of character psychology

Jackson's Highlights:
The battle sequences, the relationships between characters, (again) Gimli and Legolas, the fact that the one-eyed guy from 300 with the awesome voice plays Faramir, the fact that Legolas was a badass even though he was played by Bitchlando Bloom
Jackson's Lowlights: Elijah Wood


Christopher said...

He did it so we don't have to.

Padfoot said...

Haha....yea Orlando Bloom is a terrible actor, but he is beautiful as Legolas, and since all Legolas really does is prance around, shoot arrows, and look into the distance...he's perfect for the role. Or any other non-speaking role for that matter.

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