It’s my birthday, so it must be time for the new Lord of the Rings film

The only upside to having a birthday near Christmas, as far as I can tell, is that good movies often open on or near my birthday in order to make it out in time for the following year’s academy awards. (The fact that when a movie comes out has a significant effect on its ability to win Academy Awards is a good indication of just how fair they are, but that’s another topic.)

Warning: spoilers.

In any attempt to make a film version of Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King would seem to me to be the easiest of the three books to get right. More happens in The Return of the King than both other volumes combined, it’s the shortest of the three books, and one third or so of its pages are taken up by appendices and post-denouement subplots of no interest to sane readers (indeed, I find one such subplot actively offensive). In other words, unlike the turgid first book, and the deliberately paced second book, Return of the King is pretty exciting.

Anyone who has read and enjoyed the trilogy will already be somewhat annoyed by the character assassination of Faramir in The Two Towers movie. In the books, Faramir is pretty much the only intelligent man in Gondor, and he’s an unconventional hero: a would-be scholar turned warrior, performing covert operations to buy Gondor time. He’s also important in that Gondor’s only other representatives among major characters are Boromir (evil) and Denethor (insane). It seems a good idea for Gondor (the thing everyone is dying to preserve) to seem to have someone in it worth saving.

Peter Jackson, oft-quoted for his love of the books and desire to keep stuff as close to the books as possible and belief that when he has a problem with the script he just moves it closer to the books (gotta love DVD “special features”, huh?), seems to have thought it necessary to make Faramir into an chinless, ineffectual, indecisive, whiney, weak-willed, fool. All in an effort to dramatise his relationship to his dad (because, of course, we’ve never seen that done in a movie before).

(No-one in the story appears to have a mother.)

It seemed to me that perhaps Jackson wanted Faramir to redeem himself in the final film, and that by initially portraying him so unfavorably, his redemption would be all the more impactful when it happened. Instead, he has Faramir help defend Osgiliath with utter incompetence (example: in defending against an amphibious attack he waits for the enemy landing craft to make it ashore and disgorge all their troops rather than harassing them while they’re still in the water), flee back to Minas Tirith, accept a pointless suicide mission (against Gandalf’s and others’ good advice), be dragged back to Minas Tirith by his horse as the sole survivor of the battle, and finally spend the battle of Pelennor Plain (such as it is rendered in the movie) unconscious. All this heroism and cleverness is rewarded by his appearing to gain the love of Eowyn, the only strong female character in the story (either the film or the book).

Aside from pace and plot (which always need adjustment for film), if there were any global weaknesses in Lord of the Rings which I would attempt to address in filming it, they would be racism and sexism. Jackson’s caricatured Maori orcs and flaxen-haired fellowship made it clear from the start that his blindness towards (I assume not approval of) Tolkien’s racism was complete, so it is no surprise that in Return of the King the human allies of Sauron are turbaned and/or dark skinned, while the “men of the west” are entirely “fair” (a word Tolkien consistently uses both as a racial and moral description), but in the sexism department Jackson made a promising start by merging Glorfindel (the deus ex machina who saves the hobbits from the Nazgul on their way into Rivendell) into Arwen (the beautiful and insipid daughter of Elrond whom Aragorn plans to marry).

I don’t know of a single fan who objected to this change. (In the horrible earlier attempt to film these books, the Ralph Bakshi animated feature, Glorfindel was merged into Legolas, which was actually more objectionable since Glorfindel is very powerful and having him around for the rest of the story unhinges the plot.)

Beefing up Arwen seemed like a big step in the right direction. Now, Aragorn would have a bride as formidable as himself, rather than a colorless maiden who has no notable virtue beyond her looks. An obvious next step would be to merge the “sons of Elrond” (who do a great deal in the third book) into Arwen and really turn her into a major player in the story. But it was not to be. Arwen does nothing much in the third movie except collapse from an unknown sickness after persuading Elrond to reforge Narsil — implying that he was planning not to, because this would only give the good guys “hope” — is Elrond supposed to be a sympathetic character, or not?

Jackson’s more subtle abomination in the second film was to portray the elves as bailing out on the “men of the west” before the battles had even been fought. The few elves who help are massacred at the bizarrely rendered Battle of Helm’s Deep, the “sons of Elrond” don’t show up in Gondor, but instead Elrond has to be coaxed into reforging Narsil and is able to conveniently pop up and hand it to Aragorn just before he has to go get his army of undead (if Elrond is able to make such journeys so easily, why was it such a struggle for the Fellowship?)

Speaking of Jackson’s rendering of battles, he seems to be captivated by visuals to the point of being crippled by them, while having no skill with fight direction. In his efforts to make armies of orcs look formidable, he makes them look impregnable. When they are decimated by cavalry it looks like an impossible sleight of hand (the orc formations at Helm’s Deep bristle with pikes, making them exactly the worst kind of enemy for cavalry to charge, yet when the cavalry strike we see no sign of pikes being used as intended). Similarly, Minas Tirith’s walls are impossibly high and appear utterly impregnable. Fortunately, Sauron’s seige engines are ridiculously powerful and utterly accurate, destroying entire stone towers with a single hit. The same problem occurs in the one-on-one fights. The only way to interpret them is as some kind of cinema rendition of a Dungeons & Dragons battle, in which the hero is somehow able to be stabbed in the head ten times without dying, while the monster has no such luck. Legolas is more skateboard punk than archer. The fights have no heft, weight, or flow to them. Armies charge into each other, take enormous casualties, and then someone wins.

I’ve written thus far without checking what reviewers have had to say. A quick check reveals that the herd has given The Return of the King a big thumbs up; I will have to wait for the New Yorker, perhaps, to see some real criticism (Stephen Whitty, of the Star-Ledger, had some reasonable things to say, particularly on the film’s racism). I’m sure that the herd will give it great box office, and Peter Jackson will probably get his Oscars, at last.

For me, most of the really annoying stuff was at the beginning of the film, and once it got going I started to enjoy myself, only really getting restless with its multiple false endings (a lot of nothing happens at the end of the book, and not all of it is omitted from the film). The rather crude use of fades to and from black during the multiple near endings is grating. Oddly enough, the use of a map-tracking shot to explain the return to the Shire is a device that really needed to be used more in the film. I doubt anyone seeing the film without having read the books has the faintest clue as to the geography intrinsic to the story (which is lucky, given Elrond’s travels in the movie).

Studio execs, of course, will probably take The Return of the King as a sign that “sequels can make a ton of money” and ignore the fact that it was based on a solid work of literature rather than being spawned by the desire to make more money off a tired concept that worked well last time (the way most sequels and prequels are).