Ringer Lee sends in this very SPOILER HEAVY review of ROTK:

A Booklover’s Perspective: ROTK review from advance screening at KCET Public Television benefit event, Dec. 5. 2003

A warning up front: this review comes from the perspective of someone who has had a 27 year love affair with ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ It also comes from someone with advanced training in literary analysis, and therefore a high standard for any form of storytelling. So if you haven’t read the books, or don’t really care about thematic coherence and logical consistency in your stories, this review won’t mean much to you. On the other hand, I am not a ‘purist’ in demanding a faithful adaptation of the book: there are obvious differences between print and cinema that require change, and of course Peter Jackson et al. had to make a movie that would sell. So this isn’t a review by someone who rejects all change from the original. But boy, if you are going to change the elements of one of the best written, bestselling stories of all time, you’d better have a good reason, and you’d better do it well.

Note also: I’m not going to refrain from including spoilers, because frankly, if you love the book, you should be warned in advance of changes that you probably won’t like. That way, you can focus on what does work in the film, rather than being distracted and disturbed by unexpected elements. I wish I had known about the things that bothered me; then I might have been able to look past them more easily. This review isn’t going to go through the movie scene-by-scene (that, to me, would be the true spoiler) but focus on the unexpected–good and bad–that is worth noting.

As most fans know by now, the movie opens with the finding of the Ring by Deagol, and the murder that starts Smeagol’s descent. It’s a great way to begin this film, grounding us back in the addiction story and reminding us of what it is that Frodo so fears. Unfortunately, Andy Serkis overplays Smeagol as a witless grinning moron, and the SFX for the scene are way below WETAs usual extraordinary level, so the effectiveness of the scene is undercut. But the fight that leads to Deagol’s murder is chilling and powerful.

When the film shifts to Frodo, Sam and Gollum in Mordor, we get the beginning of an interesting expansion and change from Tolkiens original. What the filmmakers do, so that we have more to watch than the hobbits trudging along day after day, is to amp up the conflict among these three. We see more of Gollum’s plotting; more of Sam seeing Gollum plot; and more of Frodo refusing to see Gollum’s true threat. Indeed, the script goes so far as to have Gollum warn Frodo that Sam will ask to carry the ring (which he does soon after), and frame Sam as having stolen missing lembas. The result is that Frodo tells Sam to go home, and faces Shelob alone. Was it plausible that Frodo would march off with Gollum, not even a pack on his back, while Sam weepingly starts back down the stairs? Not really. But the dynamic works nonetheless because it fits the logic of the characters’ development. Frodo is suspicious already, so it’s easy to see why he’d fall victim to Gollum’s deceit; Sam is too loving and simple to know how to combat Gollum’s complex treachery. And the sorrow that each feels at this parting is moving and true.

And of course Sam doesn’t go home, but returns, and in so doing restores the story to the shared journey of these two brave souls. Indeed, the final journey through Mordor, although much shortened (how much crawling and thirst can a filmmaker depict?), is powerfully done, and pretty faithful to the book.

You know by now that we don’t see Saruman’s death. We do get a brief stop at Isengard, and a nod to ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’ (my favorite chapter in TTT), as the slightly drunken Merry and Pippin greet the party from Helm’s Deep. But the very brevity of the visit–we’re just there long enough for Pippin to find the palantir, and for Gandalf to tell Treebeard not to hurt Saruman–is frustrating. I would gladly have traded seven minutes of Oliphaunts and orcs at the Pelennor Fields for the closure of dealing with Saruman, who was the source of so much pain and death in the previous movie. By brushing him off as ‘old business,’ the movie makes me feel instead that it has left unfinished business.

The worst disservice to the original story, however, comes in the portrayal of Denethor. Gone is the noble, if arrogant, Steward, with his keen vision. What we get instead is a nasty pig of a man, who won’t light the beacons to send for help from Rohan (we’re never told why), necessitating an absurd scene in which Gandalf has Pippin secretly scale some insane height so as to light the first beacon. Rather than film the superb moment in which Faramir reports to his father in front of Gandalf and Pippin, and reveals that he’s seen hobbits in Ithilien, Gandalf takes Pippin with him on Shadowfax to rescue the riders retreating from Osgiliath. The filmmakers clearly wanted a way to have Faramir see a hobbit, so that he could then tell Gandalf. But as a bit of plot logic, this is just plain silly (why would you take a hobbit with you to ride out against a Nazgul whom you plan to battle with light from your staff?), and misses the chance to have Faramir torn between Gandalf and Denethor and forced to admit to his father that he let the ring go. Instead, we get Denethor, who appears utterly oblivious to what is going on, eating sloppily as he tells Faramir to go on a suicide mission to reclaim Osgiliath, for no other reason than that he hates his son. David Wenham does a great job showing Faramir’s pain at his father’s cruelty; John Noble chews the scenery as absurdly as he chews his chicken and tomatoes.

But here’s the worst–when the orc armies arrive at Minas Tirith, Denethor freaks and tells his soldiers to abandon their posts. How does Gandalf handle this? He USES HIS STAFF TO BEAT UP THE STEWARD OF GONDOR. Gandalf, who embodies wisdom and only uses violence when physically attacked, is reduced to thuggishness in dealing with craven, nasty Denethor. This was for me the low point of the film; I was so astonished at the needless reduction of a complex character, and its distorting effect on the other characters in the film, that I wanted to leave the theatre. In changing Denethor, for no good reason, the filmmakers sacrificed true dramatic conflict for an overly simplistic polarizationDenethor BAD, okay to beat up; Gandalf good, no matter what he does. And can you imagine the soldiers of Gondor obeying Gandalf after they’ve seen him coldcock their leader?

The other character who is most damaged by the film’s revisions is Elrond. We know that he resists his daughter’s choic–how could he not? But by ROTK he has become such a doom-and-gloom naysayer that one wonders why he ever held his Council; after all, he seems to think that the side of good cannot win, so why bother to try? In order to give Elrond something to do, and amp up the dramatic tension, he delivers Anduril to Aragorn at Dunharrow, along with the announcement that Arwen is dying: her life force, he says, is now tied to the ring, so that if Aragorn fails and the ring is not destroyed, that will be the end of Arwen. Huh?! Nothing is served by this bit of plot complication; it’s never referred to again, and makes no sense in relation to all else that has come before and comes after.This pattern of creating excessive danger and conflict in order to amp up the story reaches its absurdist peak here. 

There is much that the film leaves out, of course, of sad necessity. Here are some things you should plan NOT to see, that you might have expected and would be disappointed to miss:

· Merry pledging fealty to Theoden, or any of that plot line

· Eomer mourning his uncle on the field of battle (although they must have shot this, as I’ve seen stills of the scene) or taking on the role of King of Rohan

· The wedding of Aragorn and Arwen (although we get their meeting on the day of his coronation)

· Anything to do with Faramir and Eowyn after Faramir is rescued from the pyre and Eowyn saves Theoden (except that they stand smiling side by side during the coronation)

· The partings of the members of the fellowship, other than at the Grey Havens

In sum: although there were some excellent and very moving moments in this film, including the Grey Havens, I left feeling that Peter Jackson et al. had moved further and further away from an evocation of the original story, and more towards an excessively hyped-up, Hollywood-ized action adventure. Subtlety and complexity have increasingly given way to simple contrasts and exaggerated dramatic conflicts. The thematics of loss that are the heart of the book are minimized: we see only the prices paid by Arwen and Frodo for their choices, and Arwen seems happy enough at the end that even her sacrifice is minimized. Where there is thematic coherence–as when Frodo wakes after being rescued from the slopes of Mt. Doom, in a scene very like his awakening at Rivendell–the film goes for the quickie result, showing a bunch of happy hobbits hugging and laughing. And where ROTK might have come back to the theme of heroes and storytelling that Sam raises at the end of TTT, it fails to do so, missing another opportunity to develop its own ideas.

I hope this review will help other lovers of the trilogy to be prepared; perhaps, if you are, you will be able to tolerate what is wrong and better appreciate what is right. It is still an amazing thing that Middle Earth was brought to life!