By Michael Marano

From The Charleston City Paper, 12/17/2003
(c) 2003 Michael Marano

I’ve been waiting thirty years for this. Now that it’s here, I almost don’t know what to do or feel. But yeah, it’s been three decades since I first picked up Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Thirty years since I first tranced into those maps of Middle-earth, utterly convinced that Professor Tolkien had found a secret cache of manuscripts and was letting me in on some hidden history of the world; to my nine-year-old mind this made sense, ‘cuz he was, like… some kind of genius professor over in England, somewhere. Thirty years since Tolkien first changed my world-view so that, in my utterly mundane reality of growing up in Buffalo, NY, I couldn’t walk through the park and see a vine-covered statue or bit of masonry and not think of lost kingdoms. In my head, I imagined a Lord of the Rings adaptation with the dark flavor of a Hammer movie (even as a kid, I was a berserk fan of horror movies), and I thought how cool it would’ve been to have Peter Cushing as Gandalf and Chistopher Lee as Saruman. Well, after all this time, to have even one person from your ideal cast in the movie you dreamed about is pretty freakin’ tremendous. But wow… Return of the King is here.

It’s worth the thirty years’ wait.

Fellowship of the Ring choked me up for a number of reasons. A friend of mine who’s an internationally respected expert on fantasy fiction confessed to me that she cried during those opening shots of the Shire in Fellowship. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a brick-sized lump in my throat. I was in awe of the love that director Peter Jackson and his co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens had for material that I love, too. I was moved in the way that I am when I see a musician perform a piece he or she loves. And Mike, ‘Mr. Hot-Shot-Professional-Movie-Critic’, melted right down to drooling Fan-Boy; I saw Fellowship many times in the theater. I liked The Two Towers, but a lot of the Fellowship magic wasn’t there for me. Towers was too stuffed with action to allow Jackson and Co.’s love of Tolkien to shine through; though that was fixed, I thought, in Jackson’s magnificent DVD Extended Edition of Towers.

Return of the King is dense with action and love for Tolkien. Jackson said that Return of the King’s climactic Battle of the Pelennor Fields would make The Two Towers’ Battle of Helm’s Deep seem like a skirmish. That worried me, because the endless Helm’s Deep scenes in the theatrical cut of The Two Towers drowned out the emotional impact of the film. Well, Return of the King’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields is thicker with emotion than it is swordplay. It’s exciting. It’s full of spectacle and awe. And it’s full of melancholy and sadness and hope and desperation. Just like Tolkien’s novel. There’s a sense of loss to the action, the feeling that, no matter what the outcome of this vast War, an Age is withering. That sense of loss eclipses any technical innovation Jackson brings to the movie. Hell, it IS the movie, in a lot of ways. The film begins with a loss that is terrifying and touching: an almost Biblical Fall. The conflict behind that Fall flavors the whole movie; it echoes through the narrative. King has moments of doom and terror, but the doom and terror on a grand scale are defined by the loss embodied in the smaller, quieter scenes.

Jackson and Walsh and Boyens aren’t slaves to the source material. There are changes to Tolkien’s plot, but they are changes that seem made to increase the tension of certain moments. I don’t think all of them work, but they are valid changes, and don’t seem arbitrary. Also, King has many endings, as any story of this length and complexity should; how many endings does David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago have, and that puppy is one-third the length of Jackson’s trilogy? Not all the endings work, and more than one of them are groaners. As has been widely reported, Jackson had to cut a number of plot points that he filmed (some major), and as a result, quite a bit of the movie feels abrupt and choppy. In certain scenes, characters bear wounds, both emotional and physical, the infliction of which is not depicted. Loose ends dangle.

But these are ultimately quibbles faults I’m sure Jackson will fix in his Extended DVD Edition. Fans who have not waited thirty years for this, but only the three years since those first trailers hit, will probably be as apoplectically overjoyed as was this berserk Tolkien dork for Return of the King.

Horror writer and novelist Michael Marano is such a pathetic Tolkien geek, he understood what the Orcs were chanting as they marched on the Pelennor Fields.