LOTR, a retrospective: the highlights and lowlights

I recently read the Lord of the Rings books for probably the tenth time in about 20 years. And then I watched the movies for the third time in about five years.

Now, a few years after their release, I think I have a pretty good sense of what the highlights – and lowlights – of the movie version are. All of my comments are based on the extended-version films that came out on two DVDS.

Here are the highlights of the movies:

  • Setting the scene in Hobbiton
    The beginning of the movie wonderfully sets the scene of an idyllic, happy, bucolic, somewhat silly, but very lovable Shire. This sets the stage; this is what is worth protecting; this is what will vanish if the Sauron wins.

  • Arwen’s future, as foreseen by Elrond
    Arwen is persuaded to leave Middle-Earth and her love, Aragorn, by her father’s vision of her future – even if the Dark Lord is defeated. She will linger long past Aragorn’s death, bereft of husband and family. The music and imagery – Aragorn’s funeral stone statue, the falling leaves, Arwen’s dark translucent funeral veil flowing over her face in the wind, Arwen almost drifting through bare wintry trees in long dark robes – are absolute, wonderful, amazing magic.

  • Faramir’s Folly
    Though this was not in the books, the haunting juxtaposition of Pippin’s song, Denethor’s gluttony, and the suicidal charge of the knights of Gondor is just too heart-breaking not to mention it. Beautiful and futile.

  • Charge of the Rohirrim
    The charge of the Rohirrim as they break the siege of Minas Tirith is awe-inspiring. The horses thunder through the army of Orcs like a semi truck smashing through a parade of Smart cars.

  • That still only counts as one!
    Gimli brings some needed humor into the movies along with his characteristically dwarvish pessimism. Along with the “nobody tosses a dwarf” in Moria, and the “you’ll have to toss me” at Helm’s Deep, this moment lightens up the whole series. Gimli and Legolas continue their orc-slaying contest, but when Legolas brings down the immense Mumak single-handedly – a feat Gimli cannot duplicate – he yells “That still only counts as one!” Good for a laugh in a mostly comedy-free series.

  • Frodo deciding to keep the ring
    The cinematography of pentultimate scene right within the caldera of Mount Doom is breathtaking, as the lava-light plays over Frodo’s face, making it at turns sinister and golden. Reminiscent of other scenes in which Peter Jackson tries to show the immense power of the ring to warp minds and passions, such as Bilbo’s refusal to give up the ring in the first movie, Bilbo’s orc-moment of desire in the second, when he sees the ring again, and Boromir’s ongoing uneasy lust for the power of the One Ring. In no other scene, however, is the power and the beauty and the evil and the lust so brilliantly conveyed.

  • Picking up the threads
    The movie has a bit of a slow end, as all the battles are over, the wedding is complete, and the hobbits return to their homes. But the highlights aren’t over. This scene starts in the Green Dragon Inn where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin come for a drink, and find themselves so changed that their homecoming leaves them with the realization that home is not really home any more. Then – after Sam reintegrates into Shire life – Frodo wanders his empty home, Bag End, wondering how to pick up the threads of a previous life. This sets up his final journey with the Elves to the Havens wonderfully, in addition to being an extremely poignant moment in itself.

With these incredible – and many other really wonderful moments, it seems almost a shame to mention the lowlights. But there were lowlights, for a true Tolkien fan, and these get my vote:

  • Ride out and meet them head on
    Gandalf urges Theoden to ride out and meet Saruman’s army head-on. It’s not in the book, and for good reason: they’d be slaughtered. Helm’s Deep is a strong fortress that will allow a numerically inferior force to defend itself against a stronger invader. It makes perfect military – and plot – sense. After all, if by the time they get to Helm’s Deep they only have 300 fighters, how on earth would it have been better to ride out and meet Saruman’s 10,000 Uruk-Hai head-on? Not smart – and not needed for the story line. My only guess is they put it in so as to make Theoden’s eventual decision to ride to the aid of Gondor a stronger story-line … the defensive king switching to the riskier, offensive strategy.

  • Aragorn falling over the cliff
    In the second movie, Aragorn falls over a cliff while battling a Warg and Orc force attacking the people of Rohan (who are fleeing to Helm’s Deep). The whole attack is not in the books, and for good reason: it’s unnecessary. It seems to be in the movie primarily to make Eowyn’s growing love for Aragorn a stronger plotline. Silly.

  • Gandalf meeting the witch-king
    In the book, Gandalf meets the witch-king of Angmar at the gate of Minas Tirith after Grond has burst through. And he prevails – or at least it’s a draw. Why, then, do they meet higher in the levels of the city, and why does the leader of the evil Nazgul best Gandalf, destroying his staff? My only guess is that this makes the victory of Eowyn, who kills him, even more intense. (Which in itself is annoying, because it’s actually Merry’s blow that kills him in the book – not because it was a fatal blow, but because Merry’s sword is an ancient and powerful weapon created to fight just such demons.) This scene is part of a trend to denigrate Gandalf in favor of Aragorn, who after all is better looking than the old bearded wizard.

  • Aragorn as senior strategist
    Continuing on the same theme, in the movie it is Aragorn, not Gandalf, who counsels that the armies, victorious at Minas Tirith, should take the fight to Sauron’s front door. Now Aragorn is the enemy of Sauron – instead of Gandalf, who has fought him for 300 lives of men? Ummm … no.

  • Faramir taking Frodo to Osgiliath
    Faramir does not take Frodo with him from Ithilien to Osgiliath in the books. His “quality” is demonstrated almost immediately, as soon as he knows the truth of Frodo and Sam’s mission. The Osgiliath detour is unnecessary, diversionary, and annoying.

  • Sappy, sappy “Sam” moments
    Most of these lowlights pale in comparison to this one, the most annoying feature of all the films. And that’s the incredibly sappy and sentimental sotto voce “Sam” moments between Frodo and Same. OK, they’re friends. OK, they’re best friends. OK, they’re very close. Do they need to gaze in each others eyes interminably? Hug for tedious minutes? Does Frodo need to say “Sam” or “Sum” in a quasi-English accent every ten minutes? Irritating. This is the Lord of the Rings, not BrokeBack Mountain.

That’s it – my seven highlights and six (should I try to find one more?) lowlights of the series.

I still love it both in book and film, and nothing great is ever perfect. I’m just thankful that Peter Jackson and company did as great a job as they did, overall.

But noting beats the books.

[tags] LOTR, lord of the rings, tolkien, peter jackson, movies, books, highlights, lowlights, review, john koetsier [/tags]