The long wait is over. After nearly fifty years, J. R. R. Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, called by some the book of the century, has finally gotten the film treatment it deserves. Join us in this review by Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff.
"There may come a day
when the courage of men fails . . . an hour of wolves
before the Age of Men comes crashing down
-- but it will not be this day!
This day we fight!"
-- King Aragorn before the Black Gate
Against all these virtues, it seems churlish to draw attention to any of the film's shortcomings. But shortcomings there are, even if they do not detract from the film quite to the extent the problems in the second film weakened it (ironically, since many readers find the middle volume the best of the three). Most of these are relatively minor problems, some of which may be redressed when the deleted scenes that would have resolved them appear on the extended edition late next year. Others are simply part of the film itself, inextricably woven into the fabric, detracting from the whole but not spoiling it.
The Return of the King's one real failure lies in the depiction of Denethor. All the subtlety of Tolkien's depiction of a complex, deeply flawed man is reduced to a cartoonish villain; it wouldn't be surprising to hear him break into a "bwah-hah-hah!" at some point while gloating about his master plan. The Denethor of the book is blinded by pride and desperate with despair, driven mad by being powerless to stop the destruction of everything entrusted to his care; the Denethor of the film is simply a looney who fiddles while Rome burns (or drools over a nice little snack while men die in a suicide charge he ordered; another unsubtle moment). Gone is all the dignity with which Tolkien invests the figure, gone his lifelong attempts to defend the city as best he could before his nerve finally breaks. We should be seeing a second Boromir here, an admirable man twisted by arrogance and lack of faith in miracles; instead we simply have a straw man who deliberately bungles the defenses and then rants about the results. For example, in the book he does order Faramir into deadly danger but with some strategic justification (simply evacuating the first line of defense and allowing the Pelennor Fields to be overrun would prevent any Rohirrim reinforcements from reaching the city) and he not only orders the beacon-flares lighted but sends a personal messenger to summon aid from Theoden (the arrow-rider). His suicide should be a horrific moment, not a point at which the audience cheers. Denethor's scenes are relatively few and thus do not poison the film as a whole, but they are definitely far below par for the rest of the movie.
By contrast Faramir, a most resounding dud in the second movie, is upgraded to merely an inoffensive nonentity in the third. It's a shame that one of Tolkien's most widely liked characters should so utterly fail to come to life, but at least in this film we don't see him torture helpless prisoners, lust after the ring like a pale shadow of his brother without any of Boromir's self-control, or cowardly rid himself of it the moment a Nazgul pops up. The backstory provided by the extended edition of the second film improves the character but not enough to undo the damage, and he drops out of the third film so suddenly that at least one reviewer assumed he died (apparently having missed him at Eowyn's side in the crowd scene at Aragorn's crowning). It remains to be seen how well he will fare in the extended edition of this third film -- especially in the "Houses of Healing" scene(s).
Eomer too is still a nonentity, but at least he is an inoffensive one. Most of his role in the book, where he becomes Aragorn's comrade-in-arms and blood-brother, is relegated in the films to Legolas. By contrast with the vividness with which the other major Rohan characters make their impact -- Eowyn, Theoden, even Wormtongue -- Eomer is demoted to a minor character (he's not even present at Aragorn's side in the Battle of Helm's Deep!). Given the crowded cast and limited screen time available, even in a ten-hour epic, it's understandable that some characters' roles would be cut; it's just a shame that Eomer, while adequate, is not more memorable within that reduced scope.
Another character who performs adequately but not memorably is Liv Tyler's Arwen. Here's a case where the filmmakers have done their best to redress a problem in the book -- Tolkien did not think of the character until he was three-quarters of the way through the final volume and had to go back and insert her retroactively. By increasing her role throughout, Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh are simply continuing this process, largely to good effect. But in this final climactic installment they do not give her much more to do than look pretty and occasionally let a silent tear trickle down her cheek. A more dynamic actress might have made more of the role (cf. Cate Blanchett's Galadriel or Miranda Otto's Eowyn), making this more a missed opportunity than a real flaw.
Aside from the performances, some of the departures from Tolkien's plot were more successful than others. The decision to make Shelob look more like an actual spider than Tolkien's description of her would warrant was fully justified by the results, as was that to make the Nazguls' mounts look more like some kind of dragon than the pterodactyls Tolkien envisions. The decision to bring the Paths of the Dead (told only in flashback in the book) onscreen was an excellent one, while bringing the Dead Men to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields makes good sense cinematically (in the book they battle the Corsairs at Pelargir but never reach Minas Tirith itself). So too the idea to have Gollum play on Frodo's growing paranoia to sow seeds of suspicion regarding Sam in the Ringbearer's mind is nothing short of inspired, but the subsequent split between the two hobbits and having Frodo actually send Sam back (and Sam's actually leaving him) strained our credulity. Frodo by this point has traveled for weeks with a companion he can't trust who lusts for the Ring; the idea that he'd immediately dismiss his other companion on finding that the Ring was corrupting him too comes across as a clumsy plot device to increase suspense. Furthermore, it lets in all kinds of continuity problems (how did Sam find Sting and the Phial of Galadriel in all the winding darkness of Shelob's lair?). That said, it must be admitted the scene is very well-acted -- it might have been a bad idea to include it but at least it's well-done in itself.
In the end, what Tolkien himself said about his book perhaps sums up the experience of watching these films best:
"[E]ven from the points of view of many who have enjoyed
my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps
not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points,
nor to displease everybody at the same points;
for I find . . . that the passages . . . that are to some a blemish
are all by others specially approved. The most critical reader of all,
myself, now finds many defects, minor and major,
but being fortunately under no obligation
either to review the book or to write it again,
he will pass over these in silence, except one
that has been noted by others:
the book is too short.
-- JRRT, "Foreword" to The Lord of the Rings
The same may be made of Mr. Jackson's film. Flaws there may be, but they do not detract from the value or impact of the work as a whole, and after ten hours and more he leaves us hungry for more. What better praise can an audience give a filmmaker?
In the Shadow of the King
So, where do we go from here?
Every December for three years, Peter Jackson has given us a treat that exceeded everyone's expectations. He has essentially re-invented fantasy film as a mainstream genre. Next year will bring not a new film but the extended edition of this third installment, no doubt followed after a suitable interval with a deluxe three-in-one superextended edition. From the internal logic of the theatrical release plus various hints from other sources such as the film tie-in books (like Jude Fisher's LotR: The Return of the King Visual Companion and Chris Smith's LotR: Weapons and Warfare) we can make a fairly good guess at what some of this extra material will be.
First and foremost, we should be getting the whole resolution of the Saruman/Wormtongue subplot, a seven-minute sequence cut from the theatrical release, much to the dismay of eighty-one-year-old Christopher Lee. In retrospect, it would have been better if this decision had been made in time for the material to go on the extended edition of the second film, where it naturally belonged, but better late than never.
Other scenes not in the shorter version of RotK, for which we have good evidence indicating that they exist, are the confrontation between Gandalf and the Witch-King (a still from which appears in both the aforementioned books; cf. Fisher, pages [52-53]) during the siege of Minas Tirith, the emissary of the Mouth of Sauron before the Black Gate (his horse and equipment are shown in the Chris Smith book, page 201), and Sam and Frodo, disguised in orc-gear, among the orcs in Mordor (cf. the Jude Fisher book, pages 64-65). It's probable that the scene of Sam trying to enter the Tower of Cirith Ungol will be expanded: the transition from the orc-feud breaking out to Sam's arrival at the tower full of dead orcs is abrupt in the theatrical version, where the vulture-headed Watchers at the gate are shown but play no role. And there will almost certainly be some version of "the Houses of Healing," both to show the victorious Aragorn entering into his city and to resolve the Eowyn story. Additionally, there may (or may not) be an expanded version of the Pyre of Denethor: in the book it is revealed that Denethor, like Saruman, had a palantir and was driven mad by it -- its absence in the movie makes it a little odd that Pippin, peering into Saruman's palantir, would see Minas Tirith; its presence, while not necessary, would clarify that little plot point as well as please the purists.
Beyond these, what other fantasy films lie in the offing? Just as Tolkien has inspired generations of imitators, so too can we expect to now see a decade or two of movies imitating Peter Jackson, or at least inspired by his example. The future is impossible to predict, of course, but the lesson of both The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films is clear: Fans want their film adaptations faithful. They're willing to accept a certain amount of omission and a little recasting to bring forward "cinematic" moments implied in the story, but woe to the director or scriptwriter who departs wholesale from the original (witness The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen fiasco just this past year). Audiences aren't stupid: They know what they want, and they'll reward those who give it to them (and scorn those who don't).
Jackson himself is now at work on a remake of King Kong, his dream project. It's said he made The Lord of the Rings only because he initially couldn't get permission to make King Kong; now his spectacular success at the former has opened the door for him to give the latter his distinctive treatment. Weta Workshop, meanwhile, is working on not just King Kong but also a live-action version of Neon Genesis Evangelion, considered by some the single most important anime series ever made and the one most responsible for the current anime boom. Meanwhile, inspired by Jackson's success, other filmmakers are at work on two other famous fantasy series, C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Philip Pullman's iconoclastic The Golden Compass. Two more dissimilar projects could hardly be imagined; the former has already been the subject of several unsatisfactory BBC adaptations, while the latter has the potential to make a wonderful movie that's likely to cause demonstrations in front of the theaters over the subject matter (a Byronic war against God, with the author's sympathies decidedly on the rebel's part).
Beyond these, the picture becomes significantly murkier. It's ironic that the entire trend of fantasy novels in the 1980s and '90s was away from stand-alone novels or even trilogies into vast, sprawling, open-ended multi-volume series. Now that filmmakers are looking for suitable properties after decades of neglecting the genre, the big names of the '90s -- Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, Tad Williams, David Eddings -- are singularly unsuited for translation into movies because their stories are too diffuse to make a good film, all middle and no end. The chief exception to this is Terry Pratchett, who writes stand-alone books that share a common setting (the Discworld) and continuing characters. Two of his books (Soul Music and Wyrd Sisters) have already had cartoon adaptations, one of which in particular shows his books' potential for live-action films (Soul Music, which not only encapsulates the history of rock'n'roll in its soundtrack but features The Lord of the Rings' Christopher Lee as the voice of Death, Pratchett's most sympathetic character). Unfortunately, Pratchett is better-known in his native England, where his books routinely land on the top of the best seller lists, than over here, which means a Discworld movie would have less of a built-in audience (a la LotR).
On the whole, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Hollywood (and New Zealand) would be wiser to look elsewhere, at books and writers who are slightly less high-profile but whose books would make better movies -- think of how many mainstream novels adapted for films were relatively unknown by the moviegoing public before those film adaptations popularized them. By this criteria, the leading contenders would be books like Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, any two or three of which could be combined into an impressive film (say, "Thieves' House", "Adept's Gambit", and "The Jewels in the Forest"), along with possibly John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost, Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, and Randall Garrett's Too Many Magicians. The thriving field of young-adult fantasy (e.g. Patricia Wrede's Talking to Dragons, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time) is sure to be a rich source of stories. What does seem unlikely is that writers popular in the '60s or '70s whose time has passed, like Donaldson, Moorcock, or Kurtz, will be revived. Instead, I think that if fantasy films succeed in establishing themselves beyond The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, we'll eventually see films based on some of the true classics from earlier in the last century, like Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter, Cabell's Jurgen, or Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist. Or so we can hope . . .
The one fantasy film we can be almost certain will get made within the next five years or so is The Hobbit. Assuming the legal difficulties among the various rights holders can be worked out, as they almost certainly will be, this would make an ideal companion piece to The Lord of the Rings. Jackson has already expressed interest in directing it, and it would benefit greatly from his team's touch, besides being just about the right length for one of his single epic features. It's unlikely we'll be seeing any other Tolkien works adapted for the foreseeable future, although some of the stories told in The Silmarillion (in particular, the story of Beren and Luthien) could make fine movies in the right hands, and a friend pointed out to me that The Father Christmas Letters would make a wonderful little animated film.
But until then, we must be satisfied with the epic we've just been given -- and a mighty fine film it is, too.
 In one indication of how quickly we become spoiled, it was striking how much the Dead Men looked like old-school special effects. So seamless and realistic has Weta's work been to date that the viewer simply accepts what he or she sees as part of the film's world. Hence this glowing-ghosties light show, while well-done, was a bit of a disappointment (but only when judged against their own high standards). By contrast, anyone who has watched the documentaries accompanying the expanded edition DVDs can thereafter spot when size doubles are used for the hobbits but simply doesn't care; those camera tricks don't spoil the enjoyment of watching the film.
 Anime itself has, of course, for years been the primary venue for fantasy filmmaking, as most recently demonstrated by H. Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001), one of the finest animated films ever made.