Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Best Movie of the '00s: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

(be warned, this post is insanely long.)

 I grew up with The Lord of the Rings.  
The phrase may be overused, on any number of things, but in my case its absolutely true.  I grew up on it, and on every major version of the story, too. 
I must have been around six years old when I saw the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit, and I saw both the later Return of the King and Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings some time in the next couple years.  I’m not sure of the exact chronology, but I must have become conscious of the books at about this time--my parents had paperback copies on our shelves.  I read The Hobbit in second grade, and the complete Lord of the Rings in third grade.  The latter took me months--I kept getting distracted--but I was absurdly proud of the achievement for years.  By the time Jackson’s version of The Fellowship came out in 2001, I’d read the complete series at least twice, and by now I think I’m at five.  But it hasn’t been just some personal obsession--it’s a family and community thing, a shared devotion among friends and relatives alike.  I encouraged my brother and sister to read the books and was excited when they did.  I remember accompanying sixth grade homeschool buddies who dressed up as hobbits to the theater, and sitting next to friends who couldn’t stop repeating all the good lines in my ear.  I bought the soundtracks and listened to them dozens of times.  My family bought first VHS, then DVD and Special Editions of the films, and we’ve all seen them more times than we can count.  It’s like a culture.  The best illustration I can give is to recall a family reunion at Thanksgiving a couple years ago.  All of us cousins (20 of us?) went to the basement after growing bored with the grown-up talk upstairs and watched the Extended Version of Fellowship, arranged on couches and chairs and the floor and lying on top of each other, ranging in age from 3 to 20 and all rapt to the screen for a film every one of us had seen before.
I say this to clarify a point: There was never any question what my choice for #1 Film of the Decade would be.  Any other choice would have been dishonest.  This list is of movies that mean the most to me, and no other film (or trilogy) has come close to being as influential in my life.

Now we come to the difficulty, though.  I could just say I love it and leave it at that, and no one could really contest me because this is my blog and I can do what I want.  But my opinions and news on film and aesthetics have been constantly changing the last few years and will no doubt continue to change and develop in the future.  I have been discovering art cinema and the greatest masterpieces of film and I am now struck by doubts.  Does The Lord of the Rings really deserve its place at #1?  I have to admit that if I placed The New World next to Fellowship and attempted to judge them according to beauty, originality, and overall aesthetic achievement, I would have to go with The New World.  And I am also aware that for all the trilogy’s praise and awards when they came out, there has been very little real appreciative criticism done on them since then.  They seem to be regarded by most cinephiles as a very successful, very well-done, but ultimately-not-that-interesting, blockbuster franchise.  So where is the art?  What justification do I really have for ranking The Lord of the Rings Trilogy as high as I do?

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First perhaps I should admit some of the flaws in the films, because there are certainly quite a few.  I’m not blind to them.  If anything, I’m hyper-aware of every blot and mark and awkward decision made throughout the trilogy, especially every deviation from the novels.  There is certainly a problematic tendency to sensationalize and exaggerate comparatively low-key events from the books, from brief moments like Galadriel’s declining of the Ring or the Ringwraiths breaking in to Bree, to larger scenes like the number of goblins in Moria and the general gratuitousness of the Paths of the Dead.  There are numerous points where the films failed to live up to the books, most notably Lothlorien, one of the hearts of the books but reduced to a shadowy, blue blip onscreen (admittedly somewhat extended in the special edition, it’s true, but not enough).  This particular incident points to a general lack of the pastoral sensibility Tolkien brought to many of his most indelible moments.  Inevitably with any adaptation of a long book there are things left out, but there were a few whose absence was felt most strongly--Tom Bombadil, Samwise the Brave, and the Scouring of the Shire especially.  A few sequences were so brief and perfunctory they were shorn of what made them special in the book--Aragorn’s healing of Merry, Eowyn, and Faramir, for instance, a fuzzy little scene shoehorned into the extended version.  One flaw, at least, is arguably the fault of Tolkien as much as the filmmaker:  Neither seem capable of telling a genuinely emotional love story (though Tolkien’s tales of Beren and Luthien are certainly beautiful), and everything involving Arwen feels a little undercooked and muddled.  Also inevitably with any production of this massive a scale, little inadvertent flaws creep in.  With so many separate filming sites all operating at once, so many photographic units and assistant directors, it is a marvel there were not more, but it also needs to be admitted that the style of editing and camera movements too often drift toward the easy and clichéd.  There are several small scenes over the course of all three films (and the number only increases in the extended editions) which just feel undercooked, awkward, and/or poorly paced--see for instance Aragorn’s confrontation of Sauron through the palantír.
And yet all of these, or nearly all, are easily forgivable in the light of the incredible number of successes and the sheer scope of the project.  It has been said many times before, but it ought to be said again:  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is one of the most colossal, expensive, and ambitious projects in the history of the movie.  Its peers in this regard are D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind, and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur.  (And like all of these films, there are moments when the seams show, but there are arguably less in the whole trilogy than in either of the last two choices.)  It starred a cast of thousands, as they say, though here of course digitally multiplied into the tens of thousands.  And here we see one of the trilogy’s signal accomplishments; its incredibly complex, ambitious, and (well, nearly) seamless blend of special, optical, and mechanical effects, using techniques that span the breadth of film history: matte paintings, rear projection, forced perspective, multiple exposures, the Schüfftan process, green screen, models and miniatures, “bigatures,” mechanical props, animatronics, highly elaborate prosthetics, computer animation, and newly developed techniques of digital performance capture--the list is practically endless.  The trilogy is a watershed moment in the development of SFX, and it is already clear that the savvy combining of multiple techniques with CGI as let it age far better than its contemporaries like the Star Wars prequels, the first Harry Potter movies, and even The Matrix sequels.
Alongside the the SFX, the films boast the most detailed and overachieving costume and prop design perhaps ever.  Thousands of costumes were created, hand-crafted to be accurate down to the undergarments.  There is never a moment in the entire trilogy where every item and artifact on screen does not feel completely authentic.  The art decoration and set design is also beyond all comparison, creating dozens of different locations each with their own character, culture, identity, and ambience.  Massive structures were built, including Rohan’s entire capital of Edoras over the course of 11 months, only to be deconstructed after 8 days of shooting.  The scale and detail of the films’ productions has always been part of their fascination, to critics, press, and public alike, and the dozens of hours of behind-the-scenes making-of footage on the Special Edition DVDs has only perpetuated this.
The trilogy’s influence on the industry is difficult to overestimate.  It propelled Weta to prominence as one of the best effects houses in the world, much like Star Wars did for ILM.  Its unprecedented box-office success thrust the filmmakers and cast into worldwide stardom and prestige (and not incidentally gave New Line Cinema the extra cash to finance risky projects like Malick’s The New World).  Dozens of copycat films have followed in the last decade, attempting, if not to equal the majesty, then at least to attract the same demographics.  Even the way the films were shot, all at once, has been influential, copied by The Matrix sequels, Kill Bill, The Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and more.  The films are a worldwide cultural phenomenon, spawning everything from catch-phrases to hairstyles (I can remember a year or two when it seemed every tweenage boy had longish, curly hobbit hair), and they’ve become an inescapable part of the pop culture firmament.  It is likely that just as Jackson, Spielberg, and Lucas were inspired by the serials and epics of their youth, and another generation of directors were inspired by the Spielberg and Lucas of the 70s and 80s, so too will a new generation of filmmakers be inspired by The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and we will see their influence again in the movies of tomorrow.
And yet, after all this, we still haven’t answered the question: Is it art?  We have to be able to talk of the films as more than giant, expensive movie-projects, don’t we?
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J.R.R. Tolkien’s work does not sit easily in the forms of the 20th century.  His books may be commonly called novels, but they had little interest in working within the bounds of that form.  Unlike other great writers of his age, he did not become known for his prose stylings.  Indeed, his own meticulous prose and ability to slip between various levels of archaic style phrasings have been perennially underrated and even criticized.  In fact, Tolkien was a mythologist.  His work has greater mythopoeic scope and grandeur than anything else in 20th century fiction.  He was engaged in a great effort of preservation, resurrection, and sub-creation, channeling his scholarly research into words and the gaps between languages into an astonishingly ambitious attempt to (re-)create the lost myths of ancient Britain, then translating that vast work of imagination into stories that children could read and enjoy.  At his best, his stories, names, and places seem dredged up from centuries past, the forgotten epic of a great people swallowed by the swamps of time, but now rediscovered miraculous, whole.  Reading in the appendices and unfinished tales feels like reading Bulfinch or Edith Hamilton’s summary compilations of mythology.  Reading The Silmarillion feels like reading the real thing, the original myth itself.
This can be easy to forget in light of the decades-long fandom his books have elicited and the entire genre of fantasy literature that takes its cure from him.  They copy names, phrases, creatures, characters, plot devices, and more from him, but I know of no other writer who has attempted to follow in his larger project of myth creation.  Tolkien’s complete writings on Middle-Earth,, often summarized as his “Legendarium,” took 50 years to write and encompass thousands of years of invented history, scores of poems of varying length, essays, charts, maps, annals, genealogies, short stories (of a kind), and numerous tellings and retellings of 3-4 key tragic epics within the overall structure, not to mention several completely coherent invented languages.  This is partly because no other writer has the scholarly expertise to accomplish it and Tolkien has already done so far beyond hope of competition, and partly because no one else is crazy enough to attempt it.  (This last remark is telling, actually:  Why is Tolkien regarded as weird for his creation when other writers like Blake and Yeats are praised for their elaborate personal mythologies, and Joyce, Proust, and Faulkner for their massive works filled with complex genealogical interrelations and allusive nature that requires critical guides in order to understand what any given passage mean?  Guilt by association with his followers, would be my guess.)  But Tom Shippey (among others) does a much better job of defending Tolkien on philological and literary grounds than I can do.  My main point is this:  There are many fine fantasy tales which have followed, but what makes Tolkien’s work most unique, enduring, and powerful is the fact that it is truly invented Myth.
Myth is an oral and literary phenomenon, generally poetic, with little practice or success at being honestly transferred to film.  Myth refrains from psychologizing and often from too fully sketching its characters, for they must remain figures of only mighty qualities, whether good or ill.  If they become tied too tightly to common flaws and habits, they lose their resonance and become mortal.  Film is by nature a far more personal, human, and psychologizing force than epic poetry, and the mythic and iconic figures of the movies are correspondingly smaller.  Indigenous movie myths are represented by whole genres, not simply one story about them: the Cowboy, the Gangster, the Private Eye.  There is certainly room to talk of these figures in terms of myth, but it is clearly a different kind than that of the past.  Many filmmakers have attempted to adapt ancient myths for the screen, most commonly those of Greco-Roman origin (though few successfully), and there have been some very notable works that convert various fairy tales, ghost stories, and folklore into film while retaining at least some of their particular qualities.  But Tolkien’s world of chivalry and heroism, where barrow downs filled with ghosts loom in the mist and warriors sing as they slaughter the enemy, all rooted in a northern strain of medieval legend, has few analogues in cinema.  Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, as might some (not all) of Kurasawa’s samurai tales, and a few Chinese wuxia epics.  Perhaps Polanski’s Macbeth or Murnau’s Niebelungen, unseen by me.  Animation might hold the greatest hope for any form of myth--inherently less humanizing and psychologizing, it has proven quite capable of handling myth’s younger, more innocent sibling, the fairy tale.  Lotte Reininger’s Cinderella is a good place to start, but perhaps the closest of all to Tolkien’s roots is Norstein & Ivanov-Vano’s Battle of the Kherzenets.  
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But I’ll cut off the discussion of myth on film here, because it is far too large a subject (what are the boundaries of myth, anyway?), I am no expert, and this essay still has a ways to go (sorry).  The Lord of the Rings films rarely grasp that ancient, otherworldly flavor of myth--I think the opening narration captures it briefly, which might be expected because it naturally most closely approximates written language--but despite all I just said about Tolkien’s larger project of myth, I don’t consider this a major flaw.  Myth is simply hard to get on the screen, and it would be too much to hope that films which require large budgets and commercial success could even attempt something so difficult and obscure, something which I doubt many people even think about anyways.  More importantly--and my last several paragraphs have probably served to obscure this--Tolkien’s actual writing in The Lord of the Rings is not all about Myth.  While both The Hobbit and the later trilogy are enriched by their roots in myth, only The Silmarillion and the other obscure tales are actually in the register of Myth full-time, and that’s why they’re so hard to read.  Rings actually moves back and forth through several registers constantly, reflecting the various characters and peoples written about throughout the books, from the simple, humorous storytelling of the hobbits, to the archaic Arthurian romance style of Men, and the heightened mythic poetry of the elves.  While the films smooth this out and avoid attempting the elven style too often, the remarkable thing is they do manage to capture different qualities for different cultures, different dialogue styles, musical cues, even camera movements to establish the shift in registers.  This is important, because it is clear that one of the core appeals of the whole series to the public has been the hobbits themselves, droll and English, recognizably humble and rather anachronistically modern, and their interaction with an increasingly wide, war-torn, ancient, and mythic world.  They are a nostalgic and lovable creation, and without their guidance Middle-Earth becomes an increasingly difficult world to enter.  The films manage this shift brilliantly, and if we didn’t have such a clear, beautiful, homey picture of the Shire at the beginning the rest of the tale would lose much of its resonance and emotional significance.
I wish to return again to that middle register, though, the level of Men that is reminiscent of Malory and Arthurian romance.  The films manage this with semi-mannered and formal speech and the general atmosphere of royalty, but there is more, as well.  C.S. Lewis (who never got as specific about divisions as I have here, and might not agree with mine) wrote of a thing he called “the Heroic, the rarest quality in modern literature.”  Tolkien’s books achieve that quality, without question, and I would like to suggest that Jackson’s films do as well.  Not all the time, but at a few signal points they reach for this quality, and through careful alignment of story and pacing, dialogue and image, music and editing, they achieve that true power that comes with both a terrible sense of doom and the inspiration of hope and courage in the face of it.  These moments are few, but they stick with me, and they mean a great deal to me, even when just thinking of them:  Theoden’s poem before Helm’s Deep (“Where is the horse and the rider?/Where is the horn that was blowing?);  Treebeard’s cry and the Last March of the Ents; Gandalf, the White Rider, flying to the rescue of Faramir and his men;  the lighting of the beacons; Pippin’s song over Faramir’s fatal charge; and especially the charge of the Rohirrim at Pelennor Fields.  That last was a sacred moment in the book as well--just as Gandalf is about to confront the Witch King, a cock crows, and following it, a horn of Rohan, announcing Theoden’s arrival just as all hope is lost.  The film drops the crowing, but the effect of the bare horn is the same: a moment of what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, the sudden turn of a story that brings such unlooked for joy it can bring tears, and perhaps a glimpse of the truth.  These moments are not great because they’re “awesome” or “just so epic,” but because they offer something more, something higher and more delicate, a vision of good and evil, of tragedy and victory, that is pure and true.  Some may object that plenty of action epics these days have heroic moments like these to milk, but I would contend otherwise.  The films have less-successful moments, and they shift easily from such heights to silly stuff like Legolas taking down an entire oliphaunt, which inevitably receives cheers from the audience, but that doesn’t mean the heights didn’t happen.  I am compelled to say, along with Lewis in his book review, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.”  And point out along with him that “the most obvious appeal of the [film] is perhaps its deepest: ‘there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain.’”  For that notion is deep, whether it is popular or not, or whether perhaps it is too popular, too obvious to recognize.  It is still true, and the reminder may come from unexpected quarters.
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Now, a note on adaptation.  For some people, these films are simply illustrations of the book, and therefore without real artistic merit.  If the director of a film does not take a real critical role in re-evaluating a book in the process of bringing it to the screen, putting his artistic sense to bear in interpreting it in a unique way that stands well clear of the book, why watch/make the movie in the first place?  The book already exists.  To a certain extent this is true, and to a more substantial extent, there is no use arguing with someone who believes this because they have already set the terms of the debate, and they will not be moved.  However, I do not think The Lord of the Rings Trilogy completely runs afoul of this argument, nor should such an argument ever be taken as absolute.  There are several notable great films I can think of which are adaptations and whose greatness lies in many things, but not a strong auteur at the helm.  Gone With the Wind and The Thief of Baghdad spring immediately to mind, each with a number of directors dominated by a producer, and many other films (Casablanca, for instance) are considered stellar products of the studio system, great because all the elements that went into them are great, not because of the profound artistic vision of the director.  I am rather an auteurist myself, so I do not wish to push this too hard, but no critical theory should be pushed so hard that it leads one to discount any example that does not agree with it.
Second, I think Peter Jackson is a strong, visionary director, with a hand in every aspect of the process from the beginning to the end, and I regard the choice to adapt the books as faithfully as possible as not only a legitimate artistic decision, but the best and only possible decision to make.  More auteurist study of Jackson’s work ought to be done, which I can’t do here (I have yet to see his early films, for instance), but I think I can detect a few aspects of his personality coming through.  His sense of humor is certainly a constant--the droll and occasionally dry British humor of Tolkien is here transformed into a consistently lively and hilarious cast of supporting characters, always ready with a silly line when things get too serious.  His playful love of gore is another, though perhaps not quite as welcome--from his earliest horror films, Jackson loved filling the screen with fake blood, and here he revels in the viscera on display both among dead orcs, and on the ghosts of the dead, whether in the marshes or the mountain.  He was always a perfectionist interested in effects, and these films display that more clearly than anything.  He also fosters a strong sense of camaraderie on set that clearly comes through on screen--these actors love each other, and the powerful portraits of friendship come through all the more clearly because of it.  He has a great desire for grand storytelling and adventure, much like Spielberg and Lucas before him, and all the projects he’s gone to since have reflected this.  The ability to paint on as large a canvas as possible, to work on a grand scale and sweep an audience along to foreign lands is something many directors would kill for, and Jackson won’t let it go to waste.  He has an infectious sense of optimism that comes through on nearly every project, a love of the game that’s not so far from Quentin Tarantino--it probably wouldn’t feel awkward for Jackson to follow QT’s example by regularly leading the crew in a rousing shout of “We love making movies!”  
And finally, he co-wrote the films, and throughout he displays an extremely sure sense of character, pacing, and storytelling rhythm, knowing when to cut, when to slow down, when to hit the high notes and when to toss in a joke.  Adaptation of such a large, complex, and beloved book, is no easy thing, and he and his team did a better job than anyone could have hoped.  In fact, I’ve found myself coming around on several of the most blatant alterations to the book, not because they improve on Tolkien but because they improve the movies as movies, and establish pace, tone, and climax in important ways.  The whole warg-attack-and-Aragorn-disappearance sequence, for instance, is entirely invented, and it doesn’t feel completely necessary, but it adds a great deal of excitement and incident to what would otherwise be a barren spot in the plot, and the fight with the wargs is terrific.  Other added bits, though brief, are even stronger, such as Eomer’s search for Theodred, and Wormtongue’s confrontation with Eowyn.  The lighting of the beacons, as I have already said, is one of my favorite scenes in the whole trilogy.  I still feel a little bad about what they did to Faramir, making him into Boromir part 2 and dragging Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath, but overall I think it works.  And it certainly establishes Faramir as more interesting, conflicted, and tragic a figure than he is in the book, where he is almost impossibly noble.  The invented scene in the extended cut, of the two sons of Gondor celebrating in the recaptured city, is fantastic, and adds greatly to our understanding of both men, reflecting backward to Boromir’s betrayal and forward to Faramir’s suicidal devotion.  The weakness of Men, the mingling of noble potential and rottenness in the family of Gondor’s stewards, is made clear, and the nature of Aragorn’s uniqueness is laid bare.
This perhaps points to another objection: Do the films ever come out from under the shadow of the books?  Do they ever stand entirely on their own?  No.  Not for me.  For thousands--perhaps millions--of people who have seen the films but not read the books, however, they most certainly do.  But for me, they will always and forever be an extension of a story I know already, and the themes, depths, and resonances I feel in every scene reach back to the ways I first experienced them.  This is always true for an adaptation of a beloved book, but doubly so for this one.  The question is, does that matter?  Do the film’s themes cease to matter if they are simply lifted from the book?  Well, I certainly don’t see why they should.  They are expressed with eloquence in both mediums, and it would take an unfair critic to pretend they are not clear in the films for those who look.  But as I said, the two are inevitably bound together with me (together with a pinch here and there of the animated versions, if I’m honest), and the resonances are interlaced so tightly they will never be untied.  And I am more than okay with that.
There are so many other things I have yet to say about these films.  I should mention the performances, which are excellent all around.  The stand-outs for me are Ian McKellan, Ian Holm, and Andy Serkis, all of whom deserved Oscars, and Cate Blanchett, who embodied an 8,000-year-old, eternally young elf queen to perfection.  A special mention as well to both Sean Astin and Elijah Wood, who I thought were wonderful--I have no idea why Wood gets crap, because aside from being too young from the beginning, he never puts a step wrong.  I should mention some of the other great scenes and favorite moments that don’t fall under the heading of Mythic or Heroic:  that first wonderful ride through the Shire with Gandalf, Frodo’s last meeting with Bilbo before the quest, the building tension by Balin’s tomb before the attack, the parting of the Fellowship on Amon Hen and Frodo’s fateful decision, the exorcism of Theoden, the whole Battle of Helm’s Deep (which is better than Pelennor Fields, I think), Sam’s speech at the end of Two Towers (which ties all the disparate threads together with a bit of homespun hokum that still inspires me every time),  the point where Frodo is helped up by a vision of Gladriel, Shelob, when Sam carries Frodo, every one of Gandalf’s words of wisdom, and especially Gollum and his schizoid debate.  That last is one of the best scenes in the trilogy, from a character that brings a whole new element into the entire saga, one of psychological depth and torment unlike any other character.  
I also want to stick up for the endings, which get mocked a lot for being too numerous.  I don’t think the films could have done without a single one.  The books go on much longer, after all, and I still feel they’re too short every time I finish.  And the films already cut the Scouring of the Shire, which was hugely thematically important, even if large, unwieldy, and massively anticlimactic for a movie.  With these endings, though, the film accomplished many things.  That first scene after the fade to black, when Frodo wakes up to see Gandalf, may strike some as a little goofy, but to me its beautiful.  The book described Gandalf’s laugh so evocatively, pouring out with such joy that it seemed to Sam “everything sad [would] come untrue,” that I would never have believed it could be captured on film.  But they did it, or near enough to still amaze me.  The coronation of Aragorn is of course essential (it’s in the title of the movie!), and the bowing to the hobbits is incredibly moving.  But it’s the final sequence of the Grey Havens that is utterly necessary to the whole theme of the story, and if it were left out the point would be lost.  For it is not simply a story of victory and final happiness, but of loss, deep and abiding loss.  The War of the Ring marks the passing of an era, an entire Age, as a matter of fact, and within a few years everyone who participated in it has disappeared  The world is changing, moving on, and that’s tragic, almost unbearable.  Frodo cannot live any longer in such a world; he is wounded beyond repair, his only peace lies in death.  For this is what the passage into the West is, of course: death.  For as much as evil is defeated and beauty preserved, death cannot be escaped, and the future is not for everyone.  As Galadriel said in The Two Towers, the quest would claim Frodo’s life.  “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger;  some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”  Frodo’s turn and smile was not written by Tolkien, but I do not think it could have been more pure and beautiful even if it was.
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Finally, it seems to me, there is one last point to make.  Whether the films achieve “high art,” whether they contain the undercurrents of Myth, whether Peter Jackson should be regarded as an auteur or not, all seem a little beside the point.  After all, both the books and the films achieved their great success and popularity based on one thing primarily: they told a great story.  And on this I don’t see how their could be any disagreement.  The Lord of the Rings is one of the great stories of our time, whether on page or on screen, filled with sweep and excitement, pitched battles and hairsbreadth escapes, beloved heroes and hated villains, wondrous lands both foreign and familiar, and all with the unique flavor of magic.  This may seem a simple point to make, but I believe it is an important one nonetheless.  Over the past year or two, I have seen many films and read many books that put other things ahead of story, be it mood, theme, style, character, or message.  For many in our modern age, true art seems to begin where popular entertainment ends, and story is equated with plot, which only gets in the way.  I have seen many films that might fall into these categories that I would call masterpieces, and I bare them no ill will.  Many people are too hung up on plot to follow a true artist down realms of atmosphere, style, or abstraction which can lead to heights never dreamed of before.  But the reverse is also true: many critics seem to have lost sight of what story is capable of producing in an audience, the heights a straightforwardly narrative feature may attain.  I think many people underestimate the importance of story to our lives.  The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest stories I know.  Whether it is truly the finest film of the decade, I don’t know, but it seems important to defend such a story at this time.  So that is what I hope I have done.
I leave you with another quote from C.S. Lewis, this time from his review of The Return of the King:  

The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’… If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.


  1. "...some spark of fire...destined to kindle a new light, or what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS [a literary club of Tolkien & friends] was destined to testify for God and Truth..." -- JRRT, August 12, 1916, from France during the Great War. I think his longing to rekindle the old light was gratified beyond his wildest imaginings (which is saying something for Tolkien!). I do, however, wonder whether the movies have achieved the same. Are there people for whom the movies have been what Tolkien in a later letter refers to as a drop of water falling on barren stony ground? Or is it just the books that have had a life-long transformative effect on people?

    1. That's a good point, Mark, and I'm not entirely sure. The books have an enormous amount going on in them, from pure storytelling to mythic undercurrents to a light of faith that seemed to suffuse everything without necessarily having a visible source. I think there is definitely something sanctifying and spiritually profound in the books which is not really a focus of the films, though I don't think it's completely absent. I rather doubt many fans of the movies would pick up on it, but then plenty of fans of the books don't pick up on it there, either. I don't think Jackson had that purpose in making the films, to convey Tolkien's Catholicism in everything, but I do think the films lead back to the books at almost every opportunity and thousands of people have sought out the books because of the films, so there is a loop there.

      I do think the film's preserve Tolkien's profound understanding of evil, though, especially the way there is a real source for Evil in the world that must be fought, alongside an evil inside oneself, a weakness of the heart that is preyed on by the ring. Men clearly are prone to prideful desires for power, constantly leading to their downfall. The childlike innocence of the hobbits is their protection against the destructive impulses the Ring tries to use against them. The films do have a sense of the sacred as well--there are so many moments of true beauty, where the only proper response is awe and wonder. It is very clearly intimated that there is something beyond, this is not all there is.

      Two moments expressing this wisdom stand out to me, both involving Gandalf offering wisdom to hobbits: First, in Moria, when he tells Frodo that there are other forces at work in the world besides those of evil, and he was "meant" to have the Ring, which is "an encouraging thought." And later, in Minas Tirith, when Pippin laments, "I didn't think it would end like this," and Gandalf responds, "End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it: White shores. And beyond, a far green country, under a swift sunrise." Perhaps a cynical critic would dismiss the way the camera zooms in on Ian Mckellan's face and the music starts to rise as he says this, but it feels absolutely beautiful and emotionally true every time I watch it, even in a small clip on YouTube.

      I don't know whether such moments in the films move and minister to others apart from the books; I doubt my own response would be so strong if I did not have so much of Tolkien's literature behind me to connect with it, in one bright continuum. But for me, with that connection so strong, these (particular) moments are absolutely just as strong in either medium, and as I watch the ship sail off from the Grey Havens and hear the start of the wonderful song "Into the West" start playing, I find I am touched my an indescribable bit of bittersweet joy, and just a small vision of Heaven.

    2. Grey Havens: what I call the poignance of loss is something Tolkien does exceedingly well. Strong in the books, but as you effectively argue, in the movies too. I wonder if his having lost both his parents so early in life didn't have something to do with it.

  2. I was pretty confident LoTR was going to be number 1, but I was still pleased and a little surprised when I first saw this post. Thank you for justifying my love for the trilogy in an eloquent argument. Whenever I introduce myself at Taylor, people ask my major, and that immediately leads to the question, "What is your favorite movie?" I always equivocate, but LoTR has truly stuck with me more than any other series. Now, having read your evaluation, I can speak a bit more intelligently about why I like it so much.

    I especially like your bit about story near the end. Theme, character, or style can drive an excellent film that strives for "high art," but so can story. They are all important pieces of the spectrum of good cinema, and despite the current opinion that plot is of marginal artistic value, story itself can drive a masterpiece as well as mood can, if done right. Tolkien (and Jackson, too) wove a story so intricate and detailed that it has claimed that status, in addition to popular approval. That is where, I believe, Tolkien rises high above Lewis in their respective works of fiction. While Lewis admittedly was catering to children, his "imaginary world" development was far less of an achievement, and he wore his allegory on his sleeves. Tolkien created something so vast, nobody has been crazy enough to try to challenge it, and his Christianity was communicated via thematic nuance.

    1. Thank you, Daniel. That means a lot. Believe it or not, I even forgot to get in several points that I was thinking about while writing this. I meant to talk more about the processes of adaptation, and about various performances, pacing and structure, etc, but that would all get out of hand pretty quick, so probably best I left it out. What I really forgot to mention was Howard Shore's score, which I would rate as the best of the decade on its own. And then at the end, I was going to give a bit more of an explanation and argument for narrative in cinema and the art of storytelling, and how LOTR is great because it treats its story with total sincerity and isn't a postmodern riff on the monomyth but the real deal. I was also going to cite Seven Samurai and Lawrence of Arabia as the true peers of the trilogy. But oh well.

      Part of the thing about story is that I'm still trying to figure it out: What exactly is Story, why is it important, what distinguishes it from other types of filmmaking and artistic achievement, are Story and Plot two different things, is all this division I've just set up even important, etc. I'd also like to figure out exactly how Myth fits into all of this. I think I'm going to try to read Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces sometime soon. I keep getting fascinated and frustrated by the divisions between high and low art, high and low culture, whether those divisions are real or illusory, and maybe where postmodernism fits into all of this. So anyway, that's some of the things I've been thinking about and occasionally reading about.

      As for C.S. Lewis: Have you read the Space Trilogy or Till We Have Faces? Neither of them are at the level of LOTR, but they have some pretty significant areas of imaginative creation and complex thought and meaning which are definitely as good as anything else you're likely to read. Also, if you haven't seen it, I recommend checking out his review of LOTR when it first came out here:

  3. I applaud your selection here Stephen, as I am a huge fans of these films as well and have defended each by going to the mat on more than one occasion. My favorite of the three is THE RETURN OF THE KING, which was honored to the hilt by critics' groups and the Oscars. One of the film’s most breathtaking moments occurs when Gandalf flies on an eagle, safely carrying the Frodo and Sam to safety in a sequence that so imbued with celestial splendor and awe-inspiring aural operatic accompaniment, that it stretches the capabilities of what cinema can accomplish in wedding image to emotion. It’s at this point that the full realization of the invaluable contribution of composer Hans Zimmer, whose score here is as important to The Return of the King as any other contribution. There’s an other-worldly grandeur that underscores the ravishing visuals supplied by Jackson, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and production designer Grant Major. The creativity in all the technical departments, evident in the first two installments, has been intensified here. The most painterly visual sequence of all is the wedding set piece with Aragon and Arwen, and the former’s coronation, where the warrior tells the hobbits: “My friends, you bow to no one.” The whole population of Gondor bows to the hobbits, who then return to their home country, the shire. It is at this point that Jackson refuses to let go, and a succession of “final” endings are attached to the final reel that incurred critical disdain, especially among the few that were not adherents of the series in the first place. But the physical tapestry of these final encores add, rather than detract from this inexhaustibly beautiful canvas.

    Jackson’s veteran cast, all familiar with their developing and developed characters, render an added level of poignancy to their roles that reaches full consummation in this final part of the trilogy. The heartfelt bond of Frodo and Sam is beautifully evoked by Elijah Wood Jr. and Sean Astin. Astin, who was something of a sidekick in the first film metamorphosed into one of the work’s most vital and inspiring figures. The frustration and fear he feels in losing Frodo to the power of the ring is intimately felt, as is the strength he feels in himself to carry on. Andy Serkis, with CGI assistance used to mimic his movements, is simultaneously haunting, endearing and terrifying as Gollum, and Ian McKellen again delivers a commanding performance of great warmth as Gandalf after being left off the second installment’s cast. Of course Viggo Mortenson as Aragorn is that physically endowed warrior that any action or adventure film would dream for. Billy Boyd is perhaps the most impressive (as Pippin) of the remaining roles, though Liv Tyler looks great as Arwan.

    Much can be said for the other two films, THE FELLOWSHIP and THE TWO TOWERS, which is the extended Battle of Helm's Deep, but you have done a stupendous job yourself here is framing them.

    1. Thanks, Sam. I know they have a lot of fans, but they seem to have gradually gone down in critical and cinephile esteem over the years, and it's nice to see others who agree. I've never been able to choose for certain which one is best--the first has some of the happiest scenes and the most hobbits, and was my sort of my favorite for a while, but the other two are bigger and in some ways more cohesive. Return of the King has most of the moments I named as among the finest in the trilogy, but with the extended version it's so long that I feel it does become a little cumbersome and exhausting. The Two Towers changed so many things from the books that it was always my least favorite, but now looking at it I think it might be the most well-rounded, clearly structured of the films. So in the end I really just think of them as a trilogy, a single unit with three chapters.

      Also, as I said above, I like the multiple endings--the overall film is so big and long that I totally understand why people would get restless, but you absolutely have to show the Grey Havens for the story to have its correct tone and meaning. Ending with any of the other scenes before would have been not only disappointing but injurious to the whole structure and theme of the trilogy and would have outraged fans everywhere.

      I completely agree with your comments about Howard Shore's score and the various performances.

  4. Hi Stephen,
    I came across your Blog after re-watching the trilogy for the first time in a few years, and I have to say that your honest, educated and open-minded analysis of the films is the most interesting and thought-provoking I have come across (and I've spent...countless hours on forums, talking to friends and mulling over the films in my head). I was thirteen when Fellowship hit theatres and I proceeded to read the books while counting down to the release of the final two installments. It was these film adaptations that turned my interest in film into a full-blown, lifelong passion and that is why, for me, the trilogy is also my #1 film of the 00s. There is not much more to add to your writings; I just wanted to say that I really appreciate your review because it is so extremely well-put. You touch on so many aspects of the filmic process, the books and the adaptation. I had also always been a tad on the fence about the multiple endings in RoTK, but after reading your thoughts I have no qualms with them whatsoever. At the root of these films and books, like you said, is a truly mesmerizing story, and isn't that what filmmaking is about, after all - telling a story.