J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga (originally published in three volumes from July 1954 to October 1955) was bound to be adapted eventually to the cinema, but the task of visualizing Tolkien's imaginary world was daunting, and the project awaited a director bold enough and inventive enough to take it on. (Ralph Bakshi had done a partial animated adaptation in 1978 that Variety considered "unsuccessful.") New Zealand director Peter Jackson was apparently up to the challenge, one would surmise, on the evidence of the Rings trilogy's first installment, The Fellowship of the Rings.
The film was a huge, sprawling spectacle, astonishing in its grand achievement. Not many Hollywood analogues come to mind, but the nearest one might be The Wizard of Oz (1939), though Tolkien's vision is far darker than that of L. Frank Baum. Although the casting of Oz would be impossible to match, of course, the casting of Rings also impresses. No less impressive is the scope of the tale, elegant, mythic, and fantastic in the truest sense of the word.
In a fairy-tale setting conjured up by a kindly Oxford University specialist in medieval literature, the story involves a mythic quest to destroy a magical ring forged by the wicked Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, in a volcano. The ring is evil and seductive for anyone who wears it. It is a touchstone that can endow its wearer with power of world domination, but the ring itself is evil and must be destroyed. Once lost for centuries, the ring is found by Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), a good-natured Hobbit, a gentle race of furry-footed diminutive creatures who are perfectly happy to live their sheltered little world, called The Shire, amusing themselves with rustic entertainments, and generally unconcerned and unaware of the larger world or ordinary mortals.
Bilbo, a paradigm of decency, has never worn the ring and has therefore avoided being seduced by its evil powers. It has given him a long life, and when the film begins, he is celebrating his 111th birthday. His friend, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a good wizard, visits The Shire to celebrate Bilbo's birthday. Feeling old and tired, Bilbo decides to leave The Shire and live out his days in the elfin kingdom, ruled by Galadriel, Queen of the Elves (Cate Blanchett). Following Gandalf's advice, he leaves the ring in the keeping of his cousin Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who then becomes the bearer of the ring. Gandalf also advises that the ring be destroyed, but it can only be destroyed by the molten fire in the volcano of Mount Doom in Mordor, where it was forged.
Gandalf goes to seek the advice of a wise wizard, Saruman the White (played by Christopher Lee, himself a veteran of 255 horror films and television productions, and an ideal actor to cast as the villain of the piece), who has gone over to the dark side and seeks the ring for himself. He is in command of an army of fearful spirit creatures that he sets loose to find Frodo. Fortunately, Gandalf escapes and goes to the aid of young Frodo. Catching up with Frodo in the Golden Wood of Lothlorien, Gandalf establishes a protective cadre known as "The Fellowship of the Ring," consisting of Frodo, Gandalf, Frodo's Hobbit friends, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Austin), Peregrin Took (Billy Boyd), and Meriadoc Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan), Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), Boromir, a human warrior of Gondor (Sean Bean), and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), also known as Strider, Gondor's future King. Aragorn is loved by Arwen (Liv Tyler), the elf princess who saves Frodo's life after he has been wounded by the Nazgul, black spirit warriors on horseback. (The film substitutes Arwen for the elfin lord Glorfindel, who saves Frodo in the novel, presumably to introduce her earlier in the story.) Once the Fellowship has been established, pursuit sequences follow fast and furious, as the Fellowship travels from dilemma to dilemma on their way to Mordor, pausing only to rest a while in the tranquility of the elfin kingdom of Rivendell. Their passage over a snowcapped mountain range is complicated by avalanches conjured by the wizard Saruman from afar, so they are forced to take a dangerous passage through the haunted mines of Moria, where Gandalf is apparently lost, falling into a chasm while protecting the others from an ancient evil spirit, Balrog. At the end, Frodo lives, but he is still short of his destination, and audiences are left to wait the sequels.
The sequels will of course be forthcoming, since the whole Rings trilogy was shot at the same time, at a risk of perhaps $400 million (the cost estimated by Variety, including production and projected marketing expenses). The responsibility must have been tremendous for Peter Jackson, who not only had to direct the whole saga, but also wrote the screenplay, with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Sight and Sound reviewer Andrew O'Hehir noted that although the screenplay "significantly reordered and reshaped Tolkien's narrative, which widens its focus and quickens its pace gradually," the writers had "tremendous respect for the linguistic and mythic density" of Tolkien's story.
Both of the hugely popular fantasies adapted from novels in 2001 were haunted by a monster, the fidelity goblin, let's call it, that threatened to hamstring both films made from two widely read books. But if, as just noted, Jackson took some liberties (one character, the nature spirit Tom Bombadil, is removed from the story, for example), he nonetheless attempted to remain true to the mythic essence. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was the first out of the gate, designed more to please the young fans of J.K. Rowling than viewers looking for an inventive movie. By the end of the year Harry had grossed over $290 million and was braced for the challenge of The Fellowship of the Ring, released just before Christmas and topping $174 million after only two weeks of business. The problem is hardly new. David O. Selznick knew he had to keep readers happy when he produced the film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1939), which was also a huge success on screen. Like Fellowship of the Ring, which clocks in at two hours and 58 minutes, Gone with the Wind needed two hours and 33 minutes to do "justice" to the book. The challenge of adapting it was somewhat simplified by the repetitious nature of Mitchell's epic yarn. But The Lord of the Rings? "Forget translating the entire story to the screen," Neil Golden advised readers of Film Comment: "can the books even be summarized in nine hours?" Regardless, Tolkien fans are legion, and they would of course be curious to see what happened to their favorite cult epic.
The year ended with competing fantasies for audiences seeking escapist fare. In a Wall Street Journal essay published on November 30, 2001, Brian M. Carney asserted that in this "Battle of the Books" Tolkien should "run rings around Potter," because although Harry Potter "may be entertaining, imaginative, and wry," it is not morally challenging. Tolkien's epic fable questions humankind's "ability to resist the temptation of absolute power." Moral complexity of this order, Carney believed, cannot compete with Harry Potter's philosopher's stone (called the "sorcerer's stone" for American readers ignorant of alchemy): "In Tolkien's world the temptation of evil is one that all, or nearly all, of his characters must confront." Bespectacled Harry is beyond such temptation. Tolkien's argument, according to Carney, "is that, while intentions matter, the WAY we act is far more important than WHY we act," and "presents a serious rebuttal to the idea that good ends justify using evil means." Tolkien had a wider and wiser perspective than Rowling. Writing in the context of a world of emerging Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union, Tolkien's trilogy implied that "by compromising with Stalin in Europe and using the atomic bomb against the Japanese, the Allies had failed to live up to the feeble wraith's they are," according to Andrew O'Hehir of Sight and Sound.
Reviews of The Fellowship of the Ring were mixed, as digested in Film Comment in January 2002, and some reviewers were unable to make distinctions such as Carney had offered. David Ansen of Newsweek thought it was "excellent" (4 stars) in comparison to Harry Potter, which Ansen considered "mediocre." No point in looking for a consensus there, but Jackson's film was both foolproof and critic-proof, and film audiences were bound to queue up to see it, regardless of the reviews. Variety's Todd McCarthy was absolutely on target when he predicted that Tolkien's trilogy was "likely to grab the brass Ring."
Neil Golden reported in Film Comment the Tolkien Internet chat rooms had become "a war zone" among frantic Tolkien fans upset over the casting of Liv Tyler and debating whether or not director Peter Jackson should "give the Balrog wings, or not," and whether the elves should have pointy ears. ("Diehard fans say no" to that.) Golden forgave Jackson's film for running two minutes shy of three hours after "14 continuous months in production" but criticized the first installment because it "reads more like a visual Cliffs Notes than a full-blown movie adaptation." Although New Zealand looks like Middle-earth, "just as Tolkien described it," Jackson races the characters "through the plot, relying on them to look the part, since they aren't afforded the opportunity to BE the part," except for Frodo (Elijah Wood), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). Whereas Tolkien tells his story "slowly and organically," whereas Jackson "takes a gorgeous snapshot of it." But the "film ignites" in the action sequences, which will more than justify the price of admission, The spectacle was truly enchanting, and even visionary, a remarkable cinematic achievement.
Release Date: 2001
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Dominic Monaghan, Andy Serkis, Marton Csokas, Craig Parker, Lawrence Makoare, Brian Sergent, and Sala Baker
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens
Source Citation: Welsh, James M. "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." Magill's Cinema Annual 2002. Ed. Christine Tomassini. Detroit: Gale, 2002. 295-297.
When Peter Jackson's adaptation of the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, it was apparent that Jackson had the talent and vision to successfully bring to the screen the fantastic world of Middle-earth. With The Two Towers, Jackson continues this mammoth odyssey in superb fashion. It's almost impossible to say something about the film that hasn't already been said or written. Suffice it to say that the epic scope of the trilogy is even more evident in this middle chapter. The film is brilliant on so many levels (acting, casting, design, editing, effects, etc.) that is seems as monumental a task to list and discuss them all as was the production of the film itself. It is, as Manohla Dargis wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "one of the more heroic ventures in commercial cinema" and might even surpass its predecessor in both its visuals and action.
While much has been written regarding the lack of a strong, classical narrative in The Two Towers (there's not really a proper beginning or end to the story – elements that were present to a certain extent in the first film), it's important to remember that The Fellowship of the Ring was criticized for an apparent lack of action (which is in abundance in the second chapter) and for being more of a "setup" than a stand alone work. It is therefore critical to keep in mind that this is only the penultimate episode of the trilogy. While both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers can be viewed as separate pieces, they are clearly designed as parts of a larger work and should be viewed as such with the first installment being the setup, or introduction and the second being the meatier, more lively and active part of the story.
The importance of this perception is evident from the beginning of The Two Towers as the story continues without a Star Wars-type scroll or narration to bring those new to the saga or even those who could benefit from a refresher. It's for this reason that one might be inclined to "study" a bit before undertaking the film by re-watching The Fellowship of the Ring. That is by no means meant to imply that if you haven't seen the earlier film that you won't find The Two Towers entertaining, it's just that you may find yourself a bit bewildered by the complexity of the proceedings.
The Two Towers (which takes it name from the unification of the tower of Mordor, home of the evil lord Sauron, and the tower of Isengard, fortress of the dark wizard Saruman) begins at almost the precise moment The Fellowship of the Ring ended. The fellowship has broken. Boromir of Gondor (Sean Bean) has been killed. Hobbits Peregrin Took (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) have been taken by the Uruk-hai. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are in close pursuit. Meanwhile, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his companion Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) are en route to Mordor to destroy the One Ring by casting it into the fires of Mount Doom.
The two books of Tolkien's original tome are again faithfully adapted. However, director Peter Jackson has intertwined the books in his version. Jackson's brilliant pacing and D. Michael Horton's superb editing allows the story to leap seamlessly from one narrative to another. Tolkien had originally broken the stories into two books. The first book, or quest, concerns the hobbits Merry and Pippin and their adventures among the Ents (an ancient race of creatures who are akin to giant walking trees) with Treebeard (a wizened Ent voiced by Rhys-Davies pulling double duty) and, the travails of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in the kingdom of Rohan. The second quest tells of Frodo and Samwise as they make their way to Mordor to destroy the ring. Along the way, they befriend (sort of) the conflicted creature Gollum (voiced and performed by Andy Serkis, and later fully animated using CGI) who serves as their guide. Along the way, the trio is constantly bombarded by the Ringwraiths, warriors from Gondor who look to take the Ring to bring victory in war, and their own internal struggles.
When Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf (who has been reborn as Gandalf the White following his victorious battle with the Balrog) arrive in the kingdom of Rohan, they find that King Theoden (Bernard Hill) is under the control of the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his minion, Griam (Brad Dourif). Also within the kingdom of Rohan lives Theoden's niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) who is almost instantly smitten with the dashing Arogorn, which may or may not spell complications for his romance with Arwen (Liv Tyler) who is apparently leaving Middle-earth with her people.
After dispatching of Saruman's control of Theoden, the four heroes must aid the people of Rohan as they relocate to the fortress of Helm's Deep and prepare to defend it against Saruman's seemingly invincible army of Orcs in the film's bloody, magnificent climactic battle. Merry and Pippin, on the other hand, are as far away from this battle as possible, yet somehow manage to find themselves attacking Saruman's fortress at Isengard with the help of the Ents. In the end however, victories for the forces of good will amount to nothing if Frodo and Sam fail.
As he did with The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson and his creative team have managed to create a lush, expansive world that seems so wholly formed that you might find yourself wanting to visit someday, or at least find it on a map and dream. Yet, the filmmakers are aware that the glorious landscapes, set designs, costumes, or other elements of the production are, as Charles Taylor pointed out on Salon.com, "only good to the extent that they advance narrative and deepen emotion." The pageantry of the film's technical achievements never imposes or overpowers the characters or their stories. That is the kind of storytelling, according to Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, "that the Star Wars and Harry Potter movies only feebly promise."
Yet, they manage to include everything a Tolkien devotee or casual film fan might want in the film. Simply put, it is a spectacular achievement in filmmaking on every level. Writing in Variety, Todd McCarthy summed up the accomplishment thusly, "It's hard to imagine a much better version of this material onscreen. As before, the exceptional New Zealand locations seem to have been created to order for the trilogy, and the way Tolkien's descriptions have been physically realized in the sets, costumes, makeup, hairstyles, special effects and the cast is indisputably impressive. And, once again, Howard Shore's vigorous score, seemingly somewhat altered and darkened … provides valuable support."
So many additional characters enter the fray in The Two Towers that it seems impossible that they should all be given adequate attention. While some might not have the history of others, or given the screen time, all of the characters are portrayed honestly and faithfully. Nothing here is unbelievable or forced. The most impressive and challenging character in the film is that of Gollum. Gollum's insanity and constant internal struggle between good and evil make him arguably the most complex character of the trilogy thus far. Many, if not all, of the other characters are distinctly either good or evil. While it's true that some are tempted by the power of the Ring, they ultimately do what is expected and act as paragons for their chosen moral character. This isn't a flaw in the design of the characters mind you, but rather, an illustration that the main characters are the heroes or villains of Middle-earth and have traits according to those dispositions. This ultimately results in the conflict raging within Gollum being more engaging and tragic than the struggle Frodo feels with the power of the Ring.
While The Two Towers suffers slightly from being the middle chapter in that it has no true beginning or end in terms of classical narrative structure, the relentless action and well-formed drama of the film succeeds in entertaining as well as heightening anticipation for the final chapter in the saga. When all is said and done, the three films should be viewed as one nine-hour epic. Consequently, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings will inevitably be the epic that all future, and perhaps even, past epic films will be judged. On its own merit, however, The Two Towers is, as Roger Ebert simply put it in the Chicago Sun-Times, "one of the most spectacular swashbucklers ever made."
Release Date: 2002
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Brad Dourif, Andy Serkis, Karl Urban, Craig Parker, John Rhys-Davies, Marton Csokas, and Sala Baker
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens
Source Citation: Tyrkus, Michael J. "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." Magill's Cinema Annual 2003. Ed. Christine Tomassini. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 270-272.
The third installment of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, is easily the best film of the series. "As good as each individual movie is," attests Claudia Puig in USA Today, "the third film vaults the work into the stratosphere of classic movies." Indeed, the critical and commercial success of not only the third installment of the trilogy but of all three films has solidified a place in film history as quite possibly the greatest trilogy ever made.
As with the second installment of the trilogy, it would probably be of benefit, to not only the uninitiated and the devout fan, to take a look at the previous chapters of the trilogy prior to experiencing The Return of King. As I wrote in last year's review of The Two Towers, this "is by no means meant to imply that if you haven't seen the earlier films that you won't find [Return of the King] entertaining, it's just that you may find yourself a bit bewildered by the complexity of the proceedings." Like The Two Towers, Jackson chooses to not start the film with the standard "the story so far" recap. Instead, he offers up a short vignette that gives a glimpse of Gollum's back story. Specifically, how he came into possession of the One Ring while he was still the fisherman Smeagol and how the power of the Ring corrupted and deformed him into the tragic Gollum.
The Return of the King (which foretells the ascension of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) to the throne of Gondor) begins, like its predecessor, almost precisely where the previous installment left off. Although victories were had at Helm's Deep and Isengard, the fate of Middle-earth still resides solely in the hands of the hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his ever-faithful companion Sam (Sean Astin) as they make their way to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. They are still being led by the increasingly conflicted Gollum who plans on betraying them and reclaiming the Ring as his own.
Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Peregrin Took (Billy Boyd) travel to Minas Tirith with warnings of an impending attack by Sauron's forces. The slightly mad Denethor (John Noble), in machismo defiance refuses to accept aid from the kingdom of Rohan (although Gandalf sends for assistance anyway). Back in Rohan, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and King Theoden (Bernard Hill) gather forces in preparation for the massive battle against the forces of Sauron at Minas Tirith. Similarly, Aragorn, along with Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), is assembling allies to fight the dark forces as well. These stories move effortlessly until the final battle between men and Orcs at the gates of Mordor; and between Frodo, Sauron, and the power of the Ring. Following what may be one of the more moving denouements ever filmed, Jackson ties up all of the trilogy's loose ends with a series of wrap-ups that succinctly and satisfyingly conclude the saga.
As with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, Jackson has again endowed the world of Middle-earth with enough breadth and scope that it is impossible to discern where the reality ends and the illusion begins. In fact, the production seems far grander for this episode than the previous two. The Battle of Pelennor Fields could arguably be the greatest battle sequence ever committed to film. The use of CGI and other effects is absolutely flawless. There isn't a frame in this film that isn't breathtaking. The scene where the signal fires of Gondor are lit and the beacons across Middle-earth are illuminated is a microcosm of the emotional resonance present throughout the entire film. While Return of the King is the longest of the three films, it hardly plays as a plodding epic. That is not to say that the film is non-stop action. While the action is plentiful, there are far more reflective and emotional episodes than before (after all, everything needs to be wrapped up before the film is over). This is largely due to the fact that the script is far more intricate than in Fellowship or Towers. For, as Desson Thomson pointed out in the Washington Post: "What makes this enormous undertaking work so well is the interweaving of the small- and large-scale plots." The Academy-Award winning script by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens deftly combines the myriad story arcs and manages to tie them all up by the end of the film without any eccentricities while maintaining an emotional consistency that wasn't as prevalent in the previous films. (The fate of Saruman (Christopher Lee), however, is strangely absent from Return of the King. Apparently his "final" scene was held out of The Two Towers and ultimately cut from the final version of the third film. Though it has resurfaced on subsequent DVD releases.) As was the writing for Return of the King, the superb production work was also rewarded with Oscars for practically every non-acting category (art direction, costume design, editing, makeup, music [including best song], sound mixing, and visual effects). This speaks to the vision of the people involved in the project from its genesis. The entire trilogy, as Tom Long wrote in the Detroit News, "reflects a willingness to take chances and work large scale beyond the typical Hollywood star system, a belief in the scope and power and potential of cinema, and a faith in audiences to recognize greatness."
The Return of the King does a wonderful job of completing every character's story arc (the Saruman example notwithstanding). Again, the most complex and interesting character is Gollum. Gandalf is allowed a bit more heroism than he had before but it is still Gollum that succeeds in delivering the greatest emotional impact. Interestingly, female characters are also afforded a bit more independence in this film. Previously, as Roger Ebert alleges in the Chicago Sun-Times, "the series has never known what to do with its female characters. J.R.R. Tolkien was not much interested in them, certainly not at a psychological level." Eowyn however, is given the chance to become an action hero of sorts when she rides into battle alongside the army of Rohan. Similarly, Arwen (Liv Tyler) asserts her independence and takes charge of her own life. At the heart of all of this however, is the simple cautionary warning that temptation is always present and while heroes ultimately prevail, evil does have the ability to corrupt. Although free will is desired, it must be tempered with some amount of social responsibility.
In addition to the numerous Academy Awards the production crew received for the work done on Return of the King, director Jackson garnered the Best Director and Best Picture awards as well. (These 11 awards tied the film with Ben Hur and Titantic for the most Oscars won.) The critical and commercial success that Jackson has been showered with now suggests that he has created possibly the greatest trilogy in the history of film. While that may seem a bold statement given the films that would be left in the wake of The Lord of the Rings (The Godfather as well as the Star Wars films for example), it is important to ruminate on the fact that both of those series had episodes that weren't up to par with their counterparts. Jackson's trilogy however, got better each time out and suffered not one miss. The Lord of the Rings is, as Christopher Tookey asserts in the Daily Mail, "a major cultural landmark, a masterpiece that will inspire future generations of filmmakers, and it will be watched with admiration for as long as cinema exists."
Release Date: 2003
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Andy Serkis, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, Liv Tyler, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Joel Tobeck, Cate Blanchett, David Wenham, Karl Urban, and John Noble
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens
Source Citation: Tyrkus, Michael J. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." Magill's Cinema Annual 2004. Ed. Christine Tomassini. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 269-271.