Wednesday, December 17, 2003


While watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, I kept thinking of the lines from Auden's famous 1955 review of the novel: "Here are beauties that pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart." Tolkien's novel has many, many dimensions, but in his adaptation Peter Jackson has zeroed in on the same one that Auden did, the emotional.

Jackson's trilogy, for all its action sequences--and ROTK is a furious time-machine of a movie that grabs you and, when it's ready, lets you go, drained and amazed that three and a half hours have gone by--is all about emotion. Jackson has been criticized for his screen-filling close-ups of Elijah Wood's face, but they work: Wood's highly-expressive face is the visual emotional center of the films.

This tendency affects the way the third film is told. In the book, the protagonist of the Mordor sequences is not Frodo but Sam; by the third book, Frodo's personality has largely been submerged by the overwhelming force of the One Ring, and we see Mordor through Sam's eyes. But the movie keeps the focus on Wood's Frodo as its visual anchor, so Sam is only a supporting character here. But by and large Jackson's departures from the book work pretty well. I will even risk blasphemy to say that one sequence, the Paths of the Dead episode, is actually an improvement over the book version, which always feels hurried to me when I reread it.

There are far too many highlights to mention. The performances are wonderful, and Miranda Otto especially shines. I imagine that people will quibble about the bad guys being led by The Toxic Orcvenger and Legolas becoming The Amazing Spider-Elf. And parts of the film (the theatrical lease anyway) feel truncated. But I still loved it. ROTK jerks every possible tear out of the audience, but every one is earned. Like Gandalf says in it, "I will not say, 'weep not,' for not all tears are evil."

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