Some may know I enjoy the various stories of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth very much, and beyond just having re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings several times each. Some of those who know that were surprised I hadn’t watched Peter Jackson’s movie versions, but I had good reasons for avoiding them: I’d heard plenty about what was done in the movies. It bothered me. Important plot points were left out and others were changed in important ways.
I’ve still had voices telling me I should see them anyway though, and the thought of buying the series was rolling around in my head. So, finally, a couple of weeks ago I broke down and bought the Bluray set. And last night I watched all 9 hours of movie in one, long marathon. Here are my thoughts on the series. Yes I will spoil freely. You should have read the books by now, but if you haven’t, don’t read on.
First, I have to address the changes. Some minor things were omitted completely for time reasons, and I understand, but I still missed them: Wormtongue throwing the Palantir in anger, causing Saruman terrible disappointment is a great laugh moment in the books for me, likewise Bilbo offending his party guests with the one gross talk (indeed, the whole point of it also being Frodo’s 33rd birthday was completely missed). Frodo leaving the night Gandalf returns, and not years later after Aragorn and Gandalf track Gollum, was livable but forced Merry and Pippin into a pure comedy relief role to explain their presence at all. Aragorn’s “death” and the gratuitous extra footage of Arwen that came with it were pointless but again, they were livable. The tweaks to the story of Isildur, painting him as a villain, and using him to make Elrond a bit of a bigot against Men was questionable but probably necessary to add drama to the already-made decision to enhance Arwen’s role.
But the major things irk more: Skipping the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-downs was terrible. The special effects of the Barrow-downs would have been something special, and of course the Old Forest was actually an important plot point given that Merry and Pippin discuss it later, on screen, at Fangorn. Giving Arwen, not Gandalf, the role of driving away the Nazgûl after Weathertop was a crime. The talk of Dwarf women was a cheap laugh setting up a pointless flirtation of Aragorn with Éowyn was doubly pointless. Completely leaving out the Mouth of Sauron was unfortunate, because his demands for permanent slavery on one hand, and permanent disarmament and tribute on the other hand, set a tone.
But some choices in the movies I definitely didn’t mind: the choice to show a number of things in chronological order, regardless of when they were revealed in the books, still worked. I refer particularly to Gandalf’s imprisonment at the top of Orthanc. Starting the third movie with the tale of Sméagol and Déagol was great, as was the whole portrayal of good Sméagol versus bad Gollum in his mind. Having Galadriel be a narrator I think worked. I think it fits her personality.
Which brings me into what scenes just flat-out worked. So much of the Gandalf-centered humor was nice: Speak “friend” and enter, Gandalf’s instructions upon meeting Denethor, the smoke rings(!). But of course the big moments were generally very big: The bridge at Khazad-dûm (which we get to see twice!) was very nice, all disputes about The Wings™ notwithstanding. Rohan riding to Gondor’s aid was as it should have been. The collapse of the foundation of Barad-dûr taking down half of Mordor with it was nice. Faramir’s ride was well done, and the march beforehand made it clear just how pointless it was to try to take back Osgiliath from the Nazgûl and their army. And for that matter Boromir’s death was as redemptive as it should have been.
The one crowning moment that I don’t think got the attention it deserved, though: Éowyn Dernhelm’s fight with the Witch-king. It seemed rushed. Seemed like it took three times as long for Théoden to die as for that fight to happen, which disappointed me a bit.
I don’t regret buying them and watching them though, and given my deep appreciation of the source material, that’s the best thing I can say about these movies, short of saying they were faithful. But there was no way they could be faithful without the series running over twice as long as it did (about 9 hours in the version I have).
Gandalf should have been the one to summon the white horses though, not Arwen. That was the one seriously bad thing the movie did. Far, far worse than the morphing of Elrond’s refusal to allow Arwen to marry Aragorn prior to Kingship, into a 3,000 year old grudge against all men because Isildur kept the One.
Update: I even missed two of my favorite parts, in listing the parts I liked, which tells you something. Galadriel’s refusal of the One was fantastic, and the flooding of Isengard made me smile.