Monday, September 19, 2005

The Best LoTR Movie

The Two Towers was on cable last night. Watching it reminded me why this was the best of the three Lord of the Rings movies.

Of course, Return of the King is the one that won the Oscar but it was understood that it was for the entire work.

Tolkien did not write a trilogy. He wrote one very long novel. The publisher assumed that it would lose money but wanted to publish it anyway as a prestige piece. In order to reduce the projected loses, they cut the book into three sections. The first division was natural. The first third of the book is one continuous narrative. With the breaking of the fellowship, the narrative is also broken, following the hobbits and Gimli (Aragorn, Legolas, and Gandolf are always seen through other's eyes) as they go their separate ways. This continues until the unmaking of the ring when the narrative settles back on Frodo and Sam. The second book ends on a cliffhanger, but this is a literary device to keep you reading.

The movies were always meant as three movies even though they follow one continuous plot. They were released a year apart and had to make enough money to support the enormous costs New Line undertook. When one of the movies ended, the viewer had to be satisfied until the next year. That required some tinkering with Tolkien.

The Fellowship of the Ring follows the book pretty closely. Some parts are cut for time but it is what you would expect.

The Return of the King had to wrap everything up. The theatrical release was very long, possibly too long. Even at that, it was missing a couple of key scenes.

The Two Towers gave Jackson the most leeway. In Tolkien's version it is simply the middle of the book but Jackson had to make it a movie that could stand on its own. He did this is several ways.

First, he shifted some parts to the RoTK. This let him set up Helm's Deep as the big battle. Rather than continue on to the cliffhanger of Frodo being prisoner and Sam disparing how to rescue him, Jackson had Gollum relieve his plans to betray Frodo.

Jackson also introduced a new element into Frodo's relationship with Gollum - redemption. Frodo was clearly disturbed by this vision of what the ring might turn him into given enough time. He wanted to believe that Gollum could be saved because it meant that he could be saved himself. Sam never realizes this causing the first rift between them.

Another element that is moved is Aragorn's relationship with Arwen. This is the third and final joining of elves and men, the first since the long war with Morgoth. Aragorn spent his adult life earning this honor yet Tolkien treats Arwen as a cameo. Most of their romance happens in the appendix. With no appendix, Jackson moves events and creates new ones.

Aragorn's personal growth is handled differently than in Tolkien. In the book, he keeps reminding the Fellowship that he is insufficient to replace Gandolf. He is relieved when Frodo separates. He no longer has to shoulder Gandolf's burden. After that, he seems perfectly at ease with everything that happens.

Jackson has Aragorn a lot less decisive at the beginning but he comes to his own at Helm's Deep.

All of this made the Two Towers a better movie but Jackson paid for it with the Return of the King. He felt that after Helm's Deep, the audience would want a quick resolution so he put off confronting Saruman until the next movie. This was a mistake. The scene had to be cut for time so the confrontation only happens in the extended edition of RoTK.

The confrontation between Frodo and Shelob could as easily been in TT and again, it was moved in order to wrap up TT quickly.

The effects of different cuts are cumulative. The extended edition of FoTR adds very little. The entire narrative is there. In TT, scenes are cut that are setting up for RoTK. TT does not suffer for the cuts but RoTK does. The scene that sets up the relationship between Denethor and his sons is a major example.

By putting off key scenes, we end up with an extended edition for RoTK that is almost as long as the theatrical versions of FoTR and TT put together. Even at that length, the characters of Gondor are nowhere near as well developed as the Riders of Rohan.

Not that RoTK is anything less than a great movie. It just means that TT was better.

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