- Our discussion presumes that you have read J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings; viewed Peter Jackson's film rendition of it, The Lord of the Rings; or preferably both. If the major points of the story are not moderately clear in your mind, please re-read the novel, and/or re-view the film before reading beyond the line below. Warning: major plot-surprise spoilers below!
- Of the three-part film, we discuss only the complete or Extended Version; the original theatrical release is best ignored hereafter. The Extended Version on DVD is two hours longer in total, about 22 percent, with much important additional material. It is the Extended Version that earns its title, truly worthy of being called The Lord of the Rings.
- As The Lord of the Rings is all one novel, a single story whether printed in one volume or several, so The Lord of the Rings is all one film of that novel, whether seen or purchased severally or all at once.
- Our discussion below does not pretend to be a complete review.
So we present here a discussion, not a thorough review or critique, of The Lord of the Rings film. We mention points of interest that occur to us, mostly differences between the novel and the film. We lightly categorize these as excellences, oddities, and Balrog Eggs.
Some special excellences of the audio-visual rendition:
- The finer slicing and interleaving of the several plot-tracks after the breaking of the Fellowship create considerably more suspense in the film. This is the film's single most important gain.
- Saruman's move to the forefront as visible and current enemy gives the viewer an on-stage opponent to the Fellowship. This allows the Council of Elrond to be much shortened, distant events shown rather than related afterwards, and the viewer is very clear that the heroes are not boxing with shadows.
- Women are more present and active. A great improvement which enhances realism.
- The boosting of Arwen's part (though unfortunately at Glorfindel's expense) is very well done, and gives her the importance which is only implied in The Lord of the Rings, or described in Tolkien's Appendices.
- Galadriel's temptation in Lothlorien is beautifully shown. This is understated in The Fellowship of the Ring, but is an absolutely critical point in the plot. More than anyone else under the sun in Middle Earth except perhaps Gandalf or Saruman, the great Galadriel understands fully what the Ring can give someone, especially can give her: she would be Queen of the World, powerful without limit. When she says "I have passed the test", your senior reviewer heard a tone in Cate Blanchett's voice that he did not hear in multiple readings of the novel: relief, wondrous relief and acceptance. Passing this supreme test of character was not a given that Galadriel dared presume beforehand.
- The long pursuit on foot, by Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, of the captured Merry and Pippin, shows the viewer a good impression of wide countryside, of the breadth of Middle Earth. Before the telegraph and the steamship shrank the world, it was much wider and contained many mysteries, exotica, and surprises; and the bygone friction of distance much more impeded communication, movement, and knowledge.
- King Theoden's depressed state, and the vivid change to his recovered health and energy, seem more clear in the film.
- In Helm's Deep, the women and children in the back of the cavern show vividly the all-too-frequent helpless victims of war. They are frightened almost out of hope, and reasonably so.
- The artistically computer-enhanced major battle scenes give us the War of the Ring with its multitudes, no mere skirmishes of principals. For instance, there are 300,000 individual orcs in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
- Andy Serkis' role in acting out Gollum's part, plus the computerized overlay, give us a stunningly creative portrayal of this very odd but critical character. It is especially valuable when Gollum's better and worse natures are arguing with each other.
- Aragorn's kingly nature and his rising to it, makes more assured and appropriate his eventual assumption of kingship in Gondor.
- Eowyn is well portrayed, neither pampered princess nor demigoddess, but human heroine.
- The movie does not overdo the hairy feet of the Hobbits, which is a pratfall for so many of the printed-volume and calendar illustrators.
- The battle horns of Rohan give us a wind-call from ancient Northern forests and plains, the hunters gone to war.
- King Theoden rallying the Rohirrim is scalp-tingling, and the subsequent charge well illustrates the shock of heavy cavalry.
- Legolas versus the giant oliphant and its crew is a striking example of the individual elven potential, and what the strengths of the Elves in the Elder Days and the Last Alliance, in peace and war, must have been.
- The underground encounter, and later the attack by the Army of the Dead with its result, are more understandable and believable.
- The climactic fight between Frodo and Gollum is cleverly shown.
- Bravery, loyalty, sensitivity, mercy, and strength of character — the old and timeless chivalric values are given believable faces.
Some oddities to which our attention was drawn in the audio-visual rendition, as well as some less-fortunate of the cinematic interpretations:
- Cornfields containing American corn, that is maize. Tolkien already has given us Western Hemisphere tobacco and potatoes. A directorial blot.
- Mucky orc-faces of the Moria orcs make them look like they escaped from a horror film. Other orcs are better: Uruk-hai and the orcs of Mordor. (Your senior reviewer's least-liked point.)
- Sunlight is tolerable for Uruk-hai but not for Mordor's orcs, and it affects when the latter can travel and fight. This differentiation in the novel is not clear in the film.
- Additional plot items which didn't seem necessary to the film, such as the contingent of Elvish reinforcements at Helm's Deep, beyond what the Elves are collectively capable of at the end of the Third Age. (Your junior reviewer's least-liked point.)
- The Sword that was Broken, before being reforged at Rivendell in the novel, or reforged and brought to Dunharrow in the movie, either way seems an awkward weapon. We must take it as a measure of the quality of the blade, and of the man, that Aragon (as Strider) is a great warrior even wielding half a sword.
- Dwarf-tossing provides a few intrusive spots of Down-Under comic relief. A directorial blot.
- Extra tension between Frodo and Bilbo, and between Bilbo and Sam, sometimes feels uncomfortably wide of their characters.
- The Nazgul's breaking of Gandalf's rod or staff of wizardly office is an implausible addition. Gandalf is of a higher order than Nazgul / Ring-wraiths.
- Legolas' ever-full quiver of arrows is invaluable in battle, like the twenty-shooting sixguns in some Western movies.
- The war elephants, or oliphants, seem over-large and akin to Star Wars' Imperial walkers.
- Molten lava is so dangerous to anyone at all near, that escape from Orodruin seems miraculously fortunate.
- The White Tree remains a not-quite-explained intrusion from Numenor, in the film as in the novel.
Some Balrog Eggs, or significantly bad surprises in the film:
- The biggest Balrog Egg by far is the leap to Bree, in The Fellowship of the Ring, from Farmer Maggot's cornfield outside Buckland, all the way to the gate of Bree. We miss Tolkien's Buckland, hot baths with singing, alarm in the night, the Old Forest, Old Man Willow (a foreshadowing of the Ents), Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, the barrow-downs and barrow-wights. After this leap to Bree, your senior reviewer here couldn't quite realign himself to the plot for the duration of his first viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring.
- Tolkien's songs are mostly missing, and he provides quite a range of them. Songs are especially important in pre-printing-press cultures. In the novel they provide changes of pace, and a leavening across a range of emotions.
- The Dunedain, or Rangers, are missing. The Dunedain provide a partial reason for the survival of good folk and regions in Middle Earth, and a partial explanation for what the forces of good have been doing before the opening of the story. Your junior reviewer particularly disliked that Aragorn as Strider has no background.
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is one of the all-time great novels, a truly noble achievement, and Peter Jackson's film of it is a worthy visual recreation. Any such vast, rich book contains mansions of the imagination that cannot be shown in film; yet this film contains many, many felicities of the novel faithfully and creatively reproduced, and adds a number of new ones. Read the book, and see the film.