When I left the theater after The Fellowship of the Ring, I remember thinking, and then announcing to some of my companions, “They took a good book and turned it into a good movie.” I still believe this—because while it is a truism that in every transfer from one media to another a measure of change is anticipated, and indeed inevitable, in the case of the first movie that change was positive. Of course positive change like this is not the norm in book-to-movie transfers (a point which is frequently lamented by booklovers the world over), because it seems that most often the book-to-movie butterfly that emerges from the screenwriter’s chrysalis undergoes a violently unrecognizable transformation. It is a rare film indeed that surpasses its source material in quality.
When it came to the Lord of the Rings films I was willing, and eager, to be as forgiving as possible to the necessary changes the production team would bring to the films. I came to the films with a willingness to go with the changes and evaluate them on their own merits apart from the original books. As I mentioned, with The Fellowship of the Ring I was pleasantly surprised. My eyes narrowed, however, as the changes became more drastic and warped with The Two Towers. I was downright infuriated with The Return of the King.
Before I vent my fury, allow me to clarify just how far I was willing to accept the changes made to Tolkien’s material. I was okay with the battle of Helm’s Deep ending The Two Towers and Shelob’s lair moving to The Return. I was willing to forgive Saruman’s spikey falling-death from Orthanc. I graciously accepted the omission of the Scouring of the Shire from the end of the film. I understood why the army of the dead is brought to the battle of the Pellenor Fields. I was even willing to forgive (barely) the illogical breaking of Gandalf’s staff. And I was willing to overlook (and attempt to ignore) the absurd, badly written, and poorly delivered speech by Aragorn at the end of the film (complete with cloying and out-of-the-can applause—shudder!). I may not understand each of these cinematic choices, but I am willing to accept them as inevitable alterations in the transfer of media. But the following three changes to The Return of the King were, in my estimation, unforgivable. They ruined the film for me.
Unforgivable #1: Light and Darkness
A significant—if not essential—narrative motif in The Return of the King is the interplay of light and darkness (a motif that stretches deep into Tolkien’s mythology). Gollum, who loves what is secret, hidden, and dark, despises and is terrified of the light. Shelob the spider is a creature of darkness, dwelling in darkness. And the orcs, of course, are the opposites of the elves, hating and loathing all light (Saruman’s orcs the exception by way of mutation). It is a significant plot point that Mordor employs the power of darkness to facilitate despair—before the siege of Gondor, Mordor, by craft, causes the sun to be obscured so that darkness will reign. The darkness causes men to despair and gives power to Sauron’s army of orcs.
No particularly in-depth reading of Tolkien’s books is required to appreciate this motif—it is clearly on the surface of the books. And so I was startled, as I watched the movie, to notice the proliferation of light—bright, hot, oversaturated sunlight on key scenes. Gondor, apparently, isn’t in darkness, but enjoys bright summer sun. Orcs are quite content to hang out in what amounts (in a later scene) to a bright, if overcast, day. Frodo and Gollum, while in Mordor (or near enough) find themselves lit by mysterious, bright white lights. Even Shelob’s lair, meant to be the blackest place in Middle Earth, is quite luminous by any standards. It is not too much to observe that the lighting in The Return of the King, bright, hot, and oversaturated, was atrocious.
You might object that the filmmakers couldn’t capture everything, that some details were bound to be lost in the transfer process. You might argue that my critique here is unreasonable. But I want to remind you that we’re discussing a design team that painstakingly learned an invented elvish script so they could write words in languages nobody knows on props that nobody would see, and that at the same time they ‘forgot’ that two thirds of the movie takes place in darkness. The individual trees are beautiful, but something’s fishy about this forest.
Because of this colossal, overarching, indeed epic, error, my favorite moment from Tolkien’s trilogy was flubbed. The riders of Rohan, completing their long journey, arrive at Minas Tirith to rescue the people of Gondor. With their arrival three things happen at once—first, the wind changes. A light breeze comes from over the sea which begins to turn the clouds of Sauron’s darkening magic back. With the breeze comes the dawn, ending the darkness and signaling the renewed hope for the men who fight Sauron, and lastly, with both the breeze and the dawn, the army of Rohan sounds their horns and rides into battle. Now, that moment of arrival is the critical, tide-turning moment in the battle. But in the film, since it’s already daylight, since the orcs are fighting in bright sun, since there is no culmination of events to highlight what is happening, the moment passes with all the fury of a mewing kitten. What had the potential to be, and ought to have been, the most cinematically stunning moment in all three films, was a complete flub. Unforgivable.
Unforgivable #2: Eowyn’s Feminist Utterance
So there’s this proverb in Tolkien’s universe that the Witch-King of Angmar (that is, the black-clad, black-crowned ringwraith riding that crazy dragon thing) cannot be killed by any man. This is a phrase the Witch-King has taken to heart, and he now fights with particular confidence against the men of Middle Earth. The problem, of course, is that he hasn’t accounted for either Hobbits or Irony—hence his death at the hands of Merry and Eowyn. Eowyn, who feels slighted by her gender and hungers for the glory of battle, has hidden herself among the riders of Rohan, riding to battle against the will of her uncle and brother. Brought face to face with the cruel ringwraith, he announces that no man can kill him, and she, removing her helmet and revealing her long blond locks, utters, defiantly, “I am no man.” She might as well have thumped her chest and grunted, “I am woman, hear me roar.”
Why should this be unforgivable? Because death, dying, and how you face those realities may be the central purpose of the entire Lord of the Rings. The real question which confronts each character is, “What will you do with death?” The ring represents the possibility of a kind of deathlessness—to cheat destiny and change our fortunes. Galadriel, remember, ‘passes the test’ because in refusing the ring she agrees to fade into the West. To reject the ring—to reject its power—is to accept the death which is destined for you. What that means for Eowyn, as a vignette in this symphony, is that her battlefield presence and cry is a rhapsody on death. To make it a feminist battle cry is to celebrate where Tolkien would have us weep. It is, in short, one of the most appalling alterations in the film.
Here then stands Eowyn, where in the books she is written to be at her most tragic, feminine, and beautiful, and instead she is shouting what has been turned into a feminist slogan. Her death song has been hijacked by a modernist agenda; cheapened to appeal to modern sensibilities. Feminism, let me be clear, is not in view here. Her cry of “I am no man” is not a challenge to masculinity, but rather the bitter acceptance of death, a despairing utterance of a woman with a great heart, now bitterly aware of the cost of battle to which her brother warned her. Eowyn has come to battle to die, not to live, and her cry is the suicide-cry of a soul despairing. Her beauty, then, stems from the pity we ought to feel at her disregard for her own life. Hers is not a heroism we should desire to emulate, which the feminist cry tempts us, but one that we should pity.
It is so easy, today, to cater to the expectations of your audience. After all, how do reach the other 50% of the population when the primary audience for your films are middle-aged and somewhat nerdy men? The need for stronger female characters than those Tolkien wrote is culturally evident. I have no problem with the films accenting the roles of Eowyn and Arwen, but when those accents are inimical to the underlying purpose of the books themselves, I have problems. In this case, instead of transcending and indeed transforming a culture with something poignant and deep, Eowyn’s cry becomes the cheap appeal to modern sensibilities. In the most tragic sense, here is an episode where the filmmakers have traded the real good for a false one (which I have written about elsewhere).
Unforgivable #3: The Deaths of Théoden and Denethor
I have said already that how one faces death is one of Tolkien’s central motifs in The Lord of the Rings, and within the series arguably the two brightest instances of this motif are in the character portraits of King Théoden and Denethor the Steward. Their portraits shine more brightly, in fact, because their deaths are directly contrasted.
Both men are aged, both lead nations. Both have been deceived by the enemy (Théoden by Saruman, Denethor by Sauron). Both must make a decision about how to respond to the enemy’s threat on behalf of their nation. Théoden, rescued from Saruman’s spell by Gandalf, takes up his sword and, from the moment of his healing, chooses to lay his life on the line. He chooses battle for the greater cause, rather than retreat and temporary safety. Théoden is one of the noblest characters in the whole book because of this choice—a choice which is utterly obscured by the film’s interpretation. In the end, Théoden’s death loses all its poetry because it had been stripped of its significance.
Denethor’s case is similar. He refuses Gandalf’s advice, and, we learn, trusts instead in the council of Sauron via a seeing stone. His death is not a death given for others, as was Théoden’s, but is a tragic suicide in the rejection of all hope. The farthest thing I can imagine from Denethor’s death is being a) smacked by Gandalf into a fire, b) igniting by accident, then c) running and jumping off a cliff. This is an interpretation that belongs in another universe. Denethor, instead, retreats inward, his self-immolating hatred of the living revealing itself in the embrace of death, but Théoden presents the life-lived outward—he indeed embraces death, but he does so for others, not for himself. Théoden dies a hero, while Denethor dies, not accidentally, but through the bitter and hellish inwardness that is born from a refusal to embrace noble death. Nothing could be further from this central element in Tolkien’s books than the utterly deviant depictions created by the filmmakers here.
In reflection back on these films, I wonder that perhaps never before has a source material been so exhaustively mined and consequently applied to purposes so alien, and indeed inimical, to its original intention. Where Tolkien’s original works evoke a timelessness, a poetry, a deep and refreshing sensibility, Jackson’s auterial interpretation evokes only what is temporary and populist. The result is, in short, one of the greatest disappointments in film history.