Watched the three Lord of the Rings films (extended editions) over the past three evenings, helping to account for lack of postings. Usually there is no time for watching anything on TV but these are truly great movies — essential to view the EEs — and if there is not time to see them at Christmas (eve, day, boxing day), then when is there?
Seeing the films all together all0ws the themes to emerge more strongly than seeing them a year apart at the cinema or at initial DVD release. Peter Jackson is strongest on the set pieces: the entire Moria sequence, culminating in the Balrog scenes in films 1 and 2, are not only brilliant but a superb adornment to the book (in Tolkein, Gandalf v Balrog is handled laconically in one paragraph almost as an aside); the entire Helm’s Deep battle, from preparation to aftermath, is a breathtaking range of emotions; the Ents once they get to Isengard (not before!), Pellenor Fields, and the Black Gate (this last also a great improvement on the books, in which it is barely noted that it, and the eye, have disintegrated).
Sincerity infuses the film, and in conjunction with the wonderful score, leads to many moving moments: Gandalf with Pippin at Miras Tirith before what they believe to be their end; the Arwen/Aragon story (an Appendix in the books) woven into the main plot, including the gem of Arwen’s vision while en route to the Grey Havens; the fractured fellowship on the rocks outside Moria, numb and grief-stricken; the arming of the Rohirrim boys and old men before the battle; the dawn scene on "the fifth day"; the elven havens of Rivendell and Lothlorien, with their ethereal, beautiful sets.
There are self-indulgences (more than a few) — Sam and Frodo’s constant adulation of the Shire (a chocolate-box paradise), Merry/Pippin/Ent, the sudden focus on a character purely to provide the next plot development, and the multi-endings of the final film (each OK in itself but most of them far too drawn out). The movies were released at widely separate intervals so repetition was more necessary than usual in a film to establish events with audiences (so I told myself each time Sam and Frodo used up screen time in one of their seemingly endless indentical scenes, or Boromir fell in slow motion).
Some deviations from Tolkein are improvements on the books: Arwen’s initial appearance and horseback flight with Frodo, Islidur’s sword and Elrond’s role in its return to Aragorn, the omission of Tom Bombadil and the various Middle Earth peoples who gather at Minas Tirith for the final battle. Others are not: omission of Elrond’s sons, the elvish reinforcements at Helm’s Deep (the elves are presented in the films as in the books as a dying race), everyone’s viciousness to Gollum (except Frodo). For purists, the upgrading of Osgiliath to a tactically necessary outpost (it is a ruin in the books) does not make geographical sense. The omission of the Sarauman/Shire plot could have been necessary for length reasons, though I think that the Frodo/Sam sections and the over-indulgent endings could have been cut in favour of a flavour of reality to the Shire as opposed to presenting it as fairyland through and through. And was it dramatically necessary to introduce Gollum and ring-inspired distrust between Sam and Frodo? I think this served to drag out their scenes even more, rather than adding tension.
The movies as a trilogy are a magnificent achievement, an epic and emotional realisation of the few life-messages that actually matter. They are tightly woven together, with themes in one picked up in the next, scenes and characters glimpsed in one film developed in another (the scene of Gandalf in Minas Tirith in the first film, for example). There is a sense of history, and the characters in the film having their place in it. The pacing is perfect: establishment of the fellowship and task in the first movie, the Rohan dominance of the second, and the Gondor of the third, each film addressing the issues of power, politics and personal integrity from these differering perspectives. Within each movie, the cutting between the various characters’ stories not only enhances the drama but shows directly, again and again, how the outcome of one character’s decision directly affects events in another thread. Whatever the caveats, these films are fantastic.