The film of the Fellowship of the Ring was released in December 2001. The
came out a year later and The Return of the King a year after that. The films were released on DVD, first in “theatrical” (as it is termed) form and then in extended editions.
It has been an annual tradition for an increasingly large subset of our family to watch the movies every Christmas holidays so that for the past 3 years (including this) we’ve seen all three extended editions over a period of 3 days – nearly 16 hours of film. Are we mad? Have we had enough yet?
The answers are no and probably yes. Tolkien’s classic books address timeless themes of friendship, valour, honour, sacrifice and sadness. The films may deviate in some details and omit others, but essentially they are equally, if differently, superb, being true labours of love rather than solely commercial propositions. In a parallel with the fellowship itself, the films represent a partnership between director, writers, designers, actors and musicians which provides a magnificent, emotionally involving total.
The extended editions of the films are so much more complete than the “theatre” versions, but this strength is also a weakness. For cinema release, action and plot took precedence over character. The addition of half an hour or so to each film (15 or 20 scenes) not only provides some essential plot linking but creates characters that were almost entirely absent previously, an essential improvement (and, one assumes, always intended).
But what Peter Jackson needs to do now, if he can stand it which I imagine he can’t, is to re-edit the films yet again to remove all the repetitive elements that were needed for an audience seeing the films spaced a year apart. Frodo and Sam’s journey has far too many scenes, the Treebeard segments drag, and repeated shots of Mount Doom and Saruman urging on his demon underground task force are just not necessary for DVD, when the viewer is in control of the timing. And while he’s about it, Jackson can cut out a few of the endings to the final film, the only section of the trilogy where I think self-indulgence has overtaken art. (Incidentally, I find it odd, given the multiple endings of the last film, that Jackson omits the conclusion(s) of the final book itself: Saruman and Grimli’s escape, the scouring of the Shire including Hobbit complicity, and what happens to the rest of the fellowship.)
If Jackson could or would tighten up the films, the emotional impact of some of the most marvellous episodes and scenes could be even more powerful. I am not a particularly patient person, nor am I someone who reads books or sees films more than once. To understand why I can enjoy the repeated experience of the Lord of the Rings so much, I will pick out (with great difficulty) a few of the most wonderful moments:
- The council of Elrond, and the newly formed fellowship starts out across the first mountain pass.
- The bridge at Kasad-dum sequence: the escape from the orcs, the leap across the chasm, the Balrog, Gandalf’s fall; the exit from Moria and the grief on the rocks outside – this last accompanied by unbearably sad, beautiful music.
- The arming of the old men and boys (music again), followed by the battle of the Hornberg (Helm’s Deep) and the arrival of Gandalf and Eomir at dawn on the fifth day.
- The elegiac story of Arwen and Aragorn (told in an appendix to the novels, but woven into the films’ narrative), in particular the vision of Arwen on her journey to the White Havens.
- The ride of Gandalf and Pippin, with our first full sight of Minis Tirith.
- The lighting of the beacons from Gondor to Rohan.
- Gandalf and Pippin’s conversation at Minis Tirith as they believe it is about to fall – and Gandalf’s earlier advice to Frodo “it is not what we do….”.
- Elrond gives Anduril – flame of the west – to Aragorn.
- Theoden’s speech and the battle of Pelennor fields.
- Aragorn’s speech and final charge at the Black Gate.
And some more general high points:
- The opening sequences of all three films: Galadriel’s account of the formation and history of the ring; Gandalf and the Balrog in Frodo’s dream; Smeagol becomes Gollum.
- The sets – particularly of Rivendell, Lothlorien, Minis Tirith.
- The Rohirrim.
- The music, whose contribution to these films cannot be overstated.
- The dialogue.
- The acting. Without exception, the main actors (the fellowship) and the supports are utterly convincing in their roles. It would be difficult to single out one actor, but if I had to do so I would choose Bernard Hill as Theoden, who enhances every scene he is in.
- The choreography of the battles.
If one wants to pick holes in these films, there are plenty of opportunities. There is too much sentiment, particularly in the infantalisation of the hobbits and the shire; there are some logical inconsistencies; and the timing is out in a few places (for example the final return of Faramir from Osgiliath). The Sam/Frodo sections are far too drawn-out even for an allegory. There are also significant differences from the books, many of which are in my view improvements (the broken sword, the inclusion of Arwen and her story, omission of Tom Bombadil and some early parts of Frodo’s journey), although others are not (Merry, Pippin, Legolas and Gimli are somewhat or completely reduced to caricature). But these do not need to detract from what can be a magnificent experience if the viewer lets it. Whether it is one I will replicate next year in full, I am not so sure.