Give Me My Eucatastrophe, Dammit: Gripes on "Return of the King"

Having seen all three films in a row, I thought every change made to the narrative and characterization line of the books in Fellowship was perfect (except perhaps for the over-dramatization of the Council of Elrond and the Hong Kong cinema excess of the wizard’s duel between Saruman and Gandalf). The only flawed changes in The Two Towers were less trivial but still fairly insignificant. (I found the changes to the Entmoot and their decision to go to war pointless).

However, there are a few places in Return of the King where I thought Jackson departed from Tolkien at a significant cost. Some of those departures I expect will be restored in the Extended Edition, and unlike the other two films, I very much suspect that I will need to see the Extended Edition to really love Return of the King as much as I ought to. For those who haven’t read Tolkien, I don’t think these departures will affect their enjoyment of the film at all. Since they don’t know what they’re missing, they won’t know how much better the narrative line of Return of the King is in a few key places—but anyone who has read it may, and may find themselves wistfully irritated with a few of Jackson’s choices.

This is not about purism, or a belief that Tolkien is always better. In fact, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, since I sat through the whole thing yesterday, is in many respects an improvement on Tolkien, purely in terms of its narrative and characterization. Among Jackson’s sustained improvements on Tolkien over the whole trilogy:

1. Casting off useless one-off characters like Glorfindel or Imrahil (one can well understand why one of Tolkien’s colleagues, listening to readings of the draft of LOTR, was said to mutter, “Oh, fuck, another elf”) in favor of strengthening the dramatic intensity of the Aragorn-Arwen romance and other key subplots, as well as not having to pause to explain who this suddenly if briefly significant new person is.

2. Vastly strengthening the dramatic core of Aragorn’s story. In the books, he’s so sure of himself, so certain, so perfect, that he’s actually rather boring, the most static and plot-transparent of the major characters.

3. Making Eowyn a much more appealing, resonant character, not the caricature of frigidity that Tolkien offers.

4. Making Gollum not just a sympathetic, believable, interesting character, but also tightening the psychological tension between Gollum, Sam and Frodo to a remarkable degree.

5. Getting the archaic, fantasy-medieval tone of Tolkien’s dialogue right without having to perfectly reproduce it in its full tedious ponderosity.

6. Visually and narratively capturing the underlying melancholy of the story, the sense that the characters have of inhabiting a landscape of ruins and ghosts, of living in the aftermath of historical grandeur and diminished possibility. Tolkien needs a boatload of lore and exposition to pull off the same thing.

7. Choreographing battle scenes and conflict in a way that is both distinctive and true to the setting, and giving each film’s set-piece conflicts their own mood and character. (Tolkien accomplishes this, too, but Jackson does it cinematically in a way that’s quite inventive and in some ways more densely rewarding than Tolkien.)

Alongside all of these accomplishments you also have to give Jackson and his team enormous credit for faithfully envisioning Middle-Earth and avoiding tremendous pitfalls along the way. They not only captured the look of places I always was able to clearly visualize (Moria, Rivendell, the Shire, Rohan, Helm’s Deep) but also did a great job with parts of the books that I always have found myself less able to picture (the Paths of the Dead, Minas Tirith, Minas Morgul). There were a lot of places where things could have gone terribly, terribly awry and didn’t—just think of the elves, for example, who could easily have ended up looking like a bunch of Shaun Cassidy clones in bathrobes.

Taken as a whole, Return of the King carries forward the energy and imagination of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed it a lot. There’s a number of specific things that work beautifully in it. The tightening of the tension between Gollum, Frodo and Sam in the approach to Cirith Ungol is terrific, and the final struggle between Frodo and Gollum in the Cracks of Doom is equally well-executed. Any and all scenes with Theoden in them are first-rate, and both the mustering of the Rohirrim and their arrival at the Pelennor worked wonderfully as well. There’s some deft work with fleshing out

But then there are the differences between Jackson and Tolkien that don’t sit nearly as well. In this respect, virtually every change made in Fellowship was great, most of the changes in The Two Towers were good, but some of the changes in Return are a substantial mistake.

Not all of them. Changes that don’t bother me in the slightest include:

The loss of Aragorn’s use of the palantir to challenge Sauron—the basic narrative device of diverting Sauron’s attention to Minas Tirith and Isildur’s heir is still strong in Jackson’s ROTK.

The death of Saruman. Yeah, it’ll be on the Extended Edition, but this version did just fine without it.

The Scouring of the Shire. Yeah, I love that part of the book, too, but it really is unworkable without another thirty minutes of screen time, and its loss merely deprives the whole story of an especially nifty kind of closure. Jackson does a good job of bringing the story back to the Shire and its simple pleasures, which is the most important thing.

The parlay with the Mouth of Sauron, who for some peculiar reason is one of my favorite characters in the books, is clearly dispensible, much as I missed seeing it.

But there are a few things that I think actually constitute serious narrative mistakes where Jackson peculiarly departs from Tolkien’s cue, and I don’t think he can offer as an alibi that he needed to compress or excise for the sake of cinematic clarity or length.

That alibi is a bit shopworn anyway, considering that in Return of the King, as in The Two Towers, there are a few notable cases where the script actually wastes unnecessary time. In The Two Towers, for example, there’s the long pointless interlude with Aragorn being dragged off the cliff by a warg and finding his way back to Helm’s Deep. It accomplishes nothing useful in the narrative or in terms of characterization that could not be accomplished much more minimally. Return of the King dawdles some in the first hour in general. More pointedly there is a bizarrely redundant staging of Faramir’s wounding. He could come back from Osgiliath the first time wounded and so set up Denethor’s descent into madness from that point onward, matching the mood of gathering dread. Faramir’s suicide charge is especially annoying and time-wasting due to being intercut with a hugely excessive scene of Denethor eating and listening to Pippin sing. That scene was more overstaged than perhaps anything else in the entire saga.

In fact, to continue on this point, Jackson just plain misses the boat on Denethor, making him into a caricatured villain whose death is something you cheer rather than mourn. Denethor’s stupidity in the defense of the city goes so over the top, and unnecessarily so—the point of the battle is that even if the defenders of Gondor do their best, they’re overmatched. No need to lard it on with a trowel by making Denethor into a coward, pretender and lackwit, particularly since Jackson doesn’t have the palantir in the picture as an explanation for Denethor’s fall from grace.

The single biggest, most important problem with the film is the pacing of the battle for Minas Tirith, where Tolkien gets it right and Jackson gets it really, really wrong. To begin with, the loss of the Darkness coming out of Mordor and covering eastern Gondor in general is a really serious and puzzling thing. Yeah, the characters all talk about how the days are growing dark and so on, but it’s not at all visually reinforced in any meaningful way, and there is no sudden moment where darkness rolls out of Mount Doom to cover the lands close to Mordor. This is a crucial part of the feel of the book, and it would fit in perfectly with the mood and character of Jackson’s films as well. So why not? Surely it couldn’t have been that difficult to shoot the battle for Minas Tirith with an unnatural dark cloud overhead that suddenly breaks up at just the right moment? Was Jackson afraid this would make the battle look too much like the rainy gloom and darkness of Helm’s Deep followed by the dramatic sunrise at Gandalf’s arrival?

The loss of Sauron’s Darkness loses the dramatics of its breaking at the arrival of the Rohirrim and the confrontation between Gandalf and the Witch-king. In fact, the loss of Gandalf’s confrontation at the gate is a general blow. This is one of the absolutely perfect dramatic moments in the narrative of Tolkien’s version of ROTK: the breaking of the gate, Shadowfax and Gandalf before the darkness of the Witch-King, the coming of the Rohirrim, the madness of Denethor, and the unexpected triumph of Eowyn and Merry. The simultaneity of these developments, the sense of a battle hanging in the balance, the check-mating of Gandalf by his need to choose between evil outcomes: all that is lost in the pell-mell incoherency of Jackson’s version. The turning points are muted, and the interrelatedness of events is lost. The tension bleeds out. Sauron's forces get into the city very easily in this version, and the defense is highly abbreviated and largely impotent.

Another thing that grates is the loss of Aragorn’s visit to the Houses of Healing, and especially of Eowyn and Merry being borne into the city. In particular, the absurdity of Merry’s quick, immaculate, off-screen recovery robs the encounter with the Witch-King of most of its gravity. You don’t get to see any of the amazement and wonder from the other characters that Eowyn and Merry, of all people, killed the Witch-King. I’d gladly have traded for that and given up watching the spittle from a cherry tomato dribble down Denethor’s chin. This also undercuts the sense of wonder in the city itself at the arrival of Aragorn, and of the confirmation of his kingliness through his healing.

The incredibly aggravating bit about Arwen dying because Sauron’s power is growing was a big example of wretched dramatic excess. It’s friggin’ unnecessary: how much more motivation does Aragorn need at that point in the story? The people of Gondor depending on you, check. Frodo, depending on you to distract Sauron, check. The free peoples of Middle-Earth, depending on you, check. Does he really need Elrond to show up and say, “Win this thing fast, kiddo, because your beloved is going to croak if you don’t”. I mean, she’s going to anyway if Aragorn loses, since she gave up her ticket to Valinor.

The battle showboating by Legolas is really unwelcome in this film, visually exciting as it was. I’d gladly lose Legolas single-handedly winning the war if that meant we got more attention to Eowyn, and more care in staging the simultaneity of the turning points in the battle for Minas Tirith, and other things left out of the theatrical cut. I don’t care how many girls sigh at Orlando Bloom: he had his moment in the sun in The Two Towers. Enough already with the super-elf. By the end of ROTK, he's a toxic combination of Rambo, Tonto, the Dalai Lama and a Jedi Knight. Begging for the Rohirrim's aid is besides the point: all Aragorn really needs is five more wood elves and he could sweep the field of every troll and mumakil around.

I enjoyed the visualization of the Dead Army, but it was a bit much to see them move up Minas Tirith as if they were sink cleanser, wiping out Sauron’s army magically and instantaneously in the process. This again comes from the poor staging of the turning point of the battle for the city: because the defenders of the city are portrayed as inept, and thus Sauron’s forces are allowed rather casually inside the city, they cannot be driven back out by the arrival of the Rohirrim—and because Aragorn arrives with no force other than Legolas and Gimli and the Dead (no Dunedain, or other elves), the Dead are forced to be an even more expansive deus ex machina than in the book.

The pacing problem also occurs somewhat with the march to the Black Gate in relation to Frodo and Sam’s crossing of Mordor. Both things seem to me to happen far too quickly and casually. Here I grant that Jackson had a more genuine problem on his hands in adapting the books, in two ways. First, in the book, there is an exquisite tension because the battle at the Black Gate ends on a cliffhanger and then we go and see what Frodo and Sam have been up to, going all the way back to Shelob and Cirith Ungol. Jackson had to intercut the two stories, and can’t get the same effect as easily. Second, there’s a real danger of tedium in trying to show just how difficult Frodo and Sam’s journey across Mordor was. It’s ok in the books to dwell lengthily on thorns, and provisioning, and so on, but it has to be compressed in the film. That being said, somehow Mordor itself visually felt like a cakewalk compared to Cirith Ungol: there just wasn’t that much of a sense of dread and horror in the landscape itself, at least not until Frodo and Sam approach the Cracks of Doom, and the crossing appears to take no more than a few hours.

I also very much wish that Jackson had preserved the way that Frodo and Sam are taken to Aragorn and the multitudes straight from their recovery room, to preserve their sense of wonder and discovery at the transformation of the world, especially when Aragorn bows to them (and not to Merry and Pippen, who are just ordinary heroes). The buddy-buddy superhero-team camraderie at the big coronation scene cuts into Tolkien’s sense of eucatastrophe, joy in tragedy, that is laid bare in that moment more than any other; the scene almost becomes a conventional big-epic “Princess Leia gives a medal to Luke and Han” schtick instead. I couldn't help but feel that Jackson got a little too carried away with the Fellowship and a little too hung up on the need to make them the prime movers and stars at all times.

A lot of this amounts to trivial criticisms, most of them unimportant to anyone who hasn't read a lot of the books. But given how much Jackson actually improves on the pacing and structure of the books, I was fairly surprised at how much he misses out on the superior and really rather cinematic structure of the battle for Minas Tirith in Tolkien's version. Not a fatal misstep, not by any means, but a blemish on an otherwise memorable achievement.