Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Top Ten Suckiest Parts of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy

While my writing hobby is still stalled (I've actually tried out two 'non-literary' stories while on my break since last December, but mostly I'm not writing), I'll use this blog, since I have it, to scratch another itch that I've had for a while. It's nice to use this time when I'm not being ignored or critiqued to critique the hell out of somebody else's work.

Unlike Walking Dead, which was my last list/diatribe, I actually had an emotional attachment to Tolkien before the movies came out. My dad read them to me when I was young, and then I read them again in high school. I thought about them often when I was in the Marine Corps, hating life, and they were sort of an inspiration to keep slogging along.

I'm not a purist. I understand movies are movies and books are books. None of my criticisms boil down to "this was different in the book." I was fine with not having Tom Bombadil. It was okay to have Saruman be killed by Wormtongue on top of Orthanc, rather than during the (elided) Scouring of Shire. Arwen saves Frodo and not a mystery elf who might have actually died in another part of the Tolkien legendarium? No problem. My hates are more of the "the movies changed something and made the story worse in so doing" flavor. Here we go:

The list

10) The drinking scene. While I understood the need for humor and was willing to tolerate Gimli's transformation into D and D dwarf to get it done, this scene wasn't really funny and took up a lot of time. The beginning of RoTK is really slow. It takes us a half an hour just to get to "Sauron is going to attack Minas Tirith." We could have just had Gandalf figure it out while talking to Saruman and saved time for other, better material.

9) "Fake death #1"--Sam Gamgee. Nearly every character has a fake death at some point in the Jackson trilogy. Aragorn has like three. By the end, it was easy to see that Gollum wasn't really dead when he seemed to fall down the crevice. These add minutes the films desperately needed to do other things, but they also take away the emotional impact of the two, real "fake deaths": those of Gandalf and Frodo. I guess it was okay to have the audience wondering along with the three walkers whether Pip and Merry had made it. But Sam didn't need to have his own fake death at the end of FoTR. It served nothing plot-wise, and telegraphed other, more important fake deaths.

8) Sam has too many Rudy speeches. Sam isn't terrible in the movies, but when he's bad it's by being too much of what he is. The Sam of the books is quiet and has a hard time finding his words. When he does speak, it carries more weight. He does his talking by his actions. In movies two and three, hardly a Frodo/Sam scene goes by without him talking up believing in the good in the world and holding on to hope.

7) Insertion of too many "this is the theme of the movie, guys" lines. "You're part of this world!" In movie one, Gandalf's words come during a tense lull in the action soon before he falls. They carry weight. You've got to play that with a light hand, though. Too much is just wearisome. TTT is dripping with these lines, and RoTK isn't free of it, either. Pick the best ones and drop the rest, Peter. And for God's sake, don't write your own.

6) Creating a conflict in TTT between Aragorn, who wants Theoden to ride out aggressively against a much larger army, and Theoden, who seemingly is healed from one blindness to go right into another. This conflict makes no sense. Strategically, Theoden was right, and there wasn't much to argue about. They were badly outnumbered. Get the high ground and dig in. Aragorn never argued this in the books, because he isn't stupid. This speaks to a real annoying feature of the movies: EVERYONE has to have a narrative arc, no matter how convoluted a route it takes to get them there. Theoden can't just fight the Uruk-hai. He has to be tentative about it before he is inspired to be brave, to be a LEADER about it. That's dumb.One of the cool things about Tolkien is that some of his characters are somewhat static. That sounds terrible, but it's what makes them different from every story you read today. They're static in a good way--they persist in their beliefs. They defy the usual narrative arc. Rather than becoming something new every time, they sometimes become the fullness what they were meant to be all along.

5) Fake death #2, Aragorn falls over the cliff. (Also, he almost gets killed by a troll in RoTK, almost drowns in runoff water in TTT, etc., but this was the worst.) This took a VERY long time. The only plot point advanced by this long side trip is that Aragorn thinks about his past with Arwen. He could easily have done this while riding along on the way to Helm's Deep. The opportunity cost of having this (and the wolves scene that goes with it) in the movie was the lost chance to have one really great scene from the book, the one in which Aragorn stands on the parapet before dawn and speaks to the Uruk-hai. It could have been a great scene in film, and it would have advanced Aragorn's true narrative arc--"Do I have enough greatness in me to accomplish what I desire to?" Instead, the audience got the hint even more that only Boromir is going to die for real.

4) The suckening of Faramir. Sam compares Faramir to Gandalf in the books. He is wise. He is never tempted to take the ring. He says if he found it on the road, he wouldn't pick it up. The movies need to give him an arc, though. "I want to get this to make my father love me, but I must resist. I will eventually learn to resist." That's so...modern. It's familiar. We already know this story. We love LoTR because it's different from every other story we read today. Don't make it more like them.

3) Frodo pushes Gollum into the pit of fire. One friend of mine said this is "like Jesus Christ coming down off the cross to kill all the Roman soldiers." Gollum falls in through his own uncontrollable lust, and possibly through the grace of Eru. That's how the ring works. It seals its own doom.

2) Not having Eomer at Helm's Deep. In the books, he forms a friendship with Gimli, with whom he at first had severe animosity. There is a funny bit about Gimli going off on a raid at one point so he doesn't fall asleep. In the movies, in order to make "Eomer forgives his uncle" a story, they keep him out of his great role.

1 1/2: Also, related to the Helm's Deep scene, something I just thought of: There are about five cutaway shots of women and children looking scared from their refuge within the caves. Did we really need this many shots of random fear to be reminded of the stakes of the battle? Do we feel more invested in the outcome because some redshirt townies will be massacred if the Uruk-hai win? 

1) Gandalf gets fucking pwnd by the fucking Witch Fucking King of Fucking Angmar. Fuck you, Peter Jackson. We wasted ten minutes on drinking contests and Gandalf holding a chamber pot, but we don't have time for the MOST MADE-FOR-CINEMA MOMENT from the books? Actually, the theater version didn't have Gandalf losing his stand-off. It's almost like the books: Gandalf says a few words, Witch King says a few words, then horns, horns, and the Witch King leaves. The feeling in the book is that it might have been a stand-off, but I wouldn't have bet against Gandalf. Here it is:

(Really cool scene in which the battering ram breaks through. Then...)

     In rode the Lord of the Nazgul. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.
     ALL SAVE ONE. (caps mine, because I just got an erection while typing that) There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dinen. 
     "You cannot enter here," said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. "Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!"
     The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.
     "Old fool!" he said. "Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!" And with that he lifted high his sword and flame ran down the blade.

    Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
     And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

  So, yeah. Fuck yeah. That's the scene they had to nail. Instead, we get (in the extended version), Gandalf getting his staff broken and cringing, only to be saved by the horns. Jackson knew better than to put this in theaters. He'd have been lynched. In the first place, it makes no sense. The Witch King has the only effective leader in the city lying in front of him, and can't take three seconds to finish him off before he goes to see about those horns?

    But there's a bigger offense here. Gandalf, when he comes back from his battle with the Balrog, is something set apart. I have a sense that he fears nothing in Middle Earth except Sauron himself. Aragorn seems to second this. When he meets the risen Gandalf in the book he says " are our captain and our banner. The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, MIGHTIER THAN THEY (caps mine): the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads."

     I always read those last lines when most men my age take Viagra, and it works much better. I think I just impregnated the cat. And I don't even have a cat.

     Jackson felt, I'm sure, that he had to build up the indomitable nature of the Witch King prior to his death at the hands of Eowyn. But he really didn't need to do it at Gandalf's expense. He could have simply had the Witch King sweeping the fields of horsemen, much like Sauron did in the opening scene of the trilogy. This was utterly a false step, and it's not faithful to Gandalf's own narrative arc. What did his resurrection mean if he is so powerless? He is the greatest of a great order. He is the carrier of Narya, the ring of fire. He is the one, the white rider. This is all great film ready-made. But Jackson missed the layup.   


  1. "I always read those last lines when most men my age take Viagra"

    Love this.

  2. Thanks. Although if you've ever endured watching all three movies with me during a LOTR-fest (which I do, even though I hate parts of the movies), you'll know that watching them with me is pretty much twelve hours of erection jokes and tittering nervously with a bunch of dudes over Hobbit homo-eroticism. That, and listening to me drunkenly say almost word for word everything I just wrote down.

  3. are a failed writer, correct? Do you think that might be because you just don't have a feel or an understanding of what makes a good story? Do you think that might also be behind your having the inexplicable impulse to tell Peter Jackson that you know storytelling better than he does? Just a theory.

  4. A person can fail as a writer and succeed as a critic. They are two different jobs. I never claimed I knew storytelling better than Peter Jackson. I think Tolkien knows storytelling better than Jackson. (You do realize Lord of the Rings wasn't Jackson's story, right?)

    Jackson does a lot well. His sets are great. He has a great artist's eye for scene during stiller shots. I, and a million other people, think of him like George Lucas, a great guy for visual stuff who has a tin ear for dialogue.

    Honestly, I could launch into another invective about Jackson's weaknesses, but there's nothing I could say that the three terrible Hobbit movies didn't already say for me.