The final installment in “The Lord of the Rings” brought this magnificent film event to an epic and very exciting finish. There were some brilliant action sequences, spectacular performances and thrilling effects. Again, it also contained departures from the book, some of which worked well and others that were not particularly satisfying.
At Isengard, Saruman confronts Gandalf and the rest, and (another departure from the book) is knifed in the back by Grima. I have no problem with this change – the book ending of Saruman would involve the issues in the Shire and for streamlining the story I think it was wise of them to remove this. So, Saruman had to go earlier, and this was the obvious moment. It’s why I think they show Grima’s moment of regret in the previous film – it sets up the decision by him to kill Saruman as soon as he has the opportunity. Saruman’s taunting of him probably made it easier. Again, I really enjoyed watching Christopher Lee and Brad Dourif in this scene. Lee showed Saruman’s supreme arrogance in taunting Grima and then turning his back – he has no inkling that Grima would lay a hand on him. (It’s a well-known story, but Christopher Lee explained to Peter Jackson that he should not cry out when stabbed in the back, as people stabbed in the back don’t make that kind of sound. As Sir Christopher served in the SOE in World War Two, it is believed he may have had first-hand knowledge to draw on here, or knew those who did.)
It is in this film that we finally meet Denethor, played very well by John Noble. I have a gripe about the depiction of Denethor, however – his character arc follows the book, however there are two areas in which he is changed and I really couldn’t see why. Denethor of the book is not negligent of his duty, and does not allow himself any extra privileges. In the book Denethor orders the emergency beacons to be lit – though he does not believe anything will come of it, he still carries out his duty, but in the film he just refuses for no apparent reason. In the book there is rationing inside Minas Tirith due to the war. This isn’t mentioned in the film, but it would have to be the case, and yet we see Denethor sitting at a table shovelling food into his mouth, all while Faramir has led the remains of the Osgiliath garrison out again, to certain death. His treatment of Faramir in the film is well beyond what is described in the book, where his expressed disapproval has more to do with Faramir not (in his opinion) living up to Boromir’s memory. In the film we are shown that he has always treated Faramir this way. This set up makes the change in plot in the previous film, where Faramir takes the hobbits as far as Osgiliath before realising what a bad idea it is, in keeping with a man who has spent his whole life living in his brother’s shadow and trying to please a father who simply cannot be pleased. So, in the context of the film these differences within the family make sense. I would question whether this change in the family dynamic makes any useful change. In fact, I would argue it creates drama for drama’s sake. Denethor, whose growing despair and madness in the book is something to pity, just ends up seeming a bit useless in the film.
The battle of the Pelennor Fields is just as amazing as the Helm’s Deep battle, a visual action spectacle that is very exciting. I don’t think I could choose a single favourite moment during this part of the film. I remember watching the charge of the Rohirrim on the big screen that first time, and it just taking my breath away. The way Theoden addresses his troops and rides down the line with his sword touching the spears, the camera angle from overhead as the horses gallop towards the enemy line, the moment of charging into the orc troops that is almost like a solid impact, keeps the viewers on the edge of their seats. The action inside the city as the enemy breaks down the gate, the screaming civilians and the marauding orcs, echoes so many historical battles that it is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Gandalf’s confrontation of the Witch King, and the latter’s later confrontation with Eowyn, are both very gripping. The chief of the Riders is really a very scary character indeed.
This leads into another departure from the source which I question, though I think I know why it was done. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli travel through the Paths of the Dead, and speak to the King of the Dead. Aragorn cites a prophecy that says they can be released from their ghostly existence if they honour the oaths they broke, by serving Isildur’s heir. So far so good. Now, the book has them agreeing and clearing the Corsairs from their ships. Aragorn then leads the liberated fleet, along with the freed captives and men of the area who have been unable to go to Minas Tirith due to the Corsairs, to the battle. In the film, we have him sail the Corsair fleet up to Minas Tirith with the ghosts on board, who then help clear the battlefield of the bad guys, in a manner somewhat akin to a piranha hoard. Some of these moments were comical, and while I am not averse to the occasional lightened mood, this seemed unnecessary. So why did the makers decide on this departure? My theory – it was a good way to save money. The battle is already huge and the massive cast and other effects must have been expensive. But I think it is likely to be cheaper to add another effect in than film extras as a liberated army coming to Gondor’s rescue, not to mention adding complications to the story. Jackson had already attempted to streamline the story by eliminating unnecessary characters – I believe that is why minor characters such as Imrahil were not in the film. This was a little too much streamlining in my opinion. I am inclined to say they took the easy way out to end the battle. The funny aspects of the dead horde were genuinely amusing, but as the battle was mostly fabulous I think this aspect did the rest of it a disservice.
While we’re on the subject of the battle, I was quite intrigued by the character of the orc in charge. The book calls him Gothmog, and in the film he has some kind of disease, with his face half-covered in growths, and unable to use one arm or walk properly. It’s an intriguing idea – you can’t really imagine orcs as they are depicted having much patience with disability. Those unable to function would surely be dispatched as being weak. However, this ‘disabled’ orc is in charge. He must be extremely ruthless and capable to be in such a position in spite of his situation. We see a glimpse of this during the battle when the trebouchets inside Minas Tirith start hurling boulders at the army. The orcs around him are very nervous, he tells them to hold their ground, watches quite calmly as a big hunk of masonry comes straight at him, jumps aside just at the last moment, and then spits on it. Whatever else you might say about him, he exhibits coolness under fire.
I won’t go into the extra story involving Arwen and Elrond. It was okay, but again, leant nothing to the overall story arc, and I believe was merely there to jazz up the romance, and explain to the audience that Arwen’s choice of Aragorn was a big sacrifice on her part. I believe that could have been explained more easily.
If anyone was to ask me what is the single bravest action of any character in “The Lord of the Rings”, my response would be easy – Sam taking on Shelob. The film does the whole Shelob sequence brilliantly. The spider is suitably loathsome, and SO scary, and the whole scene with Frodo has the audience on tenterhooks. Knowing how the story goes does not stop me from going ‘look behind you!’ when Shelob creeps up on Frodo. And then, we get to that amazing moment, where Sam turns up and just takes that thing on. Marvel superhero movies step aside, Sam Gamgee, with no special powers, puts all of them in the shade with that one fight. I always loved that fight in the book and this is another moment in the film where I was nodding and cheering at the spot on rendition of the scene.
Sean Astin is marvellous in his depiction of Sam. He does the whole ‘down to earth’ character brilliantly. Sam is, at heart, the same guy who left home. He of course goes through growth during the story but he does not change his soul. He, of all the hobbits, would be the one who would most easily adapt to Shire life upon their return, because in his heart he is of the Shire. Many say Sam is the real hero of the story, and though I only partially agree with this I have always loved the character and Astin’s depiction of him. (Also Astin, an American, did a great job with the accent.)
Let’s go back to “Fellowship of the Ring” for a moment, at the end. In the film, Aragorn knows that Frodo is leaving, and lets him go. In the book, Frodo and Sam leave without the others knowing, and Aragorn works it out later. So this is my opinion as to why Frodo and Sam need to be seen as equal heroes, and why I didn’t think it was a good idea to have Aragorn ‘let Frodo go.’ Everyone who has any knowledge knows what the One Ring is capable of. They know it is toxic, and corrupts those who are near it. They know how hard it is, virtually impossible, for those who bear the Ring to get rid of it, give it away, or do any harm to it. And yet, we are supposed to believe that Aragorn will say ‘okay one person on their own will go to Mordor and we will trust he has the will power at the end (assuming he gets there) to throw the Ring into the fire’. History tells them this is unlikely to be that simple, but he does this? It is not plausible that Aragorn would make such a mistake. Being confronted with a fait accompli, as in the book, leads him to make a decision, and at this stage he knows Sam is with Frodo, but in the film he says ‘okay’ when as far as he is aware Frodo intends to go alone.
Elijah Wood depicts Frodo’s inner turmoil very well. The book tells us, and the film depicts, that Frodo is in the fight of his life to keep himself from surrendering to the Ring. Without Sam’s help and presence, he could not possibly have made it to the mountain. What the ‘quest’ needed, and what it got, were two heroes, an outer hero (Sam) and an inner hero (Frodo). Sam fights the monsters, and Frodo fights the Ring. At the fire, Frodo fails. When push comes to shove he simply can’t do it, and claims the Ring instead. Where Sam fails, is that he loves Frodo too much to make him do what needs to be done. Thank goodness for Gollum.
Is what happened with Gollum a bit convenient? I don’t think so. He swears by the Ring to serve Frodo, and betrays him. At the end, his own oath seals his fate, and he falls, along with the Ring, into the fire.
Before I end, I want to talk about one more aspect of all three of the films that I haven’t mentioned – the music. Howard Shore’s composition for these three films is so beautiful, majestic when it needs to be, romantic, ethereal, cheery, sinister, whatever is needed. It is a stunning score, and it is worth listening to without the film, as it is epic in its own right.
I love these films with a passion, and I feel that the makers did Tolkien’s brilliance great justice in their work. Yes, there are problems, but there are problems with most movies if you look deep enough. The issues I have come from my knowledge of the literature – those who are fans of the movies and have not read the books will not have this problem. Three films for the movie-goers, and one epic to rule them all. If you haven’t watched them, rectify this immediately. You won’t regret it.