The Lord of the Rings|
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Peter
The Fellowship of the Ring: #11,
The Two Towers: #7,
The Return of the King: #5,
Watching The Lord of the Rings marked yet another step along my
inevitable descent into senility. Because I watched it with Elizabeth, and
I sounded like the elderly husband in the aisle seat at the matinee. "Huh?
Wait, who's that? Am I supposed to know who that is? And that guy!
Isn't he dead? Oh, this is a different guy? Well, what does he have to do
with anything? And ?"
But I don't think this was entirely my fault. before it becomes clear that this
series has been made for viewers who, , are already familiar
with Tolkien. Take the way that the characters tend to announce the names
of monsters before they're revealed. There'll be a deep growl, and everyone
does the Spielberg stare, and one of them'll say, "Balrog!", and everyone in
the audience is supposed to go, "Ooh, after thirty years I finally get to see
a CGI balrog!", and then there it is. But if you've never heard of a balrog
before, then that nonsense word doesn't exactly add a whole lot to the suspense.
Meanwhile, things that actually do become important later on get underplayed.
I got that the Shire was supposed to be the good place and that Mordor was
supposed to be the bad place, but then the movie starts throwing out this
bewildering mess of names — there's a Rohan, there's a Gondor,
there's an Isengard, there's a Ministirith, there's a Helm's Deep, etc.,
etc. — and I had no idea what the hell was going on or how these
places related to one another. Later I went back and sort of randomly picked
one of these names to see how exactly I was supposed to keep all of this
straight. I picked "Gondor." Here's what the screenplay says:
IMAGE: A GREAT SHADOW falls across the MAP...closing in around the realm of
I went back and re-watched that shot. I see the word "Gondor," but it's
just one made-up name amongst dozens of others. The next reference comes
when Gandalf, in a frickin' voiceover, says, "The year 3434 of the Second
Age... here follows the account of Isildur, High King of Gondor, and the
finding of the ring of power." It turns out that "Gondor" is important but
"3434" isn't; however, the film in no way signals what part we're supposed
to pay attention to. An hour (!) later, Gandalf says that there's a guy
who could "reclaim the throne of Gondor," but doesn't explain what this means
or why we should care about it. Then at the big meeting a guy with a goatee,
whom we've just met and have no reason to care about, mentions in passing that
his father is the steward of Gondor, which will later become a huge plot point
but which nevertheless receives no special emphasis or explanation here. And
I'm seriously supposed to follow this trail of breadcrumbs? Carefully file
away all this mythobabble so that, hours later, while watching a different
movie, I can pull it back out and say, "Aha! Gondor!" You're joking. Or
perhaps I'm supposed to go back and piece it all together on a second
viewing... confirming that the movies were not made for newcomers.
In college I took a Shakespeare class from a guy named Stephen Booth who
argued that one of the problems with literary criticism is that almost all
of it is written from the perspective of someone who knows how the text
comes out. In reality, most reads are not re-reads, so this sort of
retrospective viewpoint ignores the reader's actual experience, in which the
dynamics of information delivery play a huge role. This can affect everything
from the big picture (e.g., the first time people see Hamlet they will
often get pissed off at Hamlet for dilly-dallying because they want to know
whether he will kill the king and he is delaying their gratification) down to
individual line readings. Booth's favorite example of the latter was the
first line of Sonnet 94: "They that have power to hurt [...]" (bad!)
"[...] and will do none" (no, wait, good!). Elizabeth and I discovered
that my own attempt to read The Hobbit as a little kid had fallen
prey to the same sort of thing. I said that I was surprised to see hobbits
living in houses because the one thing I remembered from the book was that
they lived in holes. At which point Elizabeth pulled up the first lines:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,
filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy
hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and
that means comfort.
The fact that Tolkien used the words "not" and "nor" made no difference in
the way I processed this sentence. In telling me what not to imagine, he
made me imagine it, and the mental image this paragraph produced was
off-putting enough that I stopped reading. Possibly if I'd been a little
older I'd have been better equipped to handle this sort of verbal legerdemain
and have gone on to become one of the people who got really excited about
the way the filmmakers distinguished different sorts of elves by eye color.
Instead, for close to thirty years now, the word "hobbit" has been linked in
my mind to a picture of a sort of gnome standing in a small round hole in the
dirt with halves of earthworms sticking out of it. Such are the dynamics of
And so, here's what I got out of the Lord of the Rings movies as
someone who was about as close to a as you're going to find. (There's
an old story about an acclaimed Shakespeare professor saying that he'd trade
all his scholastic accolades for a chance to see Romeo and Juliet for
the first time. But he probably wouldn't make the trade if it came with
rapidly declining brainpower and limited patience for the genre. Fans should
probably check out now.)
The Lord of the Rings takes place in Middle Earth, a land full
of wizards and dragons and magic rings but no guardrails or banisters.
Everyone has filthy fingernails, which is highly unfortunate given that
the word "rings" appears right in the title, meaning lots of disgusting
close-ups of people's hands. We begin with
Dumbledore Gandalf the wizard arriving in the Shire,
land of the insufferably twee hobbits, for the "eleventy-first" birthday
party of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, whose adventures we all remember from
a prequel that hasn't been made yet. He retires and leaves everything to
his Frodo, including one of the many magic
rings floating around. Gandalf leaves but pretty much immediately discovers
that Frodo's ring is actually the most powerful and evil ring of them all.
It once belonged to , an evil warlord who was thought killed a while
back but who actually is still kicking around in the form of a gigantic
disembodied eye like the CBS logo. Gandalf freaks out and tells Frodo he
has to go to a bar called (ahem) the Prancing Pony. Frodo takes along his
sidekick, Andy Richter.
Gandalf goes to talk to another wizard who looks just like him but turns out
to be evil. They fight with magic, which seems like a pretty natural thing
for wizards to do, though later Gandalf will apparently forget that he knows
any. Gandalf loses but eventually gets away by hopping onto a passing
Meanwhile, Frodo and Andy run into two asshole hobbits
who'd tried to fuck with Gandalf's fireworks earlier. One of them is Eric
Idle and the other is called though he appears to be a dude nevertheless.
They get chased by the Ghost of Christmas Future. It seems pretty obvious
that the asshole hobbits will be killed allowing Frodo and Andy to escape,
but they all survive, probably so that the asshole hobbits will be able to
save the good ones later on from a scarier bad guy. For now, all four of
them make it to (ahem) the Prancing Pony, where they see a mysterious guy
whose name is secret but whom everyone calls Ted Striker or something.
Things seem to be going well, but Eric Idle gives Frodo away. In the ensuing
commotion Frodo accidentally puts the ring on his truly nauseating finger.
It turns out that the ring has three powers: (a) to rule them all,
whatever that means; (b) to turn the wearer invisible, which seems
pretty useful except for the fact that (c) it simultaneously sends
the wearer to hell. That is kind of a drawback. Oh, also (d) it alerts
evil creatures of the wearer's location. So four powers. Anyway, Striker
takes them to the land of the elves.
At this point, a normal movie would be easing into the closing credits,
but this one now presents us with an assload of new characters. They have
a meeting and decide to take the ring to Mordor to throw it into a volcano.
Most of the new characters are never seen again, but a few sign up with
what is grandly pronounced the Fellowship of the Ring. And this is the
sort of thing I'm talking about. I'm sure that a lot of people were beside
themselves with giddiness at finally seeing their childhood companions
gathered together on a big movie screen, but as far as I was concerned,
the Fellowship consisted of Frodo, Gandalf, Andy Richter, the mysterious
Ted Striker, two asshole hobbits who were obviously cannon fodder, and three
randoms. Over the course of the next nine hours we get to know the randoms
- Vaguely Evil Goatee Guy, who will probably steal the ring for a while
but then redeem himself via a noble sacrifice that defeats a level boss
- Lego Lass, the token female of the group, who like Mary turns out to
actually be a dude
- Comic Relief the dwarf
There are another couple of characters in this section who seem important.
One is the elf king, Agent Smith. He has pointy ears (plastic) and pointy
eyebrows (plastic? CGI? real? I dunno). The other is Liv Tyler. Her job
is to make moon eyes with Ted Striker and have backlit smoochies with him
for two of the series's 600+ minutes. Liv and Ted apparently have some
kind of history together but if we ever learn what it is I don't remember
it. They are in love, though it's the sort of love that involves exchanges
of trinkets in lieu of any sort of ongoing relationship. Also when they're
together a high-pitched choir sings in the background, but the high-pitched
choir sings in the background for about seven hours of the running time so
that might not signify anything.
The Fellowship heads out into the mountains, where Striker turns out to have
an amazing superpower: the ability to spend weeks in the wilderness while
his facial scruff stays the exact same length. Then they get buried in an
avalanche and decide to cross the mountains by going through the mines.
The mines are full of dead dwarves. Comic Relief yells, "NOOOOOOO!"
In the mines they fight various creatures. Gandalf apparently makes the
first noble sacrifice to kill a level boss, increasing the percentage of
randoms and asshole hobbits to 62.5%. Frodo yells, "NOOOOOOO!"
Anyway, they make it through the mines.
And then suddenly they're back in elf land! Isn't that where they just
came from? Anyway, here is one of the weirdest segments of the whole deal.
The elf queen summons Frodo to look in a magic puddle, where
. He asks whether
he should give the ring to her because she seems to have her shit together
better than he does. She freaks out and turns blue and says some digitally
distorted stuff, then calms down and says she passed some sort of test and
will "remain Galadriel," whatever that means. Apparently that is her name,
which might maybe have been a nice thing to mention earlier. Question: why
am I supposed to care about the inner struggle of a random elf queen I just
met a couple of minutes ago? I got the sense that this was some sort of
long-running subplot in the books that got thrown into the movie in this
condensed form so the fanboys wouldn't complain. Maybe the same is true of
the Ted/Liv romance. Anyway, it comes off sort of like the Tolkien Revue
doing The Best of LoTR.
Back to Evil Gandalf's tower, where the CBS eye has been turned off, maybe
because it's daylight. Evil Gandalf finally explains what an orc is, then
pats himself on the back for making Cobra Kai orcs, which apparently are
supposed to be different somehow though they look the same to me and I
never found out why it mattered whether the gross guys the heroes were
fighting were regular orcs or Cobra Kai orcs or goblins or trolls or whatever.
I guess they have different D&D stats?
Vaguely Evil Goatee Guy tries to take the ring but fails and winds up with
mulch in his hair. He curses at Frodo (i.e., "Curse you!") but then starts
sniveling, "What have I done?" Time for his noble sacrifice! And he lets
the Cobra Kai carry off Eric Idle and Mary, which is even nobler. Frodo
decides he can't trust anyone but Andy and so the two of them take off.
Frodo and Andy wander around and decide they're going in circles, which
I could have told them after the second time they went to elf land. They
encounter a scrawny creature called Vladimir Putin, who tries to take the
ring but fails. They tie a string around his neck which for some reason
makes him flop around like a fish and he begs to be released. Andy is
dubious but Frodo looks Putin in the eye and is able to get a sense of his
soul. Besides, Putin knows the way to Mordor, which would be a plus
considering that they want to go to Mordor and don't know the way. Also,
Andy has given Frodo a taste for slaveholding and Putin will even call him
"master" instead of merely "mister" the way Andy does.
Now comes one of the most confusing parts of the entire trilogy. A blonde
lady puts her two children on a horse and tells them to ride to [mumble]
and raise the alarm. Clearly these children are extremely important and
will grow up to be the stars of Part Three. They even have names, though
I didn't quite catch them because everyone in the scene . Orcs
attack! The peasants flee! Then we see them ride into town. The blonde
lady tends to one of the injured peasants and goes to talk to the king,
who's old and seemingly covered in cobwebs. Also there's a blond
caveman-looking guy with a beard, though he appears not to be Vaguely Evil
Goatee Guy, who is dead, but some new guy who may or may not be vaguely evil.
They tell the king that Evil Gandalf is going to take over their country.
What this has to do with anything is not yet explained. A clearly evil
advisor emerges and tells King Whoever that Evil Gandalf is their friend.
Caveman tells Evil Advisor to stop stalking his sister; Evil Advisor says,
"[mumble], son of [mumble], you are banished forthwith from the Kingdom of
Rohan!" But "Rohan" isn't what the blonde lady said! Insert whimpering
Caveman runs into Striker, Lego Lass, and Comic Relief and asks what
business they have in the [mumble which isn't "Rohan"]. Satisfied,
Caveman and company leave, and Striker and company continue to track
the asshole hobbits, who have escaped into a forest of talking trees
who for some reason call themselves . There Striker etc. run into Gandalf,
who is back from the dead with white hair and a shorter beard and some
quickly-dispelled amnesia. Gandalf summons a horse and tells us its
name even though it doesn't matter.
Frodo and Andy make it to the gate into Mordor but Putin insists that
they go in the back way. Meanwhile, we meet a second blonde lady. Elizabeth
points out that it's the same blonde lady as before, with a different hairdo.
So there's only one blonde lady? The one here is the same one who was putting
kids on a horse and talking to the king earlier? No, Elizabeth says, the
blonde lady who put the kids on the horse actually is different from the one
who was talking to the king; the filmmakers just thought it would be a good
idea to introduce two very similar-looking characters in the same chaotic
sequence. It's at this point that I start flopping around like Putin.
Striker etc. reach a bunch of shacks on a hill. The blonde lady is
there, so this must be Rohan! The guards come out and say our heroes have
to surrender their weapons by the order of the evil advisor, whose name
turns out to be Grima Wormtongue and yet we're still supposed to take this
story seriously. Presumably whoever made that hire was also the one
responsible for taking on Choko Poisonspoon the chef and Stabby Kidkill
the babysitter. But they're too stupid to take Gandalf's staff away, and
so Good Gandalf is able to free the king from being possessed by Evil
Gandalf. The incredibly important children show up. Then there's some
opaque geopolitical discussion and the king decides to evacuate.
Frodo, Andy, and Putin encounter some mascara-wearing ninjas. There are
also some elephants, which Andy, whose accent comes and goes, calls
"olly-fonts." Vaguely Evil Goatee Guy returns and captures them! Only
he turns out to be a different goatee guy. We'll call him Vaguely Good
Goatee Guy. Then we return to the evacuation, where Striker etc.
are attacked by orcs riding, um, I'm going to guess dire wolves. Striker
is briefly thought dead, dreams about Liv Tyler, and returns greasier than
ever. Evil Gandalf stands on a tower and looks at the huge army of bad guys
he has assembled. It's just one damn thing after another now. I think
there are three main plot threads going:
- The Rohan people have all fled to Helm's Deep, where the incredibly
important children are reunited with their mother and are never seen again.
But Evil Gandalf's giant army of orcs and other assorted bad guys are on the
way. The Rohan people have no chance and everyone knows it. Then some elves
randomly show up to help out and make it more of a battle. The orcs still
eventually manage to break through their defenses and into Helm's Deep.
Luckily, Gandalf and Caveman pick this moment to randomly show up, and the
good guys win. So I guess the moral of the story is that if you're hopelessly
outnumbered, don't give up hope, because wave after wave of dei ex machinae
might appear just in time.
- Eric Idle and Mary convince the Ants, who are actually trees and not
ants, to attack Evil Gandalf's tower, because Evil Gandalf has been throwing
trees into his furnaces — maybe Putin cut off the natural gas
pipeline, I dunno. Thus Evil Gandalf is stopped from... doing whatever he
- Vaguely Good Goatee Guy arrives in who the fuck knows to discover that
it's been destroyed. He lets Frodo and Andy go for some reason.
There's also a "NOOOOOOO!" in there somewhere but I forget where.
This part is called The Two Towers, and Elizabeth and I spent way too
much time trying to figure out what exactly the two towers were. Elizabeth
thought that maybe they were and the CBS tower, which
came as a surprise to me because for six hours I'd thought they were the
same. But the CBS tower didn't really play a big role so she thought
maybe it was Evil Gandalf's tower and one of the good cities, which seemed
kind of towery as cities go. We looked it up on Wikipedia, which said:
A note at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring and Tolkien's final
illustration of the towers gives the pair as Minas Morgul and Orthanc.
However, in a letter to Rayner Unwin, Tolkien instead gives Orthanc and the
Tower of Cirith Ungol, but felt such an identification was misleading due to
the opposition between Barad-dûr and Minas Tirith. Loosely, any pair
from the set of five towers in the story could fit the title: the tower of
Cirith Ungol (Cirith Ungol being a pass), Orthanc, Minas Tirith,
Barad-dûr and Minas Morgul.
Gandalf, Ted Striker, Lego Lass, Comic Relief, and the King of Rohan arrive
in Evil Gandalf's chunk of the map to find the asshole hobbits sitting and
smoking pipes. They all go to the tower, where they and Evil Gandalf yell
back and forth at each other until Evil Gandalf treats his underling
Wormtongue a little too harshly and Wormtongue goes all Private Pyle on him,
stabbing him and pushing him off the tower onto a spiky thing. Everyone has
a party. Comic Relief drinks a lot of beer.
Next we have a scene with Putin. Putin has for some time now been the
Sylar of the series, i.e., either seeking redemption or unrepentantly evil
from moment to moment as convenience dictates. Worse, he has a split
personality and now his two halves have a conversation as he stares into a
pond. I thought this was one of the worst scenes I'd ever seen when Willem
Dafoe did it in Spider-Man and it's no better
here. Seriously, I never want to see this again.
Eric Idle tries to fuck with Gandalf's stuff again. What is it with that
guy? More geopolitical stuff follows. Rohan, Gondor, Ministirith, beacons
and the lighting thereof... it all might as well have been Charlie Brown
wah-wah-wah talk to me. Anyway, Gandalf takes Eric Idle to a marbly place.
The Goatee Guys' dad, whom we've never seen — yes, seven hours in
we're still introducing new characters — lives there. He is pissed
that his vaguely evil son is dead and also that Gandalf's gang wants to make
Ted king. Then he snacks on some tomatoes, since apparently Middle Earth has
access to New World foods. Eric Idle sings a song, having received plaudits
for the one in The Life of Brian.
Putin throws the hobbits' last bit of bread off a cliff, much as Stalin did
to the Ukrainians in the 1930s, and blames Andy. Frodo sides with Putin.
This turns out to be a bad idea because Putin leads Frodo into the lair of a
giant spider who stings him and wraps him up in a cocoon of webbing. Andy
shows up and kills the spider but hides when some bad guys show up and take
Agent Smith visits Striker to tell him that Liv Tyler will die if the CBS
eye isn't defeated. Striker takes Lego Lass and Comic Relief to go recruit
some ghosts. Meanwhile, orcs, led by a general whose face seems to have
risen like a soufflé, attack the marbly place. Vaguely Good Goatee
Guy leads a sortie to meet them which gets routed, after which his dad goes
crazy and tries to cremate him even though he's still alive, but then is
kicked in the face by a horse. The Rohan people, alerted by the beacons
somehow even though they were above the cloud layer, show up. Secretly
fighting with the Rohan army are the blonde lady (not the one who put the
extremely important children on the horse, the other one) and Mary. Girl
Power in action, I guess. Huge CGI battle ensues, sort of like the one in
The Two Towers. I guess the CGI battles are a big part of why people
are so gung-ho about these movies but to me they were pretty much like the
ones in Transformers: camera careening around
showing snippets of blurry chaos. The Ghost of Christmas Future swoops in on
a dragon and mortally wounds the King of Rohan. Girl Power kills the Ghost
of Christmas Future. Striker shows up with his ghosts and kills Soufflé
Face. ("Soufflé Face" takes some effort to say so we actually just
called him Bread Head.)
Now Frodo is... I think he's in the CBS tower. Andy shows up and saves him
again. Everybody else goes to the gate of Mordor hoping to start a big enough
battle that the CBS eye will watch it and Frodo and Andy can take the ring to
the volcano while it isn't looking. Yet another goddamn battle ensues.
Elizabeth wonders why Gandalf isn't using magic but instead just goes all
hack-n-slash like everyone else. Andy carries Frodo to the volcano. Putin
attacks. Andy hits Putin with a rock and Frodo runs into the volcano. But
then Frodo is too enthralled by the ring to destroy it. Instead he puts it
on. Andy yells, "NOOOOOOO!" Then Putin shows up, bites Frodo's finger
off, and gets the ring. Instead of putting it on, though, he dances around
with it, allowing Frodo to knock him into the volcano. The CBS tower falls
Ted Striker becomes king and marries Liv Tyler. Vaguely Good Goatee Guy
looks like he's going to hook up with Girl Power. Everyone gives props to
the hobbits, including the asshole ones. Frodo writes a book. He, Bilbo,
and Gandalf get on a boat. Andy Richter returns to his hairy-footed wife
and children. And believe it or not, that made about ten times as much
sense in the telling as it did in the watching, because it forced me to
put together strings of cause and effect that were lost on me as a viewer.
Man, what a fucking death march.
Theme: Well, the gimmick of an ultimate weapon that everyone wants but which
must never be used pretty strongly suggests that this is a no-nukes story.
However, apparently Tolkien insisted no allegory was meant, and to the extent
that the series is largely a delivery system
for hack-n-slash — the underlying message being that violence is
cool and enjoyable, and also, as in the case of e.g. Mary and Girl Power, a
way to prove your worth as a person — it can hardly be considered
a pacifist work. There's also no getting around the fact that we're supposed
to be all jazzed about the restoration of a hereditary monarch —
an important enough element that the third part is called The Return of the
King — and that the series idealizes a pseudo-medieval social
order. So ideologically it's pretty dubious.
Character: abysmal. Roger Ebert says, "The Lord of the Rings is not
about a narrative arc or the growth of the characters, but about a long series
of episodes in which the essential nature of the characters is demonstrated
again and again (and again)." Even that strikes me as too generous! Okay,
yes, Andy Richter gets to show that he is loyal and brave, and Comic Relief
gets to show that he's curmudgeonly. Putin is alternately snivelingly
obsequious and gleefully treacherous. Who else even has a personality?
Lego Lass definitely doesn't. Eight hours of screen time and I don't think
he ever demonstrated, like, a trait.
Style: This is the sort of movie in which someone says, "Gondor is lost. There
is no hope for Man." while the camera pans to a single newly-blossomed flower
on a previously dead tree. Several characters get honest-to-goodness
old-school with the writhing and the ragged last words
and the teary-eyed comrades and everything. I think I already talked about
the choirs. I guess what it comes down to is this: There is a certain type of
movie I hate, the kind that attracts reviews that say, "It's stupid, but it
knows it's stupid and has fun with it!" I hate this type of movie enough that
I wrote a whole pattern about it, Pattern 28:
"A text's awareness of its shortcomings does not make those shortcomings okay."
The Lord of the Rings does not fall into this category. Yes, it's
stupid. But it doesn't know it's stupid. This series evinces not the
slightest awareness that it is not the highest of high art. But while this
makes for a slightly more tolerable experience than a Pattern 28 movie, a
text's lack of awareness of its own shortcomings doesn't make them okay either.
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