The Lord of the Rings
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Peter Jackson, 2001-2003

The Fellowship of the Ring: #11, 2001 Skandies
The Two Towers: #7, 2002 Skandies
The Return of the King: #5, 2003 Skandies

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 what did he just say?"

But I don't think this was entirely my fault. It isn't long before it becomes clear that this series has been made for viewers who, unlike me, 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 GONDOR...

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 information delivery.

And so, here's what I got out of the Lord of the Rings movies as someone who was about as close to a Tolkien virgin 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.)

part one
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 Merlin 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 relative 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 Sauron, 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 eagle. 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 Mary 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 as:

  • 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 sees a dystopian future. 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.

part two
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 mumbles. 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 sound here.

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 Ants. 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 was doing.

  • 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 Evil Gandalf's tower 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.


part three
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 Frodo away.

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 apart.

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 death scenes 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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