Maybe that’s a good thing
Watching a young, Hobbit-like Smeagol (the amazing Andy Serkis) bait a hook on an idyllic pastoral pond in the first scenes of Peter Jackson’s brilliant Return of the King is instructive — embroiled in a delirious metafiction of Paradise Lost, viewers are preparing for the ultimate sucker’s ride. A three-hour-plus roller-coaster ride stuffed to the gills with extravagant visuals, breathtaking battles, and New Zealand’s peerless environments, but — fitting, considering Jackson’s character choice to kick off his much-anticipated film — a deceptive one to be sure.
After all, those familiar with Tolkien’s now-canonical narrative will understand from the outset that, even though it ends well for most involved, Return of the King is not about special effects, martial triumphs, and monarchial victories, but rather irreconcilable loss and defeat. More than anything, the famed professor’s fairy tale is about how one noble but draining quest can destroy anything resembling a normal life forever. For the entire world.
Tolkien knew this tragedy well, having spent months on a World War I battlefield before succumbing to trench fever and witnessing the death of all but one of his closest friends. He was unlucky enough to be involved in the Battle of the Somme, an artillery offensive — as well as a logistical failure — masterminded by Lt. General Sir Douglas Haig that cost the British 420,000 lives. And though he spent much of his postwar life railing against allegorical interpretations of his 1,000-page tome, it is impossible to separate Tolkien’s battlefield from his bible of fantasy literature.
Denethor’s ravenous appetite for destruction is somewhat anticipated by Smeagol’s aforementioned fishing expedition-turned-homicidal attack, and the two form a thematic bookend of sorts for much of Return of the King. Jackson obviously relished making the third film’s opening sequences, where Gollum’s backstory is introduced with the type of hushed malice found in everything from Jackson’s earlier Tolkien installments to his disturbing Heavenly Creatures; watching Gollum lose his innocence — and mind — to what Denthor’s favored but fallible son Boromir called “such a small thing” in Fellowship of the Ring is a harrowing experience. Jackson empties his bag of goodies here, giving Serkis a chance to show his real face and form, before tearing both apart and refashioning them in Gollum’s likeness; there is also a startling echo of Denethor’s cannibalistic feast as Jackson unleashes an extreme close-up of Gollum’s ruined mouth biting — in painstaking slow-motion — into a fish, before effecting that conflicted, devilish grin that is so familiar to viewers. Inverting the same time-lapse trickery — and thematic axis — that turned Theoden (Bernard Hill) from Saruman’s slave back into a king, Jackson’s last montage before the opening credits charts Smeagol’s final gruesome metamorphosis into Gollum, a creature so wracked with addiction and guilt that he comes to embody the film’s — and the novel’s — fixation on the annihilation of innocence.
Such solitary degradation resonates throughout Jackson’s narratives like the shrill cries of the Nazgul that fly overhead throughout the film. One can only imagine Tolkien, as he explained in his letters, hunkered down “in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire” losing his mind and innocence (like Gollum, like Denethor, like Frodo) as his fever increases and the world falls to pieces around him. Several scenes in Return of the King can put you in his shoes, whether it’s the scarred Sam and Frodo lying exhausted on the slopes of Mount Doom as flaming rocks (which look like missiles and artillery shells) crash into the battered landscape around them or Jackson’s vertiginous battle sequences on the Pelennor fields or at Mordor’s gates.
Jackson’s Return of the King, as all of Tolkien’s books, is filled with such metafictional exercises, where war-weary travelers try to close the chapters on their past travails by externalizing and transmitting those disturbing experiences into words and images. Early in the film, after watching Gollum engage himself in his postmodern dialogue/monologue in a reflecting pool (mirrors, surfaces, and reflecting sources are always a dead giveaway for the pomo set), Sam tries in vain to tell Frodo what the audience and every Tolkien fan already knows: “He’s a villain.” Where Fellowship of the Ring — the book and Jackson’s extended DVD — began with Bilbo committing his travels to paper (which share the same name in Tolkien’s fantasy world and in our “reality”), Return of the King ends with Frodo struggling at the same desk to relate his own horrific turmoil, rubbing, again and again, his Weathertop wound, because as he narrates, “some wounds don’t heal.”
So it is to Jackson’s credit that he not only provided moviegoers (especially those with no experience with Tolkien other than the odd point-and-snicker at the class geek) with eye-popping visual entertainment, inflated love stories, and much-needed comic relief (Tolkien’s last book has little of that, to be honest), but also that he remained fiercely loyal to highlighting Tolkien’s evocative confluences between myth and reality, narrative and history, allegory and applicability (as Tolkien was wont to call it), good and evil. As much as critics and fans want to believe that those last two are clearly demarcated in Lord of the Rings, the evidence for the opposite is overwhelming. How else to explain why Sauron, one of the most inherently malicious villains in English narrative history, is completely absent, marked only by that, an all-seeing Eye, which unleashes a gaze rather than submits to it? Sauron, like the Germans in WWII, is just a name or shape of the evil that resides within all of us. This, more than anything, is what Tolkien learned from war.
Which is a lesson we could still stand to learn, especially when someone like John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli, asserts in an interview that Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs cannot help but position his tome as a necessary defense of Western civilization against undue Eastern influence, such as militant Islam. I doubt Tolkien would agree with that, considering the privileged stature that those unconcerned with the lust for power and domination achieve in his books. Indeed, Return of the King seems primarily concerned with problematizing systems like “Western civilization,” “militant Islam,” or even monarchies themselves. As Tolkien explains in his letters, Tom Bombadil, one of the oldest and most powerful of Middle Earth’s myriad characters, exists far outside of Sauron’s war, mainly because he “is master in a peculiar way: he has no fear, and no desire of possession or domination at all. He merely knows and understands about such things as concern him in his natural little realm. [He represents] the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature.”
And it is there that we return to Peter Jackson, and his highly invested vision of Tolkien’s masterpiece. When the cinematic smoke dissipates and the bodies are cleared away from Pelennor and Mordor, Jackson is left with the unwieldy Hollywood task of putting a happy face on war and its indivisible remainders. In this, he cannot help but fail, mostly because although Tolkien leaves him a lot of wiggle room (six chapters worth), he ultimately requires that the New Zealand auteur break up the party for good and send everyone home crying, not such a popular thing these days in the malls and multiplexes. And so we run quickly through a hasty reunion at Frodo’s bedside, a hurried crowning of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and a truncated trip back to an evil-free Shire that ends with everyone crying on the shores of the Middle Earth. Rather than a blowout party at a Shire pub, the four Hobbits sit noiselessly, much as the confused Vietnam vets and their various friends do at the end of Michael Cimino’s similarly sprawling The Deer Hunter.
It’s a lose-lose situation for Jackson, trying to cram close to 150 pages of resolution into about 30 minutes worth of screen time — a conundrum that will probably be assuaged during the extended DVD, which will likely reinsert over an hour of footage — in hopes of satisfying the Tolkien faithful and family at the same time. And there are those who understand the weight of this literary legacy, how it can complicate attempts to bring such an enterprise to the silver screen, and there are those who just want their popcorn movie.
No, three-hour-plus lengths aside, Jackson’s epic Return of the King is just what the postmillennial doctor ordered — engrossing entertainment, cinematic invention, and a movie worth the outrageous amount of money it costs to see one these days. As with Tolkien’s books, we may never experience this kind of cinema storytelling again in our lifetime.
That is, until the next shoeless wonder from a corner of the world no one cares about raises up and reminds us just what the hell is worth fighting for in our short time on our own disappearing Earth.