December 17, 2003

Movies: The Return of the King

Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King
directed by Peter Jackson

Commentary by Aaron D. Fuegi (

Well, I'm unhappy to say that I liked this one significantly worse than either of the others and that is unfortunately saying a lot! Not just the wrong characters now but massive plot changes to no purpose I can see and actions by a ton of people that just make no sense. This commentary is going to end up being very long and covering a lot of ground, probably to little purpose for most people but I must get this off my chest.

Lets start with the fundamental issue of making "Lord of the Rings" as a movie. You can do this in one of two ways. The first is of course to be as faithful as you can within the bounds of the medium to the text, making changes only as forced to by bounds of time and format. The second is to make your own movie based on the existing work. This later is fine if dealing with a small work that simply isn't long enough so that you must extend it. Where this isn't the case, this second scheme for me is an abomination where you take advantage of the massive built in audience (at least in this case) for a beloved work to come see YOUR movie. Unfortunately, to me it seems thati n the end Peter Jackson has made a very wrong choice and it takes a lot of gall to think you can make a better story than a story that has in many polls been voted to be the best work of literature of the Twentieth Century.

Ok, well on to the movie. My troubles with "The Fellowship of the Ring" are almost exclusively over the issue of character as Jackson significantly modifies (in a negative way) most of the main characters. The good thing about Fellowship was that the visuals were absolutely amazing, good beyond anything I could have hoped for, and, except for issues of time (Bombadil primarily) the plot was probably like 90% faithful to the books. "The Two Towers" basically has the same issue and is maybe 70% faithful to the books. "The Return of the King" maintains the character problems but is now probably only like 40% faithful to the books in terms of plot and also now introduces a ton of things that simply don't make any sense! There is so much to object to that I am not sure where to begin but I guess I'll basically try to follow the major characters and their lines of action. I will comment on some good things during the main commentary but am going to also focus on them later. As with the other movies, the best things almost all are related to the visuals and physical objects. The design team on these movies has overall done a simply fabulous job, perhaps greater than any other motion picture in history. The writing unfortunately doesn't come close to measuring up.

Why do the Dunedain not come to Aragorn with the banner of the king (which for some crazy reason isn't even raised on the ships - one of the three most memorable points of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields - and doesn't appear till the end) and now Anduril? Their presence is so much more sensible as they will then accompany him on the Paths of the Dead. The special trip by Elrond just to deliver a message and the sword doesn't make sense. Why does Aragorn not use the Palantir himself? Why does he seem to barely know of the Paths of the Dead? Why don't they bring the horses along, a point which is explicitly stated in the text to be vital in order to reach Minas Tirith in time? Why is Gimli again used for humor value and not shown as a courageous man deeply afraid of a primal fear overcoming it by force of will and love/loyalty of Aragorn. Where is the Stone of Erech? Why do the dead accompany him on the ships rather than the men of Gondor he releases from defending the coast? All of these things are not only changes but simply work MUCH better as they are written in the text, a point which is true throughout this movie. Yes, I'm biased but I can also be pretty damn objective and there is basically not a single plot change in this movie (of which there are MANY) which improves the story, or at least not without great cost to actions making sense.

Gandalf and Pippin. Pippin is shown seeing the White Tree burning in the Palantir, an event which not only isn't happening but never happens. This is explicitly against the text. The Palantirs are a means of clairvoyance and clairaudience/telepathy. They do not foretell the future and they explicitly can not show false images. Sauron can manipulate the view so that Pippin only sees what he wishes for him to see (of real events) and can psychologically manipulate him via it but this is flatly wrong. Now, they ride to Gondor where the worst of the plot problems are, and it happens mostly before they even arrive. In the books, Gondor absolutely understands they are about to be attacked in force. They have scouts and the movements of hundreds of thousands of troops does not go unnoticed. They are well prepared to the extent they can be when Gandalf arrives, with the women and children sent away and what troops can be spared from outer cities brought in to defend Minas Tirith. There is never any question of Rohan riding to their aid if they can but they must first defeat Saruman and then marshal their forces which they do immediately thereafter. Theoden sitting around in Rohan not even marshaling the Riders of the Mark until he sees the beacons MAKES NO SENSE. Sure you don't ride until you are summoned (or it could be construed as an invasion) but of course you should make ready. On arrival, Gandalf seems to want to conceal the death of Boromir and have Pippin not talk at all. Both of these are explicitly against the text where Gandalf aims to bring news of Boromir immediately to Denethor his father. It turns out the news has preceded him but he tries to do the right thing. He also knows Pippin will be long questioned by Denethor and wishes him to be careful in his answers but the line about not talking at all is not sensible and added purely for humor value. This has a cost immediately after as Pippin's strongest scene in the entire trilogy is ruined by him being played entirely the fool to this point. The audience in the theatre laughed as he, in an act of great heart and courage, pledges his loyalty to Gondor. Sure, he and all others know he is not a strong fighter and his service may not be worth that much but it is one of the most powerful symbolic acts of the trilogy and is understood as such by all involved, even Gandalf who regrets it as a political matter. That he then is immediately sent by Gandalf in the movie to betray Gondor (yes, for its own good but outright treachery as a legal issue) is sickening, particularly when Gandalf could trivially light the fire using magic from the ground without Pippin's betraying his oath. The beacon fires must be admitted to look extremely cool but the cost in believability of the character's actions is far too great and the fires could have been done without a viewpoint character to light them. As with everything, the actor and look chosen for Denethor is basically 100% perfect but his actions are totally wrong. Yes, in the text, he is in despair but he is still the last Steward of Gondor and loves his city and does everything he can to defend it until overcome by the loss (which he exaggerates in his mind due to his hopelessness and grief) of Faramir and even then when he goes to die he leaves Gandalf in charge. This ordering people away from the defenses is simply ridiculous and then the guards just standing by as Gandalf attacks their lord is outrageous to an extent hard to speak of. Finally, a man soaked in oil and burning like a torch does not do a hundred yard dash down a runway (a runway which should not exist I might add and if it does exist why aren't there siege engines on it as it is the best place in the entire city for them as shown in the movie). He should burn on the pyre as in the books and where is the Palantir of Minas Tirith? This change made no sense at all and made for a much weaker scene as did Gandalf not taking Faramir from the pyre instead of Pippin. Also, one of my very few objections over the design work is over Minas Tirith. The city looks too beaten down, the outer wall is not nearly strong enough and the Denethor runway while it exists to a degree in some Tolkien art is massively too exaggerated here and goes out way too far.

Ok, now on to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. In the books, numbers are not given for the two sides other than that the Rohirrim have 6000 and 3000 men come to Gondor to join the existing city garrison (which I estimate at 9-12000). The enemy's numbers are not given but I estimate it at around 200000 given that a statement is made that a trade of 1 man of Gondor for 10 of the enemy is not good enough for the defenders. Here in the movie, the battle does not look nearly so lopsided and the Rohirrim look to actually have a reasonable size force compared to Sauron's forces. In the books, they win the battle for four reasons - 1) The total surprise attack of the Rohirrim due to the help of Ghan-buri-ghan to bypass the forces Sauron sent to block them such that they are able to be ready and mount a full charge on totally unprepared forces as 2) The dawn breaks the magical darkness Sauron had cast (never fully explained but probably a result of Aragorn's actions in the South). 3) The Witch King's death which is quite well handled in the movie, definitely one of four or so highlights and finally 4) The arrival of Aragorn and the southern troops. #1 is completely fucked here as the defenders ready an arrow barrage and pike wall (while Theoden squanders any surprise by speech making in full view of the enemy - the speech is good but it comes before they come into view) against the very first charge. Just wrong and not as cool as a major surprise attack would have been temporarily routing a much larger force. #2 is ignored completely and #3 is handled well. #4 is completely fucked up! Why does Aragorn not have the banner of the King (trivial for Elrond to give it to him along with Anduril even in this version)? I see that the dead are here for reasons of speed but why couldn't this be handled more as in the book where these events aren't shown either but are summarized. Also, the dead being at Pelennor really reduces the emotional impact of the battle as it seems like they are invincible and could have wiped out all of the enemy rendering the actions of the other characters and the death of Theoden effectively pointless. The second strongest moment of this climactic scene (after the Witch King battle and just before the Rohirrim charge and Gandalf-Witch King confrontation at the gate) is turned into a scene which weakens everything else. Other problems with the battle - How are the Oliphaunts so full of arrows when the Rohirrim seem to have only few archers and this part of the battle seems too far from the walls of Minas Tirith for their archers to help, particularly when the men of Minas Tirith never seem to sortie out to support the Riders as they should. Why is the Gandalf-Witch King confrontation at the gate not shown when so much routine battle stuff is.

Frodo, Sam and Gollum. Why in a movie which is so long and needs to cut stuff do you add a long prologue scene that I doubt even made that much sense to viewers who hadn't read the books and was unnecessary for anyone. Was Gollum just so liked in "The Two Towers" that Jackson wanted to take advantage of that momentum and so added a scene that doesn't make much sense to show. The idea that Frodo could believe Sam was outright lying to him on multiple occasions and would believe Gollum over Sam is so contrary to every element of the character of all three as to absolutely sicken me that Jackson could so fuck this up. The scene with them watching the army and then climbing the stair in full view so that if any of thousands of soldiers look up, they are dead is insanely stupid. If they get caught there, they must stay in hiding until the entire army goes by. This seems as obvious as the nose on one's face. Shelob is wonderfully animated and scary as hell but the battles with her don't make that much sense. Sam kicking Shelob is pretty ridiculous. Still this scene is probably hard to dramatize and is pretty well done including the cool wrapping up of Frodo in webbing. Why the watchers were moved from Minas Morgul to the Tower of Cirith Ungol I don't know as it is a powerful scene in the books of Sam using the Phial of Galadriel to gain entrance to the Tower to rescue Frodo. When we finally see Mordor, it is amazing, better than anything I could have expected - Mountains, Mount Doom, Barad-dur and the Eye, all looked absolutely incredible. The times and distances in this section don't make any sense but this must be difficult to do and is worth giving dramatic license in regard to. The battle over the ring went a bit too long for me. I would have rather, as in the book, Gollum falls after the first fight and not have the second one but thats a minor quibble and the fall of Gollum and destruction of the ring were beautifully shown.

Aftermath. That the fissures caused by the destruction of the ring created an arc just beyond the Captains line was ridiculous but whatever I guess. Merry and Pippin cavorting over the scene of Frodo waking up ruined what could have been a beautiful scene and was horrible anyway to not show the growth of these characters as they grew in the books. These events seem to have had no effect on the movie's Merry and Pippin while the book's Merry and Pippin have each experienced great loss and pain and hardship and have become the stronger, physically and emotionally, for it. The coronation scene which is except for the Grey Havens scene for me the most emotional of the book (followed by the Frodo and Sam discussion after the ring's destruction) had none of that here. Why was Gimli involved and not Faramir? Frodo wasn't because they wanted the hobbits on the platform together obviously but that scene had nowhere close to the impact on me as did Aragorn's comments at the coronation asking that Frodo bring him his crown from Faramir and that Gandalf place it upon his head. I don't have the book in front of me or I would quote this as it is absolutely beautiful and powerful. The movie's version has the visual only and only the Gandalf part. The hobbits on the platform doesn't work as for one thing Merry and Pippin don't really deserve this level of acclaim - yes they did great deeds but no more than some others, particularly Eowyn. As usual, Elrond's reaction to the Aragorn-Arwen meeting was completely wrong. Jackson doesn't get the Elven mentality one iota!!! Since Jackson wanted to do the Grey Havens and not the Scouring of the Shire (an understandable choice), Jackson now had a problem as it is hard to do a later scene without an earlier one which sets it up. I am not sure what the right way to handle this was but making it so the Scouring of the Shire not only isn't shown but could not have happened (offscreen) was definitely not it. The Grey Havens is again not that well done. The discussion in the book between Frodo and Sam on the way there (with Sam fully aware that Frodo is leaving for the Undying Lands) is the most poignant of the entire trilogy for me and always brings me to tears and here there is only a fraction of this. Again, with the elves, Galadriel's smile as she boards the ship is not at all the right reaction. Finally, saying explicitly that this is the last ship to leave is absolutely against the text of the books and leaves the issue of Legolas, Sam and Gimli and the many other elves who remain in Mirkwood and other areas wrongly handled. Tolkien wisely leaves the issue in doubt (largely resolved in the Appendices) while Jackson closes the door on the possibility (or we have to just consider this statement a lie/wrong).

Military issues. Some of this I've mentioned earlier but it bears
having its own section because it is obvious that Peter Jackson doesn't know shit about fighting while Tolkien does. There are like 4 major battle scenes and in every one of them, Jackson has the West making nonsensical moves while Tolkien has them fight rationally. First is the battle of Osgilliath where Faramir's forces have one major advantage, they can defend the river crossing. In the movie, they literally sit and wait while the Orcs have a chance to land. This battle is hopeless without the natural barrier of the river. To be surprised by the attack and then intentionally give up the crossing when you are warned is STUPID!!! Second is the second battle of Farmair. Tolkien has a debate but Denethor deciding (probably unwisely) to defend the outer wall of the Pelennor (not even shown in the movie as far as I could tell) feeling he can't give it up without a fight. Jackson has him ordering Faramir to make a suicidal charge against a defended position. This is an action of military incompetence to rival the worst in history. Should we defend a fortress with the high ground or suicidally charge a held position? Third is the charge of the Rohirrim which I have already mentioned. Tolkien has them prepare out of sight and fully take advantage of the element of surprise. Jackson has them prepare in sight and dilly dally while the opposition has a chance to prepare archers and pikemen against them. This is an insanely stupid move for horsemen. Finally there is the final battle of the Captains of the West at the Black Gate. Yes, the very move is basically crazy but at least Tolkien has it executed with military competence as the Captains array to defend two small hills with a pike wall in front and archers in the middle to shoot over them. Here, Aragorn crazily charges out from their solid position to spread themselves out against a vastly larger force. Again, this is military insanity!!!

Ok, on to the good points to close. The visuals as always were gorgeous with the view of Mordor being among my very favorites of the entire trilogy, along with Rivendell, the Pillars of the Kings at Argonath, Edoras (inside and out) and the Shire. Shelob was also amazing as was the destruction of the ring and the detail in Mordor of Barad-dur and Mount Doom. Denethor's hall and the courtyard of the fountain (excepting the runway) were also almost perfect. The battle with the Witch King was wonderfully done as were some elements of the encounter with Shelob. Anduril did surprisingly little for me and I was surprised they used no special effects on it, like the blue glow of Sting - it is the "Flame of the West". The Grey Havens and Dunharrow were also nearly perfect while Minas Tirith was only pretty good and poor compared to the other amazing design work.

Anyway, its over except for the DVD extras which I doubt will do much. They kind of can't. Almost all the major things they missed or screwed up are not fixable with just additions; they would require major change and removal and they won't do that I expect. They will certainly add the Houses of Healing scenes and Saruman at Orthanc but not much else can be fixed. In terms of time issues, I actually also must agree that these two scenes are not as necessary as many others to the main characters and plot line and were probably right to leave for the DVD.

I continue to mourn for what this trilogy could have been with a different writer but the same wonderful team of actors and design people.

Posted by aarondf at 03:44 PM | Movies | Comments (10)

December 16, 2003

The Return of the King

Finished reading The Return of the King last night as I have been doing with the other Lord of the Rings books just before the movies. Started it Friday night and read about a hundred pages each night. As with every other time reading this, I cried several times at the end, particularly at Aragorn's coronation and all during the Grey Havens final chapter, especially strongly over Frodo's final speech to Sam about sacrifice. Absolutely a masterpiece!

As for the movies, I expect to generally like this one more than the others as I expect for this one Jackson will want to build up the characters more to their appropriate stature than the shadows of them he has had before. Still, we'll see how it goes tonight at midnight. Will I be enraged or tearful?

Posted by aarondf at 11:43 AM | Books | Comments (0)

December 15, 2003

Survivor Finale

Well, I was pretty happy that Sandra won as I have liked her since the first episode when she was bargaining like crazy (and in the native language) to buy her tribe supplies while the other tribe was totally blowing it. I think Lill made a mistake choosing her but it wasn't entirely clear. Lilll then Sandra then Jon was a pretty clear ordering of nicest to meanest but also from least skill in the game to most skill although the later is interesting. Sandra keeping in the background may actually be a greater skill than the direct and controlling manipulations of a character like Jon, even though it isn't nearly as difficult or as fun for the viewers. Lill could have lost to either of them but she probably should have made it a starker choice and hoped that enough people would hate Jon enough to NOT want him to have the money and so let her have it even though she didn't deserve it. As far as I was concerned, she let herself be an utter manipluated tool from the moment she returned until she betrayed Burton when the guys acted so stupidly that even she realized she had no chance at better than #3 with them. I've wanted both her and Jon gone for forever.

Posted by aarondf at 05:26 PM | Television | Comments (0)

December 11, 2003

TV Poker

Well, the second episode of Celebrity Poker was even worse than the first one with again a ton of luck and a bad player winning. Several of the players had basically never played Hold 'em before. This may be off the list.

On the other hand, the World Poker Tour had the first new episode in a long time, not the start of the season but a special invitational 'Ladies' Night' event with six of the best women players in the world. This game was really well played and although a surprising pair ended up on top, they played very well and had the luck. The back and forth ending was particularly amazing as the cards entirely favored one and then the other. This was probably my second favorite WPT episode after the amazing second Gus win one.

Posted by aarondf at 11:27 AM | Games | Comments (0)

Movies: The Good Thief

Excellent film starring Nick Nolte and based in France. I liked all of the characters and the cinematography was also excellent. The happy ending doesn't seem to make much sense but still a really good film. ***1/2

Posted by aarondf at 11:23 AM | Movies | Comments (0)

December 10, 2003

Followup to Cute

Followup image of the mommy tiger carrying one of the cubs.

Posted by aarondf at 01:40 PM | Miscellaneous | Comments (0)

December 09, 2003

Cute picture

This image is apparently of two baby tiger cubs at the Amersfoort Zoo in the Netherlands. Cute!!!

Posted by aarondf at 04:20 PM | Links | Comments (2)

TV: Battlestar Galactica

I was surprised at how good part one of this was. Major remake but then it doesn't pretend to be faithful to the original series unlike the LotR movies. Edward James Olmos is unsurprisingly a highlight. I hope this does spawn a series.

Posted by aarondf at 04:07 PM | Television | Comments (0)

December 08, 2003

Movies: Finding Nemo

Finally got this from Netflix. It was certainly enjoyable but nothing really special. Toy Story 2 and Toy Story (in that order) remain my favorite Pixar movies. ***

Posted by aarondf at 01:48 PM | Movies | Comments (0)

December 02, 2003

Mr. Picassohead

Mr. Picassohead is a very cool web tool for creating somewhat Picasso-like drawings. The gallery has some very neat stuff in it that people have drawn.

Posted by aarondf at 04:41 PM | Links | Comments (0)