Okay, so I'm cheating a bit here, capping off my "top 10 favorite films of all time" list with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But just like Tolkien's novel, which was one book artificially broken into three parts for publishing purposes, I consider the LOTR trilogy to be one (albeit very long) film.
And a damned good one. In fact, I will unequivocally state the LOTR films are my favorite.
Unlike most of my reviews, which dwell on the reasons why I "love my favorite films so," I feel like I must spend some time defending Jackson's version of LOTR. Although these movies were met with tremendous commercial and critical success (Best Picture and Best Director awards, great critical ratings on RottenTomatoes, etc.) a sizable community of detractors exists.
For the most part, I think the righteous anger (and that's how I would describe some of the reaction I've seen, usually by Tolkien "purists") of some of these outspoken critics is misguided. Particularly, I don't agree at all with the notion that Jackson failed to capture the "spirit" of Tolkien's work. As I see them, the key points of Tolkien's novel include:
- Frodo "fails" in his quest, but is redeemed by his act of pity towards Gollum--check, that's here.
- The friendship and undying loyalty of Sam, the true hero of the tale, and how that friendship and unexpected bravery allows Frodo to succeed in his quest--check, that's here.
- The terrible toll that war and sacrifice can take on the victors of a conflict--check, that's here.
- The departure of the elves and the passing of a magical, timeless age into a time of mortal men--check, that's here.
- Tolkien's preoccupation with death and the problems inherent in our pursuit of immortality, and the possibility of something greater--i.e., God--behind the great grey rain-curtain of this world--check, that's here.
In fairness, however, I do agree with some of the criticisms of these films. I don't think they are perfect, and here are my own:The generally poor/shallow treatment of Gimli and Legolas. The former is almost wholly reduced to a comic device, while the latter is obnoxiously uber-powered. I loved Jackson's subtle early touches with Legolas (walking on the snow in the Pass of Caradhras, rapid-fire arrows in the battle with the orcs on Amon Hen), but hated the dreaded shield-surfing at Helm's Deep and his single-handed dispatch of the Mumakil in the battle of the Pellennor Fields. Gimli and Legolas weren't fleshed out, major characters in the books, but they deserved better.
The green ghost army. This, to me, is the most unforgiveable misstep in the Walsh/Jackson screenplay. By having an army of the dead sweep away all the orcs and mercenaries before Minas Tirith, Jackson undercut one of my favorite moments--the charge of the riders of Rohan. Had the brave men of Rohan waited just a few minutes longer, they could have watched as the undead army won the day without loss of life. Essentially, the ghosts negated Theoden's great moment of sacrifice and valor on the battlefield. And on top of that, I thought this was one of the rare unconvincing pieces of CGI in the trilogy. It almost appeared as if the budget had run dry by this point.
Too much artificial tugging at emotional heartstrings. This is just an overall feeling, but upon rewatching these films there's a few too many shots of Arwen's grief, Frodo's tears, etc.. The Lord of the Rings has enough built-in pathos and certainly doesn't need Jackson's heavy-handed reminders.
The exclusion of the Scouring of the Shire. I dearly wanted to see this filmed, and I think its message--that war touches us, everywhere, and that one can't simply "go home again"--is an important one and a central theme in Tolkien's work. But, to defend Jackson, this would have stretched the ending of The Return of the King--already quite long--to an interminable degree.
However, these criticisms are quite minor. Consider that, prior to 2001, the general consensus among movie buffs and Tolkien fans alike was the Lord of the Rings was "unfilmable." Jackson showed us otherwise, producing what I consider to be a stunning achievement and a work of lasting art.
There's so many good moments in these films, both large (the battles, the set pieces of Moria and Minas Tirith) and small ("It comes in pints? I'm getting one!"). Some of my favorites include:
The charge of the Riders of Rohan. This might be my favorite moment in all of cinema. Starting with the fear on the riders' faces after seeing the sprawling horde of orcs massed at the gates of Minas Tirith, to Theoden's stirring speech ("Forth, and fear no darkness! Arise! Arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day... a red day... ere the sun rises! Ride now!... Ride now!... Ride! Ride to ruin and the world's ending!") to the slow-panning back of the camera, revealing rank upon rank of Rohirrim, who scream "Death!" in unison and surge forward into a wedge, then watching the stunned looks on the orcs' faces as they realize this wave is not going to stop, until it parts their ranks like a hot knife through butter....that is some good stuff. If I live another 30-plus years I may never see its equal.
The casting/acting. Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Ian Holm as Bilbo, Sean Astin as Sam, and Sean Bean as Boromir are my favorites. All of them deserved awards. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Miranda Otto, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill (Theoden), Billy Boyd, Cate Blanchett, Brad Dourif (a great bit part as Wormtounge) all deserve accolades as well.
Sam's speech at the end of the Two Towers. This was a beautifully written/filmed sequence, and Astin pulled it off with great conviction: Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something...that there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.
You bow to no one. Enough said. I cried (just a bit) at this line.
Hobbiton. It's obvious that a great amount of effort was expended to make Hobbiton appear to be a lived-in, realistic place, and it shows on the screen. The attention to detail and the effort poured into this set piece are remarkable. I still recall sitting in the theatre back on opening night of The Fellowship of the Ring, and watching Frodo under the tree, reading a book, and the first view of The Shire. I knew right then that Jackson had nailed the look I had imagined in my mind all those years, and that I was in for a great ride.
"For Frodo." That look when Aragorn turns back to the small force at the Black Gates, with all hope gone, eyes heavy with grief, before charging in with Narsil drawn...I still get a shiver down my spine just thinking of it.
Theoden girding up for the battle of Helm's Deep. His speech: "Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?" as he slowly straps on his armor with the bright beam of light shining through a narrow aperture is poetry on film.
Boromir's death. Bean brought Boromir to life, and his performance bettered Tolkien's depiction of the character from the books. After his death speech ("I would have followed you to the end. My brother; my captain; my king") I couldn't see the screen clearly until my eyes cleared. Must have been a dust-mote.
Into the West. What a beautiful song, performed magnificently by Annie Lennox. My kids and even my wife, no LOTR fan, are big fans. Really, the whole score (by Howard Shore) is a marvel.
Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom. This, folks, is what heroism is all about. Small steps taken by an unassuming, unimportant figure, beyond all endurance, with no hope to buoy him, up Mount Doom. Astin/Sam was a titan in this scene, carrying the weight of his master, the Ring, and the very movie itself on his back. All the special effects, the money, the casting, depended on the believability and sympathy evoked by Sam and Frodo, and Sam in particular. And Sam succeeds, as do the films, in brilliant fashion.