Film Reviews

After Seeing 'The Fellowship of the Ring'

After seeing 'The Two Towers'

Gollum: written for church magazine

Temptation: written for church magazine

The Return of the King: written for church magazine

After Seeing 'The Fellowship of the Ring'

I thought I’d write you a few remarks as a Tolkien enthusiast. It’s been noted many times before that almost everyone either loves “Lord of the Rings” (the book) or hates it; very few are undecided. I expect the same will be true of the film. My assessment was “Very, very, very, very good, but not as good as the book”.

Rather than contribute a full film review (which I’m not sure I could do well, and anyway everyone who wanted to will have seen it by now), I’ll pick one question which readily occurs to Tolkien enthusiasts: “How have they done the elves?” Interestingly, I don’t find an overall answer to this question. All the elf characters have to be taken and considered as individuals.

Legolas. Good elf characterisation. Purists would argue that most elves should have black hair, but his physical appearance fitted the role quite well as far as I was concerned. Good character; speech, stillness, impassiveness. Excellent use of bow (I was looking out for that rapid-fire sequence the second time I saw the film!). I look forward to his greater role (with Gimli) in the next film.

Elrond. What a ratbag. “Oh, you men, dwarves and hobbits have all got a problem with this evil Ring! We elves aren’t involved because we can leave Middle Earth whenever we like. What are YOU going to do about it? I’ll watch.” A far cry from “This is the doom that we must deem.” Although Arwen (see below) had an expanded role, there was a failure to make it clear that she was Elrond’s daughter and that Elrond was encouraging Aragorn’s claim to the throne of Gondor, saying that then he would then consent to their marriage. A serious lost character-development opportunity.

Galadriel. Initially I was put off, finding her a bit creepy. But then I realised that this was brilliant. This is the side of her that most people in the story are aware of before they meet her (“The perilous sorceress of the Golden Wood” &c). A friend said to me, “Elves don’t do good and evil in the same way as us.” I’m not sure if that’s true, (in fact Aragorn claims it isn’t in book 2), but I appreciated her initial super-confident coolness. It made the power of the Ring even more dramatically obvious when she was so badly shaken up by it. By the way, she’s Elrond’s mother in law and Arwen’s grandmother; there was a complete failure to mention this.

Glorfindel. Where was he? Replaced by Arwen, whom I’ve deliberately left ‘til last.

Arwen. This is the point at which Tolkien purists scream and rage. I wasn’t too impressed with her either, but not because the story was changed; I accept that it had to be for a film. It’s more that, for me, the changes show a lack of understanding of elvish behaviour. She shouldn’t have been riding around the countryside by herself; Elrond would never have allowed it. Moreover, having her in the scene at the ford ruined the effect in the book, of Frodo’s brief lone defiance of the Black Riders. But given that she was there, stopping to have an argument with them was outrageous. Whatever happened to “Flee them! Speak no words to them. They are deadly!”? So we need a love-interest for Aragorn? Fair enough; this is one of his prime motivations in the book, but then it ought to have been explained better. To marry him, she must renounce immortality. Thus, having protected and brought up the orphan Aragorn in his house, Elrond thereby loses his daughter for all eternity. Tragic eh? He could easily avoid this by forbidding the marriage, but instead states that Aragorn can marry her only when he is king of Gondor. Noble? Hard to understand given that the life of an elf endures after Gondor will have long crumbled into dust? Intriguing ideas, which could easily have been in the film but weren't.

Appearance wise, I did admire Arwen (and Galadriel). Just the right degree of otherworldly beauty. I imagine the ears were very hard to get right! They had to be pointy; everyone knows that elves have pointy ears. But the faintest suggestion of Vulcan would have ruined the image. (“That’s illogical, Aragorn!”). A very fine line to tread which, in my opinion, was entirely successful. Like most of the film, really.

Return to top

After seeing 'The Two Towers'

I remember last year banging on about the Lord of the Rings film. Can I have another go? My assessment of the second part is still “very, very, very good, but not as good as the book”. Visually it was fantastic, and the music was good too. I wasn’t so impressed with some of the dialogue. E.g. Aragorn v Theoden. A tense situation while they are besieged in Helm’s Deep waiting for the attack. For tension in a film we need an argument, but a better one could have been contrived. Once we’d had “This is hopeless, we’re doomed.” “Yes, but what else can we do?” the debate was exhausted. A situation familiar to Dip players but not really requiring as much discussion as it was given.

Gollum: brilliant. Even though he’s so evil, I still felt sorry for him. He’s suffered enough. A very good scene with his inner debate, a great triumph when “Smeagol” banished “Gollum”, making for a keenly felt tragedy when “Gollum” returned and absorbed “Smeagol” later, due to outside circumstances which no-one could have predicted.

Faramir: an outrage. The whole point of having him in the book is that he shows up Boromir’s one flaw by acting more nobly when faced with the same temptation. (Synopsis: in the book, Faramir guesses that Boromir was tempted to take something that wasn’t his and says “even if this thing lay by the roadside I would not pick it up”. Later he learns from Sam that it was no ordinary treasure, but the great Ring of Power itself, and he could now take it easily. He resists the temptation, recognising that his previous words amount to a promise, even though he has such great need of the power it could give him).  In the film, Faramir caves in too. I fear that this change is based on the contemporary idea that temptation can’t be resisted and there’s no point trying; stuff just happens. No! We’re not just clever animals, we’re moral creatures. We have the ability to distinguish right and wrong and a responsibility to choose right and reject wrong. This includes keeping promises and respecting the weak as Faramir (in the book) realises.

Elves and their ears. Not much to add, except how well done they were. This time we were given a love scene between Aragorn and Arwen of which the sole purpose was to show off how real her left ear looked in closeup. Aragorn even managed to outline it with his hand by pretending to stroke her hair at one point. In the extended DVD version, expect this scene to be extended, with flashing neon arrows pointing at the tip of Arwen’s ear and captions saying “Look! You can’t see the join, right? Massive kudos to the makeup department!”

Return to top

Gollum: written for church magazine

It's been suggested that I follow my notes on last year’s “Lord of the Rings” film by reviewing the next installment, “The Two Towers”. Unfortunately, though, I won’t have had a chance to see that film until after the Christmas magazine is finished. So maybe I can write instead about a thought provoking incident in the book, and suggest that we look out for it in the film. (I really hope they don’t mess it up by changing the story!)

I’m thinking of an apparently trivial incident which (we find out later) is actually something of a turning point. Frodo and Sam are being guided into the black land of Mordor by Gollum, the ancient creature who once owned the ring now carried by Frodo. He was once a hobbit like them but the ring, in granting him extended life, has also distorted him physically so that now the resemblance can hardly be seen. Even though he is very evil (he killed to get the ring and has murdered again many times since), he excites sympathy because of the greatness of his suffering over a long time. There is actually a chance for him to be “redeemed”, but it is about to be lost.

Gollum has actually (we learn later) crept away from the two hobbits while they slept and gone ahead to arrange to betray them to the monster Shelob. He hopes that after they have been killed by her, he will find the ring and make it his own once more. But he is in two minds; he want the ring that badly, but he has grown to like Frodo and doesn’t really want to betray him to death.

“A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum – ‘pawing at master,’ as he thought.

    ‘Hey you!’ he said roughly. ‘What are you up to?’

    ‘Nothing, nothing,’ said Gollum softly. ‘Nice Master!’

    ‘I daresay,’ said Sam. ‘But where have you been to – sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?’

    Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed.”

This is even more tragic when we consider that, usually, Sam is among the humblest and least selfish of the characters in the story. He immediately regrets what he said, but it cannot be unsaid. A good illustration for us of the power of a careless word; look out for it in the film.

James chapter 3:- “… the tongue is a small part of the body but it makes great boasts. Consider what a small forest is set on fire by a small spark. … With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”

Return to top

Temptation: written for church magazine

Great, we soon get to see the third “Lord of the Rings” film. I really ought to be able to make something of a title like “The Return of the King” but, not having seen the film yet, I’m feeling cautious. This time last year I wrote about the scene where Smeagol was pushed over the edge by a thoughtless remark from Sam. But when I saw the film I realised that it had been treated very differently. So I’m not going to make the mistake of just writing about the book again. Instead, lets think about the differences between last year’s film and the book.

There have to be changes when turning a book into a film and I could see the reasons for most of them. But there was one change which made me very unhappy: Faramir. What was wrong with Faramir? Well, if you’ve read the book, you will know that he is one of the few who successfully resist the evil power of the One Ring. The Ring tempts according to the stature of the one tempted. The wretched Smeagol imagines himself as “Gollum the Great” eating fresh fish three times a day. Sam the gardener imagines transforming all the lands beneath his rule into productive gardens and orchards. Galadriel sees herself as a great queen, “beautiful and terrible”. Faramir’s older brother Boromir, already a great leader of men, imagines himself as a great war leader, rallying everyone to his banner and defeating Sauron in battle. He tries to take the Ring from Frodo by force and (as a consequence?) is slain by orcs.

How, then is Faramir tempted? Faramir, the youngest son of Lord Denethor, also a valiant leader in battle but always in the shadow of Boromir, his father’s favourite? He would naturally want to take the Ring for its power of command, but also to carry it back to Denethor, bringing the strength to defend Gondor and finally gaining the approval of his father which had always been withheld. When he meets Frodo, he has the opportunity to make the Ring his own. But (in the book) there is one obstacle: his own given word. “Not if I found it on the highway would I take it”, he had said. “Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them. But I am not such a man. Or I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee.”

This integrity proves him to be nobler than his brother. If you’ve seen the second film, you’ll know that in it he caves in, just like Boromir. This raises the question of why he has to appear in the film; he’s just a repetition of the same idea. But more to the point, we can also ask, “Why the difference between book and film?”

The reason I consider most likely is an unattractive one. “Lord of the Rings” was written in the 1950s. The film is a product of the present. In the intervening half century, it has become implausible that anyone can resist temptation, and the film producer knew this. “Why not give in now?”, asks the Spirit of the Age, “You know you will eventually. No-one can hold out forever. Why struggle?” To which Christians must always answer, “No! Promises can be kept. Integrity is possible. Truth can be told. By God’s help and strength, we will tread down evil and resist temptation.” The change in the film shows that, increasingly, we are alone in saying that.

In the book, Faramir’s words afterwards are revealing: “…there was naught in this to praise. I had no lure or desire to do other than I have done.” He has indeed shown his “quality”.

“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it."

Return to top

The Return of the King: written for church magazine

It’s a couple of months after the event now, but I’m sure you haven’t forgotten that film yet, if you saw it. (There are people who aren’t mad on Tolkien?)  What were the highlights for you? The final shattering end of the quest to destroy the “precious” ring? The revelation of the meaning of Gandalf’s words, that Gollum would “have a part to play” before the end? The joyous reunion when Aragorn realised that Arwen hadn’t left? The cataclysmic battle for Minas Tirith? Or just Legolas’ third and even more amazing archery stunt?

What was the “highlight” for Tolkien? He tells us in his book title; “The Return of the King”. It’s interesting that the story is nowhere near finished when the quest is fulfilled. The ring has been consumed in fire and Frodo is finally free of its evil influence. That was the objective of the whole quest, and yet – it isn’t over. On an individual level Frodo has been set free, “saved” if you like, but the world has yet to be set right. Gondor remains devastated by war; it’s people oppressed, scattered and impoverished.

That’s our experience as Christians. Being “in Christ” we are indeed “new creations”. But we don’t (yet) live in a perfect world. We rejoice in our salvation but we often feel ourselves to be “exiles” in a world of poverty, injustice, warfare and cruelty where Christ is not Lord. Our world still needs its King.

I’m sure that this correspondence suggested by the title isn’t coincidence and that Tolkien intended it from the outset, because of the way the role of Aragorn is developed in the book. He finally comes to his own city and own people, to be acknowledged and crowned as king. It’s a great scene. But only a few know that he’s been here before. On the previous occasion, he appeared to be a humble “Ranger”, just a leader of a few men playing his part in the great battles of the time. But even then, those who saw realised his greatness. Ioreth tells her relative about him; “The hands of a king are the hands of a healer”; “So shall the rightful king be known”. He had healed those who had once seemed certain to die. I’m hoping that in the extended DVD this will be made a bit plainer by some healing scenes.

“The Return of the King” is a theme which crops up again and again in art, literature and music. For example, Rick Wakeman; “Many believed that Arthur would return to re-establish the holy realm of Llogres…” We enjoy stories in which an apparently humble person turns out to the “rightful heir”. Why? Quite simply, the world needs its King. And deep down, it knows that.

Part of the “Good News” is that, one day, the King will indeed return. “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” That great event will be even more joyful than the scenes of Gondor seen in the film. Under His rule, the world will be put right in every way.

“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

Return to top