DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of The Lord of the Rings (I, II, III)


Title: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers; The Return of the King

Release Date:  2001; 2002; 2003

Nationality and Language: UK, English

Running time: 165  Minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company: New Line Cinema (AOL)

Director; Writer: Peter Jackson , based on the three-book six-part novel by J. R. R. Tolkien

Producer: Barrie M. Osborne

Cast:   Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Brad Dourif, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Elijah Wood

Technical:  Super Panavision, THX Digital

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: literary

The Ring is Mine!”  Frodo Baggins (maybe it isn’t).


Review: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is actually one novel in three parts, all being filmed simultaneously by New Line for a grand total of something like $280 million. The book was published in three installments in the 1950s because of its colossal length (rivaling Imajica, Atlas Shrugged and The Stand). I have not read the book yet, and I won’t go into the analysis that many Tolkien fans find whole worlds in. PBS has been running a story on Tolkien, narrated by his son, in which the development of fantasy as a literary form is developed. Tolkien, in fact, put Old English scholars on the spot with the popularity of his masterpiece. 


There had been an unconvincing attempt to make an animated version as one movie in 1979. Here, in “live action” (to borrow a Disney term from the 50s) filmed on location in New Zealand is breathtaking, and really places the viewer inside this fantasy “once upon a time.”  The novel actually has a predecessor, The Hobbit, which is kind of a stuffy for the real thing.


The novel is a bit of a fairy tale, in which all kinds of different creature-like people live together in a universe that his its ups and downs. Middle Earth, and the Shire, form a kind of paradise resembling old English countryside, in which technology is replaced by magic. The knowledge of good and evil is represented by a ring, which had been forged in a volcano by satanic forces, and which has come into the possession of an aging Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (any connection with the name of the city Bilbao, Spain?)  In his comfortable spherical and bookish home, he passes it on to a younger relative, Frodo (Elijah Wood), who is presented (whatever his age in abosulte years in the Hobbit biology) comes across as a rather serious and tender teenage boy, perhaps about 17 in earthling terms. But he takes on the responsibility to lead an expedition of other Hobbits and people to cast the ring back into Mount Doom. He gradually becomes a true leader and forceful personality. In some ways, he seems to me like a good comparison to the character Clark, played by Tom Welling, as the “ideal teenage boy” (however alien or perhaps extraterrestrial his origin) in “Smallville.” Or perhaps like Harry Potter, except that both the Frodo and Clark characters are really “role model” young adults (not just boys), each with a bit of mystery that endears them to their chums. Older teens will certainly identify with both characters. Can a true human being approach this character that seems not just precocious but almost Christlike?


Tolkien makes an interesting comparison to Clive Barker, whose fantasy Imajica jumps off from present day,


The other thing in the tale is the male bonding. The tag team taking the ring through all of these adventures (including a Goonie journey through a tunnel and a battle with more than one troll, kind of Potter-movie-like) display male bonding of true affection (hence, “The Fellowship”), with no typical group male competition, and with little need for stereotyped heterosexual relations with women. In the last scene, Frodo says to his pal Sam, “Sam, I’m glad you’re with me.”


The application of this into today’s military should not be missed.


Also, although Elijah Wood plays the part like he was college age (maybe a service academy cadet on a survival exercise for special forces), in the book he is fifty (just like Bilbo had his “eleventy first”) birthday. But hobbits age very slowly, so he is still a young adult, just past his tweens. Trump would probably want him for an Apprentice. He takes risks.

In Film II "The Two Towers" the basic tale of good and evil is carried further with separate plot threads. Frodo and Sam meet up with the Gollum, a pathetic creature who got contaminated and made into a radiation freak by wearing the Ring. (It’s interesting to compare the name with the term golem, a mythical being that was a central concept in a horror novel The Tribe by Bari Wood, 1984 [review at].) The tenderness of the friendship is muted a bit as Sam sometimes calls Frodo "Mr. Frodo." Toward the end there occurs one of the most spectacular battles in all of film. Frodo is tempted to put on the Ring to ward off an enemy, and Sam saves him. The salvation of civilization still depends upon two hobbits.

New Line has been on a roadshow, giving brunches with panel discussions about modern movie making and how to get into the business. Advice: really finish that screenplay!

Film III, “The Return of the Kings,” (200 minutes) brings the cycle to a crowning climax of Wagnerian dimensions.  Frodo, Sam and Gollum approach Mount Doom while the to-be-king Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson) builds towards military distraction with a great battle outside the walled mountain city of Minas Tirith, which looks like Clive Barker’s Yzordderrex out of Imajica, which seems now more than just coincidentally inspired.  The battle scenes are simply phatasmagorical, with the great creatures flying and stomping around. But the focus in the characters seems to be the relationship between Frodo, Sam (Sean Astin, who really doesn’t look all that puffed up as a hobbit), and Gollum, which takes on the direction of a morality play. Frodo is, after all, “human” the way a Clark Kent is human, perhaps, with the same potential for temptation and influence. He falls out with Sam, who will later help rescue him from the great arachnid anyway. Ultimately, though, his relationship with Sam is, for all intents, a love story, however PG-13 (and whatever the distance Sam sometimes feigns by calling his chum “Mr. Frodo”). It seems compelling without even imposing the idea of Rosenfels-like teaching.  A great moment of temptation occurs when Frodo, over the pit of fire, exclaims, “The Ring is Mine!”  Sam’s love for him will save Frodo (or, perhaps, Gollum’s overeagerness to yank The Ring from Frodo, even in Misery-Stephen King fashion), and they will endure (and maybe consummate) a purgatory together over lava flows before eagles rescue them. Frodo, then, will write his book with quill pen, and then go off to his adult destiny at sea, while Sam marries and has a wife and family, almost as an afterthought.


The movie’s conclusion is drawn out as a kind of musical coda, the music during the credits then contemplative and quite before blazing at the very end in the manner of the closing of Wagner’s Gotterdamerung. The sun will rise finally on a human world, where the angels and other quasi-human creatures are consolidated into a We Are One (but see the comments about Daivd Day’s book below.) The film and book apparently relatively little of the “conversion” of Arwen (LivTyler) from seraphim to mortal human to consummate her love for Aragorn, as one could expect such an idea to generate a lot of plot in most novels (such as mine).  The movie version also seems to answer the 60s button “Frodo Lives” and walks away from the military-style self-sacrifice that may have been required to save the world for humankind. (I’m told that Frodo, as a hobbit, is very privileged to live forever in the land of the elves, but then is he still part of the world with karma to work out or not?) But then, this just affirms life, doesn’t it! Viewers will want to check the book The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule The All, edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, Chicago: Open Court, 2003, especially the essay “’My Precious’: Tolkien’s Fetishozed Ring,” by Allison Milbank.


The acting performances deserve even more praise. Best Supporting Actor may well go to Andy Serkis as the Gollum—the film begins with his recollection of his own corruption in to permanent alopecia by The Ring (although his body is curiously hairless even at the outset) in the old Printemps of Middle Earth. (The red kryptonite ring in TheWB’s Smallville and its effects on Clark Kent seem, then, like a derived gospel parallel.)  Gollum’s movements, his passionate, diabolical speech (“Precious!” ring) carry him along like someone converted into being a Gray by his own “fatal flaw” (a lot worse than Ephram’s “inability to change”), living out a life (or immortality) sentence as a kind of freak. Elijah Wood, on the other hand, gives a subtle performance as the slightly nerdy hero. (In the modern world he might have been something like a Jake 2.0.) He looks like he could almost fit in as a young male star on TheWB—he is more muscled than you expect a hobbit to be—but there is an innocence that is overcome by simple assertiveness exactly when it is needed, or even misdirected (Sam, go home!) I suppose Tobey Maguire (more from Seabiscuit than Spider Man) could have been a good fit for this part. But remember Elijah has spent his entire young manhood (he is 22 now) on this trilogy—the best years of his life so far, years that for me four decades ago were horribly troubled by McCarthyism and paranoia, which I did not overcome as well as Frodo. All said and done, this is a deeply political film trilogy, but Elijah Wood could really get the nod for Best Actor.


One other thing that makes this film, as a trilogy, at least, great: It connects the dots, and covers so many apparently unrelated areas of life. Not many films today do this, at least in the context of our own civilization. It seems more inviting in fantasy, as with The Matrix trilogy.


Note: 03/01/2004. Since the LOTR pulled off an eleven-game sweep at the Academy Awards (eleventy-first, anyone?) I make a note about the passionate Best Song, “To the West.” Many readers have the book by David Day, Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, from Fireside, 1991. Day explains the various epochs of pre-history, with an alternate religious explanation, that Middle Earth was Earth before creation, when it came into our solar system. Now The War of the Ring enabled man to take over the earth and for the constants of physics to change enough that our world came into being (as in Genesis, if you want to interpret it that way). Frodo, after returning from his battle (and his “temptation” over the Mt. Doom pit), soon accepts his reward of sailing off to the Undying Lands with the Elves. Now in the new order of creation, the Undying Lands are no longer accessible to humans in normal physics (this they become comparable to heaven), although Frodo experiences the transition as just a journey to live with the “people” of his choice. Sam will stay on Earth for years, marry and have 13 (biological) kids, run for office and have a career, before he finally joins Frodo (apparently just before the Undying Lands become inaccessible). This seems like an apt morality tale in the year that we debate same-sex marriage. Marriage, between a man and a woman with family and children, is necessary to provide households for the continuity of civilization. Yet, in Tolkien, the very creation of our world as we know it and the survival of the previous world (call it Atlantis if you like) depended upon a long-term same-sex bond which comes across almost as if they were lovers. The emotional chemistry of Sam and Frodo is very strong in the film, as strong as normally shown with (heterosexual) courtship and marriage. Of course, it is not marriage; however tender, it is something different and less frequent, altruistic and utterly indispensable for civilization to survive. If you like, though, you can call it the kind of bonding that the military expects.


Tolkien, in fact, seems to be a strong proponent of “normal” love and marriage, and suggests that the Ring represents fetishism and fantasy, the attempt by humans to substitute objects for a natural calling for productive socialization with others.


The Music


Howard Shore has fashioned a six-movement “symphony” (110 min) based on the film music, with one movement per Tolkien book section. I heard this performed by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Huber conducting) in May 2005 at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.  The structure of the work reminds one of Mahler’s Third Symphony (which probably could have worked pretty well for these films). The music generally has a chromatic language resembling Wagner. The first two movements, before the intermission, play as a kind of sonata structure with the sweet D major “Shire theme” as a second subject. The last four movements are shorter (starting with a sarabande in 3/2 time), and the work ends with the schmaltzy song “Into the West” which sounds like it belongs in a Mahler slow movement (the Adagio of the Ninth comes to mind). The very end of the work quotes the opening water music from Wagner’s Das Rheingold (The Ring) and then ends with a sunrise explosion and dimuendo, like Gotterdamerung. The performance included still illustrations projected on a screen (as if from a filmstrip), including geographical maps of Tolkien’s kingdoms, as well as various words in his invented language an alphabet. Various colors were projected onto the orchestra and different times.


The animated 1978 film was directed by Ralph Bakshi and distributed by United Artists, produced by Fantasy Films. It was in normal aspect ratio and did not seem adequate to convey the sweep of the story. There was a 77 minute animated TV film of the prequel “The Hobbit” in 1977 (dir. Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr.) and a large remake would sound like a worthwhile project.



Related reviews: Harry Potter  and Barker’s book Imajica ; books analyzing LOTR


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