Monday, April 20, 2020

Reeling Backward: "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, extended edition (2001-03)

I've in a groove. (Some might say a rut.) Exploring Ralph Bakshi's fantasy animation rekindled thoughts of his version of "The Lord of the Rings," which led me back to the Peter Jackson-directed trilogy of the early 2000s.

The 1978 animated film, which ended suddenly a little more than halfway through the novel -- even with skipping large volumes of material -- was sorta/kinda "finished" with the release the following year of a TV movie, "The Return of the King."

Bakshi was not actually involved in the second film, which picked up at roughly the same point his left off but featured a completely different voice cast. It was made by the same team that had done the lackluster 1977 animated version of "The Hobbit," and they apparently changed gears when they heard Bakshi's LOTR saga would not be completed. They even turned it into a musical, for God's sake.

Nightmares of "Frodo of the Nine Fingers" still haunt me at night.

In contrast to this slapdash effort, the live action trilogy was carefully planned from start to finish, with most of the principle photography for all three films completed over a contiguous one-year shoot in New Zealand. Jackson and his screenwriting team also wisely chose to separate J. R. R. Tolkien's 1,000+ page novel into three separate parts, as has generally been done during its printing history: "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King."

For our purposes here I'm going to deal with them as one work, and specifically the longer, extended editions that were released on video within a year or two after "RotK."

Specifically, I want to focus on how the movies differ from the book, and how the extended versions for home video vary from the theatrical films. And why I think that, although the extended versions are superior, they're specifically better for the more leisurely experience of watching them at home instead of a movie theater.

To wit: let me be up front and say I did not watch the trilogy in one sitting. With additions the extended versions hit right around four hours per movie, adding somewhere between 30 and 50 minutes of screen time to each. I watched them over a one-week period with my 9-year-old as my enthusiastic companion. My 6-year-old was also there some of the time, flitting in and out as his interest waxed or waned.

I should also preface that I am a lifelong fan of LOTR and was both excited and greatly afeard of the project before the first movie came out. The Bakshi film and its wayward "sequel" are pretty universally loathed by true fantasy fans as kiddie cartoon bastardizations of a great work of literature.

Perhaps the biggest way the movies differ from the books, and the extended version from the theatrical, is the love affair between Aragorn and Arwen. If you had just read the book (and not the long appendices) you'd wonder if there even was a romance going on. It's barely mentioned in passing in the text.

This interracial affair between Man and Elf is a continuation of another romance, between Beren and Lúthien, that previously occurred in Tolkien's vast mythology of Middle-earth. You have to dive into his much less readable works like "The Silmarillion" and "Unfinished Tales" to get at that stuff.

Suffice it to say that Arwen's father, Elrond, disapproves of their love. He wants Arwen to take the ships west to the Undying Lands -- roughly the immortals' equivalent of passing into the after-life -- and Aragorn to take up the throne of Gondor. Aragorn and Arwen try to do their duty but find the pull between them too strong to resist.

Uplifting this romance, nearly to the point of having it equal Frodo's quest to destroy the One Ring, essentially makes Aragorn the trilogy's co-leading character. In the books, he's a sort of generic, stolid hero-type who mostly stays in the background, doing his derring-do, until nearly the end.

In the films we watch him gradually transform from surly Ranger to reluctant leader of the Fellowship to a kingly figure embracing the incredible weight of his destiny.

Among the added or extended scenes, we learn more about Aragorn's lonely childhood upbringing among the elves, how the romance came to be and how their love for each other presses heavily on their actions. "The Two Towers" in particular is replete with quite languid flashbacks and visions that help us embrace their melancholy.

There is also a lot more footage of the relationship between Aragorn and Eowyn, the princess of Rohan who falls in love with him. The extended editions have a number of interactions added not in the book, from taming a wild horse to the revelation that the long-lived man of Númenor is 87 years old at the time of the events in LOTR, having fought alongside King Théoden's grandfather during his wandering years.

Eowyn's ache is quite palpable in the longer version, and the addition of glances and dialogue heightens our sense that he returns her affection in at least some way. (This takes place during the section where he mistakenly believes Arwen has departed Middle-Earth.)

The additions also flesh out Eowyn's character to a much greater degree, so at the moment when he dismisses her -- "It is but a thought and a shadow that you love; I cannot give you what you seek" -- her pain is sharply palpable. It colors her subsequent decision to secretly accompany the men to war as not just proto-feminist bravery but the actions of someone who has truly given up on life.

Another character who sees a lot more screen time and shadings than in the book or theatrical movies is Faramir. When I first read the book, he instantly became my favorite character: an introverted, scholarly figure whose worth is often discounted in a world of men-at-arms. Living eternally in the shadow of his older brother, Boromir, Faramir is openly scorned by his father, Denethor, the increasingly mad Steward of Gondor.

The late romance between Faramir and Eowyn is given, I think, just a few sentences in Tolkien's text, and got even less in the theatrical films. Here we get a couple of sequences of their interaction, and we grasp how these two, wounded in body and soul, would find refuge in each other's company.

One addition to the extended versions I'm not especially keen on is Faramir's interaction with Frodo and Sam on their journey to Mount Doom. In the extended version Faramir forces them to return with him as far as the river fortress of Osgiliath -- quite a diversion from their journey, both geographically and thematically -- before allowing them to continue on their way. This never happens in the book.

Ostensibly this makes sense, since Faramir learns of the Ring and seeks to give it to Denethor as a way to show his "quality" to his father. But from a strictly narrative standpoint, it feels like a bit of a bait-and-switch, creating tension solely for the purpose of releasing it.

I have the same quibble with Treebeard initially refusing the plea from Merry and Pippin to declare war on Saruman, something wholly absent from the book. The ents have their (ridiculously overlong) entmoot and say no, preferring to weather out the coming storm. The hobbits trick Treebeard into taking them south, instead of west, so that he can witness the destruction of his beloved trees of Fanghorn Forest by Saruman and become enraged into action.

Aside from the obvious question -- how would the halflings know Saruman had done this? -- it again feels like a screenwriting ploy that's too clever by half. It also presents a logistical impossibility, of Treebeard being able to travel for hours through his forest for what must be dozens of miles, do a little toodley-toot to call the other ents, and having them appear almost instantly.

I caught one other temporal incongruity created by the addition of the extended footage. In this case Sam and Frodo, having finally made it inside the rim of Mordor, talk about having to "find a way down" to the plains below infested with orcs. We then cut to a discussion of the surviving leaders after the battle of Gondor, followed by a mustering of their forces and riding to the Black Gate many leagues away to draw Sauron's eye and armies. Then we cut back to the hobbits arriving at the bottom just in time to watch the orcs shuffling away.

So we have parallel timelines conjoined even though one action must have taken, at most, a couple of hours and another that would have needed, at a minimum, a few days' time.

Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf get bits and pieces of added screen time, mostly to affirm their growing friendship. Their friendly competition in killing the most orcs, which seems like a Hollywood add-on but is right there in the book, is given a few extra beats.

Similarly, Merry and Pippin are both rounded out a bit more, with some shadings to make them seem more than just fun-loving rapscallions. I also enjoyed the addition of the little subplot about them growing much taller as a result of drinking Treebeard's ent draught, with commensurate one-upmanship.

Within Tolkien's book the younger two hobbits are supposed to be in their "tweens," aka in their 20s, which would make them about late teen years for humans -- so not beyond the possibility of a late growth spurt, with a little entish help.

Speaking of ages, Tolkien was quite specific about those of Frodo and Bilbo. At the time of their shared birthday party that launches the book and films, Frodo is turning 33 (roughly 21 for human), signifying full adulthood, and Bilbo is turning 111. However, the movies omit the 17 years that passes between the party and the beginning of Frodo's quest with the ring.

Both Frodo and Bilbo were about 50 when they had their great adventures, which would be approaching middle age for humans. I think that greatly colors Frodo's personal journey. Elijah Wood was only 19 when they began shooting the movie, and was fresh-faced as a new apple. By the end of RotK, he legitimately seems decades older.

It's also harder to explain such a large gap of time in a cinematic version than one on the page. It makes it seem like Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and the other leaders of the resistance against Sauron were tragically inept. As one of the five Istari sent by the godlike Valar to Middle-earth to oppose the enemy, what else exactly has Gandalf to do?

Maybe he was off spending too much time infatuated with the halflings' tobacco leaf, as Saruman mocks.

Samwise Gamhee also is greatly elevated in the extended versions of the films, almost to the point of being the dominant character in the last film. Many people were vexed when Sean Astin did not receive an Oscar nomination for his performance, and my recent viewing has only served to underscore those complaints.

In many ways, Sam is the heart and soul of LOTR. Not coincidentally, both Tolkien's book and the extended version end with his return to Bag End.

With regard to the film's historic haul of Academy Awards, "The Return of the King" won an astonishing 11, despite not receiving a single acting nomination, which must represent some kind of record. It also won in every single category in which it was nominated, besting the batting averages of even "Ben-Hur" and "Titanic," which also won 11 each, the most ever.

Finally, let us talk of Tom Bombadil.

None of the film versions of LOTR have even attempted to depict him. Even Peter Jackson saw no reason to include him in the extended versions. His part in the story is not long, and surely could've been handled in 10 minutes, or even less.

But I understand the reason for the omission. He's a mysterious figure, resembling a dwarf but having druid-like powers over his domain. Indeed, his Old Forest on the borders of the Shire is described as being very similar to Fanghorn, overgrown and dark of mood, and in many ways he's analogous to Treebeard. He's depicted as being the one entity in Middle-earth who is immune to the temptations of the One Ring.

In the end, the hobbits' encounter with Bombadil is little more than a diversion that forces them to tarry on the way to Bree, which is where the story really picks up. The only thing notable that happens in his company is when Tom rescues them from the barrow-wights and gives their ancient blades to the halflings. In the movie, Aragorn simply pulls them out and hands them over.

Reading a book and watching a movie in a theater are very different experiences, and watching a movie at home is more different from the cinema than we would think.

In general I think two hours is about the most amount of time a person can concentrate deeply on an activity without needing a mental (or bladder-related) break. We're human and our minds begin to wander, even if we are intellectually and emotionally engaged. None of the LOTR movies were distributed with an intermission like "Lawrence of Arabia" or other long films of antiquity.

(For the record, 2003's "Gods and Generals" was the last one to include one, and I don't believe there had been another since "Gandhi" in 1982.)

My DVD edition of the extended versions each came with two discs about two hours each, so we essentially watched the movie in six parts. This makes for a very satisfying experience, as we can enjoy the enhanced storytelling and have time to think about it in between.

I'm not here to tell which version of "The Lord of the Rings" is "best." The book is its own singular experience, with Tolkien's dense imagination and writing style of the language-loving academic he was. I wouldn't be the first to admit that I tend to skim over his long stanzas of poems and songs.

The theatrical movies were marvels, made for the big screen. And the extended director's cut, or whatever we want to call them, are a more sumptuous experience for watching at home.

Watching the last credits roll to the end, I let Annie Lennox's marvelous "Into the West" wash over me, with almost heartbeat-like pulses of emotion. "The Lord of the Rings" represents the apex of the fantasy genre on film, even better than anything during pop culture's brief fascination with these kinds of movies 20 years earlier.

Fantasy has largely moved to television shows and streaming platforms, with wildly varying degrees of success. For every "Game of Thrones," there's a crappy show with shallow-end actors swinging swords or miming spells.

But there will only be one "The Lord of the Rings" -- even if there are now several ways to experience it.

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