First impressions and nitpicks of ROTK

Hopefully I’ve procrastinated enough that most of you interested in this post will already have seen the movie, but if reading my impressions of Peter Jackson’s take on The Return of the King would somehow spoil it for you, read no further.

The Return of the King is, inexplicably, my favourite book of the three, so I’m more prone to nitpicking here than I have been in the earlier films. Overall, of course, it’s astonishing, visually note-perfect — tears were welling up when the Rohirrim arrived, let me tell you — and, of course, not long enough. But some things stuck out that I’m still working through in my head. No doubt the extended-DVD commentary will explain these choices.

So, in no particular order:

Accelerando. Everybody is right: it does go too fast after the denouement of the Pelennor. It’s the point to which they have been building for the previous eight (or ten, extended) hours — the most important, pivotal moment in the story — and it feels like we’re rushing through it. This after lengthy (and arguably justifiable) buildups to the battles of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor. Which brings me to my conclusion that Peter Jackson’s very good at building up to a battle, but no good at all at what comes next. If the battle was the climax and the film ended shortly thereafter, there would be no problem. But — and this is admittedly a problem for the pacing of an action-adventure film — Tolkien’s major battles occur halfway through each book. Now what?

Verticality. A great visual effect but somewhat jarring in the verisimilitude department. Morgul Vale is fantastic, but as for Minas Tirith, for some reason I didn’t expect the citadel and courtyard to be so high up. And if the muster of Rohan takes place at Dunharrow, why waste time and energy climbing way up there?

Denethor. Didn’t like what they did with this character. In the book he’s more complex, a tragic figure defeated by despair. Here he’s just a nasty old man. Jumping off while still aflame was just gratuitous — and, memo to Gandalf: Don’t say “So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion” until he’s finished passing already.

Vatic voice. In the south, they use “thee” and “thou” a lot. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens have quite rightly scrubbed that from the film; it would have been too stilted. But I miss the familiar lines, and the replacements don’t feel sufficiently grand.

Tiny little Mordor. Looks great, but should the Barad-dûr be visible from the Black Gate or the Morgai? I don’t have the map handy, but surely the Dark Tower is far enough away that it shouldn’t loom quite so large?

Itsy bitsy spider. Now I know why they held Shelob until the third film: if they hadn’t, they’d only have 10 minutes of footage from the rescue at the tower of Cirith Ungol to Mount Doom. I think the Gollum-engineered Frodo-Sam conflict was a bit forced, though dramatically necessary if Sam has to be elsewhere when Shelob strikes.

The siege of Gondor. Perfect down to the catapulted heads. The arrival of the dead was probably necessary from a dramatic standpoint — adding Pelargir would have added complexity: Minas Tirith is in trouble because forces in the south are tied up with the Corsairs and Southrons, etc., etc. Continuing the contest was a nice touch — Gimli and Legolas all but disappear in the third book, and it would have been a mistake to perpetuate that in the film.

It’s going to be a long wait for the extended edition.