Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Notes on The Return of the King

I just got the extended version of The Return of the King today (I have all three extended versions now.) It's beautifully done. But of course, having read the book so many times, I have a couple of issues with it.

Movies are different from books, and frankly, I'm glad Jackson didn't try to stick slavishly to the original--what's the point of making a movie if you're not going to try to add something new to it. Overall he did a fantastic job. My main complaint, though, was that he missed something in the transformation of Frodo that was, to me, one of the most subtle themes in the book, and one that many seemed to miss.

Tolkien follows Frodo's perspective right up until Shelob's lair, but then shifts to Sam's perspective, never again entering Frodo's mind. This is consistent with his treatment of Sauron: we never see the monster. Sauron is a rumour, a shadow, the sum of all fears, a being who may not even have a physical form. He is a living nightmare. With no form of his own, he takes on any and all forms that fear may give him.

Frodo is a good man in the deepest pit of hell, having an intimate conversation with the devil which he cannot refuse and cannot escape. He already knows what to expect, because Gandalf has warned him, and he has seen what the ring does to others. And he has Gollum before him, he can see with his own eyes where he is heading. The ring has already played the obvious tricks on him, at Bree, Weathertop, and with Bilbo in Rivendell. Now it is approaching full strength, and the assault is far more subtle, and vicious. His humanity is being consumed, his mind eaten away, his body bent and broken by a burden of metaphysical weight. His is not the saintliness of quiet repose. He is gentle because he is becoming a beast. He is kind because murder is creeping into his heart. And he clings desparately to his humanity, because he is becoming a monster. He knows all this. Gollum was at least spared the knowledge of his fall, but Frodo knows what is happening to him, and this makes it far worse. Frodo's hell, and his experience of it, is, like Sauron, beyond description, and Tolkien wisely does not attempt to describe it.

In the movie, the writers treated the desire for the ring as an addiction. This is but a single layer amongst dozens. The ring is not just an addiction, it is also desire, greed, control, power, status, ego, technology, arrogance, elitism, the means that becomes an end. But most of all, it is Pride. If Sauron is the sum of all fears, then the ring is the sum of all vices and sins. So to have Frodo order Sam to go home at the urging of Gollum is a terrible breach of character. Sam is his only link to home and his humanity; Frodo would not dare part with him. Frodo is no fool, he is not duped by Gollum. Frodo has shackled him with the ring, by forcing him to swear by it. But the ring, through Gollum, has found an improbable loophole that Frodo is not aware of, a threat that will take no interest in the ring. Frodo's only mistake is giddy relief at reaching the end of Shelob's lair, in thinking the danger has passed when it hasn't.

This is not the only time that Frodo uses the ring for its intended purpose. When Gollum attacks him on Mount Doom, Frodo clutches the ring and transforms again before Sams eyes. Frodo commands Gollum: "Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom." It is by this curse that Gollum's fate is sealed. Jackson said that he didn't want Frodo to lie passively while Gollum simply stumbled over the edge, so he had them struggle for the ring, causing Gollum to fall. But Frodo is not passive. He has already doomed Gollum, but it is not murder. It happens only through Gollum's own choice. Fair warning has been given, and Frodo need only wait for the wheels he has already set in motion to lead to the inevitable. Even as the ring masters him, he masters it, and tricks it into its own destruction. For that brief moment, he is peer to the likes of Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, and Sauron. This is another reason that his mind is closed to us. He has joined the ranks of the Great and the Wise.

I have heard J.K. Rowling criticized for disregarding the numinosity of magic. But Rowling is a master of cheeky absurdity, a head on collision between modern popular culture and myth. The numinous appears sparingly, usually in the flash points of Harry's struggle with Voldemort. Tolkien is all numinosity, a struggle of powers and principalities which may not even have physical forms, a world stalked by moods and metaphors. Much of the magic can only be seen through the eyes of the beholder. No camera would capture it. Sam in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, seen through the camera lens, is just a frightened hobbit, clutching something at his chest, climbing the stairs. But through the eyes of the orcs who meet him, he is a towering figure of shadow, holding a sword glittering with the light of the Elves, and holding "a cowing menace to the slaves of Mordor." The ring is just a ring until it is picked up; it acts only through those who come in contact with it. By being less physical, Tolkien's magic is, paradoxically, more real. It is the very sort of magic that we encounter in everyday life, though it requires watchful eyes to see it.

Thus, we have a Dark Lord that we never see, wraiths who are invisible, a balrog with wings of shadow. This is not just evil as the absence of good, but holes to be filled with dread. We have the twisted, the corrupted, the description of evil, but we also have these empty spaces, marked: "more of the same, but much worse." Everyone has different nightmares. These figures will accomodate all of them.

Rather than show Frodo acting foolishly, it might have been better to show the world through his eyes, the steady accumulation of horror, delusion, and nightmare that assaults him as he draws near Mordor, with measured reaction on his face to guage their intensity. We see Sam turned into a grasping monster, the sky turn to blood, the stones turn to bones. Then, when he enters Mordor, the door slams shut. We see him only from the outside now, through Sams eyes. And Frodo's desparately controlled reactions grow more intense, the horror wild in his eyes, the inward stare so overwhelming that he cannot see to place his own feet, and stumbles constantly. He thrashes in his sleep, shrinks from Sam, flinches at shadows and claws at empty air. And it is left to our imagination, knowing the horrors he faced before so stoically, to wonder what they must be like now.

The Lord of the Rings is not perfect, and what works in a book will often not work in a movie. But Tolkien had ruminated on the themes of The Lord of the Rings for almost forty years, and took seventeen years to write it. It has the depth of mythology. The fox/hedgehog distinction--that some people pursue a number of idea while others fixate on one big idea--is far too simplistic. Mythology contains a world of ideas in a dense, almost holographic format. 'Foxes' may harp on a single idea but disguise it in many different forms. Analytic and synthetic would be a better distinction. Synthetics gather ideas like a snowball growing as it rolls down the hill, but many of them may be so deeply buried that even the author has forgotten them. These still resonate, though. There is a narrative truth in good stories, which appeal to aesthetic rather than logical appreciation. It may take as many years to tease these ideas out of a work as it took to put them in. You tamper with these works at your own risk, and you may break them if you leave out something essential. None of these essentials are clearly marked, and are open to interpretation. You may not even know what you've missed, even if you have a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.

Still, Jackson has made the definitive version. It's no wonder that all the people who worked on it damn near worked themselves to death. This is more than a movie, it's a piece of history. And behind all of this effort stood more than professional pride. The love of the book drove them to it. Nothing less would do.