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So there I was, in almost the smack-dab center seat of the darkened theater, an old movie palace with plenty of 1930s atmosphere and 1990s sound. To either side was a dear friend; beyond them in all directions were central Illinois Tolkien geeks. The lights came on, and one of the geeks in front of me turned around in his seat to ask me what I thought.

And there it was–the question on everybody’s lips from that moment on. "Well? What did you think?" "I’ve been waiting to ask you what you thought of the Lord of the Rings movie…" "We thought we’d ask you, because you’d know…"

I gripped my head in my hands, squinched my eyes shut, and said, rather louder than strictly necessary, "I don’t know! Don’t speak to me yet!"

And that’s pretty much the way it’s been ever since. I’ve had this column looming over me, I’ve had questions from friends and relatives galore, and I’ve basically bottom-lined it for so far into two distinct ideas: 1) I can’t review this film the way I would a normal movie, because I have no idea how it works as a normal movie, and 2) the conviction that it is utterly, now and forever, impossible to tell Tolkien’s real story on the screen in three hours or less. But the fact that I can give you those two lines still doesn’t mean I can tell you how I feel about the film. (I just typed "flim" there and had to go back. That’s only important because of the Swedish Chef. No doubt about what his opinion of the most anticipated movie of all time would be–"Der Flim is okie-dokie!" I wish I shared his optimism.)

I’m sorry to say that I, who pride myself on my movie-reviewing capability, cannot review this movie in the strict sense. Because I knew exactly what was left out, exactly what was changed, etc., even as I was watching it, I had no idea how good a job of storytelling the movie did for those who were coming in with a clean slate, and that’s what I look for first and foremost in my films–coherent and brilliant storytelling. I hope it’s good, but I have my doubts. The questions people are already raising prove that there’s at least a little something left to be desired. "Why did Boromir react to Strider in the room with the broken sword? What’s the deal with those two, anyway?" "Who was that chick? What was the deal with the necklace-immortality thing?" "Merry and Pippin? Were those their names? I had them down in my notes as ‘comic-relief hobbits.’" And my favorite–when one of our certified geeks asked a certified non-book-reader, "Did Mordor scare you?" his answer was: "Who’s Mordor?"

Tolkien’s real story is text-based. It is not an action story. It is a word story with some really cool action scenes. Thus the biggest phenomenon in my mind after watching–the "and yet" syndrome.

Let’s leave textual changes aside for the moment while I attempt what I said I couldn’t do–a review of the film based solely on movie storytelling values.

Legolas and Gimli. How I wish I had kept count of how many lines John-Rhys Davies had, because in retrospect it seems he only opened his mouth about five times. Legolas even less, maybe. No character development whatsoever. Who are they? Where did they come from? "Hi, we just rode in with your friend Strider…"

…and yet, damn, could he ever handle that bow. Fun action scenes there.

Boromir. Who is he again? Strider. Who is he again? He’s a king? I didn’t get that part…

…and yet, Boromir’s attempt to take the Ring was all there, very true in spirit. Not only that, but his death scene was also masterful. Note to Peter Jackson, though–when he said he’d failed, would it have killed you to have Aragorn respond, "No! You have conquered… few have gained such a victory." And Strider leaping in to tackle the last Uruk-hai. Fun action scene there.

"What was the deal with Galadriel’s freak-out? Why didn’t the Ring affect Frodo that way?" Good question.

…and yet, what the Ring did do to Frodo was stunning. We were left in no doubt that the Ring was transferring him to the same world occupied by the Ringwraiths. Fun action scenes there.

"Who is Gandalf? Where did he come from? Where was that place he rode to, and did he really get there and back to the Shire all in one night?" Hmmm…

…and yet, his death scene was letter-perfect. Wonderful action scene. …or was it? "Was Gandalf really trying to get out? He didn’t look like he was struggling at all." No, he didn’t. Are we supposed to interpret that as Peter Jackson interpreting Gandalf’s fall as a deliberate sacrifice? I hope so, because any other interpretation makes the actual scene lesser, because no, he certainly wasn’t struggling. To be honest, right there in the theater, in all the supposed intensity of the moment of Gandalf’s death, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Titanic. "I’ll never let go, Jack." [Lets go.] I honestly think Gandalf’s scene was a little too perfect. Do you remember last year when I said that if Jackson followed the story religiously, we wouldn’t have anything we didn’t have before? The Balrog scene is an example of that. I hope it had an emotional impact on non-readers far beyond what it did to me. For me, the tear-jerker was Boromir’s last hoorah–because that was something we didn’t have before. We never witnessed that before. All we have ever had is Aragorn finding Boromir already dying in the woods, and the description later in the thoughts of Pippin. "Then Boromir had come leaping through the trees. He had made them fight. He slew many of them and the rest fled…" But we had never seen it for ourselves, and believe me, people, I was in tears as each arrow thunked into him and I saw the two little hobbits he was dying to protect–hobbits which, according to the story we were watching, hadn’t been good for much of anything so far.

The dichotomy here between "Hi, I’m Peter Jackson and I like to make action movies with cool effects" and "how do I make an action movie with cool effects based on this word-heavy book?" is staggering. To my way of thinking, he spent so much time showing off his effects that he wasted a lot of time he could have used to give us more back story. And, Mr. Jackson, please PLEASE stop inserting chapter titles into throwaway dialogue. Just a personal plea there.

For the record, I would like to state that I have absolutely no problem with Glorfindel being omitted and Arwen subbed in. It’s a standard adaptation technique, amalgamating characters to reduce confusing extraneous people. What I do have a problem with is Arwen swooping in almost right after the attack on Weathertop, putting her sword to Aragorn’s throat (a bit of playfulness that’s just left hanging there), and riding off with Frodo, with all the Nine at her heels. When they finally make it to Rivendell (thanks to her trick with the river, faugh), Gandalf tells Frodo that he has some strength in him. HOW HAD HE SHOWED IT? He started to be really messed up almost the second the knife pierced him. Arwen showed up and saved the day. We never saw what Frodo was capable of in the way of resisting the Riders and the Ring and the wound, all at once.

For the record, I would like to state that I have absolutely no problem with Tom Bombadil and the Old Forest being dropped. Again, adaptation requires that anything that is self-contained and can be jettisoned without affecting anything material in the plot should be ditched. What I do have a problem with is how curtailed their meeting with Strider was, "Hi, I’m here, you’d better be scared, come with me." Um. Don’t these hobbits have any brains at all? "The lesson in caution has been well-learned." Not by Jackson’s hobbits. It’s like when Frank Darabont removed from The Green Mile the part where the Tom Hanks character proved by logical evidence that John Coffey couldn’t have committed the crime because he couldn’t tie string. You ditch the brain part, and the hobbits just went with Strider on faith because there was nothing else to do? Come on.

For the record, I would like to state that I have absolutely no problem with Lothlórien being curtailed. We got the idea that Galadriel is a badass, that her woods are magical, and that we don’t want her in charge of the Ring. What I do have a problem with is the Council of Elrond. As one of my new geek acquaintances said after the movie, "There was a Council of Elrond?" Exactly. All I saw was a bunch of people sitting around in a petty quarrel. Not a lot in the way of thoughtful discourse. And it was only that morning that Larry, one of the aforementioned dear friends on either side, had said, "They have to leave in the part where Bilbo says the rhyme about the gold. That has to be there for Aragorn’s character development…" Oh well.

I must apologize for this column. It is rambling and I fear despite the length still cannot say all the things I think about when I remember the movie. Ultimately, I stand by my opinion that to tell the story properly cannot be done on screen in three hours, and if it could be, it would not be the kind of film that most people would want to watch. Thus Jackson and his action scenes. But in making the film action-heavy, the casual moviegoer is denied much of the richness of the story. Moreover, film by necessity puts a stamp of contrivance on the film that does not exist in the book. Tolkien’s story flows more naturally than any other book I have ever read. There is no need for long explanations of how magic works or where Angband is, because it’s all in the nuances of the story–the characters know all the back stories so well that they give them to us almost by osmosis. The need in modern movie-making for snappy patter, clear cause and effect, and explosions gave us the confrontation between Saruman and Gandalf as well as the creation of the Uruk-hai, but it also gave us Sam whanging an Orc on the head with a frying pan and shouting, "I think I’m getting the hang of this!" Groan! One positive thing was pointed out by one of my new geek acquaintances afterwards, though. Did you see the way those Orcs were yanking down trees? I thought, "Yeah, go on and jerk that tree down–I know who your ass belongs to in the next movie."

Let me state here in passing that if in my last column I gave the sense that I was worried about the visual stamp the movie would put on our brains, that was not my intention. I have always been convinced that the movie would be visually stunning and perfectly cast, and it was. My primary focus has always been on how the story would be told.

So ultimately, in the twilight just before the lights came back on in the theater, I was conflicted, and I still am. The way I’ve been bottom-lining it to all my friends is that there are some things Jackson & Co. did extremely well and other things…. not so much. And of course, my opinion on the textual changes is just that, my opinion, and I’ve noticed that every Tolkien fan I’ve talked to has had a different "Oh! I hated that they did that…" part. For me it was the ones listed above. For others it was the curtailing of Lórien, or something else. For me, good moviemaking lies in the storytelling. Textual changes notwithstanding, I think there were places where the story just plain went too fast–we missed too much. The Council of Elrond, Legolas & Gimli, Merry & Pippin, and the events leading up to Frodo’s flight from the Shire were the primary victims of that. But in other places, the story–the film version–really reached out and gripped me…leaving me that much more conflicted.

My mind is still open…I’ll no doubt wrestle with the same conflicts around this time next year. For now, happy New Year to you all, and happy movie-watching!

- Anwyn

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