Before I jump into my thoughts on the film, let me clarify. The Lord of the Rings was released in three parts in three successive years from 2001 to 2003. Principle photography occurred concurrently for the entire project (the final scene at the Grey Havens was filmed on week two). Editing and the rest of post-production happened one year after another, along with extra filming. In essence, The Lord of the Rings is a single project that flows seamlessly from one part to the next. It is one film.
I also view the Extended Editions of each part to be the authoritative version of the film. So, when I talk about The Lord of the Rings, I mean the Extended Editions of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, three volumes to one book.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about it!
Peter Jackson’s film is such a large achievement, it’s hard to drill down and talk about my love for the film without turning this into a novella length love fest. So, I’ve decided to focus on three elements: character, the visual design, and the sound design.
Upon my most recent viewing of the film, I realized how much of it was made up of scenes whose primary focus was to build and maintain character. There are also roughly twenty characters that could be consider prominent, so I have brought the focus down to my two favorites.
The visual design is large. From special effects to props to set design to overall visual aesthetics, there was a lot that went into creating Middle Earth for the silver screen.
The audio design is nearly as large, and perhaps the unsung hero of the film overall. Howard Shore’s musical score is well known, but there are particular sound choices that Jackson made that really heighten the experience.
A great visual and audio design is nothing if not backed by a good story (as George Lucas might say, a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing), and character is where this movie shines the most. As I said earlier, there are roughly twenty characters that one could consider prominent from Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn to Denethor, Faramir, and Eomer. The two most successful characters, those that I want to write about, are Eowyn and Samwise Gamgee.
Eowyn, Shieldmaden of Rohan
When we first meet Eowyn in the second part of the film, she’s a woman alone. Orphaned as a child, she was raised by her uncle, Theoden, King of Rohan, along with her brother, Eomer, but Theoden is an absent man. Under the spell of the wizard Saruman, Theoden barely reacts when Eowyn tells him that his son has died. The only attentions she receives are from Grima Wormtongue, the snakelike advisor to Theoden, who offers her words of comfort, but he’s such a repulsive creature that she can see right through him, especially after he has exiled her brother.
Enter Aragorn, heir of Isildur and true king of Gondor. He arrives at Edoras, her home atop the hill, and offers his help. She is immediately smitten with him. He, though, loves another woman far away, and does not return her affections. So, at this point, Eowyn’s father figure is absent. Her brother is exiled. Her love does not love her back. She is a woman of unfulfilled and unreturned affection.
On top of that, after Theoden is freed from the spell that has hobbled him and the nation retreats to the fortress of Helms Deep, Eowyn is not allowed a sword to prove herself in battle, as she wishes. Instead, she’d given the task of looking after the women and children in the caves. She wants to stand with her kin, with her uncle and king to face the evil bearing down on her country. She can fight, but no one will allow it.
What does she do? In an act of love, she defies the wishes of her king. When Rohan moves to respond to Gondor’s call for aid, she is to remain with the women and children again, but resigned to her fate to be left behind one final time, she puts on the armor of a rider of Rohan, picks up Merry, who was cast aside in the same way, and rides with the cavalry into battle. It’s not out of a need for glory or honor that she disobeys her king, but an act of pure love. “Courage Merry. Courage for our friends,” she says as they line up for their charge.
And then this is where the movie gets me. I’ve seen this movie a couple of dozen times, and still, literally every time I watch this, I choke up. The Witch-King of Angmar has flown into the midst of battle, grabbed Theoden and his horse, casting them aside and breaking the king’s body. “Feat on his flesh,” the Witch-King orders his fell beast, and just before the giant winged creature can do so, Eowyn throws herself between her uncle and this terrifying creature of evil, shouting, “I will kill you if you touch him.”
There seems to be no hope. Why should there be? A single soldier standing up against the general of the Dark Lord’s army. But none of that concerns Eowyn. Her uncle has been threatened, and she is going to do what she has to in order to help him. Here’s what follows:
Samwise the Brave
When the movie first starts, it’s obvious that the main character is Frodo Baggins. He’s the one with the Ring. He’s the one who decides to take the journey. He’s the one who volunteers to take the Ring to Mount Doom. He’s the character driving the action.
And then, halfway through the second part, we stop seeing things through Frodo’s eyes. Sam, his trusty servant who has stayed with Frodo since the beginning, is mistrustful of the creature Gollum, who is leading them into Mordor. Frodo doesn’t like how Sam insults Gollum all of the time and confronts him about it. Sam justifies himself, voicing very real concerns about the creature, but Frodo simply snaps at him. Sam can’t understand what Gollum is going through, and, by extension, neither can the audience. It is at that moment that the perspective of the story changes from Frodo to Sam, from the more traditional hero to the Shire gardener who’s only gone along in order to protect his master.
Sam himself, though, never really changes. He’s as dedicated to Frodo at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end. That seems to go against every screenwriting rule against characterization I’ve ever read. There must be arcs, but Sam doesn’t really have one. The journey doesn’t really change him. He doesn’t go from passive to active. He doesn’t go from cowardly to fearless.
What his journey allows for him is to demonstrate his strength to the utmost. The moment that he takes that one last step that takes him the furthest from home he’s ever been in the first part, is equally as brave as when Sam charges into Cirith Ungol alone in search of Frodo. That exploration of Sam’s strength, brought on by his affection for Frodo, and how far he’s willing to go, is one of the greatest sources of emotional involvement in the film. After all they pair have been through, from Sam saying that of course Frodo was going to Mordor alone and Sam was going with him to Sam rescuing Frodo from the orc tower in Mordor, when Sam picks Frodo up off the ground to carry him the last length to Mount Doom it’s the culmination of his journey and the demonstration of how far he’ll go.
That doesn’t feel like an arc to me. That feels like a character discovering how strong he is already, but not really changing in the process. And yet, I find it more involving than most character arcs, perhaps because I find Sam’s journey more believable.
What an absolute joy it is to simply look at the world of Middle Earth. From the greens of The Shire, to the browns and yellows of Rohan, and the whites and grays of Gondor, the world in which this story takes place is a marvel to witness, but what sells the films’ visual flair is the fact that it never goes too far with the fantasy elements. There’s a grounded reality that the film never breaks (except perhaps with its depiction of ghosts, which should feel otherworldly). It goes beyond the idea of a lived-in universe, but touches on the basic philosophies that Jackson and his team followed when creating everything.
At the beginning of pre-production, Jackson had a meeting with his department heads including Richard Taylor where he told them that he wanted them to create a film that felt like it had been dug up from the past. Everything needed to feel unique across cultures and with a sense of history. Taylor adopted that conceit wholeheartedly and operated under the idea that cultures were built on details on top of details.
Using a huge team, they created a very broad base from elves to dwarves to orcs and several cultures of men that all look and feel different. There’s never any question that when a camera pans over Edoras that we are looking at anything other than part of Rohan. When we first see Osgiliath, we know that it’s part of Gondor. Even the two elf kingdoms we see feel completely distinct from each other.
My favorite element, though, was the use of miniatures. The miniatures the team created for the film were gigantic. The Argonath, pair of large stone statues in the shapes of the kings of Gondor’s past flanking the River Anduin stood about eight feet tall in real life. That allowed the team to get such exquisite amounts of detail on a real object to put in front of a camera. The detail of how the bottom halves of the statues look like they’re cut straight from the rock, but the top halves look like they were built up from stones cut like from a quarry just add a magnificent sense of realism to the look of the film while maintaining the sense of fantasy at the same time.
I love Howard Shore’s score. Much like the visual design, the music carries distinctive themes across the different cultures of Middle-Earth. And, thanks to the crazy gamble New Line made in doing the entire project at once, Shore was able to begin working themes into the first part of the film that wouldn’t develop fully until the third. If you listen carefully to a couple of the scenes in the first half of the part, you can hear Gondor’s theme, although it doesn’t take center stage until Pippin and Gandalf ride up to Minas Tirith in the third part.
My favorite theme is that of Rohan:
There’s so much more than that, though. The screams of the Nazgul sell the idea, very convincingly in my view, of the absolute terror that the nine Ringwraiths strike into the hearts of men. I’m convinced, that if one of those towering figures, wrapped in black clothes and possibly riding a giant fell beast in the air were to scream at me, I’d run for cover with no concern for anything other than my own safety.
Let’s Wrap This Up
Okay, this is already absurdly long, so I apologize. However, I have a little more I want to say.
There’s an epic sweep to this film that captures the best elements of adventure stories. It has a marvelous cast of characters. It looks and sounds fantastic from beginning to end. There’s real emotion in the 11-hour journey.
The movie made a boatload of money, and feels like it was a safe bet, but it was far from it. New Line Cinemas was last in a long line of studios that heard Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s pitch for the film. They were pitching it as a two-movie series when the executive producer at New Line asked, “It’s three books. Why not make three films?”
New Line Cinema gave almost $300 million to a New Zealand director whose biggest movie up to that point had been The Frighteners. It doesn’t have a single movie star to its name (save Orlando Bloom who became a star because of this movie). Elijah Wood was a child star making the transition to being a grown up. Ian McKellan was a respected Shakespearean who had been trying to break out in Hollywood for a while. Sean Bean was known as the guy who dies all the time. Viggo Mortenson was a nobody. John-Rhyes Davis was a character actor known best for a bit part in two Indiana Jones movies. Billy Boyd? Dominic Monaghan? Bernard Hill? Liv Tyler? Hugo Weaving? Cate Blanchett? All of them were somewhere between “That guy” and nobody.
The Lord of the Rings was one of the biggest gambles that Hollywood every made, and it not only made money, but it ended up being one of the great adventure and fantasy stories that ever hit the silver screen.