It was here that the audience started laughing outright. That was my first clue that it wasn't just me, that something really was seriously wrong about this movie.
But I'd misread the laughter. It was a mark of trust. The wary, untutored viewers were relaxing; they'd decided to trust Jackson, let him ease them through this thorny, long-avoided text their weird nerd friends used to bore them about. It was safe after all, "an action movie."
That "action movie" bit is a quote from Jackson himself. It's a wonderful phrase, managing to imply all the calculated belittling that turns the only successful modern epic into something Bruce Willis fans can enjoy.
Like all Jackson's betrayals of the trilogy, this "action movie" line is more subtle than might appear. After all, it's true -- LOTR is indeed full of "action," and damn good action at that. But Tolkien didn't spend 30 years inventing an Elvish language, creating linguistically-consistent nomenclatures for a dozen different imaginary cultures, and building a foundation of lore which underlies the trilogy just to do an action story. He was after something far grander: inventing a world. or as one perceptive critic put it, making himself "the creative equivalent of a people."
In his jolly way, then, Jackson's shift of emphasis, from big to small, from layered reality to simple "action," yielded three movies that cater to those who rightly thought they wouldn't like Tolkien. You begin to realize, with something like horror, "He wants it to be bad, to be...ordinary."
Jackson even manages to neutralize the few great actors he employed. Take Sean Bean, a fine actor. Bean's special ability is the knack of looking like a tough guy who actually has things going on inside his head. He would've made a great Aragorn. So naturally Jackson casts him as Boromir, a noble dolt, Tolkien's paradigm of the heedless, rash, unthinking warrior who endangers himself and his men (Roland via the Earl in Battle of Maldon). Bean is so painfully wrong for the role that when he dies at the end of the first film, you get the feeling he was grateful.
Jackson's next piece of miscasting is the most unforgivable of all: Kate Blanchett as Galadriel, elf-queen of Lothlorien. Galadriel is Tolkien's greatest female character, the sum of virtuous female power as understood in Teutonic Europe: subtle, at once tactful and playful, using her power to protect and nurture, seductive yet chaste.
You non-fans probably don't realize how important Galadriel was to hundreds of thousands of us lonely Tolkien loyalists. I loved Galadriel. I wanted to die for her and Lothlorien. Lothlorien -- the name alone was sacred. For example, there was a student coop at UCB named Lothlorien; it had a permanent waiting list, just thanks to the name.
But now that I've sat through Jackson's maiming of her, Galadriel's dead for me. Blanchett shows up in stoner soft-focus, looking crosseyed as she sleepwalks across what seems to be a Santa Cruz treehouse festooned with Xmas lights. Then she puts on the Ring and turns into a solarized chick from some Joplin poster circa 1968. Averting my eyes, I upped the charges against Jackson on the spot. From there on, it was a capital offense. Messing up Aragorn was one thing, but to turn Galadriel to farce -- that I will not forgive.
When the mercy-killing of Sean Bean ends the first film, the worst is over, because the narrative gathers speed, the elves fade from view, and the need to keep all Tolkien's subplots cooking prevents Jackson from falling back on his trademark buffoonery and bathos.
The Two Towers even contains one great scene, when Jackson allows Brad Dourif, a great actor, to show his stuff as the evil vizier-character Wormtongue. As the camera hunches around the beautifully-designed Saxon hall of Rohan, and Dourif's enervating whisper drains the weak King's will to resist, the film actually evokes Tolkien's prose.
But after all, Comrades, one good scene in nine hours of film, costing $300 million dollars, is not an impressive rate of return.