And Jackson, as if unnerved at his brief success, dives back into kitsch in the next episode, the elves' rescue of the Rohirrim besieged in Helm's Deep. As always, he subjects the elves to grotesquely farcical staging. This time around he has them march up to the fortress gates in campy lockstep -- a Busby Berkeley routine, all wearing fey purple robes. To rub the insult in, the elvish commander is a small-time NZ TV actor who used to play a social worker on an NZ soap.
My feelings after seeing the first two films were probably typical of Tolkien loyalists everywhere: confused, even ashamed that for some obscure reason I was unable to share non-fan friends' pleasure in the films. After all, Jackson's treatment is superficially faithful. Most of the dialogue was straight out of the books, and the narrative was virtually identical. But I could sense that somehow the films were working over my private Middle Earth like those spiked starfish devouring a reef.
I sat down to watch the third film, Return of the King, as nervous as at a final exam. And after 3 1/2 long hours of wary viewing, I had to concede that ROTK is a decent movie, far better than the first two. But for we Tolkien fan who had already suffered through Jackson's Fellowship and Two Towers, the third film was too little, too late. We'd already developed a Pavlovian aversion to Jackson's stock shots: dozens of lingering close-ups of Frodo-Winona's unvarying teary stares; slow-paced har-de-har-har samples of Pippin & Merry's vaudeville backchat; Tyler's retarded elf-maiden groupie attempting to register some human emotion; and Aragorn's pinched, sneery profile shuffling around, attempting to look like a man in charge and conveying only the beady-eyed woofing of our own C-in-C.
Still, fair's fair: Return... doesn't seem designed to destroy Tolkien's story the way the first two films were. Unlike them, Return is a war film, and war is something Jackson and his scriptwriters can grasp. Indeed, they do a creditable job, in patches. (Words like "creditable" and "dogged" keep popping up as I write this, like a queasy thesaurus trying to soften the blow.)
Jackson's siege of Minas Tirith is a solid piece of work. Not good by any means -- just compare Jackson's big-budget battle scenes with the fast cut-and-thrust in Sam Raimi's small-budget Army of Darkness to see the difference between real talent (Raimi) and mere plodding competence like Jackson's.
Truth is, no director, not even Penny Goddamn Marshall, could totally wreck Return of the King. The momentum Tolkien's epic has gathered by the time the final battle begins is so vast it shines through Jackson's dogged, plodding treatment.
But this faint praise is all the film deserves. All too often, Jackson's casting shows the same downright malevolent attitude toward all of Tolkien's aristocratic characters. Thus Eowyn, a swordworthy Valkyrie who rides to battle disguised as a man, is played by an NZ actress whose rosy little features would fit better on a milk commercial.
And whenever Jackson has to front up to the task of transferring Tolkien's sense of horror to the screen, he flat-out blows it. The worst failure is his Mordor. Mordor, the scariest place in all literature, just ain't scary in Jackson's movie. Sam and Frodo trudge up and down gravelly slopes with dry ice smoking in the background. It's as scary as a high-school Halloween party. By this time I was reading everything Jackson did as premeditated sabotage -- so he must've dulled down Mordor to keep the non-Tolkien audience from getting too scared. Or was it simple incompetence? Maybe he's just no damn good.
And the bastard kept up his practice of emphasizing the nastiest, most sentimental hobbit-centric scenes at the expense of all Tolkien's wilder, colder narratives. So naturally Jackson offers us a heapin' helpin' of Tolkien's most repellent episode: Sam's blubbering, submissive love-blubbering to his "dear Master" Frodo as the pair trudge toward Mount Doom. Jackson didn't invent this vile stuff; Tolkien gets the blame for it, poor fucked-up bastard, genius though he was. All Jackson did was manage to amplify the worst of Tolkien's tale yet again.