Thoughts on The Return of the King

I’m just not going to do The Return of the King justice in this little blog, so I thought I’d touch on a few major bits.  As usual, there are some spoilers, both for the books and for the movies!

 

The Battle of Pelennor Fields
The Battle of Pelennor Fields was, I think, much better handled in the book than in the movies.  As stated in my blog on The Two Towers, one of my chief complaints with the films is that Helm’s Deep feels like a turning point.  The forces of the West have routed Mordor’s forces once, and the tension never quite reaches that same level.

In the book, however, The Battle of Pelennor Fields feels like a much bigger deal.  Mordor’s forces have yet to be defeated in battle, and their threat has been built up over the course of two-plus books.  Gondor is frantically preparing their defenses, begging allies for assistance in what looks like certain death.

And that leads into another example of what the book does well: showing the gravity of the situation, and just how far-reaching the threat is.  Several nations and groups that were glossed over (or non-existent) in the movie arrive to help, the most prominent film omission being Imrahil, the prince of Dol Amroth.  Several other nations send troops and captains, and a race entirely absent from the film–the Pukel-men–even lend some minor aid.  It really feels like a world war, while the movies feel like “Mordor versus Gondor and a few elves.”

 

Sam and Frodo
In the movies, the epic battles and sweeping vistas overshadowed Samwise and Frodo to the point where I find myself a little disappointed when it switches from Helm’s Deep to the plodding adventures of the two little hobbits.

In the books, I found myself quite a bit more interested in their adventures.  Both characters, but Samwise in particular, are much stronger characters in writing.  To my surprise, I found myself looking forward to those segments, and books Four and Six were highly enjoyable.

While a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes words can show us what pictures cannot.  In the books, the Ring feels heavier, and it’s easier to understand and live through Frodo’s suffering.  Similarly, Sam’s commitment to him comes off even stronger, as we can see deeper into their minds.  I went from liking them the least to possibly preferring them–although Aragorn still gives them stiff competition.

(I would argue that only Legolas and Gimli are weaker than their movie counterparts, although their friendship and personalities are still well-done!)

 

The Scouring of the Shire
Vying with Tom Bombadill for title of “Biggest Omission from the Movies”, The Scouring of the Shire!  I must admit, I actually liked this part quite a bit.  I feel like endings are often too short, and that if you’re going to err, err on the side of “too much”.  Stories often leave us without any indication of the afterward (sometimes setting up sequels, sometimes just leaving us to imagine).

In this case, maybe it was too much, but I quite enjoyed seeing the hobbits return to the Shire.  It was a chance to showcase their growth, and, in the case of Frodo, give us a better idea of the scars he’s now carrying.  It was also nice to see that hobbits in general, when roused, have quite a lot of spirit, beyond the occasional Baggins or Took.

All the same, I can see why it was removed from the movie.  Despite being an exciting, well-written adventure, doing it justice (along with the multiple chapters prior of good-byes) would have easily required another hour of screentime.  After a point, the practical realities do need to be considered, and it would have seriously messed with the pacing.  While the pacing works for a book, The Scouring of the Shire is almost a fresh adventure in itself, something of a mini-sequel/epilogue.

It would be like putting Peter S. Beagle’s Two Hearts at the end of a long, epic production of The Last Unicorn: while Two Hearts is a magnificent coda, it’s a story unto itself.  Jumping from one to the other, the audience is never quite given a chance to really process what came before it.

At the same time, I really quite enjoyed The Scouring, and I’m not sure I would want the book itself to drop it.  A quandary.

 

In Conclusion…
Do I prefer the books to the movies?  I’m not so sure, despite what the tone of these blogs might imply.  They’re favorite movies of mine, and that certainly won’t change regardless!

I found this blog a bit of a challenge, and so it’s fairly slapdash, and just hitting on the big points.  Neither this one nor the previous two really do The Lord of the Rings justice, and so I have at least one more planned that will focus on the overall experience of reading, and finishing, the book, as well as if I prefer it to the movies!

Thoughts on The Two Towers

Like my post on The Fellowship of the Rings, spoilers abound for both the books and the movies!

Now that The Two Towers is in the bag, I have some more comments, comparing the movie (my favorite of the trilogy) with the book.

 

Helm’s Deep
In the books, Helm’s Deep, while intense, is a much shorter event, and is done within the first third of The Two Towers.  While enjoyable, it’s certainly not my favorite part of the two books I’ve read so far.

The movie’s depiction of the battle is far more exciting.  They did a wonderful job of creating tension, stretching out the battle to encompass much of the second film, and the battle is one of my favorite moments in any movie.   Theoden and the few remaining warriors charge forth to certain death, to die nobly and honorably just to buy their loved ones a few more precious minutes to escape.  Just before their blaze of glory is extinguished, when it looks like all is lost, Gandalf and the Rohirrim arrive, turning certain death into certain victory in a mater of moments.  Light pours over the battlefield, and suddenly dead men walking have new life.

But it comes with a downside: the movies does such a good job of making the situation feel dire that the rest of the trilogy never really compares.  After the Uruk-hai are defeated at Helm’s Deep, the tides have turned, and the peril is never quite so dire again.  The road is dangerous, but the momentum is in the heroes’ favor as the final third is entered.

Which brings us to my next point…

 

Sauron and Saruman’s Relationship
While a shorter event that’s over in the first their of the book, Helm’s Deep is such a turning point in the movies partly because The Two Towers makes it the focal point of the entire second story, and partly because Saruman is depicted as being a willing servant of Sauron, his forces a part of Sauron’s own army.  Therefore, the defeat at Helm’s Deep is a direct defeat for Sauron.  While a necessary change to justify the sustained focus on Helm’s Deep that finishes with the film’s climax, it does carry the flaw discussed above.

This is avoided in the books by giving them a tenuous alliance, with Saruman clearly portrayed as a scheming rival of Sauron.  It’s an alliance of convenience moreso than servitude, with both Saruman and Sauron willing to play nice with the other as long as they share enemies.  Saruman makes his own power plays, but they pale in comparison to the might of Mordor.

This negates the “tides turning” issue of the movie, because Sauron’s might is undamaged by the defeat at Helm’s Deep.  Meanwhile, Helm’s Deep is handled quickly and Isengard falls (relatively) easily, showing them to be much smaller threats than Mordor.  The chase outside of Rivendell was dangerous, the mines of Moria even moreso, and Isengard yet more dangerous still, but none come close to Sauron.

More succinctly, the book does a much better job of portraying the grave threat of Mordor.

 

“Gandalf the White” Means Something in the Books
After watching the films, I felt like the whole “Gandalf the White” thing was left hanging.  His big return brings with it a new name and title, but it seems to mean little more than a symbolic gesture implying that Saruman has lost his claim to the moniker.

Not only does the book explain what this means–that he is now the head of the Council, and more powerful than Saruman–but his character undergoes a clear change.  Merry accurately describes him as “kinder and more alarming, merrier and more solemn than before…”  Gandalf the White is a more intense Gandalf, something I felt was lost with the films.

 

Faramir
Faramir is a stronger character than in the movies.  He feels every bit as notable as Boromir.  He’s strong, confident, and wise, whereas in the movie he suffers both from lacking confidence and some of the same rashness as his brother.

Your mileage may vary, but I prefer the book Faramir.

 

Frodo and Sam Feel Like the Main Attraction
Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve noticed yet again ties in with the movie’s focus on the battle of Helm’s Deep: in the book, Frodo and Sam are the real stars.  The movie’s focus on Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli makes them feel like the standout characters, with Helm’s Deep the standout storyline (with Frodo’s quest being set up as the focus of The Return of the King).

The book, however, puts them front and center.  Without the tense, exciting, high-stakes battle of Helm’s Deep constantly winning over my interest and focus as in the movie, I found myself far more engrossed with them and their adventure.  Never have I previously been so interested in them, having always preferred the rollicking adventures of Aragorn and company when watching the movie.

Is that better?  I suppose that depends on what you prefer, but it’s certainly more true to Tolkien’s intended purpose!

 

In Conclusion…
It might sound like I’m favoring the books thus far, but they do have their flaws, and I still have one last leg of the journey to go.  The Two Towers is my favorite of the movies, but perhaps not of the books.

I’m hopeful that I’ll be done with The Return of the King within the week.  The joys of vacation!

Living the Fantasy through Morrowind

My fascination with fantasy was never limited to just novels, but nothing could ever match the immersion of a good book–until 2002.  No, I’m not talking about the brilliant Lord of the Rings films, as great as they are.  I’m talking about the video game The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind.

Gaming is the only passion I have that predates reading, and the both dovetail into that favored genre, fantasy.  Role playing games like Dragon Warrior (née Quest), Final Fantasy IV, and Final Fantasy Legend II were immersive and exciting, but it wasn’t until I got my hands on a copy of Morrowind for the Xbox that I felt truly a part of a fantasy world.

Morrowind was the first time I can ever recall being a part of a fantasy world, not just a traveler following behind the Pevensies in Narnia, or a divine hand manipulating Cecil and Rydia from afar.  After creating a character–customizing their looks, their species, even their abilities and talents–Morrowind thrust me into a beautiful, three-dimensional fantasy world, and then… let go of my hand completely.

No novels, or even the RPGs from before, had ever let me create myself, and then let me decide how to handle the fictional world in front of me.  Morrowind does require you to do anything.  The entire world is open, immediately, and you can cross the entire island, dotted with dozens of towns and hundreds of camps, caves, shrines, travelers, hidden treasures, dungeons, ancient ruins, cemeteries, and farms, with a myriad of factions, foes, friends, monsters, and wildlife between any two locations (with more to come from the two additional expansions that were released).

All the same, the world has laws, both natural and man-made.  Magic comes in limited supply, and the early going for a new adventurer is incredibly difficult and dangerous.  The world is not yours to mold and smash like sandcastles: the laws of physics apply, and steel will still sunder flesh and bone.  You could kill an innocent bystander, but the guards and townsfolk would not take the offense lightly.  Games like Grand Theft Auto allow for relatively easy massacres which betray just how dull and lifeless their worlds actually are, populated by cookie-cutter human-shapes that squish and are replaced shortly afterward, with few repercussions.  Should you succeed in wiping out a town in Morrowind, gone are numerous personalities, quests, adventures, and treasures, and in turn, permanent enemies may be made–a massive, realistic penalty for what would ultimately amount to a few baubles and a pittance of gold.

No, Morrowind‘s Vvardenfell province is a living, breathing world, with the true freedom that can only come with the existence of genuine consequences and life that has real value.  It is a real fantasy world that welcomes you to be a part of it, with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that define you.

You can follow the main quest of good versus evil, but the little goods–and evils–are all over the place.  There are hundreds of quests unrelated to the main plot line, with numerous people who need your help, from poor farmers to goddesses, from the good to the bad to the shady.  There is no shaggy wizard telling you to hurry up or slow down: you can wander the streets of the gorgeous, multi-tiered holy city of Vivec for as long as you like, or you can charge ahead with reckless abandon.

To the very end, you’re never forced into becoming “the Chosen One”, “the Ring Bearer”, or “the Dragonborn”; you still decide who you are.  Imagine Shannara’s Allanon halting everything so that Shea can help the poor guy hiding in waist-deep water who’s pants were stolen.  Making it worth reading or watching within the scope of the wider adventure might not be impossible, but it would certainly be a challenge.  Yet, Morrowind gives you that choice, and it’s as entertaining and fulfilling as it could be in real life.

That’s why Morrowind was such a transformative experience, and its successors can continue to be so for future generations: only in the video game medium can you come so close to truly being a part of the fantasy.