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 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!

Thoughts on The Fellowship of the Ring

Spoilers, for both the film(s) and the book!


Difficulty in Comparing
While books and movies are often two different beasts, sometimes the difference is more stark than others.  Jurassic Park felt like two stories from the same style in the same genre (albeit the book was far deeper and easily superior!), but The Lord of the Rings feels almost difficult to compare.

While writing a novel that would kickstart an entire, modern genre, Tolkien also wrote something harkened back to earlier days of storytelling.  LotR feels like it could almost be a bridge between the fairy tales of old and the epic fantasy of today.  The dialogue is proper, the heroes are noble, songs abound, and the world is explained.

LotR’s film treatments–movies that I adore–are thoroughly modern beasts.  Movies craft experiences differently, combining music, sights, and sounds.  They’re paced quicker, the characters speak in a down-to-earth, clipped tongue, and heroic deeds are shown in cinematic detail that sits viewers directly next to the players.


Going A Little Deeper
They both bring different virtues to the table.  The book answered quite a few of my questions, especially regarding the other rings (rings which feel like an afterthought in the films).  The build up to Moria was much better in the books than in the movies, both in terms of explaining its history and building up the question of its current state.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t note how I came to appreciate the locations more deeply.  The Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlórien were all wonderful places, and Tolkien did an amazing job of creating a desire to stay there–not just for the characters, but for as the reader as well.  The magical pull of ancient, warm times past that the  the two elven cities carried (and, perhaps even moreso, Tom Bombadil’s place, which wasn’t in the film at all) was much stronger in the books.  With the movies, I wasn’t overly sad to leave the Shire or the two elven cities; with the books, it was a maelstorm of excitement, fear, and profound saudade.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t without its virtues in that regard.  Bree, for example, was a fairly warm and interesting place in the books–logical, seeing as how it’s near the Shire, and hobbits and Men mingle.  Yet it pales in comparison to either the Shire before it or Rivendell afterward (or, in the book, Tom Bombadil’s before it), leaving it rather bland.  In the film, Bree stands more on its own, and the change in atmosphere does a good job of ratcheting up the tension by letting us know that we’re not in the Shire anymore.

While sticking with the movie’s virtues, I think the film handles dialogue better.  To a modern ear, the book’s dialogue feels a little stodgy and archaic (probably intentionally, to be fair).  It’s a little more difficult to pick up who is speaking when, as they seem to have a similar manner of speaking, sort of like going back and reading Shakespeare.  It took me much of The Fellowship to really get into the flow of it, and the movie feels more natural.

That being said, the trimmed dialogue and faster pacing of the movie excised quite a bit of detail in terms of events and in terms of explanations.  Obvious omissions related to the pacing include the Barrows and Tom Bombadil/Goldberry, but the book goes on to explain quite a bit I had wondered about, particular in relation to the rings.  In the films, the other rings seemed like an afterthought.  They were just gone, with little mention.

While we know what happened with the rings given to men, in the book, we learn the elven rings were untouched by evil, and even get to see one.  The dwarven rings are explained to be partly lost, and partly recovered by Sauron–and it’s noted that the dwarves managed to mostly resist their evil, outside of an infatuation with gold.

It’s a toss-up when it comes to tension.  In the book, we wait something like 17 years between Bilbo’s party and the start of the adventure, but once the adventure starts, we have Black Riders already in the Shire, as well as a mysterious figure actively interrogating hobbits trying to find Frodo.  Then shortly afterward, we spend days at Tom’s, and months in the elven cities meandering about.

In the movies, evil is constantly right behind the door, and there is no time to dally in Rivendell or Lothlórien.  The trip through the Mines of Moria goes south far quicker, and there is significantly less downtime overall.


In the End…
I couldn’t begin to guess which I’ll prefer!  As of this writing, I’m a good 60-70 pages into The Two Towers, and so still have more than half of the novel to finish.  To give a fair comparison, I would certainly have to watch the movies again–probably the extended versions!

I can say I’m the most excited I’ve been in years for a fantasy novel, and to my next little write-up for The Two Towers!


Reading The Lord of the Rings, Part 1


No, not “Part 1” of The Lord of the Rings, just part 1 of this series of blogs!

I’m about a sixth of the way through the book, or just past Book One if you go by the in-book designations of books one through six, or halfway through book one, The Fellowship of the Ring, if you split it into a trilogy.  Sheesh!

It’s definitely a heavier fantasy read than I normally indulge in.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing: it’s filling in quite a few blanks left by the movies, which is pretty shocking considering that the Extended Edition of the trilogy runs more than twelve hours!  The prose does occasionally take a moment for me to digest, written in an older, high hand, but it’s a powerful learning experience.

Here’s to the remaining 5/6ths, five books, or two-and-a-half-books, whichever you prefer!

Reading the Lord of the Rings for the First Time

Somehow, I never read J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece.

Even in during my preteen years, when I devoured dozens of high fantasy novels in rapid succession, I never read anything Tolkien past The Hobbit.  The Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass movies were a part of my childhood, so it wasn’t even like LOTR wasn’t on my radar.

I just never attempted them, outside of a brief, 80-page foray somewhere around the hype and release of the first and second Peter Jackson films.

Adding some irony to it all, after the Narnia books, it was The Sword of Shannara that solidified my interested in the genre.  Terry Brooks’s first book was a deep, exciting effort that blew away my young mind–and, I learned years later, it was somewhat controversial in that it borrowed so heavily from The Lord of the Rings that acclaimed fantasy author Lin Carter referred to it as “the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read”.

And so it dawned on me that, if I want to I reclaim any shreds of credibility, I really need to indulge in Tolkien’s epic.

Usually, you start with the best in a genre to get a feel for it.  How often do you get to experience the master of a genre decades after you’re already thoroughly ensconced in it?  I’m pretty darn excited.