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If Only It Were That Simple . . .

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Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, and he has a good chance of finally winning at least one of these coveted prizes, largely because the film is visually awesome. If he doesn't, it may well be because of the almost universally disliked ending--or rather multiple endings. There's the victorious battle ending. There's the curtain call of characters visiting Frodo at his bedside. Then the ornate coronation ceremony. Then the hobbits traveling home to share a pint in the local tavern. Then Frodo saying his final farewells and sailing into the West. And just when you think there can't possibly be another scene, Sam goes home to his wife and children. The credits roll. Whew. Sprint to the restroom.

A typical Hollywood movie would have been satisfied with just one of these endings. But J.R.R. Tolkien didn't write The Lord of the Rings for Hollywood, and he had even more endings. Despite his much publicized desire to stay true to the spirit of Tolkien's tale, Jackson actually cut a major portion of the conclusion. In the book the hobbit heroes return to the Shire only to find it changed for the worse. Saruman, the white wizard of Isengard--whom Jackson deleted entirely from the third movie--has escaped from his tower, traveled to the Shire, and begun engaging in some pretty dastardly behavior, such as outlawing smoking and beer drinking. He's also devastating the countryside, ripping down trees and dumping waste into the town's stream. The four hobbits organize a revolt and cast out Saruman and his band of ruffians, then labor to restore the Shire to its former glory. By omitting all this, Jackson has stripped the story of some of its most poignant themes.

Of course films don't have to be faithful to their sources, but they ought to respect their audiences enough to not turn complexity into simplemindedness, nuance into stereotype. Unlike the movie, the book isn't a simple fairy tale with a happy ending. Tolkien had lived through two world wars. He'd seen how distant conflicts in foreign lands could have far-reaching, unforeseen effects, and he knew that evil doesn't simply disappear when an enemy has been defeated. And he never shrank from such grim realities in his writing.

In the book the victory against Sauron means the inhabitants of Middle-earth are freed from lives of slavery--but not from evil, especially the small, creeping, self-inflicted kinds. In a world without Sauron, Tolkien argued at the end of the book, we must fight the everyday evil we bring upon ourselves. Jackson drops this uncomfortable message in favor of the kind of superficially happy wrap-up one would expect from a Disney movie.

Jackson's film also minimizes other disquieting points Tolkien made. After the war the last elves begin leaving Middle-earth forever, and some of the world's awe and magic leaves with them. We're left with a sense of foreboding, and we suspect that the grand kingdoms of Lorien and Rivendell will one day make way for a Wal-Mart and an amusement park, that the Shire will eventually become a suburb of Bree, that a paper mill will puke pollution into the Brandywine River. Even though the great battle has been won and a true king is on the throne, the world is less grand, more tarnished than before.

In Tolkien's worldview each joy is tinged with sorrow, each happy outcome darkened by the awareness of what might have been. Jackson makes a few nods in this direction, as when Sam returns home to his wife and children. We see that he's pained at having to say good-bye to his closest friend forever, but this hasty scene has nowhere near the emotional weight it does in the book.

Jackson clearly decided to make the film's spectacular war scenes--not Tolkien's subtle themes--the central component of The Return of the King. As a result the movie is stunning to look at, but it reduces the story to nothing more than a wild roller-coaster ride that doesn't do the book or its author justice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Fred Harper.

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