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Film Review - Lord of the Rings 3: The Return of the King

David Jackson

30th April 2004

Some critics on the left say that the Lord of the Rings is a profoundly reactionary piece of work. My own reading leads me to believe this viewpoint is mistaken. Tolkein’s reaction was against the modern world rather than any deliberate reaction to socialism. In many ways a vaguely feudal type societal structure is the only kind this work could be hung on; and fairy tales and myths are about heroes and kings. An argument against The Lord of the Rings would have to dismiss the whole fairy tale genre itself and how could anyone with a heart do that?

In a preface written for the second edition of the Lord of the Rings in Tolkein tried to dispel any notions that Lord of the Rings was in any way allegorical of modern history especially the recently ended world war. To see it this way he thought was to misunderstand his aims. He went on to say that he had wanted to create a mythology for the English speaking peoples. Tolkein, a professor of literature at Oxford was a great scholar of folk-tales and myths. 

Although Lord of the Rings has set the blueprint for thousands of subsequent fantasy novels at the time it was written Lord of the Rings was unique in literature. The book is a sort of total entertainment and in a way is a total confection. Anglo-Saxon folktales came about in a different way, functioned in a different way to this. Although grossly inferior to the classic myths it is still a landmark book. 

Lord of the Rings is the last story book, a bit like the way they said Jimi Hendrix was the last bluesman and the first modern rock guitarist. A modern myth does not pretend to be real. Lord of the Rings is an attempt to deal with the oncoming rush of an endless lack of glamour and drabness which is how 20th century progress appears to Tolkein. In this infinite boredom however lies the opportunity for a new industry of fancy and the Lord of the Rings is a quality leisure product. Its’ difference from the worthy novel but also its impeccable good taste reminds one of the classic public service ethos of the BBC. 

Lord of the Rings is an expression of Tolkein’s moral universe in the motivations of the characters. These motivations are cardboard, traditionalist and hardly anything new. Its great redeeming feature is its, “psychedelia.” It is very much a, “new age,” kind of a book Actually it’s a profoundly 20th century book and tells us something about who we are or what we are becoming, not exactly intentionally. Lord of the Rings turns out to be an alternative futurist masterpiece.

The film is good. But in a way it should be. It was made to be as definitive as possible. There is however not one startling thing about this film.

The Lord of the Rings book is about the journey, it’s a kind of road movie. The film is one vision of the book and a well presented and coherent one at that. A film however to a great extent is the antithesis of a novel which invites the reader to picture a different world with their own imaginations. Without this any film of Lord of the Rings will have an immodest and shallow quality because the book has little complexity outside of the book’s invitation to the reader’s own imagination. The book is designed to stimulate the senses a bit like a drug but it requires an effort on the part of the reader, a desire to believe in an amplified reality, better than life.  This isn’t a criticism. The Lord of the Rings functions like an excellent toy. But the film cannot function in this, “psychedelic,” way.

The Lord of the Rings tends to divide readers into those who love it and the rest who can’t see what the fuss is about. It is a book for people who like to imagine for the sake of itself and not be weighed down by the baggage of metaphor, symbolism, realism, modernism or any of the other more grown up concerns of literature. The book has nothing original to say about our own society, past, present or future perhaps because it is based on other stories. The values of our world are resolutely on display and the book’s moral universe requires these elements to be a story at all. However these elements are all secondhand rubbish. The Lord of the Rings is a blockbuster, a very modern sensation constructed from Tolkein’s favourite bits from the classics. However the elegance with which this is done redeems it.

The Lord of the Rings lord of the rings is a distillation of sensations, of moods and feelings drawn from other books, dreams and pictures. The way Tolkein facilitates our own visual imaginations is the most essentially unique and brilliant aspect of the book. Interactive role playing games for example come straight out of these techniques. Although laughable, the author may have intended Lord of the Rings to have other more profound messages for us. Thankfully we take away from the book only cosy feelings. Perhaps Tolkein thinks cosy is profound.  The Lord of the Rings is like a big cushion. Is it really necessary? No, but that’s hardly the point.

The Lord of the Rings is very hip in a 20’s Arthur Rackham, Aubrey Beardsley kind of way. It’s a very designed product. Tolkein is actually very interested in aesthetics. The Lord of the Rings therefore has no use. This makes it scary and harmless at the same time. I think that’s a bit scary.

The attitudes and morals of the book and the film are quite touching in what they say about friendship. The differing abilities of each character, each a kind of superhero in their own way is very compatible with the modern liberal idea of education. In fact the less magical you are the more relevant to modern times you are, embodied by the hobbits who represent archaic but friendly tradition,  part of us, our past, present and future which we can’t escape – and men – whose character is to dangerously imagine and build worlds with a mixture of idealism and rationality to gain self realisation at all costs. They are builders and architects strangely addicted to an idea of the future. Gandalf, in contrast to men, and all the magical figures of the story belong to the past to a fixed time a former golden age which had no self doubt. The extra mournful thing is that they never ever existed. They are just phantoms in the minds of men. Once the phantoms have gone and withered there’s just geography, history, chemistry, the BBC, the shops.

So the Lord of the Rings speaks about the loss that lies strangely and somehow perfectly between the total cack in some of our heads and the insistent reality of today. Tolkein hated cars and buses and noise and cities and modernity. But he loved it too ie. that romantic feeling of loss. That gives him something in common with the modernist writers and artists. 

What’s shit about the Lord of the Rings film is the characters are too close to the admired moral stereotypes of our day embodied by the vile Aragorn character who seems constantly to be walking in slow motion through a heavy metal video. In fact this is a very heavy metal kind of movie.

The Lord of the Rings should stop being criticised by grown up literature critics. Even if fairy tales are dumb they are a massive part of our history and popular culture. Tolkein seems to agree that they are an important part of our past and has written an amazing kaleidoscopic tribute to them.

Lord of the Ring’s status as pure entertainment predates the enclosed world of virtual entertainment. It allows us to imagine in a sensation filled but unthreatening world. To eat our own imaginations just for the sake of it. That’s a very modern idea. By making Lord of the Rings not intentionally refer to anything outside itself Tolkein’s book can be seen as a forerunner of modern leisure products like computer games.

Perhaps the film should have been a bit more fantastic, a bit more poetic and beautiful. Nearly all the poems and songs have been cut out. Then again it is a film for modern boys and girls who would think this stuff was very uncool. It is very much a movie for rock fans.

Lord of the Rings is pointy in a wizard’s hat kind of way. Read Roverandum, the true spirit of Tolkein and The Hobbit as well. They are both children’s stories and much less pompous than, “Rings.” Like The Wizard of Oz, the stories of E. Nesbit and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books Tolkein attempted to liberate fairy tales from the folksy and the moralistic which 20th century rationalism and liberal democracy had begun to undermine. Fantasy and magic was now something more like a friend to play with, another choice we could be thrilled by if we wished, than the former superstitions which people for thousands of years, had felt, more than anything threatened by. 

If the book has no real content and the film is a faithful but unadventurous interpretation of it there isn’t that much to say about the film which can’t be said in a more interesting and friendly way about the book. However the megahype of something which is supposed to be so good and OK actually is should not go along with any idea that this is the best film and literature can offer. We’re back to the BBC again. Time to stop.




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