The Lure of the Obvious in Peter Jackson's The Return of the King
Because movie-adaptations of books become new works of art in their own right, they cannot be measured too strictly against their originals. Even so, we must ask whether a film retains the spirit if not the letter. The first two Peter Jackson film-renderings of The Lord of the Rings missed the moral and religious depths of Tolkien's epic fantasy, but still managed to capture the excitement of the plot and the grandeur of the scene. Yet the second movie began a trend that Jackson has unfortunately retained in the third—an obsession with outward violence. His version of The Return of the King converts the awful subtlety and complexity of evil into something so obvious as to be unserious.
This ethical and artistic failure becomes most evident in the third movie's depiction of Gollum, the wretched hobbit who, having possessed the Ruling Ring for five hundred years, has been virtually devoured by it. In The Two Towers Jackson revealed Gollum to be a conflicted soul even in his consuming greed. And here he powerfully depicts Gollum's original Cain-like murder in seizing the Ring. But Jackson soon removes our sympathy with the conflicted Gollum—and thus our complicity in his crimes—by turning him into a pathetically comic and merely devious figure. Jackson even allows Gollum to create a bizarre alienation between the utterly loyal servant Sam Gamgee and his heroic master Frodo Baggins. But instead of being emotionally wrought with concern that these two dearest of friends should suddenly be divided, I found myself sniggering at this outrageous violation of Tolkien's great book.
So is Denethor the steward of Gondor turned into a caricature of himself, a snarling and drooling oaf rather than a noble pessimist who has good cause for lamenting the loss of past glories that will never return. Tolkien clearly intends Denethor to be a man of our own time in his forlorn despair over the decline of his culture. Yet Jackson robs Denethor even of the logic of his death—his suicidal refusal to accept half-measures and partial triumphs. Instead, Gandalf's horse knocks Denethor onto the pyre he has built for his son Faramir! Set aflame by its fires, the maddened steward hurtles off a cliff. A scene that Tolkien intended to disclose the horror of hopelessness becomes yet another unintentionally comic display of flamboyant technical effects.
At the end of his arduous Quest, Frodo comes at last to cast the Ring back into the melting volcanic fires whence it was originally forged. Tolkien reveals that, even this most heroic of hobbits is finally overwhelmed by the coercive power evil. In his utmost act of resistance against the Dark Lord, Frodo is made into a virtual puppet of Sauron—defiantly refusing to destroy the Ring, thrusting it onto his own finger instead. After Gollum manages to seize the invisible Frodo and to bite the Ring from his hand, he then topples into the molten lava while dancing his jig of false joy. Thus does evil finally destroy itself, Tolkien teaches, while ruining much good in the process.
Rather than giving us this tragically defeated Frodo, Jackson transforms him into a thumping soap opera success. When Jackson's Frodo spies Gollum dancing victoriously with the Ring, he wrestles the wretched creature to the ground, until finally they tumble over the volcanic brink. But of course Frodo clings valiantly to a ledge as Gollum plummets into the river of fire. Nothing of Tolkien's profound sense of providence remains, nothing of his conviction that it was first Bilbo's and then Frodo's forgiveness of Gollum which enabled the final victory over evil. "But for [Gollum]," Frodo somberly confesses in the novel but not in the movie, "I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him!" The all-permeating presence of pity—the mercy that refuses eager condemnation—is the religious leit-motif of Tolkien's book. Yet it is totally absent from this final Lord of the Rings film.