A reader from Minis Tirith, Gondor e-mails:
I haven't seen any of the Lord of the Ring movies, but got a chuckle out of your weblog post... In today's Tribune, BOTH critics named the most recent LOTR as the best movie of 2003. Theories on why the critics love LOTR so much, given your complaints?The Tribune review I was able to find on the web, by Michael Wilmington, is easy enough to explain: the reviewer was plainly high out of his mind when he wrote it. Just read it and see if you disagree. Or, get some of the guys urine and send it to a lab. Nobody in an ostensible critic role should be that completely giddy about a film. His principal complaint, notice, is that the movie didn't include more scenes of the Saruman character. In other words, he wanted this 3 1/2 hour movie to be longer.
Clearly, from canvassing reactions to the movie from both reviewers and friends, this movie completely casts a spell over some of the people who watch it, and not others. The crucial variable here seems to be whether one has read the books. I haven't. The Tribune, above, has. My friend Corrie, who has already seen the new movie twice, also has. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who feels as positively about the movie as the Tribune reviewer but has never read the books (and is over the age of, say, 14).
My aesthetic first instinct is that a movie should stand on its own and not require that one have read the book to have a comparably enjoyable experience. But, then again, if books have been read by a large enough audience, why shouldn't the movie leverage that and provide an supremely enjoyable exprerience for the readers and a much less enjoyable experience for the non-readers? When I saw the first Harry Potter film (the only one I've seen), I had read the book, but remember wondering how someone could possibly follow what was going on if they hadn't. A film adaptation in this case would be much more a visualization of the book than an adaptation.
In the case of Lord of the Rings, I think the difference in enjoyment depending on whether you read the books stems from several things. First, if you haven't read the book, the plot is hard to follow. Second, there are all kinds of details about the characters that are raised in passing that you don't understand (why is white better than gray? why do people have multiple names?). Third, you don't have pre-established affection for the main characters, and so you might wonder why the movie does so little to establish it (imagine watching a regular action film that did as little to establish the motivations or personalities of its characters as this movie does). Fourth, you have a pre-established appreciation for the significance of the ring, and so you aren't sitting there in the third movie trying to remember what it's significance is (see * note below). Fifth, when things make little sense in terms of narrative timing, like the protracted ending, you are quick to forgive it because it's being loyal to what happens in the books (or, at least, what I've been told about the books).
Anyway, upon reflection, the thing about my own experience watching the movie is that I did feel that some of the scenes were unquestionably visually amazing. The spider. The signal fires, which I was pleased was singled out for praise in the NYT review. The white city, even if it did seem to change in size at various times. The overhead scene of the last battle. Gollum. All that, brilliant, gorgeous, brilliant, gorgeous. But, basically, I think, the sheer length of the battle scenes in the middle wore me down. Even though I hadn't read the books, I had a rough outline in my head of how they had to go (A: bad guys look ominous and unstoppable; B: good guys recover their pluck and inspiration to fight; C: bad guys seem too powerful and overwhelm the courageous fighters; D: the good guys from Rohan ride in and seem to save the day; E: the secret second front troops arrive for the bad guys and all seems lost again; F: the good main characters with their legions of the dead arrive and bring victory... I didn't foresee the last part about storming the gate of Mordor). By the time they all played themselves out, I was desensitized to the special effects and had more than my fill of cinematic violence. I was ready to go. And, so then, to have the ending drag out for so long was torture. Especially when it didn't make all that much sense since I hadn't read the books (see note ** below).
* So, destroying the ring will destroy the main villain, but is just the mere existence of the ring enough to make the main villain so powerful? If so, and if the ring has been around so long, why hasn't the main villain already taken over the world? Or, if so, why does the main villain want to find the ring? If the ring is so powerful and "wants to be found," why hasn't it been found yet? And, if there is only one place in the world where the ring can be destroyed and if the ring is the main source of your power, why don't you have it constantly guarded rather than sending all your orcs on the attack? I mean, if I was in Sauron's position, I would have kept a couple thousand of my 20,000+ orcs stationed right at the door at all times, and that's only if I couldn't block the entrance completely somehow. It's not like the secret-Death-Star-sweet-spot in Star Wars, where you can presume that the bad guys didn't realize that the Death Star would blow up if you hit that one spot.
** What was the point of bringing back Bilbo? I didn't realize he had survived the first movie. Why does Frodo have to get on the boat with the elves? If he did have to get on the boat with the elves, why did he get the four years to write the book first? I mean, if the idea is that when the quest is fulfilled your time on earth is done, you would expect the end of time-on-earth to come reasonably immediately after fulfillment-of-quest.