Directed by: Peter Jackson || Produced by: Peter Jackson, Barrie M. Osborne, Fran Walsh, Mark Ordesky, Tim Sanders
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair || Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler
Music by: Howard Shore || Cinematography by: Andrew Lesnie || Editing by: John Gilbert, Michael J. Horton, Jabez Olssen, Jamie Selkirk || Country: United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 558 – 683 minutes
When The Return of the King won the Academy Award for Best Picture, becoming the first fantasy film ever to do so, I felt a sense of vindication for Peter Jackson’s vision and the vision of his team. While winning Oscars isn’t everything in the movie business, it means an awful lot in the moment, and goes a long way toward immortalizing important films as soon as possible. King’s victory at the Oscars put a slick, finishing garnish on the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) franchise, encapsulating the trilogy as arguably the greatest films of this generation, and also as unforgettable classics for generations to come.
I originally outlined this review to focus on the final and most celebrated chapter in the Lord of the Rings franchise, but then decided to rewrite it for the entire trilogy because these films deserve to be reviewed as a single project. Like the original writing by J. R. R. Tolkein, this franchise tells a singular, massive, sprawling story, and was conceived as a connected work of narrative fiction from the start. It is a singular narrative, and is one of the few franchises that maintains its high quality throughout all of its theatrical releases: While I still hold The Fellowship of the Ring to be the strongest of the three, The Two Towers and King can’t be beat for their excitement and epic battle sequences. The siege of Minas Tirith (King) and the Battle of Helms Deep (Towers) are the technical and logistical centerpieces of this trilogy, and I believe will be remembered as two of the greatest action set-pieces in film history. The extraordinary cast returns for every act, of course, and everyone delivers from Ian McKellan’s masterful Gandalf to Viggo Mortenson’s heroic Aragorn to Elijah Wood’s self-sacrificing Frodo. J. R. R. Tolkein’s classic story is retold in beautiful imagery, music, and atmosphere.
The production of this trilogy cannot be underappreciated, given how massive production values and painstaking artistic craft were combined appropriately and successfully, with only one small mishap (Sauron’s “Lighthouse Eye”). Every detail is meticulously transcribed and lends to a believable Tolkein-world. The film serves as an excellent example of ambitious filmmaking vision combined with restraint, practicality, and nuanced production design to create an engrossing and immersive Middle-Earth experience. It is also an important showcase of nearly every filmmaking “trick” in the book, be it groundbreaking computer special FX or tried and true practical techniques. Everything in the universe, from the gorgeous landscape shots, the digital editing within every image, the slick CGI-molded creatures, the meticulous costume-design, the gorgeous makeup effects, the handcrafted arms and armor, the detailed miniatures, the large-scale “bigatures,” all the way to the hairy, molded Hobbit feet — every single design for The Lord of the Rings works wonders and builds on every other effect to bring Tolkein’s vision to life.
Howard Shore’s beautiful soundtrack returns in every installment to complete one of the marquee film scores of the early 21st century, each time combining with the sweeping, action-packed vistas as well as the quieter, more intimate emotions that emanate from every character and each beautiful structure. Shore’s work on Jackson’s LOTR trilogy is one of the last memorable soundtracks from the golden age of film music.
The greatest strength of the film is perhaps its impeccably efficient screenplay, which is a huge compliment considering how strong everything else in the movie is, top to bottom. Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens, along with Peter Jackson, took what worked from the novel and focused on what needed to be shown. In many ways, an adapted screenplay like this based on such a sprawling, massive story can be every bit as difficult and require all the painstaking care of an original script, if not much more. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Jackson’s adaptation of LOTR is how it challenges snobbish assumptions about the inherent “shortcomings” of feature-films translated from other projects.
The idea that adapted screenplays, including but not limited to those based on classic novels, are always going to be inferior than the original author’s source material, is as much a fallacy now as it always has been. The Godfather (1972) proved that back in the 1970s and The Lord of the Rings proved that three years in a row in the early 2000s. Different art mediums have different strengths and weakness, or trade offs, so the same story realized in one medium is always going to be somewhat different than when realized in another medium; yet, that does not imply a later interpretation of an original idea is better or worse. It simply means they are different.
The Lord of the Rings is a magnificent artistic success on film every bit as much as Tolkein’s original work was in literature. Its visuals alone are proof of that. While audiences will always tend to be the most guarded with respect to the stories that come first, appreciators of art need to come to grips with the concept that every work of art starts afresh with clean slate. Every interpretation of a narrative has equal opportunity to fail or surpass the versions that came before it, and to deny this reality is to admit to some form of “art-prejudice.” The fact that Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, and director Peter Jackson were able to analyze, break down, replicate, and also reinterpret a story as vast and complicated as The Lord of the Rings as a motion picture is astounding.
LOTR is most recognizable for its massive and expertly planned battle sequences, but as is often the case, the best and most important parts of an epic franchise are the quieter moments of character growth and bonds that are formed over the course of the whole story. Not only does every character grow and change like real people, but the ways they interact, the haunting, beautiful monologues and the infinitely quotable dialogue gives each role, both minor and major, something important to contribute to the fantasy narrative.
Great screenplays always bring out the best in actors, and nowhere else is this more true than in Jackson’s Rings trilogy. There are so many great characters, and so many unforgettable moments, that it’s impossible to list them all. The poignant lamenting of King Theodon at Helms Deep before the siege of Saruman, the heartfelt, emotional confessions of Gandalf and Frodo in Moria, the melancholic singing of Pippin as Faramir leads a suicide charge, and Aragorn’s inspiring speech before the last stand at the Black Gate — all of these moments and so many more are framed, lit, edited, and captured beautifully on camera, and will live on as classic scenes in this new age of cinema. The War of the Ring may be incredibly powerful when the blades clash, yet the film is at its most epic when the words are soft and the emotions are subtle.
At a technical level, Lord of the Rings gets almost everything right. The important trademark sections, as well as the artistic freedom the filmmakers injected, are paced so well that the 558 minute running time flies. The characters are real, the emotions are real, and the epic, almost otherworldly feeling of adventure is real. Virtually nothing in the script comes across as contrived, artificial, or sloppy — save perhaps for Sauron’s stupid eye. This trilogy will be recognized as a classic in the years ahead, and I cannot think of a better representative of the cinema of our time than The Lord of the Rings: It is this generation of cinema’s crowning achievement.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings demonstrates the sheer range of modern epic filmmaking, turning Tolkein’s overly dense nerd-Bible into an exciting, action-packed, and thought-provoking cinematic adventure for all ages. This film’s adapted screenplay is on par with The Godfather’s (1972) in terms of efficiency and thematic prowess. Its ensemble cast is one of the strongest in cinematic history, lead by career-defining roles from Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellen. Howard Shore’s score is a magnificent symphony as diverse and structured as the film’s versatile special FX.
— However… this trilogy flaunts one significant misstep: The Eye of Sauron has been turned into a lighthouse. So wait, these movies fucking suck!
— The Lord of the Rings receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? This film series demonstrates how cinema is alive and well for the generations to come. The good ole days of filmmaking are right now.