I don’t really like “spectaculars.” I’ve always been suspicious of overblown, loud, and huge productions, both on stage and on the screen. It’s one of the reasons I don’t care for shows like Cats or The Phantom of the Opera – they’re all about the scenery, lights, costumes, and props, and I don’t give a good goddam about the characters. The same goes for movies. The bigger the special effects, the more suspicious I am that I have just coughed up a lot of money to watch cars crash, asteroids wreak havoc, or machines take over the world, and the characters don’t really matter at all. (Paradoxically, I think Titanic would have been a whole lot more interesting without the stupid love story. As one review said, “Oh, just sink already.”) Give me a bare stage with interesting characters, nuances and shades of meaning that are caught in a glance, a gesture, or silence, and I’m much more interested.
The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King is not a “spectacular.” Yes, it has lots of special effects, battle scenes that boggle the mind, and some of the most incredible scenery in cinematic history. But director Peter Jackson never forgot that he was telling the story of people – Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Gandalf, Merry, and Pippin when you get right down to it – and he kept the focus on them the entire time, leaving the scenery to be just that – scenery. The best things were the little touches; from the opening shot of the worm wiggling in Smeagol’s fingers, the exchange between Merry and Pippin as they said goodbye in the stables of Rohan, the fly caught in Shelob’s web, even the “oh, shit” look on the Chief Orc’s face when he saw the Dead approaching (quite a testimony to the make-up artist, too). Even the final credits with the sketches of the characters next to their names was artistry. There were many other wonderful moments, too, but you get the idea.
That’s not only a testimony to Jackson’s craft as a director, it’s also witness to his fealty to Tolkien’s story. This, after all, is a story of small people in every sense of the word, and Jackson took great pains to show it through their eyes. It’s also clear that Jackson cared deeply that the story be translated from page to screen with as much care as possible without being a slave to every word. The cuts he made were judicious, and the re-shuffling of scenes actually helped the story-telling. (While I loved Christopher Lee as Saruman – he’s so deliciously low and snakey – if you’re going to throw out “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter, there’s no point in bringing him back after Treebeard and the gang trash Isengard.)
All in all, this was an amazing film. It may have been 3 hours and 20 minutes, but I didn’t notice it. After all, when you care about the people you’re with, time does not matter.