I saw the Return of the King a few weeks ago (a couple of days after it opened.) There are probably some spoilers below so if you don’t want to read them, stop reading now and go see the damn thing already!
As a whole, the movies are excellent. Pretty well acted, well directed, beautiful landscapes, and great use of special effects.
The Lord of the Rings makes the best use of really great special effects. I don’t know why, but many people seem to think that a great movie that had special effects was great because of it. Wrong!
The first Matrix was a good movie and had great special effects. The next two, had good special effects (mostly, some of the fight scenes seemed to have the quality of a video game to me) but the story wasn’t there. Having great special effects doesn’t make a movie, integrating those effects into a movie to help bring it alive is the right way.
Andy Serkis, the actor that played Gollum, could probably do a one man show on a stage, with no make-up and no effects and still convince you that you were seeing Gollum. The effects help, but it’s the actor, director and scripting that fill-out and make it real.
But I digress, The Lord of the Rings movies are good but the books are better. Peter Jackson obviously had to cut and replace certain scenes. He maintained quite a bit of the first two books, cutting the Tom Bombadil section from the first book (as every adapation does), but the third was too much to handle, even in three and half hours.
It’s interesting that he cut all the stuff about the return of the hobbits to the Shire. In the books, Saraumon and Wyrmtongue escape the Ents and take over the Shire. The returning Hobbits lead a rebellion against Saraumon, throwing him out. Wyrmtongue kills Saraumon and the people of the Shire kill Wyrmtongue — finishing off all the bad guys.
In the movie Saraumon and Wyrmtongue are left alive, that’s kind of a weird loose thread. I don’t think Peter Jackson had time to cover everything that happened in the Shire, but he probably should’ve offed them somehow.
Another change that I find interesting is the reduction of Aragorn’s kingliness and the increase of Gandalf’s abilities. In the books Aragorn starts out as a capable ranger and guide, progresses to a follower of Gandalf, then to a leader of the fellowship (which distengrates around him) but still following Gandalf’s orders, to finally making his own decisions about saving the world.
In the books this last part comes when he uses Sauramon’s Palantir to wrestle with Sauron himself, wrenching control of the orb back for himself, and then using it to see that he needs to take the Paths of the Dead, rally the ghosts of the oathbreakers and wipe out the Corsairs approaching Gondor (in the books the ghosts don’t wipe out the entire army attacking Gondor as in the movies, their oath is held fulfilled when they wipe out the Corsairs).
At this point in the books Aragorn pretty much starts making his own decisions and acting (in my opinion) more kingly. In the movie, he’s following Elrond’s orders to go down the Paths of the Dead and still isn’t really making his own decisions or offering advice. In the movie, it isn’t until he suggests they attack Mordor to draw the attention of the eye that he offers any real significant advice or makes a decision.
None of these points are bad, just different. I prefer the way the books handle them, but they weren’t limited by time as Peter Jackson was.
There was one addition made in the movies that was totally hideous. When Gollum divides the Hobbits by making it look like Sam had eaten the food. This ploy was total crap, ripped from the worst sit-com episodes ever. In the books, Sam and Frodo get split in the caves while being chased by the spider — simple, believable (assuming giant spiders are believable.) This whole “poison the relationship” crap was just stupid and a waste of time. Those minutes would’ve been better spent showing Aragorn wrestling with Sauron to gain control of the Palantir.
So on the whole, the movies are a good interpertation. The BBC radio version is still better (holding more to the story line) and the books, of course, are the best.