telynor and I went up to the Mall of Georgia’s IMAX theatre to see Lord of the Rings. As I expected, I have a lot of mixed feelings about the results.

First of all, the good. This film is visually stunning, and almost perfect in every respect. The look of the settings, of the characters, the monsters….this film is a visual treat. More important, they got the feel right. This is Middle-Earth. At no point did I ever feel I wasn’t in Middle-Earth.

The special effects were top notch. The Balrog was simply amazing. The shire looked exactly like the Shire should look, the mines of Moria looked like the Mines of Moria. Gandalf’s staff being used as a light….this film is a visual treat at almost every level.

The casting was extremely good. Elijah Wood plays Frodo with just the right amount of resigned duty. Sean Bean is absolutely perfect as Boromir, and Ian McKellen is a spot-on Gandalf (no surprise there).

In fact, the film was so right in so many ways, that the things it got horribly wrong irritated me that much more. Because I love this story. I love every aspect of this story, and they got so close to getting it just perfectly right. But the things they got wrong grate on me.

First of all, there’s a lot of elided time that really hurts the pacing of the film. In the novel, years pass between the time Bilbo leaves the Shire and the time Gandalf reveals the nature of the One Ring. In the movie, the ringwraiths have taken off from Mordor the instant that Bilbo sets off down the road. This doesn’t serve the story well, especially when Bilbo and Frodo are reunited in Rivendell. What was supposed to be shock and joy of seeing an old friend after many, many years is instead compressed into, at most, weeks or months.

The relationship between Gimli and Legolas hasn’t even begun to develop. Most of that development happens in the Two Towers, but it’s important to have the foundation of that laid now, so that the transformation makes sense.

Gimli expected to find a thriving Dwarven population in the mines of Moria. Why this change? One of the reasons Gimli was so eager to go to Moria was to find out what happened to Balin’s group, with whom all contact had been lost years before. The emotional impact of finding out what happened to Balin’s people is muted by making it a sudden shocking revelation, rather than the confirmation of something long feared.

Two more things about Gimli that bothered me. He’s presented here as largely comic relief, much to his detriment. You don’t really get a sense of what the dwarves as people are about in the film, and this makes it hard to relate to Gimli’s character as a real person. But most important, and most unforgivable, Gimli’s sudden and passionate reverence for Galadriel is gone — completely struck from the movie. This fuels so much of his later actions that I can’t quite imagine why it was left out.

Another time elision which bothered me regards Aragorn. Various dialogue suggests that Aragorn “turned away from his path” as the heir of Gondor, which in turn suggests that the throne of Gondor has been vacant for only a short time — tens of years, not hundreds. This could have a disastrous impact on the Denethor sequences later in the series. Central to Denethor’s character is the idea that the Stewards of Gondor have been safeguarding the White City for generations….not just since the last king’s wanderlost son traipses over the countryside playing at being a woodsman.
And for that matter, did I just miss the mention of the reforging of the Sword Which Was Broken? We see the broken pieces of it, but no mention of it’s reforging. (And for that matter, why was it set out like a museum piece in Rivendell, anyway.

I know I’m nitpicking. But I’m nitpicking because all of these things could have been fixed with very minor changes to the script. We could have lost a battle sequence or three to find room for this stuff. I’m nitpicking because dammit, it was so close to being perfect.

The one major flaw in the film, the one problem that isn’t a nitpick but a fundamental error on Peter Jackson’s part, is the enormous amount of screen time given over to Saruman. No, wrong, stop. One of the things that Tolkien did masterfully right in Lord of the Rings is keep the evil carefully off stage. You NEVER see Sauron, ever. You don’t ever get into his head. You don’t ever see him order his minions to do anything. You see the results of his schemes, but you never see the schemer. This is what makes him so especially frightening. You don’t know what he is, what he can do. You only know his reputation, and that the other characters fear him, and you see his agents sweeping the countryside, but the evil itself is always just in the shadows, lurking and unseen. Saurman’s treachery was handled in much the same way — we hear from Gandalf of his betrayal, but we don’t see it. We know Saruman has built up an army of orcs, but we don’t see him assembling them and overseeing the rape over Isengard, etc. Putting all this on camera only serves to dilute the impact. If I could make one change to the film, I’d toss all the Saruman scenes on the cutting room floor. I don’t really think the movie would miss them at all.

So, having picked and griped, I’ll still say that I liked the film. I’ll have to see it again before I can tell how much, because my liking of the film is still overshadowed by all the irritants and several more besides that I didn’t even mention (why don’t we ever get the sense that the four hobbits have been close friends for time out of mind? Why didn’t Aragorn explain what Amon Hen was, rather than acting like he’d never seen the place? etc.) All in all, though, I think this movie is a much better adaptation of LOTR than I could have expected, and is obviously the work of a man who very deeply cares about the source material. Peter Jackson has captured the spirit of Tolkien in this film, and for that reason, I recommend it.