All the beautiful aesthetics, great performances and solid special effects in the world could not save the movies if they were boring. Given that they last around 3 hours+ a piece, boredom is a real threat. Peter Jackson avoided this by pacing the movies masterfully. The core of the narrative is the quest, the long and difficult journey from the Shire to Mordor, and Jackson builds everything else around this.
To start with, a sense of urgency pervades the movies -- the exposition never neglects to mention the gathering darkness, or the closeness of Mordor, or the frankly impossible nature of Frodo's task.
Moreover, the sequence of scenes is structured around the journey. Action sequences are interspersed with exposition and dialogue sequences so that we are neither talked to death by backstory nor subjected to a constant assault of context-free suspense. Moreover, the action sequences are made purposeful by being directly related to the main plot, most frequently and visibly by being complications in the characters' journey.
This structure is most visible in the first movie (which I think is the best, with the third film as a close second). The basic structure of the first movie is
- Cold open exposition
- Shire interlude
- Quest inroduced
- Flight from the ringwraiths (from the Shire to Brie to Weathertop to Rivendell)
Looking at the individual sequences, the flight from the ringwraiths, Moria and end-game sequences are some of the longest; the initial flight from the ringwraiths runs around half an hour. The exposition-heavy Lorien and Rivendell scenes are kept short and are sandwiched between suspenseful sequences. On the other hand, 'breather' scenes such Brie and the breaks within the Moria sequence allow the suspense to build again.
Viewing the extended cut of the first movie, it is obvious how much care went into crafting this sense of urgency. Most of the extra 30 minutes of the extended cut is sandwiched in between Moria and the breaking of the Fellowship, primarily in Lorien. Though one sequence is frankly incredible (a dialogue between Boromir and Aragorn that I'd wish they'd cut less in the theatrical release) the overall effect is to sap to movie of its narrative force, and the shorter, theatrical version of Lorien makes the movie much better.
Even with this beautiful pacing, the movie wouldn't work if the individual scenes weren't thrilling, which brings us to our next point.
Peter Jackson was a horror guy before he started directing epics, and I think this saves the movies. Everything I lay out above could have been in place and yet the movies could have been plodding sword-and-sandal pictures that no one would have shown up for. Instead, the movies are lightened and livened up by suspenseful set-pieces that keep the narrative momentum moving forward. Whenver something particularly horror-movie-esque happened my interlocutor would grab my shoulder and say "Creature Feature" to illustrate the tropes at work. This is visible most masterfully in Moria.
Looking closer, here is how Moria plays out:
- Beforehand -- All characters except Gimli refer to Moria with dread Saruman's narration is particularly explicit "Shadow and Flame", which lets us know that something really terrifying is down there
- They are stuck with the riddle --- just for enough screen-time to convey how stuck they are
- They solve the riddle and find Moria full of signs of Orcs -- this shows the audience how dangerous Moria is
- They are attacked and must go through Moria anyway
- They get stuck, again just long enough to convey a sense of frustrated progress
- Gollum appears -- in general, he adds a sense of forboding and mystery, which Gandalf's monologue add to.
- Vistas in the grand hall
- Balin's tomb is discovered -- its full of bodies, which more than hints at the Fellowship's likely fate.
- They read the book -- this is one of the best horror tropes in the movie -- the repeated "we cannot get out" sets the viewer up for the orc attack when
- Pippin drops the bucket
- Orcs attack, cave troll fight -- this fight lasts long enough to be thrilling, but ends before it can stop the fellowship's forward progress too much.
- Fellowship flees -- The scenes of Orcs completely surrounding them shows there imminent death
- The Balrog roars and appears off screen -- The Orcs fleeing, Gandalf's explanation 'A Balrog, a demon of the ancient world," Gandalf's urgent 'run!' and the ominous cloud of darkness progressing down the hall all serve to heighten suspense. Note that we do not see the Balrog yet.
- The fellowship flees -- This is a near perfect building of suspense, with the Orcs continuing to shoot at then and the suspense with the collapsing bridge creating a mood that's briefly broken by Gimli's comic relief (as is the case elsewhere, it's not really necessary and nearly ruins the mood for a bit)
- The Balrog appears -- I don't care if Balrog's actually have wings or not, after all the lead-up it's appearance is stunning. McKellen's performance is great as he confronts the shadowy-flamy thing across the bridge from him which gives it more emotional resonance when
- Gandalf falls -- All of this lead up does not climax in the great confrontation on the bridge, but in Gandalf being lost. The muted sound and (almost hokey but actually pretty good) sound track brings home the characters' shock and disbelief to the audience.
It must be be said that the overall effect of the scene-by-scene suspense and the overall pacing is entirely different from that of the novels, as Roger Ebert points out in his partly positive review of the first movie*. Where Tolkien's narrative was a weird sort of (often leisurely) travellogue whose greatest character is Middle Earth itself, the movies are a very tight and driving narrative that moves toward a single end. And it is here that the true work of adaptation lies, and its true genius. The books really are unfilmable if you remain faithful to their meandering spirit; adapting them into great movies required changing the whole tone to one of suspense and haste, not just cutting out Tom Bombadil, the Barrow Wights and the Scouring of the Shire.
And so this essay ends where it begins -- the virtues of the movies and the books are different, and neither would be as good if this weren't so.
*I like this review, though I'm more impressed with the first movie than Ebert is, mostly because I agree with his appraisal of the novels' travellogue nature. Reading it help me organize my thoughts for this conclusion.