Besides the writing itself, there are a fair number of directorial choices in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy that have always stricken me as disingenuous. Tolkien’s novel has often been presented as a paragon of a very subdued treatment of magic. I would not swear this judgement is in fact deserved. There is, after all, a decent amount of very explicit magic in the books: only, first, there is less than your average D&D player might expect, and second, much of it is embodied in objects rather than manifested in spells.
In the few occasions when magic was present and conspicuous, Jackson obviously goes for the flashiest treatment technically possible: think of many Gandalf moments and, most eminently, his duel with the Balrog. Fair enough. Interestingly, though, he also takes events in the novel that were most likely meant to be interpreted figuratively and changes them into (a) literal magic and (b) very obvious magic. Apparently, LOTR was not fantasy enough, could you imagine?
So, as discussed in my previous post, when Gandalf and Galadriel seem to tower above poor Frodo, they are literally warped into giant monsters. Does it add anything to the characters? No, in fact it detracts a lot from their characterization (Galadriel). Could a better result have been achieved by trusting two very capable actors to express a hint of threat in their voice, rather than humiliate them with heavy handed visual effects? You bet.
We all know that Saruman, via his minion Grima, was casting a sinister shadow on Theoden’s mind, and Gandalf (with his magic or more simply with his truthful words) healed him. In the movie, though, Saruman literally possesses Theoden, like a demon, and the scene feels like an outtake from The Exorcist, only less thrilling. Would the scene have benefited from a more figurative reading? I think so.
The most egregious example, though, is Sauron’s eye. I do not mean to object to the implied choice of making Sauron disincarnated, while Tolkien made it clear in his letters that Sauron did have a physical body. That is immaterial (Ha! Good one!). One thing is sure though: Tolkien would not have approved of his image of the Eye of Sauron as a flaming eye staring at people from the top of Barad-dûr to be rendered literally. Yes, it is spectacular, but it also feels goofy, or plainly childish.
Curiously enough, there is at least one example of the opposite nature. Faramir’s sight of Boromir’s body, which was very explicitly meant as a great prodigy, in the movie is merely a waking dream. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps Jackson felt that the notion of Faramir finding his brother in his funeral boat unharmed by one hundred miles of rocky waters would feel cheesy. But hey, the evil lighthouse eye? Classy, man.