Writings of a techie wizard
Sun, 10 Feb 2013
I hadn't intended to say any more about the Peter Jackson films after my last post, but then I came across a series of three reviews of the movies by Andrew Rilstone, and found that I have more to say after all. (This will come as no surprise to those who know me, of course.)
The first review, of Fellowship of the Ring, makes a good general observation:
As a lead-in to Rilstone's reviews of all three films, taken together, this brings up an important point. I noted in my previous posts that the films are all right if taken just as fantasy films, not as adaptations of Tolkien's books for the screen. But Rilstone gives plenty of ways in which the subsequent films, even taken just as fantasy films, are not as good as the first one; in his view, the films taken as a whole do not live up even to the standard set in the quote above. I'll comment further on that after we've seen some of the specific comments he makes.
There is at least one place where I think Rilstone gives the movies more credit than they deserve:
I have two problems with this. One is that it's quite clear in the books why Aragorn doesn't just walk into Gondor and claim the Kingship. First, Aragorn's ancestor, Arvedui, had already tried and failed; Gondor rejected his claim. So it's clearly not as simple as Aragorn simply showing up in Minas Tirith and saying, hey, I'm King now. Second, if he did try to claim the Kingship, Sauron would destroy Gondor; whereas by working in secret as he does, he can improve the odds without provoking Sauron, as when he leads an attack against Umbar in disguise (as told in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen) to remove, or at least postpone, the threat posed to Gondor by the Corsairs. Finally, it is perfectly clear from Denethor's words to Gandalf and Pippin that Aragorn would have caused a severe political upheaval in Gondor if he had tried to claim the Kingship (and Aragorn knows this because he served Denethor's father in disguise and so was familiar with Denethor's character and views), and as he tells the other Captains after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, he has "no mind for strife except with the Enemy and his counsellors". In short, Tolkien does give more than enough back story to show that the course Aragorn actually takes is the best choice for Gondor, all things considered.
The second, more important issue is that Jackson's "solution" is anything but elegant. I've already gone into this in detail, so I won't belabor it here, but briefly, Aragorn in the books does not show that kind of internal conflict because he, like all of Tolkien's central characters, sees himself as a moral agent, able to make his own choices, not controlled by external forces. What's more, Tolkien makes clear why Aragorn has that sense of moral agency. When he finds out his lineage from Elrond, he has just "returned to Rivendell after great deeds in the company of the sons of Elrond". In other words, he has been given the chance to prove himself, and to develop the self-knowledge and self-confidence that enables him to know that he can make the right choices. He has no reason to fear that he might fail at the test just because his ancestor Isildur did, because he knows himself well enough to know that he is his own person, regardless of what his ancestors did or failed to do.
Jackson's "solution" takes away that crucial feature of Aragorn's character, and it's not a positive change. We don't need another angst-ridden post-modern antihero, and Tolkien certainly did not intend Aragorn to be one. So Aragorn in the movies is not by any means "true to the spirit of the book".
I also have a minor quibble with a comment Rilstone makes when he talks about how the "battle between the wizards" was portrayed in the first film:
So far, so good (although, as we'll see in a moment, the criticism here could have been even more pointed). But then Rilstone goes on:
We don't have to speculate; Tolkien did visualize the "battle", through Gandalf, when he describes it to the Council of Elrond. And Gandalf's account makes clear that there wasn't any "battle", and Gandalf's will was not overcome. Saruman tried to convince Gandalf to help him find and wield the Ring, and Gandalf made his rejection as plain as day:
A fair rendering of this into "movie-speak" might have shown Saruman putting Gandalf in some kind of magical confinement, yes, but it would certainly not show Gandalf's will being overcome. What overcomes him in the book is main force: Saruman's servants take him and confine him at the pinnacle of Orthanc. Saruman does not win any struggle of will with Gandalf: quite the reverse, he loses that struggle, and that is why he is forced to confine Gandalf by force. Saruman is trying to corrupt Gandalf morally, and he fails. The "Jedi" portrayal in the movie makes it seem as though the struggle isn't a moral struggle at all; it's just a question of which one has stronger telekinetic powers. Rilstone's suggested visualization has the same problem: it makes it seem like it's just a question of who can stare harder.
But these are relatively minor objections to Rilstone's review of Fellowship of the Ring. Let's get on to Rilstone's second review, of The Two Towers, which says this early on:
A key reason for this reaction is that this film is inconsistent in the way the characters are portrayed; for example:
This is something that wasn't really present in the first film, and I have to agree it is jarring. Rilstone also comments on how the morality Tolkien tried to portray in the books is completely mangled in this film; for example:
Another example is something I hadn't spotted in the interaction between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum in the film:
As we'll see when we get to Rilstone's review of the third film, below, it doesn't.
Rilstone also notes some of the same things that griped me the most, such as Aragorn's "death" (but, as Rilstone notes, "he's only mostly dead", thus scoring serious points as a Princess Bride fan as well as a good judge of movies), and the complete change in the way the subplot between Arwen and Aragorn is handled.
The only point that I can see where Rilstone goes wrong in this review is that he is confused about how Jackson, who knows Middle-earth lore so well, can make so many bad decisions in making the film. My answer, of course, is that while he may know the lore, he doesn't understand Middle-earth.
Rilstone's review of Return of the King is even more negative than his review of the Two Towers:
As I noted above, I was willing to give Jackson credit for making a reasonable stand-alone fantasy movie, even if it wasn't a good adaptation of Tolkien's Middle-earth. But I have to admit that Rilstone has found flaws that I didn't spot. Some of them are the same ones he spotted in the second movie:
Also, Rilstone spots something I hadn't about the climactic scene at Mount Doom:
This may or may not be valid speculation about Jackson's actual mental process here, but it certainly explains why Jackson said that everything after the Mount Doom scene was "epilogue" to him, and why he does such a bad job at the denouement of the story, in contrast to Tolkien, who was careful to tell the whole story, not end it at the climactic moment. (For example, the Scouring of the Shire, which Tolkien said several times was an integral part of the story, is completely absent from the film; but a detailed discussion of that will take yet another post, which I may end up writing at some point. You have been warned.) Rilstone says that the film has six endings, none of which are good ones, instead of the one good ending it should have had, and it's hard to argue with him when he presents the details.
On consideration, I have to agree with Rilstone's overall conclusion: the first film was reasonably good as a fantasy film, but the second and third don't even measure up to that standard. In the first film, Jackson was able to keep a balance between making the movie recognizably about Middle-Earth and making it a good fantasy movie in its own right. In the second and third films, that balance is no longer there. Fortunately, there are always the books.
Rilstone also has a good post reviewing The Children of Hurin and discussing The Hobbit (the book, not the movie). It's worth a read.
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