Writings of a techie wizard
Archive: 2013‑Feb
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:

This is not Lord of the Rings: it is only the story of Lord of the Rings. In movies, 'story' is all. The canons of script writing tell us that if a scene does not directly advance the plot, you must cut it out, and throw it away. But story is very rarely the most important thing in a novel. Name of the Rose is a rambling book about medieval church politics and semiology. The movie cut out nearly all the theology and all the philosophy, arguably missing the entire point of the book: but it turned out that the bit that was left over was still a rather engaging little whodunit. (Umberto Eco called it a palimpsest, but then he would, wouldn’t he.) If you cut all the elegant writing and ironic observations out of Pride and Prejudice, it turns out that you are still left with quite jolly little Barbara Cartland country house romances than that you can show in movie-houses and before the watershed on BBC 2. What you do not have is anything very much to do with Jane Austen. The point of Lord of the Rings is the Middle-earth setting: the history, the back-story, the languages, the little poetic asides. In filleting the book for the screen, and extracting the story, all this has be thrown out--but what is left, ring-fillet, is still plenty for a decent, entertaining fantasy film.

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:

Tolkien never makes it particularly clear why Aragorn has been wandering in wastelands when he could go home at any time and become king. Jackson’s elegant solution--that he is at some level afraid that he will become corrupt in the way that Isildur did--is true to the spirit of the book, if not to its letter.

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:

But was it essential for the duel of the wizards (left off stage in the book) to resort quite so obviously to Star Wars Jedi trickery, with Gandalf and Saruman levitating each other all round the joint. One just hopes that McKellen will get through part 2 without having to say 'These aren't the hobbits you're looking for.'

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:

(It is interesting, by the way, to speculate about how Tolkien would have visualized the battle, had be been required to do so. I think perhaps that Saruman and Gandalf would have stared at each other until Gandalf's 'Will' was overcome. Which would not, I grant you, have been a very visual moment.)

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:

'"Saruman," I said, standing away from him, "only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we! But I would not give it, nay, I would not give even news of it to you, now that I learn your mind. You were head of the Council, but you have unmasked yourself at last. Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself. I will take neither. Have you others to offer?"'

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:

I had a long list of quibbles with Fellowship of the Ring, but I was never in any doubt that it was a pretty successful attempt to translate books 1 and 2 of Lord of the Rings into a movie idiom. 'As good as could be expected under the circumstances' was about the rudest thing anyone sensible could say about it. My feelings towards the Two Towers, on the other hand, can best be summed up as 'Hey, what?'

A key reason for this reaction is that this film is inconsistent in the way the characters are portrayed; for example:

After the death of his son, Theodred, Theoden says: 'Alas that these evil days shall be mine. The young perish and the old linger. That I should live to see the last days of my house.' This isn't from the book, but it's the kind of thing that a chap like Theoden might be expected to say. But then he starts to blub and announces to the world that: 'No parent should have to bury their child.' (Note 'parent' and 'child' rather than 'father' and 'son'.) It is hard to imagine any sentiment less likely to come from the lips of a king in an honour-based warrior culture. The bathos comes, not just from the fact that we've shifted from 'high' language to a vernacular, but because we've shifted from heroic sentiments to soap-operatic ones. You can't be expressing Tolkienesque ideas in Tolkienesque language in one sentence and Hollywood banalities the next and expect it to make sense.

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:

Jackson's simplifications are not limited to recasting complex speeches as Hollywood banalities. He simplifies the whole moral structure of the book, continuously re-casting it in terms of a two sided battle between 'good' and 'evil'. Characters who Tolkien paints in darker or lighter shades of grey become, for Jackson, pure black or pure white. (Remind me to write an article one of these days on the Significance of the Colour Grey in Middle-earth: Grey Elves, Grey Havens, Grey Pilgrim, etc.)

Another example is something I hadn't spotted in the interaction between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum in the film:

Even the Frodo-Gollum-Sam triad is simplified, although it must be said with more reason and more dramatic success. In the book, Gollum talks with two voices. Sam imagines that there are two sides to him, 'Slinker' and 'Stinker.' Smeagal-Gollum talks to himself in extended soliloquies, the dominance of the 'good' side often represented by a light in his eyes. Jackson extends this dual personality to the point where Smeagal (the good side) can consciously think of Gollum (the bad side) as 'he', and tell it to 'leave us and never come back'. In the book, Sam's cruelty to Gollum is treated consistently as a blemish on his character to be contrasted un-favourably with Frodo's kindness to him. Here, Smeagal is explicitly aware that Sam hates him because he sees--and Frodo does not--that Gollum intends to betray them. Sam, in fact, is in the right; Frodo's kindness really is a weakness. Frodo sees that Sam is cruel to Gollum and upbraids him for it; and in a magnificent example of Hollywoodisation, says that he pities Gollum 'because I have to believe that there is a way back.'

This, I am afraid, will annihilate a psychological crux of the text. In Tolkien's story, Frodo's mercy to Gollum brings the good, Smeagal side to the fore. At one moment, Smeagal is on the point of repenting and becoming a wholly regenerate character, but Sam accuses him of 'sneaking' and destroys the moment. According to Tolkien this is the most poignant moment in the whole epic. But it is only because Gollum remains evil and seizes the Ring that the world is saved; the evil Gollum does what the good Frodo cannot do. In the long run Sam's cruelty rules the fate of many just as surely as Bilbo's mercy. (This is, presumably, the kind of thing which Phillip Pullman has in mind when he calls the book morally simplistic.) It will be interesting to see if any of this survives Jackson's Manichean reworking of the text.

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:

The end result is a movie which is uneven in tone, at crossed purposes with itself. Neither a successful adaptation of Lord of the Rings, nor a stand-alone fantasy movie.

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:

It is pretty clear that Jackson the cinematographer wanted to make a movie where people spoke in modern English. But Jackson the Tolkien fan snuck into his office at night, scribbled lines from the book into the script, and hoped no-one spotted it.

I think that the cinematographer resents the Tolkien geek's interventions, and starts retaliating. Often, when Tolkien-Fan-Jackson puts one of his "favourite" scenes into the scripts, Movie-Maker-Jackson deliberately spoils them, by adding a weak joke or making the characters appear more cynical and less noble than they do in the book.

Also, Rilstone spots something I hadn't about the climactic scene at Mount Doom:

I think that Cinematic Peter intended that Frodo really would fall over with Gollum: that Frodo would die in the closing minutes of the film. The only way for Frodo to destroy his shadow-self and evil reflection is to drag him down into the abyss with him.

This ending was set up in Two Towers. Galadriel has told Elrond that "The Quest will claim Frodo. I have foreseen it. I know it to be true. It is your destiny". (Sorry, wrong movie again.) The scenes outside the Black Gate with everyone shouting "Frodo" and looking sad seem to have been filmed with this ending in mind. It would have been different in content from the book, but rather faithful thematically: Frodo sacrifices himself to save the Shire; one person gives something up so someone else can enjoy it. I think cinematic Jackson would have liked to end the movie with Frodo disappearing into the lava and the Dark Tower collapsing. (He could have thrust out his arms as he fell, thus conforming to another important cinematic rule: at least one character has to be Jesus.)

But of course, Tolkien geek Jackson was aghast at the suggestion that someone might want to Change The Plot so radically, so Jackson has to splice in a terribly corny Flash Gordon get out clause in which Frodo grabs the edge of the cliff and is left hanging on by his fingers, and then does another love scene with Sam.

Having had his ending messed up, Jackson now can't work out how to get out of the film.

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.

Posted at 20:55   |   Category: opinions   |   Tags: fantasy, movies   |   Permalink
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