Monday, March 1, 2010

Culture Corner: The LOTR Film Trilogy

In posting this evaluation I risk the wrath of many, I suppose, since Mr. Jackson's trilogy is, I believe, fairly popular with several people. But Tolkien's masterpiece has been an inspiration to me since I read it many decades ago, and is responsible for the whole revival of the Fantasy genre in modern times. Therefore I must publish a few words about the cinematic rendition of the Master's story, and say, like Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms (though perhaps about a slightly less important issue), "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise."



Peter Jackson’s rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books has won so many awards that belaboring it might seem pointless, but belabor it I will, for I believe that Mr. Jackson’s three movies (Special Extended Edition) are a betrayal of Tolkien’s plot and characters, and that it would have been better if the films had never been made because their success will make it difficult or impossible for anyone to get the chance to do a good job.
That the films are visually impressive no one can deny. We must commend the artisans who did so masterful a job with photography, costumes, and sets. The Weta Workshop is superb. The stunt team is magnificent. The attention to detail, the thought, the hard work that went into re-creating Middle Earth, are wonderful. The opening of Fellowship is a fine interpretation of the Shire; I was enthralled to see what I had so often read about. Mr. Jackson deserves much praise for bringing together the experts he worked with, and no one can but admire the energy and organizing ability he demonstrated in making three huge films at once over a period of several years.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson evidently thinks he is not only a great director but an equally-great writer, so all this technical ability produced a deformed variant of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel. One might say it is as though a skilled craftsman, given the score of a Beethoven sonata, carefully built a fine piano, and then, fancying himself a composer as well as a builder, tinkered with the sonata and turned it into “Chopsticks.”
Let us catalog a few of the cinematic crimes of PJ.

Frodo, instead of being a character who grows in wisdom and courage, remains a scared, clumsy, rather negligible pygmy who succeeds in spite of himself. The worst betrayal of Tolkien in the films comes in Fellowship, when Arwen shows up to rescue the wounded Frodo. Setting aside the idiocy of Arwen as an Amazonian elf-maiden, this means that Frodo is carried across the river like a sack of potatoes. His splendid defiance of the Black Riders (“By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!”) is replaced by some words written for Arwen; instead of growing and rising in our esteem, Frodo remains literally inert. This is very dumb; it is the epitome of stupidity; it suggests that Mr. Jackson was unable to understand the books when he read them. (Insofar as he did: on ROTK Disc 2 (Scene 62) he says, “... because I haven’t obviously picked up the book and actually read the book for years. I’ve read little bits and pieces of it.... You lose the experience of the books as a whole and... I now... my mind is so muddled as to which is what” [i.e., he does not know how his movie differs from the book]).
As we go on, we see Frodo falling down a lot and opening his eyes very wide. Those are his main talents: falling down and staring. He falls down on every possible occasion, including an especially splendid belly-flop into the Dead Marshes.
Aragorn’s character is betrayed by completely changing his moti-vation. In the book, he is a hero who, after decades of preparation, is ready to claim his rightful throne. In the film, he is a moral coward, a wimp who has abandoned his family’s heritage, who has to be shamed and argued into accepting his destiny as Isildur’s heir.
Saruman, no longer the too-clever conniver who hopes to outwit Sauron, seize the ring, and become master of Middle Earth, is simply Sauron’s willing tool.
Théoden, a kindly, venerable old man who regains his courage, is too young, and portrayed as a touchy grouch who usually looks as though his ulcer was bothering him.
Elrond makes Théoden seem cheery. His expression--a permanent scowl--suggests his diet must consist mainly of lemons. And did he have to look like an aging hippie?
(I was happy to find, after I wrote these lines on Elrond, the following comments by Mike Hopkins, the Supervising Sound Editor, on the commentary track (Scene 30, where Elrond gives the re-forged sword to Aragorn--a scene not in Tolkien, of course). Mr. Hopkins says wryly that Elrond has not yet gone over the sea because the other elves told him, “‘You’re not coming to the (expletive) Undying Lands with us, you (expletive) moaning bastard. You’d just bring us all down.’ Look at him. He’s so (expletive) depressing, isn’t he? I mean all he talks about is doom; we’re all gonna die. Give that man a valium, some Prozac.” Mr. Hopkins’s pungent insights suggest that I am not the only one to sense that the Elrond depicted in the films is not exactly what a great Elf-lord ought to be.)
Gimli. Oh lord. Someone should have told Mr. Jackson—since he evidently could not grasp it by himself--that dwarves are not noted humorists, but are dignified and serious almost to a fault. Turning Gimli into a buffoon, a zany, a figure of fun, ruins the character and gives us a series of embarrassingly stupid jokes and events that make us wince again and again. (Dwarf-tossing? A drinking contest with Legolas?) Every time the camera focuses on Gimli, we dread what will come out of his mouth.
Almost everywhere you touch these films, after the first half hour of Fellowship, they ring false, they fail. Hardly anything has not been marred. Pippin has to trick Treebeard into fighting; Denethor, with no reference to the palantir that has maddened him, is a lunatic set up for a preposterous end that deprives him of all dignity (the “flying fireball”); Boromir’s noble death is ruined by having him get up and fight again and again; Aragorn falls over a cliff to extract a few cheap emotions from his friends... There is no end. These things did not save time or simplify the plot. They were deliberate decisions by Mr. Jackson, a man whose childish mind fits him only for the making of penny-dreadful horror movies.
A last example: the siege of Minas Tirith. In the books, an epic of bravery and resolution, courage and victory; in the film, the siege is resolved by the arrival of an army of bluish ghosts (what someone called the “scrubbing-bubbles of death”) that surges over all opposition after Gandalf’s staff has been broken (!), Gondor’s ineffective soldiers are cowering, and Theoden’s cavalry largely trampled by elephants. Tolkien dismissed the dead army after it seized the corsair fleet; Jackson brings it to Minas Tirith and ruins the whole scene.
One could go on for many more pages, but that would be too sad a task. These movies are a cream pie thrown in Tolkien’s face by a yahoo incapable of appreciating the work of a great author. The usefulness of the films is to show how superior literature is to cinema (a sentiment that the screenplay writers share: see below). What the humble scholar did alone, with a pen, in his spare time, towers far above what was done by the Great Director with thousands of assistants and a budget of many millions.

Tolkien’s work is immortal. Jackson’s films are meretricious.
Long live the Master! Down with the Falsifier!
The commentary tracks, especially that of the three writers, are often amusing and instructive. Mr. Jackson, Ms. Walsh, and Ms. Boyens sometimes engage in recriminations as to who was responsible for this or that atrocity, or make desperate attempts to furnish reasons why they corrupted this or that part of Tolkien’s book. Sometimes they admit that a scene “attracted a certain amount of criticism” from “purists.” (I suppose they mean people who expected that the greatest scenes in the book might appear in the movies.) Listen, e.g., to their writhings at Scene 48 of Two Towers (when elves arrive at Helm’s Deep). Also of great interest are Ms. Walsh’s comments at the very end of Two Towers (at 1:53:50, buried in the end-credits, with the names of the prosthetics supervisors on the screen)--interesting because she maintains that films are inferior to books and that it is impossible for a movie to do justice to Tolkien. (“You can’t really have anything that comes close to the depth of the books.... You can’t really hope to satisfy people who adore this book with the movie.... Films are entertainments, they’re just not going to give you the pleasure that a book can give you.”) These are telling admissions. (Mr. Jackson says nothing; silence implies consent.) I would raise the question: then why did you folks make the films at all? Perhaps the task should have fallen to someone who believes that a good film can do justice to a novel? Or at least someone who would make the effort?
It is also quite funny--although not so intended--to hear a writer, or an actor, happily point out some scene where the film does correspond to the book, often accompanied by an inane comment about how “this should please the fans”--as though these “fans” were some group of exigent eccentrics who had from time to time to be propitiated before the writers could get on with their real job of mangling Tolkien. Take, for example, Sam grasping Frodo’s hand when he first sees him at Rivendell: What fidelity to the text! How ecstatic are the fans! As though such trivia matters, coming as it does right after Xena, I mean Arwen, has carried the moribund Frodo over the river and ruined his whole character develop-ment. They seem to think that “the fans” will overlook such betrayals because, for example, the director gave the hobbits huge hairy feet. I firmly believe “the fans” would have happily seen the hobbits wearing rubber boots had they been spared such things as Legolas skateboarding down stairs or Gimli saying, “Nobody tosses the dwarf”!
Matthew 23:24. (Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.)
Mr. Jackson’s co-writers may not deserve to be tarred with the same brush that must be so heavily applied to him. Some of the comments suggest that the two women feel embarrassed by at least some of Mr. Jackson’s depredations. Here is an excerpt from the commentary as Eomer arrives at Helm’s Deep: (PB = Ms. Boyens; FW = Ms. Walsh; PJ = the Great Director):

PB: Another slight departure from the book, but one, which I note with great interest, nobody ever worries about.
PJ: ‘Cause this is really Erkenbrand...
PB: ...and Éomer is always in Helm’s Deep and fighting side by side....
FW: It’s because we committed much bigger sins.
PB: I know... well...
PJ: That’s the whole plan. You commit a few big crimes and it takes everyone’s eye away from the small ones, like a clever little detour...
PB: We could do courses in criminal screenwriting.
FW: Crimes Against the Books
PB: Crimes Against the Books 101.
And here is a transcription of the commentary near the start of Disc 2 of ROTK, when the Corsairs of Umbar appear.

PJ: Don’t really need the scene at all. [!]
PB: (enthusiastically) No, not at all.
FW: I think ‘painful’ is a good and apt description.

PJ comments on his pirate cameo; a woman laughs as the ghost army attacks the fleet.

PJ: What? (Laughter continues)

FW: Now that’s the moment at which the film passed from being, you know, a fantasy movie into a Monty Python moment. (PB Laughs harder.) What the hell? Was that the most motley crew...

PJ: Nothing wrong with Monty Python, though.

FW: And the cheapest... (dissolves in laughter)

PB: I just want to say that while this was going on... what were we doing, Fran?

FW: We were trying to / FW & PB: save the film... / FW: from the …. clutches of the pirate.

Ladies, I am very sorry you failed.

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