November 08, 2004

Durin's Bridging the Gap (Or "Aw, Jeez, He's At It Again")

As both of our long-time readers know, I have often used this site as a forum for venting my dislike of the "Lord of the Rings" movies. I have in the past argued that they desecrate the books on which they are allegedly based, badly mangling plot, characters and themes. I have further responded to those who argue that the movies should be judged as works of art in their own right that, if this is the case, then Peter Jackson should get his own damn Middle Earth and not serve up his "vision" under Prof. Tolkien's name.

Nonetheless, in the week since the election, I have heard and read a lot of talk from the Left about the need to reach out, to come together, to heal our differences and to promote unity and inclusiveness.

In this spirit, I decided to give "The Fellowship of the Ring," which was on the WB Network last night, another try. I decided I would approach it with as open a mind as possible and with a reminder to myself that movies and books are not the same thing, that every artist is entitled to his own expression and that zealous, hide-bound purism might blind me to the movie's genuine merits.

Given this, here is what I think now:

We hates it! We HATES it! We hates it foreverrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!

My God in Heaven! I've seen each of these movies now, the first one three times, the second one twice and the third once. And each time I have found myself getting crankier and crankier, not the other way around.

I think I've finally figured it out: What really irks me more than anything else is the sense of lost potential. The visual details are exquisitely done. The sets are terrific. The costumes are right. The music, even though it borders on a cross between Enya and The Chieftans, is acceptable. Aside from Viggo Mortenson, who was very badly miscast, the actors all range from the okay to the down-right good. And I think that the visualization of the wraith-world as seen by the wearer of the ring - especially with that wind-driven effect - is very well done.

But with all this, Jackson still takes the story and drives it into the ground. I'm not even talking about things like axing the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Downs. I'm not even talking that much about nixing Glorfindel so that Liv Tylor can do her Xena ride. I'm talking about some serious, serious misreadings of basic components of the story. I'm talking about the notion of Aragorn as the reluctant heir, skulking around in the background for fear of getting Isildur's cooties. I'm talking about Merry and Pippin as Beavis and Butthead. ("A Conspiracy Unmasked" is one of my very favorite chapters in the entire trilogy.) I'm talking about the over-emphasis on Saruman's transformation of Isengard (almost all of which takes place offstage in the books). I'm talking about the comic book relationship between elves and dwarves and the reduction of the Council of Elrond to a barroom brawl. There are easily a hundred other examples, some big, some small.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.


Well. The very first substantive post I did for the Llama Butchers last November was an imaginary conversation between Peter Jackson and one of his flunkies. I reprint it here, mostly for my own enjoyment:

I have absolutely no proof that the following conversation took place. However, I am morally certain that it did:

"Yes, Mr. Jackson?"
"Simpkins! Mate, we've got to discuss this character treatment of yours."
"Er, yes, Mr. Jackson - what about it?"
"Right. Look, mate, I told you off to do Gimli, right?"
"Yes, Mr. Jackson."
"Okay, so who is this Gloin guy? You give me five freekin' pages of dialogue between him and Frodo at Rivendell. I mean, it reads like "My Dinner With Andre," right?"
"Well, Mr. Jackson, Gloin was Gimli's father. He was also one of the thirteen dwarves who went with Bilbo to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug in The Hobbit. You know, when Bilbo finds the Ring? His conversation with Frodo is important because it both ties the stories together and also gives the audience an overall vision of the strategic situation east of the Misty Mountains. You'll see, Sir, that Gloin is also the Dwarves' representative at Elrond's council and reports that Black Riders are looking for Bilbo and the Ring."
"Wake me when it's over...."
"Look, mate. First, I've already got a bunch of dwarves fighting each other and the elves at the council. It's a very significant moment in my vision."
"But Sir, Gloin was the only one there in the book. And nobody fought with anybody else."
"F**k the book. Right. And for the tie-in thing, I've already got that covered in the prologue, right? I mean, I'm not paying Cate Winslet all that money for nothing, am I?"
"No, Sir."
"Right, and this dinner thing at Rivendell. Screw it. Would take ten minutes. How the hell can I find room for that and keep Liv Tyler's "Xena" chase with the Black Riders?"
"Well, about that, Sir....."
"Right. Now look, mate. LOTR is a very wonderful and meaningful vision of mine, right? So I need you to be realy respectful of that. Now, we have a problem with Gimli."
"See, we have these big hunky Men, right? Audience will love 'em. And we got that dude playing Legolas, you know, the one who looks kinda like di Caprio on steroids? They'll be all over him. But Gimli is, well, not really eye-candy. Know what I mean, mate?"
"Well, Sir, it's interesting because Tolkein really went out of his way to explore the dwarves in some detail - their origins and so on, and to show how and why they were so different from Elves and Men. There is a lot of source material in The Silmarillion and...."
"I don't give a pair of fetid dingo's kidneys for the Simil-whatever. Audiences don't care. How can I bring my wonderful and meaningful vision of LOTR to the screen in a meaningful and caring way if I can't connect with the audience?"
"Well, Sir..."
"Shut up. I'll tell you how. The dwarf isn't sexy, right? Can't do anything about that. I mean, dwarves are, well, YOU know..... Anyway. So what we want is something that's going to connect with the audience. Something that makes them think "Oh, that's a dwarf. I know about them. I like them!" So what you need to do is write something into the story that is going to cause that connection. And I've got just the thing for you. (Don't know why I pay these blokes when I have to do all the thinking myself.)"
"Yes, Sir?"
"Two words: Dwarf tossing."
"Dwarf tossing."
"Goddamit, mate, are you deaf? Put in something about dwarf tossing, right? Audiences will love that! Kind of a comic relief thing. Maybe when they're running around in that big cave thing. That'll really get them into it - and let them share my wonderful and meaning vision of what LOTR means in terms they can relate to. So you put it in. Got that? Dwarf tossing!"
(Sadly) "Yes, Sir."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Posted by Robert at November 8, 2004 10:14 AM | TrackBack

I get what you're saying, I really do. I was most disappointed with the scourging of the Scourging of the Shire. And other liberties made in the interest of movie-making. But still, I love the movies. Why is Viggo bad casting? Who would you have cast as Aragorn?

My equivalent loathed movie is Simon Birch, which I believe is the worst book adaptation EVER. It was so bad, that John Irving took his name off of the project and required the renaming of characters so that people wouldn't think it was based on A Prayer for Owen Meany. Such a watered down version of a great book I've never seen. Gag.

That said, the casting of the kid who played Simon Birch was the only thing they did right.

Posted by: jen at November 8, 2004 10:53 AM

The book may have better themes and detail, but it's a painful read.

The movies rock.

Get over it, King of the Dorkpeople.


Posted by: Bill from INDC at November 8, 2004 11:04 AM

I suppose the difference in our viewpoints is the difference between a pessimistic conservative and an optimistic libertarian. I didn't see the lost potential (glass half-empty) so much as the things Jackson got right (glass half-full). Don't let perfection become the enemy of "good enough." No reasonable person should expect a perfect adaptation of a book to film; the two media (print and film) are too different in their methods of exposition.

Sure, some of the anachronisms in the movies) Legolas surfing down the stairs at Helm's Deep, Dwarf-tossing jokes) grated on me, and I cannot believe how profoundly they misread Faramir's character, but on balance, the movies fairly represent the grandeur of the story. I bet they've won some new readers for Tolkien, too.

Posted by: JohnL at November 8, 2004 11:48 AM

I have to disagree with both you and Bill. Are the movies perfect recreations of Tolkien's vision? No, of course not: books and film are fundamentally different media. But I think your characterization of Peter Jackson, while amusing, is fundamentally unfair. If you've seen any interviews with him you know he loves Tolkien and took the task of adapting his work to the screen very seriously. I, for one, am grateful for that, as I think even you would agree that it really could have been MUCH, MUCH worse.

Posted by: Dave J at November 8, 2004 11:55 AM

It is dangerous to be sincere unless you are also stupid. George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950), Man and Superman (1903) "Maxims for Revolutionists"

Posted by: georgia payday loan at November 22, 2004 04:38 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?