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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (1/15/13) 3:14am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  The Lord of the Rings
TV:  <none>
Books:  <none>



The Lord of the Rings
As preparation for Fandom's Tolkien-themed show, I re-watched Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, seeing the Extended Editions for, I think, the first time.  In fact, I think I had only seen the trilogy once before, and I think I only saw it in the theaters.

Seeing it now is a very different experience.  When I first saw the trilogy, I was just amazed that it even existed.  Somebody had taken on The Lord of the Rings.  Somebody had actually made it into movies.  This had always struck me as impossible -- first, because the technical demands would be insuperable, but also because there were structural issues.  The books just felt unadaptable, with their massive scope, wildly uneven pacing, and far, far too many characters for a movie viewer to keep track of.  So for most of my first viewing of The Lord of the Rings, all of my brain-cycles were devoted to, "Holy shit, Peter Jackson actually did it!  See?  It's there!  On screen!  Wow!"

Now I suppose I watch the films with more detachment.  But this meant that lots of other qualities of the films jumped out at me.

For instance: this is so, so, so very clearly a Peter Jackson project.  It's bizarre to say it, but in a world where I had no idea Mr. Jackson made this fantasy epic, you could probably show me 10 minutes of these films and I'd get a weird look on my face and ask if this was by the guy who made Meet the Feebles.  You can see how heavily it leans on horror tropes (the opening exposition feels positively Lovecraftian), and how often it just goes, for lack of a better word, 'trippy', say, with some distorted close-up that doesn't feel quite real.

And it's strange, in retrospect, to see how well-matched Mr. Jackson's habits are for this material.  Yes, The Lord of the Rings feels like a horror movie much more often than I would've thought.  Yes, if you're going to the Paths of the Dead to gain the allegiance of an army of ghosts, well, that has a lot in common with the horror genre.  I remember thinking that some of the more gruesome designs in The Hobbit must've been from del Toro's early work on the film; now I think, no, that could've been all Peter Jackson.

And Mr. Jackson's facility for going into trippy, altered-state POVs is absolutely necessary for this story.  If you described the One Ring strictly in terms of audiovisual data -- what one sees and hears -- then you just have a gold circle that occasionally goes "clunk" when you set it on a surface.  The Ring is significant because of how it *feels* to be in its proximity, how it *affects* (and even controls) people mentally, and what it's *like* to wear the ring.  That last point seems to be conveyed entirely by that surreal world that Frodo sees while wearing it.  I don't think that bizarre vision corresponds to any literal description in the book -- instead, it's an invention, and a perfect way to convey just how powerful the ring is, and give us a visceral sense of its connections to Sauron and his forces.

And the bottom line is, to show Middle-Earth, you have to repeatedly convey that things are not right and not normal.  A being as bizarre and unnatural as the Witch-King of Angmar *should* die with that freakish wailing sound design and the impossible sight of his armor imploding into a steel paperwad.  The Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings is a sickened and dying land, and that world of horrors and impossibilities? -- that's pretty much where Mr. Jackson lives.

I loved how the films were constructed.  They seemed to hold on to the main strengths of the books' plotting (whenever possible, kill off a wizard[1]), while dealing effectively with some of the weaknesses, like how the protagonist, Frodo, mostly just reacts to stuff.

Actually, "weaknesses" is the wrong word here -- it's more accurate to say that the books have some qualities that are just antithetical to movies.  In fact, it may be that Tolkien's whole worldview isn't really well-suited to movies.  His notion of a hero is Frodo, somebody who isn't a fighter, isn't a great thinker, isn't physically strong enough to climb Mount Doom at the end, and isn't morally strong enough to destroy the One Ring when he gets there.  Movie heroes tend to be exemplary in flashy ways, and tend to, in the end, do what needs doing on their own -- they succeed by being extraordinarily gifted individualists.  But for Tolkien, being a hero just means being a good person, and continuing to do the right thing, even if it's just putting one foot in front of the other, under greater and greater mental adversity.  This is a way that, ironically, Tolkien feels more like real life than many ostensibly-realistic movies.

And movie heroes tend to get doled out prizes for their efforts.  They get the Thing they set out for at the start, whether it's money, or success, or a girl (who often gets dispensed like so much chattel).  Compare this to Frodo -- the only Thing that Frodo gets is, he gets to keep the world from ending.  He doesn't even reckon he'll survive, towards the end.  And even though he does, you sense that something is broken in him afterwards, beyond the Nazgûl injury to his shoulder.  You sense that when the ship to Valinor comes, Frodo *has* to depart.  He's saved the world, but he doesn't get to keep it.[2]

So again, kudos to Peter Jackson for making the Frodo story work, because he and his team are adapting source material that's, in lots of ways, antithetical to how movies -- especially genre movies -- tend to work.

Throughout, the film steadily works the plot up to cliffhangers.  I can't remember many cliffhangers in the original novels, apart from things looking very dire at the end of The Two Towers.  I just don't think Tolkien was too interested in plot, so much as he was interested in world-building, and in certain moral ideas that he wanted to play with.  So Jackson is left doing lots of shuffling, like transposing the first chapter of The Two Towers to the end of the first movie.  He keeps finding ways to cut off a storyline at its point of direst peril, usually after the heroes have seen their options narrow down to one possible action, which is horrible and dangerous and most likely suicidal.

I had a few minor annoyances.  Every single reference to earlier material is accompanied by a hand-hold-y voiceover or flashback to earlier footage.  I was amused at how bloodless the combat was (Uruk-hai blood is, of course, not red).  The racial views of the trilogy are troubling (why yes, all the bad people are swarthy and come from the south).  I wondered if Gimli were such simple comic relief in the original novels, or if the movies just reduced him to that.  These days, I'm old enough that, when I watch violence, I spend most of my time wincing, thinking that, ooh, that would dislocate your shoulder, and ouch, those people must have permanent tinnitus now, and yeah, my back would never heal right after an incident like that.  And I kept noticing how good tends to win because evil tends to design systems with really catastrophic single-points-of-failure.

Also, and for no good reason, I wished the captions had a "Quenya" option.

But in the end, I was again amazed -- first that these movies got made at all, and also that they got made so well.  During  The Return of the King, for everything from "... but I can carry you" to the end, I was happily reduced to a blubbering mess.  Huzzah!
       

For next time:  watching lots of Batman, in preparation for Fandom on Saturday.  Also, I'm still reading the Doc Savage book Devil on the Moon, and still listening to some old radio episodes of The Shadow, to prepare for Strange Worlds.

________
[1] That is, give your heroes a seemingly all-powerful ally who helps them barely scrape by -- and then kill the all-powerful ally, leaving our heroes completely screwed.
[2] It also makes me think that maybe Tolkien works his religious beliefs into his work in a much less flashy and allegorical way than his colleague C. S. Lewis.  This would amuse the hell out of me, as it would seem to parallel Tolkien being (IIRC) kind of annoyed with Lewis's religiosity after Tolkien himself influenced Lewis to convert to Christianity.

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