the failure of the Jackson-Boyens-Walsh films, focusing on The Two Towers
Caveat Lector: You have no doubt read any number of reviews of TTT-M which may be rather more than less accurately summarized in the following: "I couldn't stand the changes at first, especially to poor Faramir, but after I watched it 2/3/4/6/12 times I discovered I liked it after all and was able to talk myself into accepting any and all changes to the storyline!"
This is not one of those.
I am, I admit it freely, originally a Book Person. However, I have been a Classic Movie Buff for most of my life as well, and I have had a strong interest in the conversion of books to film from an early age, ever since having been bitterly disappointed at the age of 7 in 101 Dalmatians, appalled by The Rescuers (please note, not The Rescuers Down Under, which has no book original to spoil, and was a delight in itself as its predecessor was not), and utterly disillusioned by The Black Stallion. (That travesty of a favorite series, The Black Cauldron, I refused and refuse to watch: the stills and synopses of it, and the clips I have not managed to escape, are bad enough.) I would have been convinced that the process was impossible, an alchemy less to be thought of than the conversion of lead to gold, had I not subsequently found such successes as The Prisoner Of Zenda (1935), Kidnapped (1971), The Natural (1984) Nicholas Nickleby (1982), Treasure Island (1990), and Sense And Sensibility (1995), to name but a few. It can be done.
For this reason, any attempts to dismiss or refute the following rant by any careless reader who would object that "It's a movie, you idiot, of course it's going to be different!" are going to be treated will all due respect — that is, none. I know what I'm talking about in this situation. I am well aware that all films, adaptation or not, are flawed in some degree or other, as are all works of art. And there are many fine film adaptations of books — some of which I believe to have improved upon the originals in one way or another. These, and others, will be drawn upon throughout.1
In other words, I am a long-time film buff, a war-movie fan, and a connoisseur of films-from-books, not a culture snob who is disguising a scorn of all such low entertainment in the cover of a specific target. I'm no Louis Epstein.2 If you are going to object, do so in a germane way, not a general one: all my objections will be most specific. (If you haven't seen the films to which I am comparing TTT-M (and to a lesser extent, FOTR-M) I do recommend you go rent and view them, not simply because it will make more sense that way, but primarily because those films are well worth watching in themselves. If you haven't seen, frex, The Seven Samurai3 yet — you owe it to yourself. —Enjoy.)
Immediately on viewing The Two Towers in the theatre, I dashed off a short acerbic commentary which was posted to a newsgroup or two, and meant to follow it with a more comprehensive take on the film. This got deferred and deferred, until the impending release of the third movie made it incumbent on me to get this finished. Now, not being one of those who was able to reconcile myself upon repeated viewings, (because I couldn't bring myself to suffer through another time, not simply parsimony — I have watched a select number of films voluntarily as many as three times on the big screen) — I was obliged to get and watch a copy when the DVD became available, in order to do it justice and not simply rely on possibly faulty recollection.
There was even a faint hope that I had remembered it as being worse than it was.
Alas, that was swiftly dashed. It was torture. It was as bad as I remembered, and worse. The only consolation was that this way I could break it into small, tolerable doses with the remote, and hearten myself with the promise of Shakespeare after.
Be warned, there is little positive which I have to say about TTT-M, though that little I will certainly give full space to. I consider it to be even more of a failure than the first, for many reasons — cinematography, acting, casting, writing — and I found FOTR-M a severe disappointment.
Now, let it be clear that I wanted these films to succeed. I was not one of those who was utterly against the idea from the start — I had long thought conditionally that the state of SFX was getting to the point that a convincing fantasy epic could be made, and that the gems of historical filmwork in recent decades both on the large and small screens showed that the potential for a good interpretation already existed. And on one level, the films — bad, good, mediocre — had already succeeded in the most critical area before they were ever released. My hours working in a bookstore demonstrated conclusively, despite all the naysaying, that the very making of LOTR-M resulted in a vast upsurge of reading, and we could not keep copies on the shelves, of all sorts, from the bargain paperbacks to the massive illustrated one-volume editions — with many customers declaring that they wanted to read it finally, that they had always meant to but never got round to it, and now they were determined to do so before the movie came out and forever tainted their impressions.
So there was a net gain, despite all the commercialization, despite all the stupidity and silliness of any mass-market venture, and despite the quality of the films themselves.
But I wanted the movies to be good, regardless.
And there seemed hope. On the one hand, there was Peter Jackson, about whom I knew nothing except that he was a maker of horror films and grossout comedies, and something of an independent. The first was not promising, the second at least allowed that there might not be an overload of Spielbergesque schmaltz and predictable melodrama. Early reports about the scripting process were similarly ambivalent, but largely discounted by myself because of the rumor-mill nature of 'net news.
But then, on the other hand, John Howe and Alan Lee had most definitely been signed on as production designers, and that was excellent news — the two artists, and the first, to create works that held the feel and beauty and realness of Middle-earth in paint, after the plasticky wretchedness of the Naismith and Hildebrand pastiches — (the horror of Rowena is beneath even those, and McBride and Day at best undistinguished, at worst ugly and incoherent) and this, combined with the indications that the financial backers of the picture were committed to doing it properly, not like the Bakshi abomination, made hope seem well-grounded.
What little is left of good in the films is largely due to the work of those two artists, and the sculpture teams who carried out their vision. The rest…is Jackson and Boyens and Walsh, and irredeemable.
It isn't possible to break down the problems of TTT-M in an absolute, ideal fashion, since there is a lot of overlap, but I will attempt to divide up the offenses by category. (A simple chronological tally would not be very effective, as the problems in each scene are manifold.)
First, the most visible — the visuals. The range offered by the story's scope fro cinematography of the sort usually described as "sweeping" would, I would think, be of the sort to whet the appetite of any would-be epic-maker. And indeed little can be done to destroy the magnificence of mountainscapes — but the camera does not make of hem the visual feast it ought to, fro the very beginning. I've seen more far inspiring displays of alpine splendour in aviation documentaries, where the air truly seems to be crystalline and the mind's eye sweeps aquiline over heights that are, even in flat projected images, so real as to be breathtaking.
Still, watching the opening sequences, I had hopes it would be an improvement on FOTR-M — the special-effects battle between Gandalf and the Balrog was all that could have been asked for. It was indeed epic, and I commend the animators for the effectiveness of that moment when the contest is revealed to be a clash of Immortals indeed.
The rest of the film, however, does not live up to that promise, and indeed only approaches it in the most fitful flashes. The only visuals which even had potential for grandeur were those of Edoras itself, again , due to the imaginations of the aforementioned production team, and the artistic talent of the Viking works which inspired them. Unfortunately, all the gold of the Golden Hall was leached out by the bizarre artificial digital paint processes which ruined the Bree sequence in FOTR-M. It is possible to use Photoshop to adjust the color balance of a print, and that color balance to subtly alter the mood of a scene. I've seen several step-by-step comparisons demonstrating in cinematography magazines, an overcast sky given a rosy dawn tinge for a morning scene, a night scene made more ominously dense — but the key word here is subtly. Image-editing software is a tool, but WETA seems to have gone overboard with it just as digital artists did in the early days of image editing, fooging things together just because they could, adding haloes and glows to anything and everything, or even earlier, when the existence of a dazzling array of fonts meant that designers now had to use all of them in a single page.
(Actually, subtle isn't a word that seems to be in the vocabulary of anyone involved in TTT-M, as it shall be shown. This is just one expression of the disease.)
A good example of how hue and color can be used to delicately set the tone of a piece just as much as the background music can be found in the recent sword-and-sandal epic, Gladiator (2000). While there are a number of problems that make it not completely satisfying, I still went to see it several times in the theatres, and I remain quite impressed with it for quite a few reasons. One of them is that it is visually gorgeous. Part of that comes from he fact that their production designs were based on the artwork of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, (who is also, btw, the inspiration for the Dinotopia illustrations) and unlike Jackson, Scott kept true to the visual quality of the original paintings, with their clarity and subtlety of tone, not simply borrowing the details of set design and costume. Pair the Rome visuals from Gladiator4 with the Alma-Tadema paintings on one hand, and any of the visuals from either of the LOTR movies with the Howe and Lee paintings, and the contrast becomes glaring. The range from warmth to brilliance of Howe's fields and mountains, the softness and scuplting of Lee's palette, has all been lost in the ham-handed overuse of Dodge & Burn filters — in FOTR the Shire was oversaturated into a plastic, tour-brochure haze, and everywhere else in Middle-earth, starting with Bree, washed out into a dingy, sullen drab mess. There are much better ways of indicating the encroachment of the Shadow, than by digitally smearing the lens with mud.5
And this is well done in Gladiator, as it was done earlier in A Man For All Seasons (1966), and in between in Ronin (1998), to pick a few dramatic examples. It was done very well in that odd little gem, Stargate (1994). It was also well-done in Star Wars (1977) and — in a monochromatic palette, in the noire films of the 1930s and '50s, and in certain historical pictures, most spectacularly in the '35 Prisoner of Zenda and in 1950's Billy Budd. In all of these, the settings were made to vary, and to have their own personalities, by use of palettes cold or warm, dark or bright, combining delicately to bring out the mood by sympathy OR by contrast. This I cannot emphasize enough. One of the most striking ways to create a feeling of disquiet is by a contrast, a cognitive dissonance between what seems and is. Thus, in Ronin, the spookiest parts of that espionage story are not in the dark alleys and grungy corners of Paris, it's when you see spies and killers and arms merchants walking about doing their bloody business quietly by day in a cheerful sunlight park, or explosively in a calm, serenely-lavender morning farmer's market.
In Gladiator, the effective contrast was a different one — an there was a great deal of digital enhancement, not all of it effective in that film, but most of it very much so — between the cold Northern landscape of the opening battle, which was made thereby as tangible and present as WWII (a very different feel, and a much more realistic one, given the history of Rome, than the bare, sunny, desert battles of the previous generation of sword-and-sandal epics) and the warm gold of the lamp-flames which seemed to be al the illumination (again, a very different thing from older/other films set in the millennia before electric lights) in the army tents and marble halls of empire — though I am quite sure that it was not. Again, a good use of digital paint to enhance a film. In Star Wars, the Death Star in its black glass and steel Bauhaus industrial design is chilling as it is meant to be, but it's in the dry, sundrenched streets of a seedy desert town that the shoulderblades start twitching. Real danger is made more terrifying when it isn't set off solely in its designated reserves — when the point is that it could be here, now, in this normal and real and familiar homey place, that undead warlords out of the old stories — or the secret police — could descend and snatch you up from the midst of your friends.
This is why I say that Jackson et al failed in Bree — by making it from the start a place of dank, dark, gloomy ugliness, and by losing the warmth and brightness of The Prancing Pony, timbers and tavernkeep together, they lost the opportunity to heighten the dramatic contrast between the apparently-real and normal world which the Fellowship is leaving behind, this safe can't-happen-here, where people feel secure that any bad crazy stuff is limited to suspicious furrin parts — until the Black Riders show up. —A point that does happen to have some bearing on real life as well, given how often after some crime or other one reads or hears shocked people saying "You never think of things like that happening here!" Ironically, given that horror is what Jackson is known for, he fails to make it really frightening, because he overdoes the cobwebs and pipe-organ, so to speak.
And this problem is far more intense in TTT-M. The dingy, smeary hues
should have been kept to the Emyn Muil and the Dead Marshes where they
properly belong. Osgiliath in the book is a reprieve, rich and golden afternoon
of a waning era, lush mediterranean and floral, but this is barely conveyed
by the scrubby, arid, semi-desert of the film, and Edoras, under Jackson's
crude touch, loses all resemblance to the words and the Heroic Age cultures
on which it was modeled. The sets were gorgeous — they were, as I've indicated,
one of the few things that made the movie even tolerable — but they were
wasted. The brilliant morning clarity of Meduseld, so vividly described
in the following passages, is reduced to a pallid shadow of itself:
Unfortunately my first reaction seeing this scene in the movie was to laugh out loud — and at subsequent viewing. The land that is supposed to be the green horse-country of lush grass and smooth rolling fields looks less like Hungary or Kentucky than it does Iceland, with its spare turf liberally scattered with big sharp rocks. That's not horse-country, folks. The horses of such a place would be little wiry ponies with short legs, stunted by the meager fodder and rugged enough to stand such a harsh terrain without damage. Now, I know there are lush, rolling areas in New Zealand — I've seen pictures and footage of 'em, the areas of great ranch and woodland, looking like old Hudson River School paintings of the American frontier, where imported European deer grow to the mammoth size of pre-industrial centuries. So why didn't Jackson et al use them, instead of this rough volcanic stretch where there's not enough unbroken plain to gallop safely?
Perhaps it is more of that intent to convey "Shadow" which tinges the
production values with mud — but the effects of the Dark Lord's power visible
in the preceding chapters are far more subtle, and could have been better
conveyed with silence, and a slight eeriness in the score, and the book
dialogue. Kurosawa was a master at this: the suspense in the "quiet wood"
scenes before the crime in Rashomon is as much conveyed by the flicker
of leaves in half-sunlight as by the exchange of glances among the principals.
Instead of the richly fertile, deceptively-peaceful plains of Rohan we
get a Generic Fantasyland Ominous Landscape, which might have come out
of Willow or Beastmaster just as easily.
Since a significant part of the story of TTT centers around the kingdom of Rohan, this is a problem. And it is augmented or compounded by the problems in costuming. Unlike fanwriters typically, and the clunkier profic author, Tolkien is lean in his descriptions of visuals, leaving much to the reader's imagination — and information — to supply. The more of an art history background one has, the richer one's imaginings will be. But the overwhelming impression Tolkien gives is, as should come through from those few representative excerpts above, (if you don't believe me in re representativeness, reread the chapters) of a brightness, the medieval love of claritas, of luminous transparent crystals and colours strong, rich, heraldic, and not at all pallid, muddy, or drab, with emphasis on the green of growing things, all "overlaid with gold and set with gems, green and red and white."
Unfortunately, what we get is a knockoff of Hamlet in funereal garb, with Generic Barbarian extras. There's no sign of "shining mail" any more than there is of the neat, disciplined, well-groomed riders who wear it in the original.6 There's a weird assemblage of purplish half-plate, half-mail, and affixing Sutton Hoo designs to it isn't enough to make up for that. Or the fact that it's worn by scruffy Generic Barbarians. This is compounded by the fact that the citizenry of Rohan are shown as Generic Movie Peasants, wearing the generic shabby browns and grays of the typical movie serf (and some Generic Peasant Warts, too), not the bright, almost gaudy colours appropriate to a culture modeled in part on that of the Vikings, whose unisex love of glorious color and well-combed hair is immortalized in such saga heroes as Olaf the Peacock. The costumes of the named characters are too ornate — the heavy quilted, pleated, fussy outfits are most definitely Renaissance, not Age of Migrations — while those of the "extras" are too simple and nondescript.
This gets compounded still more by their behaviour, which is most definitely not that of "tall men and fair women, valiant both alike, golden-haired, bright-eyed and strong" [emphasis mine] as the Rohirrim are described by their allies. The helpless "scream, point, and run round in circles" behaviour demonstrated throughout in the tone-setting scene of the Dunlending invasion and afterwards, while apt perhaps for Generic Movie Peasants, doesn't fit the canonical description of the Rohirrim as hardy frontier folk who have lived with sporadic Orc raids and enemy harassment for years, not serfs at all but free yeomen, both sexes armed and used to the idea of self-defense. Instead we have flocks of bleating human sheep. (Actually, this is somewhat of an insult to sheep. They don't herd as easily as that.) This may be a simple, shorthand way for a movie producer to say "We have here a country being invaded" but a little more thought could have conveyed the same message with more nuance and accuracy. Meduseld ain't Elsinore, folks. Nor Rohan Hyperborea.
But this problem of tone is endemic. And gets worse. It is embodied in the casting of the film, written out in the script treatment, and played through in the acting of the scenes. The failure is one of that quality which in German is called edel, which comes from the same root as the AS word aetheling and means both noble in the sense of aristocratic heritage, and in the greater sense from which that nobility derives: Edelsinn, generosity of thought — all that is, to use the words JRRT himself used talking of the aims of his writing, high, lofty, not base nor coarse, ennobling — a contrast of noble not so much to common as to crude, though also indicating a rising above the mundane and drab and especially petty and foolish and cruel.
It is this edel quality which characterizes and distinguishes LOTR from all other sword-and-sorcery tales, primarily, beyond any details of setting or plot. The ones which rip off the most from LOTR are the ones which fail the worst to emulate it, generally: the Generic Fantasy land of decades' worth of RPGs and series novels may have Elves and Halflings and Dwarves and Rangers, but there is no high-mindedness which infuses their realms (the ethos, which spirit is linguistically related to ethics) is simply missing.
Now, it is possible for something to have a certain nobility and grandeur of ethos in spite of the ineptitude of writing and acting and even directing. Case in point, Cameron's Titanic. The dialogue was ludicrously improbable for people supposed to be adults in 1912, the romantic plot hopelessly trite; but somehow the spectacle of the tragedy itself, and the awesomeness of the great ship herself, were enough to make up to some degree for the pain of the grating words (at least for this viewer) — not unhelped to a great extent by the excellent, varied, and quite appropriate orchestral score by James Horner. Then, the trite romance itself was lifted beyond the bad dialogue and the annoyingly immature diCaprio by virtue of its setting and the Theme, which was self-sacrifice. I had the interesting experience of seeing Winter's Tale in a very good (if still slightly flawed) live performance around the same time, and realized that the wonderful, just-this-side of sappy scenes between the Prince and the Princess (both in disguise) affirming each other and filled with mutual empowerment were simply a better-written (well, obviously) version of the same sort of thing that sent countless middle-aged middle-American women into paroxysms of vicarious rapture. It almost worked for me, despite the clumsiness. (Titanic, not Winter's Tale, that is.)
The fact that this does not happen at all for me in TTT, despite
wanting it to, is a testament to how far off track a production can go.
This — in many ways my favorite of all the books of LOTR — is simply dragged
down to the earth too many times, like an enthusiastic amateur performance
of a Beethoven symphony: eventually the combination of so many wrong notes,
so many strings just enough out of tune to keep the shape of the melodies
intact but not the harmonies, and the persistent wrong emphasis on the
themes of the piece, combine to turn it into sheer torture for the music
lover. (I personally usually would rather listen to the enthusiastic
amateur than the note-perfect automaton, choosing between performances,
but there have been signal gruesome offenders, in which cases knowing how
the composition should go only makes listening to them worse.)
The next most visible failure of the films is casting. There are a few exceptions, which I will note, but overall there are significant problems with the actors chosen to portray the lead roles (and the minor ones, too.) Note, I have no problem whatsoever with unknowns or less-well-known stars in major productions. Rather, on the contrary, I think that you have a much better chance of finding a great actor without the "star" mentality this way. I am certain that there are many competent Shakespearean-trained artists on the boards of community theatres, inside and outside NZ.
We didn't get that, though.
Everyone here, with a very few exceptions, is too modern-developed-world, too full-faced and unstressed (q.v. Craig Parker/Haldir), lacking the edge of those who live under harder conditions, even today, which shows in old portraits and modern photographs alike. Too bland, and lacking in the aplomb that is needful, the self-possession and keenness of those whose wits are required on a daily basis for doing more than pushing buttons, who know where the meat and milk come from and aren't at a loss as to how bread comes into existence, frex. Even the mundaner souls of the story would not be as clueless as the majority of viewers (and actors) hailing from within the sheltered technological envelope of middle-America and bourgeois Europe — people who believe that an SUV will save them from a prairie blizzard, or don't know what to do when the power to the freezer goes out because of an ice storm, to save their food.7
And then there is no intellectual keenness, no evidence that they are aware as the characters themselves would be, of a wider connection to the world and history, of the cultural resonances about them, as even the Hobbits are of their own small genealogical and neighborhood history. No "sense of wonder" about the unknown, either, such as is revealed in the less mundane characters in the book. They trudge through the scenery like tourists looking for bargains as they herd on and off buses in Rome (any reactions and observations that were filmed which might counteract this impression presumably, as in Lórien or Rivendell earlier, or in the approach to Meduseld, having been sacrificed to more important editing cuts, like the lingering views of Elijah Wood's eyelashes in FOTR-M.)
The leads also display significant problems emoting and enunciating: lines come out as mumble mumble mumble snarl SHOUT! all too often, losing what little remains of the strengths of the dialogue as originally written, and adding nothing thereto. Moreover, intensity of emotion is confused over and over again with physical violence — Aragorn kicking the helmet like an angry football player, Treebeard's grief and anger shown as a comic-book clench-fists-and-roar-at-the-sky, Théoden's cold fury replaced by the sort of ranting, tearing-the-air passion that Hamlet found cringeworthy.
Among the worst casting decisions — Liv Tyler as Arwen. There is nothing
of the gravitas that centuries of life observation, of belonging
to one of the central moving-and-shaking dynasties of Middle-earth's history
during some of its more tumultuous episodes, would confer. She looks the
stereotypical dewy-eyed Princess Bimbo straight from Disney, all uncanonical
sword-swinging heroics notwithstanding. She looks like a commercial for
makeup and nothing else, with that doughy jawline and blank, doll-eyed
stare: "Arwen" by Madame Alexander. Her delivery is less wooden than plastic,
the lack of any emotion beyond tremulous poutiness making it seem as though
talking without smudging her lipgloss is the greatest intellectual challenge
she has ever faced.8
Where is the profound, cool wisdom that leaps out at Frodo's first glimpse of the Lady from across a room? The powerful psychic talent of Galadriel's granddaughter that sends aid where and when needed, in the precise place and nick of time, sensing a loved one's dire need — and a personal army, not a "Sleeping Beauty" kiss—? Fuzzy-focus haloes do not adequately replace acting skills; it is ironic that the only scene in which she manifests any convincing edel quality, is when she is mostly concealed by a veil.
Viggo Mortensen is all wrong to play either Strider or Aragorn. His pinched, scowling visage makes him look the part of a ruffian, true, but not a noble resistance fighter — Bill Ferny, perhaps. He appears and acts like the crass officer he portrayed in GI Jane, and only rarely — very rarely — manages to transcend this in the least. He is one of the worst offenders in the enunciation department, and I don't buy him as Isildur's heir at all. Moreover (though this is the script, and hence the fault of Jackson et al) he does not at all succeed in conveying someone raised in Elvish traditions: the real Aragorn would never speak dismissively of Dreams! But Jackson has missed all the richness and depth of the Rivendell-Gondor connection, of the true legend, that of Eärendil the Star-bearer, and totally distorted the reality of the relationship between Elrond and his mortal friends-and-relations.
Then again, Hugo Weaving played Elrond as a dyspeptic bipedal frog, the sort of pompous, uncharming lordly character used to comic effect in Kabuki theatre and parodied in the haiku about "Lord Toad of the Forest," or in Moliére's comedies — so it's hardly surprising that his on-stage foster-son should be equally lacking in graciousness and grace.
When I heard that Miranda Otto was cast as Éowyn, I was extremely worried. I'd seen her in The Thin Red Line, where she is perfectly cast as the faithful soldier's unfaithful wife. But I didn't think that porcelain prettiness, that very frail, dainty look, straight out of a classic film from the 30's or 40's, Jean Harlow or Susan Hayward or Fay Wray in Technicolor, would work for the Steel Lily of Rohan.
Now, I do think that Otto could do a good job as the medieval Scandinavian femme fatale Kristin Lavransdatter, if anyone were to make a film version of Undset's groundbreaking trilogy; she doesn't suffer from the all-too-solid fleshiness of Tyler, but rather from the reverse problem: there isn't enough of her, either in the bones of her face or her frame, to convincingly pass herself off as a young knight. She isn't a robust peasant heroine, a child of plains nomads only recently settled down to farming, historically speaking, and she doesn't look at all like someone who can convincingly shoulder a warrior's hauberk, keep up in the endurance ride to beat all endurance rides, and then take on enemy infantry and decapitate a giant flying monster — and all that before decapitating an undead Warlord, and that with a broken arm. Watching her play swords with Mortensen I could not help but think that she would be far better cast as one of Ibsen's neurotic heroines.
Make no mistake — book-Éowyn is neurotic, or at least clinically depressed. But it's the depression of Tolkien's Aerin in Unfinished Tales, the slow imploding destruction of someone attacked on all sides and unable for ethical conflicts to lash out, with no clear open course of action before her, and whose pent-up fury and frustration are going to leave behind the chaos and wreckage of a glacial dam breaking open, when it finally happens.
Elijah Wood — hoo boy. Frodo is supposed to be a mature, responsible, introspective individual, the oldest and most educated of the Hobbit gang, and though not without his lighter moments (as have we all), still, a very strong character with more self-possession than otherwise, when the Quest begins. It isn't EW's fault that PJ chooses to let the camera linger so much on his welling blue eyes and trembling chin, any more than his odd jawline is his fault (and there is less of this the second film) — but he plays Frodo as the embodiment of youthful gormlessness, someone swept along by events and impulses alike, not as someone who has some idea — more than the others, at least, from all his years of reading and listening to foreign news and information — of what he is getting himself into, and does so in a very deliberate, methodical and rational way, not stampeded into it moment by moment, as in the movies.
John Rhys-Davies is not necessarily to be blamed for the mischaracterization of Gimli. I had initially had great hopes for his casting, given how much dignity and joie-de-vivre both he had brought to the original Indiana Jones movie. —Ai. But given the material he was given to work with, I don't know that anything could have been done to salvage the situation. More on this later.
Bernard Hill just doesn't work as Théoden: he seems to be playing his vacillating captain from Titanic here almost unchanged. Again, too pudgy and unsavvy to be a "semi-barbaric" warrior king.
Karl Urban as Éomer has the same problem, but this is equally the fault of the script itself and the previously-mentioned production decision to make the Rohirrim look like escapees from a Monty Python skit. No signs here of the young but emotionally-mature commander, intelligently arguing situation ethics, making the hard decisions, and struggling against his own hereditary impulsiveness, that Tolkien described. (—And he should be at least as handsome as his sister!)
David Wenham's Faramir is yet more of this same theme: too bland, too modern, not driven enough. As the leader of a band of partisans fighting a losing conventional war in the uncivilized wilderness, and a series of political/metaphysical battles back home, he should have The Look. —You know that look; you've seen it in war footage, the hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked hypervigilance of the young-old men in the trenches or hangars or hilltops of every place that we have unleashed hell against ourselves in the past hundred-forty years since cameras were taken to such fronts. Wenham hath it not.
Brad Dourif as Gríma Wormtongue — I don't know who's primarily responsible for this mess, but the final responsibility for the overacted, over-made-up, completely-incredible caricature of a villain must lie at Peter Jackson's door. He "out-Gollums Gollum," fer crying out loud! As to why this portrayal is so utterly unbelievable, as well as being quite counter to the book's descriptions, well, think about what would have been necessary for it to work. The Eorlingas would have had to have been utterly docile, mindless spear-carriers, not independent warriors given to self-determination, no matter what the cost, in obedience to their principles, but minions almost robotic in their obedience to the superficial trappings of authority—
Oh, wait, that's how Jackson wrote them, isn't it…
(I also very much resent that some of the few real Tolkien lines remaining in the film were misappropriated to Dourif. Gandalf's insights into Éowyn's character should not have been taken away and given to a thief!)
In the films, Merry and Pippin are mostly nonentities, and interchangeable, but again this is at least as much a problem with the writing as it is with their acting, as they do not really get any chance to display distinct personalities in the foolish lines they are given. What I do see of Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd is not terribly impressive, but perhaps Master & Commander will prove me wrong at least in part.
Orlando Bloom's problems are again, less of acting than of writing: the removal of his canonical lines and replacement with mostly nothing, in FOTR-M, made it so that he too could have been replaced by a CGI stand-in, only much more easily. In TTT-M, every scenario is so far removed from the books that it's hard to compare; he has a little more personality, but the original nuances are gone. (Surprise, surprise.) This is more of a problem stemming from the handling of Gimli, on which more (much more, be warned) later.
So who was good? Sean Astin was surprisingly on-target as Sam; the fact that he got much more screen-time this outing made the Ringbearer sequences bearable, so to speak. He succeeded in conveying that earnestness, sincerity, and common-sense combined with idealism which is what makes Samwise the Everyman hero of the book. Unfortunately, his scenes were still a small portion of the overall length of the film — too small.
Christopher Lee was excellent as Saruman, though I think he might have done an even better job as Gandalf than Ian McKellan who was okay, but not nearly peppery enough nor sly enough to be the Grey Pilgrim, who remains (in the Words) a bit of a cantankerous old son-of-a-gun, and a trickster,9 even in his transfigured return from Beyond. I especially think this after seeing Lee's delightful performance as the charming, seductively-villainous Count in Attack of the Clones. However, he didn't get anywhere enough time on screen: his duel of wits and words with the Good Guys from his balcony at Orthanc is the highlight of that side of events in TTT. From his longer scenes in FOTR-M I have no doubt that Lee, a lifelong fan of LOTR, could have done them full justice if given the chance.10
All in all, it's pretty sad, that the best performance onscreen is Gollum's.
"Poor Sméagol" needs to be well done, or else the story falls apart,
but the other performances should have matched his.
The deepest-rooted problems — in style, characterization, and plot — however, are in the writing, and as manifold as they are rife in the Jackson-Boyens-Walsh script as well as how it is played out and directed. The one which in my opinion is both typical and horrendous, and which to a large extent is responsible for destroying everything else for me, is the [mis]characterization of Gimli. This for me is even worse than the film's treatment of Faramir. In part I think because I read The Hobbit before LOTR, and thus knew who he was before reading of his adventures, and loved his character for the sake of his family history. Is it the most important problem in the writing of TTT-M? Actually, I rather think it is.
In the Tolkien knock-offs tradition — D&D, Dragonlance, and sundry other sword-and-sorcery adventures — dwarfs [sic] are stereotyped as crude barbarian fighters, short versions of the stereotypical "Viking warrior" (I have even seen Gimli drawn with the classic, unhistorical horned helmet) with no dignity nor culture: drunken, brutish, loutish and stereotypically greedy, in their concern for gold. —Who bear, as it happens, about as much relation to Tolkien's Dwarves as do Santa's elves to the Eldar. Here was an obvious chance to reclaim the archetype here from its misuse, in the films, by remaining true to the books, which J/B/W passed up (boy howdy, did they pass it up) for no obvious artistically justifiable reason.
This is even more piquant when one considers the history of the Earth-folk in the Indo-European literary tradition. (No, Wagner didn't invent them, any more than he invented Valkyries, Norns, trickster gods or Rings of invisibility and power.) There (as you will see in many stories, including the Arthurian legends and the Arabian Nights) it is rare to find a good dwarf, but the bad ones are no dull thuds — clever, crafty in all senses of the word (it is related to the concept of strength, of leverage through knowledge and technical skill) and embittered manipulators of those who have dominated the upper levels of the earth. Although initially in the earliest sketches of the Arda mythos, Tolkien had followed this simplistic tradition of dwarves as natural villains, as soon as he began to work with them not from the slanted perspective of those who had fought historic wars against them, the underground folk became revealed as complex figures with their own valid perspective on events, the wrongs and misunderstandings of the past no longer all one-sided in favor of the Elves — and whose culture, though different and in many ways alien to the other races of Middle-earth, still is rich and noble and inspiring in its own right.
"…where hammers fell like ringing bells…"
In the "revisionist" mythic backstory he worked out for them (as in the backstory of traditional folklore dragons, still villains but now minor demons incarnate in bodies engineered to be living war-machines, running amok after their leaders are overthrown and no kind of natural monster) which may be found in the Silmarillion, the Dwarves are revealed to be not so much children of a lesser god but the adopted children of the Creator, conceived of by an archangelic guardian who was tempted by pride but did not fall, and whose weaknesses and strengths are both passed on the people of the Earth which is his domain. Much of this mythic struggle — including the symbolism of the contentious relationship between this immortal guardian and his partner, the patron of the things which grow in and on the Earth, especially trees — is invisibly present on a foundational level, enriching and informing the plot and characterization of, especially, TTT.
But you'd never guess any of this from the movies.
Every film, it would seem, needs a buffoon — at least by mainstream Hollywood rules — and Gimli is the designated clown in LOTR-M. In FOTR-M this wasn't as obvious, because his role was cut to a minimum. None of the dark, foreshadowing exchange with Elrond regarding promises and oaths of loyalty as the Nine set forth, nor the poignant, affectionate introduction at the banquet in Rivendell, linking the generations as the son of Bilbo's old friend, to set the stage for future interactions among the characters. Nor, in theatres, any of the defining Lórien scenes. (Now, I have not seen the FOTR-M Extended version yet, so I do not know how they were handled — but I have my suspicions that they do not quite fully capture the symbolic non-clash of cultures and reconciliation of old rifts which the eerie and mystical sequences in the original texts convey.)
But the problems were already there. In Moria, Gimli's obtuseness is revealed in his lack of wariness entering the halls — I hope I should not need to explain why this is patently absurd as well as OOC, book canon or movie canon — and then there is the utterly fatuous, pointless, fourth-wall-breaking, anachronistic insertion of a modern joke, instantly dating a timeless story with the unworthy crassness of "Nobody tosses a dwarf" —!
Is it not bad enough that such lines as "These are not holes. This is the great realm and city of the Dwarrowdelf. And of old it was not darksome, but full of light and splendour, as is still remembered in our songs," must be sacrificed to those more critical, worldbuilding shots of EW's dewy eyelashes and porcelain complexion, but we must be subjected to this tripe as well?
This trend — of excising what dignity and depth the character has in the books, and replacing them with stupidity entirely original to J/B/W — gets free rein in TTT-M. From the beginning, with the (again anachronistic) sports jokes thrown into the deadly earnest chase of the Three Hunters, destroying all the heartbreaking suspense of the original for the sake of a few cheap laughs, to the constant visual harping on his shortness, as if this were the defining fact about him, and funny in itself (why not as much for Frodo and company, then? —Ah, but they are pretty—) as in the confrontation with the Rohirrim he is made to stand like one of the Little Rascals, eyerollingly droll in the midst of adult business, a comic Buckwheat, the butt of Middle-earth ethnic humour by Jackson et al — in direct contravention of both letter and spirit of Tolkien's story.
This gets worse when he is given dialogue — all bluster and oafish cluelessness, he is made a short Falstaff to the tall and handsome princes of the story. (Remember the scene where Jackson dresses Gimli up like a child in daddy's big coat? Contrast this with the original "helms too they chose" sequence—!) This would be only injury — I confess though that even I was taken aback that J/B/W would stoop to the insertion of a "comic" belch in his scenes at Meduseld — but then we are given the final insult in that he is not allowed even worthiness in that area which is traditionally allotted to the RPG and knockoff "dwarf" — as a fighter. In each encounter, his boasting words about being a fierce warrior are revealed as mere bluster (the Falstaff comparison was not an accident) and his helplessness in combat hammered home by the repeated need to be rescued by the (tall, handsome) princes of the story.
And, in this continued inequity, all chance of the charming camaraderie and friendship between these heroes of vastly different background is destroyed. Even the playful rivalry of the "kill count" at Helm's Deep is turned into something tawdry. So much for the seasoned, competent third member of the triangle of stability that carries the mission through insane odds to Rohan and beyond.
And then there's the loss of his sensitivity — the ability he
has to reach beyond his own cultural prejudices and assumptions, his own
limitations, and not only appreciate someone from a formerly enemy culture,
but also to translate his own mindset and values into the terms of that
alien culture. Consider the following spelunkers' paean, here abridged,
but enough to give the flavour of it:
and even to make a convert to his own lyric vision:
How different this is from the films! Here, he is the authority, criticizing his friend, kindly, but with firmness and winning the argument. (Try to imagine film-Legolas humbly accepting such a rebuke to his ignorance — just try.) The glimpse of the aesthete we had in FOTR is now fully revealed, when despite exhaustion, wounds, and danger, in the flight from Moria, he insists that Frodo not pass by the Mirrormere, not miss the cultural treasure of Durin's Crown. In the original, he's a poet of stone and depth. In TTT-M, he's a belching fool. I could go on with the specific examples, but I'm too heartsick to do so. You see why against this travesty, the missing of all Faramir's honour is really fairly small, compared to the destruction of Gimli's dignity. (And needless to say, there was precious little glittering to be seen in the Caves of Aglarond in the movie. Beauty of nature seems to hold as little interest as beauty of spirit for Peter Jackson.)
The other characters whose mishandling really, really bothers me — though this may seem strange at first (as strange as caring more about the miswriting of a short guy with a comic beard than a tall handsome one) — are the Orcs. It would probably take as much space as this entire article is long to explain all the problems with TTT-M's turning them into comic paper cutouts of villains, and would only make sense in light of some of the things discussed further on. I may do a sequel to this, "world enough and time," addressing other problematic aspects of the movie, but I make no promises.
Briefly, I will only say that by reducing them, nothing is added to the film. Grishnákh is one of the scariest villains in all fantasy: someone who is perfectly rational, and perfectly selfish, and who has no compassionate feelings for anyone else — but is clever, and empathic, enough to understand what motivates others. He isn't crazy, he isn't a mad slasher or a mindless monster: he's the embodiment of the Secret Police, the door kicked down in the night, the soundproofed room, the hand on the electrode's switch… —Uglúk, on the other hand, has a kind of ruinous nobility about him, and it is fitting that he dies in heroic hand-to-hand combat with the prince of his foes. He does care, on some level of his violent, hate-shaped mind, about his followers; he is capable of a kind of brutal selflessness, and unlike Grishnákh, is not sadistic in the same way: he does not have time, in his harsh responsible soul, for savouring fear like a potent wine, as the more sophisticated torturer does. (When Grishnákh talks about coming back because he cares about the likely lads left behind under a bad commander, he instantly reveals himself as a phoney, and Uglúk the genuine, if hideous, article.) He is Grendel given a tough job and great lines, in the book, and he is a worthy antagonist for Éomer.
In drama, heroes are only as strong as their villains: by diminishing the Orcs, their captives too are lessened, and their ordeal trivialized. 'Nuff said.
The other big problem with the J/B/W script is the military aspects of the plot. I know it is much praised as a war movie. But as a war movie, frankly, it reeks. It's incoherent in terms of conveying what is supposed to be going on — but that hardly matters, because the changes to the original have made the action itself incoherent. Again, don't parrot at me that "this is a movie, it's got to be different," as if that answered all objections. I'm comparing it to films like The Longest Day, Sink The Bismark, The Cruel Sea, Waterloo, The Seven Samurai, Ran, The General, The Thin Red Line, The Purple Plain, Dawn Patrol, Henry V, Glory, Bridge On The River Kwai, Grand Illusion, Lawrence of Arabia, Aleksandr Nevsky — I'll stop now. (Yes, much of my youth, and since, has been [mis]spent watching war movies.) And there is a vast range of tone, of style, and of structure among all these films, ranging from documentary efforts to narrowly character-focused dramas, impressionistic realism to extreme stylization, silent B/W to Technicolor surround-sound, and even from tragedy to comedy. They're all different, they all try to accomplish different things, but they all have in common a backdrop of war, and they all are good, as films, as stories, as four-dimensional artworks, and in doing what they have set out to do.
There are so many problems in TTT-M that it's hard to know where to begin. The worst ones come at the end as that is where most of the action is, so I will concentrate on them. First, the Ithilien scenes. Up to the introduction of the Rangers, I was turning to the scenes with Sam et al in a relief from the agony of the Riddermark, but then things go downhill. First, what was good — there was a bit more sun, a bit more golden warmth — not the lush Italianate garden realm in decay that it was supposed to be, but still closer to the vision than most of the other settings. (Is it another sign of Jackson's apprenticeship in horror that his forte is darkness and slime, not hearth and earth? I think it is.)
Then — we have the Oliphaunts. Now, the context for the appearance of the mûmakil has already been stripped out of the story, with the loss of Sam's poem, the idea that they are beasts regarded as being as mythical — or more so — as dragons, in the pre-industrial and remote Shire, along with the information that Sam is either a wild—eyed dreamer, back home, or else someone who, like the Fool on the Hill, truly knows things that others don't because he uses his imagination and is not content with the mundane. But still they would have impact, even in the film, as something clearly "Not in Kansas any more" so to speak. I heartily approved of the design of the Oliphaunts. The fact that the sculptors drew on prehistory, on that nearly-unknown fact that there were once many different kinds of elephantine mammals, with many different arrays of tusk and even trunk, than the single pair looping forward that we are familiar with from the two groups existing today — that was perfectly in line with Tolkien's vision of them as mightier beasts of earlier Ages.
Making them the size of AT-ATs, however, was not.
This is a case of a classic problem in suspense movies — trying to make the suspense high enough, the result is so over the top that it becomes laughable; an informed viewer cannot any longer suspend disbelief, willingly or not. There is an entire website, Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics,11 devoted to some of the more common examples of this — the impossible use of guns, explosions, and gravity in films. It was a problem with Independence Day, where in the attempt to make the danger seem even greater, a gust of flame and blast force from the exploding White House was made to envelope the tail of the fleeing Air Force One. The odds of a plane like that — not a nimble fighter, but a glorified cargo plane, and filled with complex electrical control systems throughout — surviving such a buffetting and toasting and not either immediately nose-diving to earth, or being unable to maneuver and land safely afterwards, due to the controls being damaged, are practically non-existent. The attempt, in fact, to make it seem more frightening, made it less, because it broke the illusion of possibility which had been created by the skillful use of special effects up to then. (Other problems with plausibility include the too-narrow escape of Sam's fall down the shale at the Black Gate, and the millions of Orcs sculttling up the pillars and vaults of Moria like so many beetles in FOTR.)
Better a plausible impossibility than an implausible possibility, Aristotle said long ago, when considering the problem of dramatic realism. Such over-the-top effects make anything implausible, possible or not.
In regard to the Oliphaunts, the fact that they are bigger than brontosaurs makes them completely unbelievable as domesticated beasts of burden, — or as war machines. There is no way that something that size would work. Yes, they are supposed to be larger, more ancient versions of elephants, according to the books, and yes, this is fantasy. But Middle-earth is, with certain exceptions, our earth. "Miles are miles," says the author.12 It is the variant of our world where, historically, Atlantis (with all its unimaginably-superior arts and sciences) was real, where telepathy and telekinesis are known, usable (if not fully-quantified) phenomena, and where in living memory (of some, at least), Immortals and their supernatural creatures walked the earth and did battle as in the myths and legends of all Primary World civilizations. Apart from these things, it's this world, where the rules of physics and nature apply, where "magic" is not a catchall fixit to answer any problem, and where the problems of getting from point A to point B involve sore feet and how much food you can carry with you or scavenge en route.
How does this fit into military planning issues? Well, there's the question of fodder for beasts that big, just to start with. Not being able to feed your animals (or your people) has been the downfall of many a military venture, and it extends to the present day as a logistical and tactical problem, even when the animals are now mechanical servants. If you get out past your supply lines, you are in serious trouble. Doesn't matter how many or how impressive your weapons are, how superb your fighters are, if they're starving and unable to function. Animals that size would require even more animals that size to carry fodder for them, and so on in an endless upward spiral, since there has been no sign of sufficient jungle-like vegetation to support them, not even in Ithilien.
Quite apart from any biological problems with the scale (one can imagine, with effort, for the sake of the story, that just as in real life, they are not simply "scaled-up" versions but like all larger or smaller variants in a species, they have adapted internally just as they have grown to fit their presumed rain-forest native environment) the logistics are beyond any suspension of disbelief. And they would have been quite as impressive — in the hands of a skilled filmmaker — if they were the size of the ancient-world elephants that, say, Alexander's army rebelled at facing, or even somewhat larger…and they'd still have been credible. As it is, it undid all the credit that the extreme plausibility of the Fell Beasts' aerial maneuvers had built up.
But that is, unfortunately, a minor problem in the military failings of TTT-M.
Contrary to popular impressions, palantíri must be a dime-a-dozen in Gondor — after all, when we get to the Rangers' hideout, and there is a discussion of strategy, looking at the map, it is remarked that there cannot be any help coming from Rohan due to the problems there. (Interesting that according to all the transcripts I've seen, though I can't verify either way, the part of Faramir's ADC is taken by an OC named Parn, not as you'd expect, one Mablung by name. Obvious questions start percolating…) Now, since this is the real world — that is, a world without electricity and therefore telephones, and the only way for information to get from point A to point B is for someone to carry it there, by foot or boat or horseback — unless they have access to those few things that aren't in this variant of Earth, the supernatural flying creatures or the superior technology of the Ancients that can harness telepathy, how on earth could Faramir & Co. know anything about this? What happened to the problem of nobody being sure what the political state was in Rohan, except that it was unstable, which colored decisions in FOTR? What happens to the problem of the Red Arrow and the courier shot down en route, the fact that no news of reinforcements can be gotten through to Minas Tirith to let the beleaguered defenders know — Hold on, help is coming, as fast as we can get to you—?
I mean, clearly there's got to be some way for those scouts to know what's going on, if they're talking about it. Information doesn't just float around in the air — unless you've got the technology for it. Pigeon post is not the most reliable way of getting messages, and it isn't instantaneous, even if it does get around the problem of ground travel dangers. (Pigeons can also be shot down, too.) Does the White Tower have agents with shortwaves emplaced in Meduseld, reporting in like WWII spies from France?
Then again, perhaps they do. At least, somebody's got artillery already and is using it, it would seem — poor old Saruman with his blasting powder is so far behind the times! Because we go from the semicanonical sequences at the caves, to the utterly uncanonical sequence at Osgiliath. Did somebody accidentally splice in a chunk of A Bridge Too Far? Because that's what it looks and feels like. Shattered stone buildings blowing up all around groups of street fighters? Where does this come from? It can't be justified by an appeal to the books, or even the Appendices. Unlike the Elves at Helm's Deep, it can't be attributed to the remains of a bad directorial decision partially corrected. It doesn't make sense in terms of Middle-earth warfare — if someone has catapults, we ought to see them, because it just looks like church-towers being hit by mortar fire in a WWII movie.
I had to laugh at the line, "Osgiliath burns!" —What is there in Osgiliath, a city canonically destroyed and abandoned generations before in civil strife, to burn? And then there's the pointless and totally-unsuspendable scene of the Winged Messenger given the golden opportunity to grab Frodo and the Ring and not doing so.
A good movie — war movie or not — does not depend for its suspense and action on the characters consistently making irrational and incomprehensible decisions. (For more on this, q.v. http://www.eviloverlord.com/)
Which brings me to the other big problem, that of Helm's Deep.
Now, in the books, Théoden King is, before his affliction, a
shrewd and seasoned warrior and leader, someone who has successfully protected
his land from incursions for a very long time. Again, you'd never guess
this from the film. Even in his unnatural weakness, still
For their own obscure reasons Jackson et al decided to ham up and overplay (and mischaracterize) the entire suspense of the Edoras sequence, replacing the edged insecurity of a group where things are off, but still functioning, and it is not clear to the loyal what is the right thing to do, with a cartoon Iago, a bunch of mindless, faceless minions to fight, and a melodramatic possession sequence from a B-Movie. (I suppose the former, playing it as it was written, would have required some serious acting. and thus was beyond current production abilities.)
But after this, Théoden is supposed to be recovered. And yet, instead of the vigorous and keenminded war-leader, he behaves like a doddering, timid, senile old gentleman still fussily wandering around in his robe and slippers. The complex tactics of the removal to Helm's Deep are tossed out (even though, with the publication of Unfinished Tales, there's even more detail available on the troop movements and background of the situation, a sort of auxiliary Appendix to work from.
—Oh, but this is a movie, you can't expect them to convey all that onscreen. Well, they did it in The Longest Day just fine.
And throwing it out to make a simplistic rescue attempt by Aragorn, which uncanonical sequence replaces the nuanced blossoming of friendship and alliance between Aragorn and Éomer (whose character is even more badly butchered than Faramir's, yet another reason why that is not my foremost gripe), a "dramatic sequence" is just a pointless waste of film.
The skirmish/ambush, along with the whole refugee thing, just makes the Rohirrim look (again) like helpless idiots. They show no signs of any military competence whatsoever; they are merely faceless pawns (alas for Háma!) who move about the board in the mechanical way of the little armies on the screen in Age of Empires or the like, directed by a clueless gamer.
The battle sequence itself shows how unable the scriptwriters were to think themselves out of our own time and into Middle-earth: when the archers are commanded to deliver a volley against the enemy, in each instannce, their leaders shout "Fire"—! Gah! It should be "Loose," dammit! "Fire" makes no sense whatsoever and is an amazing anachronism to have gotten past. Yes, it's the command we're all familiar with, that we "know" is "right" — but it comes from the age of artillery, and derives from the action of putting real flame to a touch-hole of cannon or musket, and retained into the era of percussion caps, not simply from habit (like "dial") but also because there is still (with Brown Bess muskets at least) a fiery belch in result. They got this right in Gladiator — and the momentary cognitive dissonance was wonderful, as you noticed that there was something odd about the catapult scenes, and then realized why, and had a paradigm shift hit like a small earth tremor — so why couldn't the makers of LOTR-M, with all their boasts of fidelity to the spirit a well as the leter of the books, manage it? Out upon them!
We also get, in the lead up to this fiasco, further evidence that two-way radio exists in Middle-earth: Aragorn suggesting to Théoden that they send for help from Gondor to come save them from Saruman! And an utterly counter-canon declaration of juvenile sulks from Théoden in turn, refusing to talk to Gondor because they never sent help before (something which again only makes sense if they could have known how bad the situation in Rohan was and reasonably be expected to do something about it) — Théoden, whose own mother was from Gondor, according to the Appendices which Jackson brags of having used for research to enrich the texts, and who cannot send to them in the books because a) there isn't time and b) there isn't time. This is, after all, the whole point of the Ride of the Rohirrim sequence, as noted before, and the risky venture of the Paths of the Dead, the problem that they have to get a large number of men and their equipment from point A to point B very quickly, and that takes time which can only be reduced so far. —At times it feels as though neither the films' makers (nor their fan partisans) have any idea how to read the maps on which Tolkien spent so much effort ensuring consistency, nor the least idea of military history. Nor even of simple logistics, in terms of trying to communicate and coordinate things, with or without comtech.
(It's really bad when a CIC admits out front that the situation, into which he has put his army against all advice, is hopeless, but still refuses to take advice from the same people who warned him against getting into the trap.)
Then there's the sudden arrival out of nowhere of an Elven army from Lórien. Now we know why that was going to be there: the idea originally was to have Arwen show up and bring Aragorn his sword. This originally was one of those rumours I dismissed, not taking any emotional position on it without it being known to be true, but it turns out that the rumour was true, and the furor it raised among fans enough to give J/B/W pause, and to remove that part of the sequence. (Relict frames have been discovered, and the Arwen gear design shown in the "Art of " book.) They left in, however, the arrival of the Lórien reinforcements. This was both uncanonical, and militarily stupid.
First of all, the Lórien Elves aren't regular troops such as were shown in the Second Age sequence in FOTR-M. They're like the Rangers, camouflaged skirmishers, guerrilla fighters: having them show up marching in full plate armour like a Roman legion is a moment of cognitive dissonance. Then there's the problem of how, lacking cavalry, they got from Lórien to Rohan so quickly. Yes, Elves are hardier and quicker than Men, but still — they'd have had to have wings to do it, and I didn't see any parachutes among them. So, assuming that they ran the entire way, a distance greater than that crossed by the Three Hunters, without any time to rest at all — they'd have been too wiped out to fight. The Eldar are not immune to weariness any more than injury, it just takes more to get to them (and these aren't the powerful Noldor of the First Age before their defeats and self-inflicted damage wore them down, either.) There's also the little problem of how they got past a besieging army, too. Maybe we better start looking for those gliders that were used at Normandy after all…or a lost Teleporter of the Ancients. Ley lines, maybe. (Yes, I know this is the wrong fandom. So are oafish dwarfs. [sic])
What could have worked, and worked well, had PJ actually known what he was doing trying to intercut simultaneous lines of action, would have been to make the situation look far more desperate — as desperate as it in fact really was, in the books — by again raiding the Appendices for the information that "meanwhile" over in Lórien, Galadriel and Celeborn were under siege and desperately fighting for survival. Show the Elves defending against constant attacks, show the Lady of the Wood using her telepathic powers to coordinate her troops and confuse the invaders, and the Lord leading daring raids as he did in the Second Age in Eregion — show, in other words, how on the one hand there's no hope of sudden Elven paratroopers appearing to magically rescue Our Heroes, but on the other, Sauron is too busy fighting a war on too many different fronts to notice Frodo, Sam, and Gollum wandering around in his backyard.
This is the problem with the cutting of the action in TTT-M — not the process itself, but the way it was done. It was supposed to be done to make it clear that all this stuff was happening at once. Instead, it just made a chaotic, cluttered storyline. The thing to do, something that was well done in Raiders of the Lost Ark, frex, would have been to use digital technology to merge from the maps, superimposed over the landscape, to the action going on below. (Another way would have been to do an "Eagle's eye" view, combined with a similar zoom down and in to a specific location in a CGI fully modeled and rendered terraformed landscape made from the maps, thus reminding us of their presence — and also that they too can only be in one place at one time.) But Jackson just isn't a good strategist — something which is also demonstrated in the Primary World by the poor planning and rushed situation of each film as December draws near and retakes and effects are still being made. This is not a way to ensure good craftsmanship — it rather guarantees a botch, instead.
So at Helm's Deep we have event after event in meaningless sequence, and then we have (after another cringeworthy series of moments with Gimli) what has to be one of the most unbelievable sequences involving cavalry ever to be created on film. I speak of the rescuing charge down the grade so steep that those horses would have to be sliding down it on their hocks, riders devoting all their attention to keeping their balance — into pikemen. If this were Middle-earth — that real world where miles are miles and things like weight and momentum follow the rules — instead of the world of camera trickery,those riders would have been catapulted off their horses' necks before they ever got to the bottom, then trampled or rolled over by their tripping, falling mounts, so that they wouldn't even have been able to do the run-up-to-pikes which is the least plausible thing to any student of ancient warfare…but if they had, they'd have been skewered like so many shish kebabs. Long sharp sticks are the one thing that equalizes the situation of infantry vs. cavalry — it's the ancient-world equivalent of the shoulder-fired rocket, the thing that can stop an attacking helicopter or tank before it gets close enough to crunch you flat.
And this is what we get in place of Tolkien's own correction on "Birnham wood to Dunsinane", making that fictional prophecy come true in its full mystical sense, the ancient Wood assisting, despite the long sad history between them and "the wood's old foe" (as an Anglo-Saxon riddle describes the farmer's plow) in a reinforcement of the bond of Life that both share, axes or no axes, and the strange, breathtaking spectacle of a forest where none was before, and the reminder that Good is not the same thing as nice or safe at all…
It's interesting to contrast what Tolkien considered important
and unimportant respectively in re to making a film of the books — the
spirit indeed, the characterization, and far, far below — the battles.
Helms Deep could have been left out to make room for the Pelennor Fields,
dramatically and in terms of film logistics, without doing violence to
the story, in JRRT's own view.
Helm's Deep could have been left out — could happen offscreen the way battles do in Henry V, with the "alarums & excursions" due to the limits of Elizabethan SFX.
Helm's Deep could have been left out — so long as the integrity of the characters and story were not violated. In the author's own opinion.
That means (unless JRRT was totally clueless as a storyteller and critic — and the fact that the books are and have been bestsellers for decades and his analysis of the problematic nature of SFX in "On Fairy Stories" both spot on and years ahead of his time leads me to think otherwise) that all that expenditure of time and storyspace and money on doing the battle scene, to the expense of everything else, was just a waste on Jackson's part. Instead of LOTR, we got Peter Jackson playing soldiers with more toys and bigger than anyone else has, indulging his well-known hobby on screen.
I'd rather have had a few more minutes of Sam introspecting over the fallen invader at Ithilien, or the intrigue between the rival enemy factions during the pursuit through Rohan, or some of the poetry which J/B/W so publicly despise (which says again a lot about them) and a little more of the richness of Middle-earth, in place of all the incoherent wargaming and reveling in the spectacle of ugliness there. —Some of the internal history and mythic resonance which makes Middle-earth more than just another Generic Fantasyland.
In short, I'd like some TTT, please.
Now, I am sure that zealous Jacksonian partisans will urge (as they have on many a posting board) that it is impossible to do such justice, that there's just too much to fit in, so it's better to focus on those things which can be done well on film, like battle scenes and SFX. (I do seem to recall that that was one of the major selling points of doing it as three movies, so that full justice could be done to all elements of the original, but perhaps my memory fails me…?) As this rant is not subtitled An Overview Of Great War And Adventure Films Of The Past Century, (in which case it would have a different title as well), I am not going to refute this with every single movie I have mentioned previously, but to focus on one: Shichinin no samurai, aka The Seven Samurai (1954), which was written, storyboarded, directed and edited by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.
Now, in this one film, running time 206 minutes, made with no visible special effects whatsoever, we are carried into an ancient and alien realm, of clashing cultures in a time of tension, and made to know all the players in the drama intimately (some of course more than others) and to by the end identify with them all in turn, understanding their motivations and frustrations, and getting all this in the course of an adventure that contains, at a cursory glance, over eight different plots and themes all running through it simultaneously. (No significant spoilers.)
There's the overall quest, the simple story of a village of peasants who refuse to be trodden down any longer. There's the recruiting story, in which the characters are introduced: the resolute farmers, discovering their own power, and the champions — the motley champions — they go out to hire. There's the backdrop of political upheaval, social justice issues and the disruptive element of a new, field-leveling technology looming on the horizon — gunpowder.14 There are personal stories: the coming-of-age journey of the apprentice samurai, the efforts of another to escape his common roots, the interplay between the old looking back bittersweetly on the old days that were not quite so good — and there is more acting, more character portrayal in a single speaking glance of Takashi Shimura's or sneer of Toshiro Mifune's than in a dozen of Viggo Mortensen's snarls or Elijah Wood's lip-quivers, in a half-turn of Keiko Tsushima's shoulder than in all Liv Tyler's manufactured tears.
There's the tense subplot of the farmer whose wife has been taken as a hostage-concubine by the bandit chief. There's a lyrical romance between the naive young swordsman and an earthy village girl, poetry and reality colliding with the intersection of two vastly-different worlds. Then there's the greater theme of change, of transformation, as the farmers become their own heroes, their own saviors, as the disguised are revealed as other than they had pretended, as the seasons pass and hearts change, life and death and life going on again — but not entirely as before. There is sacrifice — great sacrifice, of more than one sort. There are tears, and there is laughter: low comedy and high tragedy, and some of it from the very same characters. (But here, it works.)
And all this is apart from the great battle scenes, the duels and skirmishes and sieges, the strategy and traps and plans all coming down to guys beating on each other in the mud and rain — but somehow Kurosawa manages to keep it all clear and coherent. Even when you're watching it in a foreign language with subtitles. The man knew how to pace a story, how to cut and hold and to rein in his enthusiasms so as to make each element carry the maximum of weight. And the visuals! — stark or subtly-shaded as charcoal drawings — are gorgeous, everywhere and always, the motion framed in the traditions of Japanese art, sometimes the wide panoramics of landscape and tiny figures of the great screens like The Burning of the Sanjo Palace, at other times the narrow, highly-melodramatic personal focus of 18th-c block prints depicting Kabuki theatre stars of the day. It moves, as a film, and it is a delight to watch, on every level.
Oh, and it has a great score, with lots of variety and a compelling theme, too, by Fumio Hayasaka (who also scored Kurosawa's Rashomon.) Much more than Howard Shore's monotonous bombast. (—Though I still think that the original Star Wars score has to be one of the best, if not the best, uses of film music ever.) Scoring films is like opera: it needs to match the varied action and elements of the play, it needs to both shout and whisper, so to speak, and much more, because it is the thing which can lift the pedestrian to the sublime, whether it is a mundane and rather sordid story of selfishness triumphing over love in a setting of poverty and futile hope, as in La Boheme, or the opposite, when the high matter overreaches occasionally the writing and acting abilities of its creators, as in Star Wars. Shore can manage the loud impressive bits, which is important in an epic, but there's a uniform brassiness to it, not the polyphonic richness of John Williams' and Hans Zimmer's work (though the latter's use of classical clips, plunked in straght,while working on one artistic level, is problematic to those who are familiar with the sources: hitting a Mozart hymn in the middle of Lion King was very jarring.) Nore is there lyrical and haunting to be found with all the bombast, as there is in Raiders of the Lost Ark: it doesn't sing, the LOTR-M soundrack — and it isn't singable. You don't walk out of the theatre or switch off the TV and wander about humming bits of it for days thereafter, whether you want to or not, like Miklos Rozsa's score for El Cid…or the theme to Seven Samurai.
It's a film that gets better with every watching (and I have never watched
it without crying, hypercritical hater of sentimentality that I am.) If
Akira Kurosawa and his crew could manage it, in 1954, in B/W, with no digital
paint programs at hand — it's not too much to ask the same of Peter Jackson.
(Jackson could have learned even more lessons regarding color cinematography,
stage gore, and the handling of both grand massed-cavalry battle scenes,
and intimately-intense interpersonal exchanges, from Kurosawa's last epic,
(1985), a recasting of King Lear in the setting of feudal Japan.
Kurosawa was a great fan of Shakespeare, but I have never heard the same
said of Jackson. I think it shows.)
So what? After all, readers know what really goes on in the story, so just enjoy the spectacle, all right? (Ignoring the fact that this has only served to convince outsiders — that, we hoped, it would help to convert to fans — that Tolkien was abysmally stupid when it came to "real life" matters like strategy, tactics and logistics as well as character…)
Part of the apologetics for TTT-M hinges on this legerdemain: on the one hand it is supposed to be judged as a film in its own right, a free-standing work of art — and yet at every turn it is propped up by appeals to book-canon as the armature which will keep it from toppling. You cannot have it both ways, I'm sorry.
—But the Extended Version will fix all problems! Sorry, I much doubt that — unless like the fan-corrected "Phantom Edit," it removes all of the stupidity inflicted upon Gimli, and replaces it with the gallows-humour and poetry of the worthy Dwarf. Is the chaos and illogic of the Good Guys' …strategy…going to be replaced with a battle-plan that actually makes sense, and the "death of Haldir" melodrama, if retained, set where it would logically go, in the simultaneous parallel strand of the defense of Lórien? Are the Bad Guys going to get their edge back, too, and the corny humour of "just a mouthful" be replaced with the rapid-fire infighting, the nail-biting suspense of the POW scenes informed with a wider political dimension, and the tragic, Ahab-like grandeur of Uglúk rallying his fellow-slaves for their desperate last stand, corrupted pawns (far more, in the books, than even faceless Stormtroopers) still somehow nobler than their utilitarian Darkside master? Will the Appendices be raided for the chilling information that some of the Enemy's minions are renegades from Gondor (we have met the Enemy and he is us), and Gondor itself the last bastion of fallen Atlantis? And will we get back the majesty and humour and shadowy green-glinting splendor of Fangorn, to counteract the Wizard Of Oz rip-off impression of creaky, stupid, talking trees? Does anybody really think so?
Yeah, it could be worse. Then again, so could most things. I am not going to wishthink myself into accepting that it is better than it is. I trusted that it was possible, that all the talk about wanting to be faithful to the vision of LOTR was in earnest, and that it would be a worthy adaptation. This promise was not kept, and I do not think that another chance will come again.
(Do I have much hope in regards to ROTK-M? No. They've already admitted that the Scouring of the Shire has been sacrificed to more battle stuff, and thus one of the most chilling themes of the story, that of the warning that there is no guaranteed safety anywhere, that no place is naturally immune to the lure of power and control of others, is lost — along with the theme of Mercy. And a recent poll at TheOneRing.net, asking readers "Who do you think will be responsible for the most laughs in RotK?" was answered by a total of 6376 respondents in favor of Gimli — and who doubts that the perception of so many fans in this case is going to be proven correct? Given the bodge of the Elrond theme from the beginning, I don't expect that J/B/W will be up to dealing with the subtle nuances of Denethor's tormented character, given the clumsiness in their handling of all the characters so far — and the fact that they wouldn't recognize Edelsinn if (or rather when) they tripped over it. Their attitude towards viewers is insulting: that everything must be drawn in such broad, cartoonish strokes because we would not get subtlety and nuance.
(—Contrast this with the work of Hayao Miyazaki, whose cartoons assume that viewers young and old will be able to recognize character development and intrigue and appreciate nobility as well as pratfalls, and be uplifted, not bored, by dwelling on moments of sheer beauty…)
I do think I'm going to like Master & Commander at least as well I did the original O'Brien book (whose characterizations, frankly, I found rather flat and unengaging, though I know I am in a minority here), as it looks from the trailer like Peter Weir knows how to frame scenes, and it's got lavish, unabashed screentime devoted to the beauty of tall ships — so even if the acting and plotting doesn't quite match up, at least it will be sumptuous fun to watch.
1 This is not a straw-man opponent I am constructing to argue against, I'm afraid. Go to any message board dealing with the subject of the film, and you will find a half-dozen such assertions without even searching, all smugly declaring "But movies are different from books" as if this simplistic declaration of the self-evident was enough to answer every possible objection in regards to any adaptation whatsoever.
2 Louis Epstein: a notorious newsgroup fanatic, who refuses to concede that the bringing of new readers by the films is at all a good thing. He doesn't even like illustrations, in principle, not specific.
3 No, seeing The Magnificent Seven doesn't count — it's a shallow Hollywood trivialization of an epic, by comparison.
4 As remarked before, all things made are flawed: the one failure in the cinematography was the overuse of filtering in the admittedly-difficult attempt to convey the Elysian Fields
5 And yet they are so proud of all their digital paint work, in LOTR-M:
6 There is another, complex reason why this is problematic, deserving of attention in its own right but which I will cursorily treat here: the way that reducing the Rohirrim to Generic Barbarians destroys the evocation in the original text of the Plains tribes, and the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial themes that run throughout Tolkien's mythos. It may seem impossible, not to mention improbable, that blond Anglo-Saxon-inspired riders could have any mythic kinship with Native Americans, but believe me, the connection is there. Reread the scorn of Saruman to Théoden, and the horse-lord's answer to him — bearing in mind all the while that, until very recently, "Anglo-Saxon" was a term of cultural denigration just like "natives" and it considered A Good Thing by most Britons that the civilized Normans had conquered and tamed their uncouth Norse predecessors.
I know it is not very historical, that the Normans were uncouth Norsemen themselves, and Harold's kingdom as civilized as any in Europe at the turn of the last millennium, but this was not the view held in 19th century England about their own history. (Read Ivanhoe, where the thuddish Anglo-Saxons are even supposed to be the heroes, if you don't believe me.) Your archetypal British colonial gentleman would have been very put out to be called a Saxon, by and large, rather than the Anglo-Norman he was; "WASPs" — really aren't. (Even the adoption of a phony "Anglo-Saxon" identity by pan-Germanism was playing up to and along with this stereotype of barbarian thugs, as it is by their ideological descendants, contrasting "rough, tough Northern men" with the "effete, decadent Southern civilization"; it has nothing to do with the real rehabilitation of the Anglo-Saxons as themselves civilized according to the standards of their day, by scholars of language and archeology.)
And think about it — the contrast in the books is between a highly-mechanized, impersonal war machine, in which soldiers are just numbers and fodder — even for each other, apparently, though there seems to be some rudimentary stigma upon cannibalism remaining among Orcs (though this is, er, thrown out in TTT-M) — and a very skilled, but intuitive, individualized, valour-based fighting force, where personal integrity and loyalty to the tribe is far more important than following orders as it is in the Rome-modeled society of Gondor…shown by tall, long-haired, horsemen who love bright colors and jewelry, and whose empathy for their steeds has almost a religious dimension, as does their bond with the land. (And whose real life, despite their warrior culture, centers around planting and harvesting, and their small traditional villages.)
—Put aside for a moment the image of Beowulf's companions racing back from the mere on their treasured horses. Look at them in the distance, silhouetted — in your mind's eye, for alas you cannot do so in the film — so that the blondness, the mail and swords are invisible; and watch the line of riders with their long straight braids flowing behind them, their war-spears held high, as they thunder over the plains in perfect harmony with their treasured animals, like "the youth of Men, as they were in the Elder Days."
Thus, by removing the visual parallel from TTT-M (as well
as the subsequent verbal argument over whether or not it's all right to
reorganize the lives of illiterate primitive tribal warriors who live in
thatched huts for your own more efficient and progressive purposes), a
wonderful opportunity (among several) is lost to counteract the simplistic
but all-too-common stereotyping assumption of a John Bull racism in either
Tolkien or his works. (As for others — I'll leave finding those as exercises
for the reader, pointing out only that JRRT himself said that after tales
of Scandinavian heroes and dragons, his favorite stories as a kid were
those of the world of Hawkeye — where one might find primeval forests,
different languages, and particularly — archery…)
7 Real examples, both, unfortunately, as is the common belief that bread can only be made by machine.
8 I have read some interviews with the actress, and her obsession with the fact that she wasn't wearing any underwear! (giggle! snicker!) in her scenes, don't lead me to think that there is much more there than a junior-high cheerleader, either.
9 "…I am old. If I may not lean on my stick as I go, then I will stay out here, until it please Théoden to hobble out himself to speak with me."
10 I have also read interviews with Lee, and have come away ever more impressed. Not only is he a lifelong, diehard fan of the books, an intelligence officer in WWII, an educated man, and a remarkable actor — he also comes across always as genuinely humble and grounded, not at all swept away by his fame and fortune, who truly understands the problems of Immortality and accepts his fate as "mortal Man doomed to die," considering it preferable to the deathlessness-in-time of his most famous character portrayal.
12 The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, #210, June 1958, discussing a proposed movie treatment of LOTR.
13 ibid. Also: "Why has my account been entirely rewritten here, with disregard for the rest of the tale?" and "I do earnestly hope that in the assignment of actual speeches to the characters they will be represented as I have presented them: in style and sentiment. I should resent perversion of the characters (and do resent it, so far as it appears in this sketch) even more than the spoiling of the plot and scenery."
14 No, this isn't an anachronism. As students of its feudal age know, Japan too began down the road to explosive projectile weapons — but deliberately turned back, refusing to unleash that genie, and held onto the mythic figure of the armoured knight, battling with sword and spear and arrow, until the 1800s. I was very surprised, and pleased, to see the crude "musket" employed herein.
All pull quotes, except where otherwise noted, come from The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, © 1954, 1955. And yes, I've seen all those movies referred to in the article, more than once, except for the one which I said I hadn't. And no, I don't think it's wierd to juxtapose La Bohéme and Star Wars in the same sentence.
on to ROTK-M considered in "Promises Kept"