|Accordingly, the poet should prefer probable impossibilities
to improbable possibilities. The tragic plot must not be composed of irrational
parts. Everything irrational should, if possible, be excluded; or, at all
events, it should lie outside the action of the play…The plea that otherwise
the plot would have been ruined, is ridiculous; such a plot should not
in the first instance be constructed. But once the irrational has been
introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to it, we must accept it in
spite of the absurdity…
…The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must of necessity imitate one of three objects — things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be. The vehicle of expression is language — either current terms or, it may be, rare words or metaphors…Within the art of poetry itself there are two kinds of faults — those which touch its essence, and those which are accidental...if the failure is due to a wrong choice — if he has represented a horse as throwing out both his off legs at once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in medicine, for example, or in any other art — the error is not essential to the poetry. These are the points of view from which we should consider and answer the objections raised by the critics.
First as to matters which concern the poet's own art. If he describes the impossible, he is guilty of an error; but the error may be justified, if the end of the art be thereby attained — if, that is, the effect of this or any other part of the poem is thus rendered more striking…if, however, the end might have been as well, or better, attained without violating the special rules of the poetic art, the error is not justified: for every kind of error should, if possible, be avoided.
…Again, does the error touch the essentials of the poetic art, or some accident of it? For example, not to know that a hind has no horns is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically.…in examining whether what has been said or done by some one is poetically right or not, we must not look merely to the particular act or saying, and ask whether it is poetically good or bad. We must also consider by whom it is said or done, to whom, when, by what means, or for what end; whether, for instance, it be to secure a greater good, or avert a greater evil.
...The audience is supposed to be too dull to comprehend unless something of their own is thrown by the performers, who therefore indulge in restless movements… all action is not to be condemned — any more than all dancing — but only that of bad performers…Tragedy like Epic poetry produces its effect even without action; it reveals its power by mere reading… it has all the epic elements — it may even use the epic meter — with the music and spectacular effects as important accessories; and these produce the most vivid of pleasures. Further, it has vividness of impression in reading as well as in representation.
I am going to briefly (as much as I ever can) comment on the final film, both as it is to be taken in itself, and as a completion of the work as a whole, focussing on those aspects most important to me: characterization, plot logic, military history, aesthetic beauty, and epic themes. (There are massive spoilers, though mostly general, rather than line-by-line, for the movie; but I do not think that people who have not yet seen it and are debating whether or not to see it will be hurt by them. I found personally that by knowing in advance that most of the plot was gone, and more irrationality added than in TTT-M, I experienced far less pain than last time. But this is utterly subjective, akin to downing a bottle of rum before surgery, and has no bearing on the quality of the material.)
The promises which are kept, alas, are the ones made implicitly in TTT-M: that there would be none of the above remaining. I am relieved, however, to find that I am not the only one gravely dissatisfied with some or all of these aspects — not because I require any group authority or endorsement to make me confident in my views, but because it gives me some hope for human judgment after all. I am not even alone, or the only one of two, to wonder if Jackson ever read the books, or simply relied on Boyens and Walsh to translate them for him: given the errors he has made talking about the plot and characters in interview, along with the massive misunderstandings of the films themselves, it seems ever more plausible. Regardless, they feel like the work of a high school gamer who got bored reading LOTR and never cracked a source book in his life (not that all gamers are such, by any means, but the ones I knew in high school were so, almost to a boy.)
To clear out all the underbrush — no, it didn't redeem the wreck of Two Towers, nor the film trilogy, imo; all the problems that were there in TTT-M keep on going with amplification and addition; the mûmak-surfing scene was actually not the worst part of the movie; the Sméagol-Déagol scene was a good idea, wretchedly executed (anyone else wonder why and how Gollum, in all his psychotic, schizophrenic, mutated glory, could seem more sane and normal than Sméagol the Stoor? but apparently the Riverfolk were all drooling morons out of a parody version of Deliverance...) and which really did belong back in TTT, if it was not going to be put where it originally came from, at the beginning of it all; they get worse, not better, on repeated viewings, because the illusion of continuity is gone with familiarity, and instead of growing richer the creaks and patches only grow more obvious; the fall of Barad-dûr is just as dumbly staged as reported; what authentic lines remain are again muddled between characters and contexts; no amplification or clarification of the background mythology takes place; the Grey Havens look like Thomas Kinkade dipping into fantasy; the things that replaced/displaced the Voice of Saruman are no improvement; and the great Themes of the book are gone, wiped off as if they had never existed. What we saw in FOTR-M was all we're going to get. No Fulfillment of Prophecy, no Healing, no Moral Conflicts, no Challenges to Modern Assumptions — just pandering to the lowest expectations of the groundlings, I'm afraid.
Now, a further word about my own moviegoing standpoint. I am picky and easily bored. I love spectacle and verbal flamboyance and I go to be overwhelmed by those. But they have to be well-done. I saw Citizen Kane once and never wanted to see it again; I recognized it as a technical masterpiece, but it was utterly non-engaging to me. I love classic B-monster movies from the '50s and earlier, and have a particular weakness for the old Godzilla films, but I would never claim that they are great, or even good — though some of them are much better works of art than their reputation would indicate. I like mysteries — I loved Hitchcock's Secret Agent, The Lady Vanishes and Suspicion (though the studio-imposed happy ending weakens the last), and was left cold by The Birds, as with most films whose emphasis is shock, fear, and blood — but I can tolerate and even endorse gore when the Story requires it, as in The Fugitive, or Ronin, for honesty and not for pander, as in war movies when Our Heroes no less than The Enemy are shown experiencing exit wounds and obliteration. Historical movies have to feel solid to me, as do their actors — not like soap stars dressed up in machine-made costumes mouthing parts from a world they cannot imaginatively inhabit.
All drama depends on manipulation of audience emotion, but not all is bathetic and egregious; any film that uses visible strings to jerk tears from my eyes will be rejected far sooner than visible wires on flying monsters. I loathed E.T. from the get-go as a kid, and still do. I watch movies for swashbuckling fun, or for intense interpersonal drama — I want to be high as a kite with glee when I leave the theatre, or wrung out and breathless with empathy, I don't care which. For that to happen, it needs to work. It needs not to be stupid, or condescending, or screamingly incoherent either in terms of plot logic or of mood. Temple of Doom was all of the above, but came occasionally close to working for me despite all that. The Rocketeer was great. Independence Day and Mulan up till now tied for the biggest filmic disappointment after a promising lead-in that I'd ever experienced. I enjoyed O Brother Where Art Thou more than I ever expected. Casablanca, with all its flaws — and the blue-screen stage-scrim of Paris is not one of them — is still one of my favorite movies, but 1935's The Prisoner of Zenda remains nearest the top of my list for both masterful adaptation (of a very challenging book, I might add) and great movie in itself.
Star Wars was the film that made me a film fan, after Disney failed. Empire was a disappointment, but is less bad than I had remembered. Jedi had its moments. Seven Samurai has yet to be displaced from my all-time-best list: there is a reason why Kurosawa is still the director's director after all these years. Brideshead Revisited may well be the most perfect book adaptation ever made, but that could always change. I can recall parts of Ray Bradbury's script for Moby Dick exactly as played on screen. I like El Cid better than Ben Hur, and I was surprised at how much I liked Gladiator. Sense & Sensibility was worth seeing three times, which is my limit for seeing any film on the big screen so far. Someday American animation will live up to its promise, but The Rescuers Down Under, the trailers for Mulan, and fragments of Fantasia come closest, after The Secret of NIMH. Fortunately, we have Studio Ghibli already, coming into English little by little. Braveheart ripped off of Seven Samurai — but pretty much every adventure film rips off of Kurosawa, or from Prisoner of Zenda. To Kill A Mockingbird was weird, but good. Ever After and The Mask of Zorro were surprisingly uncringeworthy and enjoyable. I should have walked out of The Pledge, but morbid curiosity made me wait to see if it all came together. (It didn't.) Few action comedies approach the silent General, or ever will, imo — but Princess Bride definitely rises to the challenge. See a pattern yet? When you do, let me know…
The Ancients on Fantasy/SF/Supernatural fiction, with an emphasis
on dramatic presentation
When I first read the book from which the opening passages are drawn, a shiver went down my spine, because I realized that I held in my hands the answer to all assertions that fantasy was mere escapism, that it was "unrealistic" and not art, as well as the answer to my vague but unformed sense that so much "realistic" fiction was utter bosh, for all that it "could really happen," unlike stories about dragons and sorceresses and submarines and giant squid — and it had been discussed thoroughly and with respect over two thousand years ago! Why was this such a secret? Why, where it was known, was it enervated and reduced to a pedantic set of rules, ossified and dismissed to be argued over by experts, instead of becoming the foundation for a living critical tradition?1
The quotes come from Aristotle's Poetics, in which he tries to figure out why some stories work as written, but not as plays, and vice versa, why you can get away with some mistakes and not others as an artist, what sets a good fantasy apart from a bad, and a good drama from a lousy, and just basically how to start thinking about what works and what doesn't, and why, based on existing examples, and then using these as foundations for making good art and judging the art we encounter. It's a complicated work, the translations are often difficult because the work itself is somewhat obscure, due to the fact that some of the examples he refers to have been lost in millennia of war and flame, and that the traditions of Greek art themselves were broken rather badly, instead of remaining continuously alive. But the points he makes, imo, have yet to be refuted — and one proof of this, to me, is that they are continuously rediscovered by amateurs — lovers of fiction, lovers of art, is what the word means, remember — trying to understand why they like and dislike things, in a rational and systematic way. Formal criticism may be a lost art — but it is also a found art, somewhere, every single day.
So, on to the show—
Let us get one thing straight from the outset — I pull no punches in this rant. And if your best counter-argument is to say, "Then get someone to back you and go make a better film, otherwise you have no right to criticize Jackson et al" — hold it! You don't really want to say that, do you? Because, by that principle, if you truly believe it — then you cannot ever, ever object to any film again yourself, no matter how bad. After all, could you have assembled the resources to make Waterworld, or Ishtar, or even Gighli?
And yes, I do have a life, which is why this is so late in coming, and so short; and this is a constructive way of dealing with my frustration — instead of simply stewing in lonely silence, I am giving voice to all those who have difficulty articulating their disappointment, and feel a beleaguered unwanted minority like Banquo at the feast for not sharing in the general euphoria, and I've learned a few things doing the research for it, which is always a good thing — and it's really rather fun to wax sarcastic while seeing how many puns and plays-on-words can be slid into a single rant. (The cartoons were fun, too.)
Morover, when I read posts on TORN's Movie Board saying things like sophisticated modern audiences wouldn't buy a film with noble and heroic characters, it's just too implausible — from people who are swallowing (along with all sorts of camels of physical impossibility) characterizations that only make sense if it is assumed that the characters are stoned out of their minds — forgive me if I remain somewhat doubtful. After all, if that was really the case — what was the point in adapting Tolkien, rather than Terry Goodkind or L. E. Modesitt? (Other than the crass one of a guaranteed audience and recognizeable brand name, of course.)
And it really is too funny for words, when one hears the advice to just watch it four or more times, to let the changes grow on one. Wasn't there a fairy-tale once, in which a group of plausible scoundrels convinced an entire city that if they could not see the quality of their work, the fault lay in them, the viewers, and not in the — as it proved, nonexistent — work of tailoring? If every film that came out had such religious awe among its viewers, such that when it didn't work for them, they felt obligted to go and view it again and again until numbed to its flaws — there would never be a box-office bomb. (And I do wonder how badly skewed the box-office returns for Rings are, given the number of serial theatregoers up in the double-digits.)
It isn't that I "don't want to like it" as film apologists like to assert, as if those of us disappointed in the movies were simply being contrary for obscure personal reasons: I would give a great deal to have had a worthy film adaptation, and initially I thought we were going to get a pretty decent job of it. But the problems that were there in FOTR-M, instead of correcting over time, or remaning the same, are like the smallest degree off course of an arrow being shot a great distance: halfway through the flight it is already clear that it is going to miss the mark, wihtout a miracle; and no miracle occurred. It only went farther and farther from where it should have ended up.
Some of this I have already said, in posts or emails, and some of the points have been made elsewhere by other people, who have noticed the same things quite independently, so if it sounds familiar, it probably is. We are not — quite — alone…
1. It's a Viggo Vehicle
This was obviously going to be the case from the moment they started showing that absurd poster with Mortensen duplicating the famous painting by David of Napoleon on horseback — something which so doesn't fit Middle-earth! But does fit the J/B/W vision of it, in which Mortensen is The Star (TM) and rightful authority comes from killing things. I refuse any longer to refer to Viggo Mortensen as "Aragorn" because he only plays, again, Viggo Mortensen: his character in the film-trilogy bears no resemblance whatsoever to the book character in any of his several identities. "How a whiny, insecure pugilist stuck in a perpetual 20-something rut killed enough monsters to take over as warlord when all other leaders conveniently got themselves killed" should be the title of the film, really. (Frodo? Sam? Merry? Pippin? Who?)
2. Characterization and Plot Evisceration Continues
Last time, I focussed most upon the travesty that was made of the characters of Gimli, Théoden, Éomer, and the Orcs. This time it's Gandalf who most notably gets travestied — though upon my multiple viewings of TTT-M, I realized that it was already there, and only came to full fruition in ROTK-M — along with Denethor; and the old mischaracterizations are still (mostly) in full force, with a few exceptions. It is a sad thing when the best that one can say is that a character does not have much of a role, and thus is not so unbearable, in this installment.2
First, a few basic truths of storytelling, in any medium:
Increased screen time =/= stronger characters or better characterization. An oafish brute, or a simpering sap, given more screen time, does not become a hero or heroine thereby. Take note, those who praise Movie!Arwen.
Physical violence =/= strength of character. This is a masculinist trope, a macho convention that resurges eternally despite the best efforts of sages in every era, but really now, do we need at this late historical date to identify the inarticulate bully with the Hero or Heroine? Surely there has been enough wisdom written and passed down the millennia, and enough counter-examples of what happens, when the ability to beat people up is glorified over knowledge, self-restraint, and the ability to grasp the big picture. Regardless, the implausible bruiser who can clobber anyone, in a sophisticated plot such as those written by Classical dramatists, is never the strongest character in a drama. Ahab's strength as a character, both internally and externally to the reader, comes not from being the most physically fit crew member, but from his single-minded vision and the eloquence that allows him to impress this upon the rest of the Pequod's crew against all rational self-interest. Queequeeg's strength comes not from his fighting and hunting prowess, but from his generous nature, which contrasts so sharply with the "dangerousness" inherent in the stereotypes of "savage" that he seems to fill. It's Mordor leadership, to follow someone simply because he (or she) can hack up more people faster than you can.
Not every story is, or should be, a Bildungsroman.There are other forms of narrative out there. Some of them are even stronger than the Bildungsroman convention, in terms of dramatic power. (Such as, to name only one, the mature individual suddenly forced to confront challenges to their beliefs, or overwhelming odds, or even both at once, as when overwhelming odds destroy apparently-justified faith in one's own competence. I seem to recall something of the sort in those static old flops, King Lear and Oedipus Rex: obviously J/B/W can do better than Shakespeare and Sophocles at storytelling.) The story of a young man growing up is only one of many, many possible human (or other) experiences; it is not the only possible story, and it is really a story that requires a focus on one character, introspectively, where events are only important as they impact the focal character, over a fairly protracted length of time — not multiple characters in an event-driven plot which mostly takes place in a quite brief amount of time. Trying to force an "arc" (with "arc" defined in a very simplistic manner) on each and every character results in implausible personalities, bizarre behavior, and irrational plots.
Schizophrenia =/= character development. This is a corollary to the Bildungsroman rule. In order to create character conflict, as well as to move the plot along when they have got themselves stuck (again), the writers have resorted to making characters act so erratically that it's impossible to say when they're acting OOC, really. Memo #2: conflict should arise naturally from the integrity of the characters; having them all bip up and down like grasshoppers, having mature senior officers and leaders behave with the mercuriality of preschoolers, is most definitely an example of irrationality as per Aristotle. It fails to do anything but generate a synthetic urgency, it does not create drama — or art.
Making someone a victim does not make them a sympathetic character. This is how they solve the problem of Filmamir from TTT-M, btw. They don't give him any kind of intellectual or moral depth. (Did you really think they would?) It's kind of the corollary of the "puppy-kicking baddie" tactic for making nasty folks the heroes — make the people who are supposed to be the Bad Guys even more egregiously "mean," as Eddings and other second-rate writers do in a clumsy attempt at writing "depth." Turning someone completely faulos, completely passive and swept around by events and other people's cruelty, is a hack's way of generating sympathy, in pro fiction just as much as fanfic.
Gandalf the Grey could do pretty much anything, up to defeating a fire-demon from the Elder Days (if at the cost of his own life). Starting in TTT-M, and continuing full bore, we have a radical character shift, and not for the better: Gandalf the White can't even win an argument with a mortal king, and is reduced to bopping people with his staff, when he isn't whining about how hopeless it all is. This is all done in the interests of advancing a plot which shouldn't have been written, it seems. Théoden, weirdly enough, regains some of his intelligence and courage, though not equal to the books — and again, it doesn't make for any kind of rational character development. However, this is also done to enhance Viggo, who is given the role that belongs to Gandalf in ROTK of making strategy and encouraging them to keep up their hope in the Quest! Apparently the Wizard didn't come back from Beyond with greater abilities, a renewed sense of his own competence and conviction of his own mission, after all. I'm not even sure why the Powers bothered to send him back at all.
Denethor has been reduced to a drooling, bullying old idiot.. Played securely in the mumble-mumble-mumble tradition by John Noble, who can't act worth beans, nothing he does is even motivated by rational self-interest, let alone the disinterested commitment to the Greatest Good Of The Greatest Number which motivates book-Denethor, forcing him to difficult decisions and sometimes unpopular ones, but who nevertheless is a trusted and competent ruler whose people believe in him until, after overwhelming hardship their morale is finally worn down — and who, himself, only gives in to despair when Enemy disinformation makes it appear that his and his people's sacrifices have been in vain. The Noble Roman of the books is replaced by a cartoon villain. (Actually, given the moral depth and grandeur of anti-heroine Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, this is an insult to cartoons. I take that back…) The palantir of Minas Tirith is gone, and with it any pretense of making film-Denethor a rounded and intelligent character.
—Then again, is anyone really surprised, given how they trashed Théoden and the Eorlingas in TTT-M? All the people of Gondor are mindless, spineless idiots, to go along with their leader. Tolkien is sometimes attacked as "elitist" so let's compare and tally up: in the book, we meet, up close and personal through Pippin's eyes, not only nobles and senior officers, but also, in order of appearance, a dedicated field officer and his buddies doing last-minute barricade work, wary but decent; a common soldier of the guard, and his buddies from the mess-hall of Charlie Company, worried but friendly, and definitely competent; the soldier's young son, naively certain that his father and dad's friends can do anything, and Lord Denethor solve any problem; various other soldiers and support staff out and about the City who voice popular opinions; medical personnel, stressed, quirky, wrapped up in their own jobs and values, sometimes annoying — and completely heroic, staying in a situation from which there is no hope of Geneva Conventions if the defense of the City fails. (This isn't counting the allied lords and commanders whom we only encounter distantly, but who are taking part in all those off-stage high-level conferences that Gandalf is attending at Denethor's invitation.) That's five named characters, and numerous unnamed "extras" who all represent what is good and worthwhile saving about humanity, shown in courage and in terror both, to arouse our admiration and our empathy as witness to their ordeal.
Who do we meet in ROTK-M? Well, after film-Gandalf gallops rudely and inconsiderately through the too-narrow streets of Gondor, forcing civilians (who have not been evacuated) to scatter as if he were the evil Marquis in A Tale of Two Cities (and with no regard whatsoever for poor Shadowfax's legs and hooves—!) instead of walking sedately and decently through the stone city, like the civilized and intelligent being he is in the books, we meet — "Denethor," and a little later, "Faramir." No other citizens have any parts at all, except to look sad, panic, screech and run about under bombardment, and get killed in cartoonish ways. Anonymous spear-carriers, to a Man — the only people with speaking parts are Viggo, "Gandalf the White," Pippin (who actually gets some of his original lines and role back, finally); Legolas, Gimli, and Éomer get, I think, one line apiece after the battle of the Pelennor, in Minas Tirith, (and no interaction whatsoever with Merry or Pippin or Éowyn!)
—Who's more elitist, I ask you?
Arwen the Plucky Ranger Gal remains absent; Arwen the Weepy Wuss now becomes Arwen the Consumptive Victorian Maiden, as The Light Bulb Goes On and she suddenly realizes, thanks to a Mystic Vision, that she and Aragorn might have kids if they stay together. Wow! We finally get to see some of that wisdom that was mentioned in FOTR (the book) I guess, as Genius Arwen thus decides not to go West but to go home and guilt Deceptive Elrond (who never told her this could happen) into helping Viggo (and yes, the forging scene is as dumb as in the trailer, though not exactly as shown there, it has more sparkly effects) by up and dying on him, for reasons that make no sense at all and are never referred to again. They didn't even use the in-canon rationale of fading to try to justify it. Her health crisis is never referred to again, afterwards, and she never gets any more dialogue, after Saving Her Man By Getting Sick — just a kiss, like Lady in Lady & the Tramp. She doesn't wield any Arts here, or give any words of motivating force: she's completely passive, even in the reception of her Vision, which doesn't come as any excercise of Seer's power but in a gloomy zoned-out trance. But she gets to wear a pretty green dress at the Coronation, and play peek-a-boo before getting smooched! Classic Disney heroine, here — quite unlike the books. Yup, this makes her stronger than the original, no question. (You know, dressing her in red, and black, and blue, and in pretty much every color but grey, was a dead giveaway that they didn't understand her character from the outset…There was also at one point a sequence filmed with her being gloomy in Galadriel's garden, which might have been intended to show her looking in the Mirror to discover the Facts of Life, but that seems to have gone the way of so much else, in the chaotic flux of Jackson's filmmaking.)
Frodo continues his erratic behavior, impulsiveness, and gormlessness. Obviously, bearing the Ring makes you retarded. (I also have to say that upon repeated rewatchings, my initial good impression of how much better the Ringbearer sequences in TTT-M were, was largely due to comparison/contrast with the rest of the film, and doesn't hold up anywhere near as well when considered objectively.) Dourif is infininitely more plausible, as I have already noted, as a deranged mutant than as a normal halfling. Sean Astin's continued fine acting is completely undercut by Elijah Wood and poor direction/editing, and I can only imagine the amount of romantic threesome fanfic with Infantilized Weakling Frodo that will be justified by pointing to the movies…
Faramir does not improve, he becomes a non-entity who has, however, superhuman healing powers; at least, he can survive several different injuries at once, any of which is likely to be fatal.3 Éowyn's scenes are all significantly weakened, and the battle against the Witch-King is perfunctory, not at all magnificent and moving. (It's also, due to the ramping-up of the Fell Beasts from what are essentially light observation planes to Smaug-sized monsters, quite unbelievable.) And then she completely disappears. No resolution of all the build up with Viggo's flirting in TTT-M, or their earlier scenes. This has bothered some non-reader viewers, who complain bitterly about the lack of women, romance, and completion… (Just wait for the EE, goes the mantra.)
More noteworthy than simple "sexual tension," the loss of any sense that there are greater acts of heroism and courage than over-the-top medalworthy stunts of derring-do and physical action: the idea that it can be a harder thing, a greater challenge, and a more heroic action, just to get up and keep going, day in, day out, — to live — than to kill enemies or die gallanty, no matter in how worthy a cause, never occurs to J/B/W. It is interesting to me that this view is that of the combat veteran author, and not of the wargamer-fanboy director — for it seems a terribly modern view, reflective of the age of shellshock and PTSD, and the discreetly-ignored secret of the extent of depression, substance abuse, and even suicide among war heroes and survivors of captivity. (But of course, everyone knows that Tolkien was a fusty old Oxford professor — why, Philippa Boyens tells us so herself — and never cared at all about psychology or modern mindsets.)
Merry is minor. Éomer more so. He has no deep friendship with Viggo (and in fact, it's true that he was so unimportant to the filmmakers that they forgot to put his head on the stunt double at the end of TTT-M; I checked. But you have to freeze frame it fast, even in the widescreen, since he's so minimal.) And thus there is no sense of continuity, of the future, of a next generation of cameraderie and kinship and alliegiance stretching all over the Known World at the close of the War. Legolas and Gimli provide perfunctory comic relief. The Fell Beasts have bigger roles than the Lord of the Nazgûl. There are no enemy soldiers commenting profanely on the course of the War and the bum deal they got out of life. Saruman and Wormtongue are not resolved at all, especially after Saruman's powers were exaggerated from the books' in FOTR-M, with giving him the power to cause the storms on Caradhras.
The plot itself, however, is what suffers the most, though not separable from the character-mangling. There are no politics, no provinces, no allies and connections to raise Gondor above the most basic Generic Fantasyland setting.4 (Even Eddings has done better than this.) The timespace continuum is so elastic as to make no logistical sense at all. The strategy and tactics are AWOL again, so there is no challenge for the Rohirrim to overcome in getting to Gondor in a timely fashion, just as there is no logic behind their answering, not the Red Arrow (that would be too much complexity for J/B/W to handle, and require too much acting, too little hacking, on the part of the cast) but Pippin's Magic Beacons — since there is no Oath of Eorl, no pact nor family relationships between the two nations and their leaders. No Woses, either — nothing to mitigate the sense that non-reader viewers have that this is rather a racist story, really, with all pale northern Europeans as the Good Guys. (I have already addressed the problem of the Corsairs' mistreatment in my essay on Dromonds.) The Riders of Rohan — are we supposed to think they are brave, now, or merely sheep who follow their erratic King on futile kamikaze charges against AT-ATs? (I assume we are not supposed to be thinking, "Hey, that could never happen! The great thing about war-elephants was that horses wouldn't go near them unless raised with them, and so just putting an Elephant-And-Castle on the field was enough to keep cavalry away, and that's why the Men (not Elves!) of Gondor's provinces take them out by going up on foot and shooting them in the eyes, just like happened in ancient times, which is a feasible if risky commando tactic—")
The worst part of the film is the loss of the epic themes, the ethics and poetry and mystical aspects which are either hinted at or explicit in the books, and of these the worst of them is typified in the resolution to the Siege of Gondor. Just as, in TTT-M, the in-context plausible way of resolving the crisis was eschewed for something utterly impossible and illogical (the winner of the Aristotle Award for Improbable & Irrational Situation, the Ski-Slope Downhill Cavalry Charge Into Pikes That Miraculously Succeeds Without Broken Necks & Shish Kebabs At The End Of It), instead of having the Forest rising up against Saruman's army, the forces of Life however dangerous triumphing over Negation — we have an ex machina from hell coming to "save" the day in ROTK-M. Instead of Aragorn, with his family, coming with Arwen's blessing and affirmation just when it's most needed, going to enlist the aid of allies of various sorts and working like crazy to get there before it's too late, we have a completely different, and hackneyed, and H'wood setup where magicks and violence alone suffice.
This sequence, the Zombie Warriors, culminates in a scene which has been described as The Scrubbing Bubbles of the Dead, (which coinage unfortunately I cannot claim as my own, because it's darn accurate.) Now, I know that people are having a hard time remembering the books, especially through the filter of the movies — I see it in TORN Movie Board posts where people claim that there were no beacons in the books, or that Galadriel's transformation scene is exactly the way Tolkien wrote it, so if you don't like it, then it's JRRT's fault, so there! (I look at the Words, and I see no mention of Black Eyeballs, Watery Aquamarine Light, Brunhilda Armour, or Spoooooky!Sound Effects Voice anywhere on the page. I do see mention of dazzling starlight, blazing from her ring, and terrible beauty, evoking thoughts of empire and dominion via the dialogue alone — we must be reading different versions, I guess.) But it's really stretching it to claim that the Dead of Dunharrow (Erech? Was that even mentioned? The Dead "live" in an underground city ripped off of Petra) are in any way accurate to letter or spirit of the text. (It can be argued that though inept, Radioactive!Galadriel is at least a stab at the spirit of what her envisioning of her Fall would be like, becoming Goddess-Empress of the World.)
Now, there are all kinds of technical and logistical problems in the sequence, such as how Viggo, Orlando, and John got from Dunharrow to Umbar without any horses (unlike the books, all the horses run away and don't come back) but I suppose if Elrond can ride across mountains and hundreds of miles in a day or so, then they can run all the way to the coast in a couple hours. (Or they borrow zombie horses, I guess.) But those are really inconsequential, compared to the big problem at the center. And that is that there are no living Men to be rallied, no villagers, no fisherfolk, no POWs to free from the oars of the Corsairs' dromonds, no local lord to bring his own soldiers to the aid of Gondor — none of the rest of the people whose absence Pippin's companions in Gondor didn't lament after the arrival of allies which didn't happen in the movie. So, since they couldn't handle the politics of Middle-earth, J/B/W were forced to come up with some other solution to the problem. And that was to make the Dead utterly mundane.
Yes. I did call animated zombie warriors "mundane." Compared to the Otherness of the Dead of Erech in the book, they are.
Now, while there are various sorts of undead spirits in the Ardaverse, of varying degrees of ability and psychic power, the key thing is that in most cases their power is psychic. Even the Nazgûl, who do have some sort of "body" left, though apparently stuck partly in the other dimension, and can act in this one because of that though invisible, are mostly able to cause damage by psychic vampirism. Elven-ghosts who have been tainted by the Dark Side can try, and possibly succeed, to possess people, but there are no actual accounts of this occurring in narrative, only mention of the fact, and evocative uses of the word "fey" in situations where "possessed" would be apt. It isn't clear if human ghosts, without necromantic assistance, can manage anything of the like. The Barrow-wights seem to be more like traditional draugar, animated corpses from Scandinavian folklore, but like them they are tied to the grave-mounds, and not able to roam. (I have not got a reference, but I believe they may be not supposed to be human ghosts at all, but some of Sauron's own fallen Maiar followers, set to possess and guard the land so that no one would settle there after the wars over Eriador.)
Human ghosts, in the Arda mythos, do not seem to have physical presence at all, or nothing significant: they (like ghosts in this world) can extinguish flames, it seems — but that their only power over the living is that of fear, and mind-numbing confusion, is strongly indicated throughout the texts. —Recall that the benevolent ghost in the tale of Beren and Lúthien, Gorlim the patriot entrapped and tortured into betraying his companions by Sauron, cannot avert the consequences of his treason himself, nor carry out his own revenge on their enemy, but can only pass on the word of his fall to one dreaming, in hopes that Beren will be able to warn their friends in time. It is a living hand that must kill the Orcs who butchered their people, not a dead one.
But Jackson's Dead are mundane zombies, glowing green as if dipped in that goopy gel that used to be sold in toystores, all rotted and decaying as if they were mummies from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Viggo defeats their King in a swordfight, thus binding him in obedience. He doesn't use the mystical banner encrusted with mithril and gems in the emblem of the Sacred Tree, to recall them to moral duty along with the hope of freedom, the symbol of the Tree of Life, he just gets in a little scrap and once again, mundane violence solves the problem. (Yes, Anduril is a "magic" sword in that the others' weapons don't connect, but it doesn't even glow like Sting, fer cryin' out loud, and besides, that wasn't the point. There's no black-and-shining royal Standard at all in the Story.)
—Is the problem beginning to become clear now?
When they finally arrive at the Pelennor, after a battle that throughout has been all cartoonish, er, well, Indiana Jonesish, at least, and thus devoid of emotional power and impact (even the insanely impossible mumakil sequences are stripped of what small emotional impact they might have remaining with regards to the killing of the Riders, by Legolas and Gimli turning it into a dumb, corny joke), the corniness continues — and then gets worse. The Dead are all still there, in the Corsairs' junks, and emerge like a green tidal wave to take down the enemy forces, not by causing them to panic and be unable to fight back, but by "sucking the life out of them" on contact. They mow down all the Orcs and even the Oliphants, and then are released, but only after film-Gimli makes an ignoble assertion that they should go back on the promise to free them, because they're such useful fighters.
And so, without any living Men involved, except Viggo, the Day Is Saved (TM.) It's utterly conventional, and comes straight from H'wood's belief that the undead must be merely physical to pose any danger. How much differently would it be if handled in the manner of the books, where the Dead are Nightmare Waking, it's explicitly stated unlikely they can physically fight at all, Fear Itself is what overthrows the Corsairs, and the Dead must be freed because their power of terror is one which cripples all sides equally, so that the living humans may now take up the torch and finish what is only now coming full circle, as the bad karma of Erech is undone and the tormented realm set free of a little bit of painful history, so that the world can breathe free… (I'm not just being poetic, either. That was an explicit statement of a mystical linkage which is very strongly implied in LOTR.)
Note well: there is no Envinyatar in the story. There is no theme of a Springtime following a long slow Winter of the world, bitter at the beginning, but with a faint promise of hope and life for the future. It is the triumph of Death and Decay, in Jackson's vision of Middle-earth — not Life at all. There are, as well, no Houses of Healing, no affirmation of authority by healing ability, no finding of the seedling of the dead Tree to fulfill the protective role as living symbol of the divine-on-earth — apparently the old dead Tree comes back to life, somehow (at least it's covered with paper flowers at the end, according to the sharp-eyed, in a blink-and-you'll miss it way, noticeable if you go watch it four or more times.)
There are other problems — such as the fact that for all their Elf-fixation, J/B/W have no clue what's going on with the Elves in LOTR; and the muddle that's made of the Ringbearer's quest, and the reduction of the Armies of the West marching on Mordor into a bizarre last stand with no discussion, no challenges, no negotiation, and no logic to it; the removal of the Scouring of the Shire has the "it was all a dream" effect of the ending of the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz; Shadowfax does not go with Gandalf to the West, as he ought, but simply vanishes as an unimportant "extra"; perhaps most shockingly, there is no communal mourning at all in the film (the Rohirrim have a big happy party after Helm's Deep, for instance — contrasting most strikingly with the emphasis on recovery and funerals in the text, written as all ought to remember by someone who saw action on the Western Front, a place of mass graves, MIAs and mayhem, where the unknown dead are still unearthed to this day); — but the heart of the problem is that all the story, and all the characters, have been replaced with ugly substitutes.
Which is what you'd expect, really, from someone whose major contribution to the dialogue was a foul-mouthed monologue for Gollum, for a pop-music TV channel awards show…
Now, as for those who assert that the films could not have been made any closer to the books without being abysmal as movies and/or bombing, — what omniscience! I certainly do not pretend to such, myself. But I deny the assertion altogether, since I have seen quite a few movies which manage to, in the space of three hours or less, weave complex and multiple strands of intrigue, romance and powerful poetic themes together — and still fit in enough fights and battle scenes, to satisfy the taste for action — and do it well, too, in many varied ways. Seven Samurai, for one. El Cid for another. Prisoner of Zenda. Waterloo. The Cruel Sea. Princess Mononoke. Henry V. Ran. It is possible, I assure you.
3. Physical Impossibilities
Don't say "it's fantasy" as if that justifies all impossibles. That reduces LOTR to the level of a Roadrunner cartoon. Why not have "Gimli" run on the air for a little bit before doing a pratfall then? Why not have little birds and bells circling in the air over any character who gets hit, or little hearts over "Arwen" and Viggo at the coronation? Why not have the impossible catapults flip over and flatten their own crews, with ACME stamped on the side? I assure you, none of those would be any more out of place, or any more impossible, than the things which did happen in ROTK-M.
Here is a signal example, that of the in/famous "Beacon Scene." Some pretty pictures, rendered completely meaningless, by their impossibility. The scene in the books was apparently not exciting enough, when Gandalf, racing through the dark to Gondor, is spurred on to even more urgency by the line of beacons bursting into flame one by one in a lengthening chain down the opposite direction, followed almost immediately after by a group of couriers bringing the Red Arrow to Théoden. The beacons, as in the Primary World, are set on hills — not mountaintops, not peaks as of the Himalayas or the Swiss Alps, whereupon in broad daylight vast blossoms of gas-jet flame leap up instantaneously from piles of logs.
This is ROTK-M's version of the impossible Argonath statues, where the realistic upraised arms of the Kings are replaced with utterly impossible extended arms. (Look at any decent art book, you will find plenty of statues of figures with arms raised up to the shoulder, but few (surviving unrepaired at least) with extended arms, for a very good reason called gravity, and another very good reason called breakability. Stone is quite brittle, compared to wood or plastic.) In order to make the "drama" greater, the scene has been reduced to irrationality, rather than remaining a believable fantasy. We are even shown one beacon igniting above the clouds! How, pray tell, is that supposed to do any good to those below, and be visible to the people it is meant to summon? Let alone how it can burn, how its keepers can survive, in a zone of low oxygen and lower temperatures? (The situation, in which Pippin is obliged to scale a tower to light the beacon, is moreover one of laughable implausibility both in its execution and its setup. Definitely an Honorable Mention for the Aristotelian Improbability Award, if not a Bronze.)
But — it's all magic, it's fantasy, it's irrational, just the way stupid science fiction is dismissed by reviewers as "it's sci-fi, what do you expect?" Only it isn't supposed to be — this was billed to us after all as Lord of the Rings, not Dungeons & Dragons, or Indiana Jones, or Tarzan of the Apes, and in Middle-earth, miles are after all real miles, objects have to be carried by someone across a given distance, there are no teleport devices or Magic Bags of Holding, resources are limited to what is available and practicality dominates over histrionics — to the overall increase of drama, imo.
But there's an even less plausible scene, incredibly — one that violates biology and physics in a much more obvious and egregious way — ROTK-M's version of the Moria Orcs Swarming The Walls/Tottering Stair scenes in FOTR-M (something else which in retrospect should have been taken as a warning, not excused) and the infamous Ski-Slope Cavalry Charge Into Pikes of TTT-M. Or didn't you know, Frodo and Sam both have Mutant X superpowers? At least, they — unlike ordinary human beings, child-size or otherwise — can cling by one blood-slippery hand to a rock over toxic fumes, and haul by one hand, with nothing to anchor the lifter's body, a body of equal size up from that rock. A classic H'wood excess and exaggeration of the possible, amplified beyond all plausibility and possibility, turning what should be a terribly moving situation into a farce.
I'm not willing to hang, draw, and quarter my disbelief, I'm afraid.
4. Military Idiocy
As in TTT-M, the battles are insanely bad. The things that the Bad Guys do don't make sense. The things the Good Guys do, even less. Take the scene of the defense of Osgiliath. In the book, it's a debated tactic, but a defensible one, and one of hope: it is an attempt to hold the enemy up long enough to allow the Rohirrim more time to get there, acting on the assumption that they have gotten the summons and will answer it as soon as they can. In the film, it's translated into a random suicide raid with no hope of success, purely as a means for a Raving!Mad!Denethor to punish his son and kill off all his surviving cavalry. (Where Gondor got the heavy cavalry, since there is no Belfalas in this version of Middle-earth, and why they would need Rohan's light cavalry if they had a significant heavy cavalry at home, doesn't make sense either, except that they have no clue how to use their troops.) And that's just one of more significant stupidities. The taking of the Gates is turned into a minor castle scrimmage, not a major undertaking worthy of the history books. And the list would go on, only I have other things I have to address in this rant.
Don't say, "There are dumb things in history" as if that answered all objections, either. Every past historical blunder or CF has its surrounding factors which play into the fiasco, and if those are not in operation in this point in the history of Middle-earth, then the fact that someone else somewhere did this once is completely irrelevant. And no, most of them aren't in operation. Looking back at history, a lot of fiascoes come from the fact that a nation goes to war which hasn't gone to such a war in a generation or more, and has to reinvent the wheel all over again with inexperienced commanders who want to try to prove some favorite theory that they don't understand very well (which happened a lot in the US Civil War, and again in WWI and WWII.) That doesn't fit the model of Gondor at all, which has been fighting low-grade wars long before Sauron started rising again some decades back, and escalating ones ever since. If they were that incompetent, they'd have been mopped up long before Frodo ever set out to Rivendell.
I don't have room here to go into all the problems with the Siege of Gondor and its Raising as shown in the film. Actually, I probably wouldn't have room in a book to go into all the problems, but I'm working on a separate article entitled Sieges 101, which will cover the basics, not simply as a pan of J/B/W, but as a resource for the vast bulk of fanwriters who haven't a clue about ancient warfare (or modern, either) and what's really going on in those chapters, in small and in large.
The plain fact of the matter is that for all his claims of being a military history buff, if the films are anything to go by, what Peter Jackson knows about strategy, tactics and logistics — and politics, which is the bedrock on which war happens — could be written on my little fingernail. —Boromir, apparently, was the only warrior in Minas Tirith, (and in Gondor, because those are the same thing in the Jacksonverse version of Arda) and since he was the only one with half a brain, a spine, and the ability to fight, obviously the people of Gondor were right to panic immediately and run around like chickens with their heads cut off. Memo to the scriptwriters: people who have been fighting for survival for generations are a lot more efficient and effective than mobs of screaming civilians in a B-movie. They are aware of the need to do things like evacuate the front lines, they understand about urban warfare and guerilla warfare and camouflage and their armour is practical, not merely decorative.
Briefly, nothing in the defense of the city, or the Rohirrim riding to the attack, on either side, but especially the Good Guys', made any sense at all nor displayed any intelligence/initiative on the part of those involved. The events only exist to allow them to rip off, irrationally and implausibly, and explicitly, from other movies like Braveheart, and Empire Strikes Back. The Men of Minas Tirith couldn't win a game of Capture the Flag, and neither could Mordor. The only real question is, why did they even need that large of an army to take Gondor? They could have sneaked the Witch-king in disguised as a washerwoman, given the stupidity of the defenders, and had him open the gates from inside.
Not entirely coincidentally, all this Monty Pythonesque farce totally ruins the suspense and misery and drama which, in the books, is ready-made for a modern-warfare-style rendering of ancient warfare, the sort that has made so many other war films shine...
5. Beauty? What Beauty?
There were some pretty but flat travelogue pictures of mountains and a (too-small) model city. There was a pretty impressive but too highly-coloured scene of a haunted castle, which had perspective problems, undoubtedly caused by too heavy a reliance on CGI and indifference to Primary World realities. And there were some well-rendered but utterly-improbable giant beasts which served to add still more and multi-layered levels of implausibility to the film's "plot." There was nothing of the air of mystery, of ancient realms and more-than-meets-the-eye that was there to a great degree (as opposed to being brought by the willing viewer) in the first film, (but not TTT-M) — nothing of the xenicos, that quality of Otherness, the completely foreign and yet strangely familiar which Aristotle long ago picked up as the great attractive quality of fiction, particularly fantasy. I've seen more mystery and evocation in the land- and skyscapes of Imax documentaries, than in the uninspired camerawork of ROTK-M.
And the music was not great, either. I am not the only one to find it flat, either, even those who have raved about the previous scores (which I did not) and like this one, still concede it below par by comparison. (When people are saying "you have to listen to it 3+ times and then it will start to grow on you," — guess what, the Emperor isn't wearing Magic Cloth, folks. Music, like other aesthetic experiences, either works or it doesn't. If you have to make yourself appreciate it positively, out of a sense of moral obligation, then it isn't working. There are many composers whose complex and rich compositions require multiple listenings to grasp, but Howard Shore ain't Beethoven, or even Wagner.) There was more of the same bland brassy chordal blare, no uses of silence any more than there was use of stillness in the visuals and and no alternation between bombast and something else.
There was no meaning, no aural irony — the "Shire Theme," one of the few immediately recognizeable themes, is pretty — no more than that, but a pretty tune, and yet it was entirely worn out and vitiatied — and worse yet, served to suck the life out of a scene that thanks to Sean Astin, could otherwise have been quite moving despite all the previous wreckage. But by the second or third cheesy blast of the Shire Theme, unmitigated, not transformed into a minor key, or used as a haunting, thin wistful backdrop to the earthquake rumbles of falling Mordor, not only has all emotion been drained into something hackneyed and more forced than anything in a Spielberg kids' film (and I never thought to write that!) but the employment of the "Tara Theme" in GWTW has been shown to be subtle and underused, by comparison at least. (Contrast ROTK-M's with John Williams' scores to Star Wars and Indiana Jones, where the themes themselves are given variation in key and orchestration, as well as being individually discernible and attuned to the events and characters they accompany. Is anyone, twenty years from now, going to be humming the Witch-King's March before an unpleasant office meeting, or whistling the Viggo Mortensen Theme when they feel cheerful?)
It doesn't work particularly well as accompaniment, which is what film background music is supposed to do, and it doesn't have the integrity to stand on its own as a free-standing composition; it has its "moments" but moments do not a long-lasting-overture make. I was reminded of the monotonous but urgent scores usually played to accompany silent movies, which were rushed to production so fast that they did not have time for proper scores and got generic keyboard accompaniment. Pippin's song wasn't nails-on-the-blackboard bad, but it was overloaded with instrumental bombast, far too over-amped (the fact that Shore has no background in either Early or Folk Music, or small acoustic group performance5 either, but in rock originally, is as much in evidence as his lack of filmic experience with High Romance; he seems to think that Riverdance Generic Celtic is appropriate anywhere and everywhere to represent things Olde.) As for the scene itself — words cannot express how awful and inappropriate that was; but that had little to do with the score.
As for the closing song Into the West (which is not part of the score proper) it did not move me: yes, it was mostly taken from Tolkien's verse, but the melody was unmemorable, and I've never been a Eurythmics fan, and an Annie Lennox solo is not something I'd ever pay good money to hear. Unlike Mummer's Song, which when used in the Ever After trailer, caused numerous listeners to rush out and become Loreena McKennitt converts (I already was one, or I would have as well) this was just as bland as the rest of the film and its music, and again I've read of people "training" themselves to like it, which does not augur well for its integral aesthetic power.
6. The Weightlessness of the War
Everyone says, "Well, at least the special effects were great." Actually, they weren't. In a movie, SFX should not be set-pieces in themselves, as if this were a circus where the whole point of the show was a surprising effect. They should simply be there to make the impossible possible and probable — that which is impossible due to cost limitations, or safety concerns, or because they are depicting things which do not and cannot exist in our dimension, so far as we know. And they should not be obviously fake. Now, I myself am not good at noticing things that others have pointed out — how, at Helm's Deep, the fake CGI soldiers sometimes intersected each other, or were intersected by the real characters, as if they were ghosts, for instance. That's just me; I focus on the story, and effects as supporting or failing that, until/unless a movie or play utterly loses me. Things like stuff appearing out of nowhere, or not behaving as it ought, are what set my antennae quivering. —Things like solid blocks of rock crumbling like sugar cubes, or brontosaur-sized elephants manifesting as if beamed down, on an open plain...
But both these kinds of errors are indicative of a greater problem which I have come to the conclusion is both cause and effect of CGI effects: a lack of understanding, in the bone, of the Primary World. A loss of touch with reality, one might say, that makes even the realistic seem fake, and the fantastical improbable, instead of merely impossible. Consider the fact that the catapults are physically impossible in the way they throw their payloads, the size of the projectiles, and what happens when they hit the walls of Minas Tirith — and the consider the fact that all this can be determined very easily, by consulting a few children's books and those people who have actually built and used working catapults, in the Primary World. Sure, they may look impressive on screen — to viewers who don't know anything about mass/velocity/ballistics, or rocks. It doesn't take being a rocket scientist to know this, either: all it takes is a little information and a lot of common sense. How can a wooden engine throw something which has got to weigh as much as itself, any distance at all without collapsing? How can a counterweight that is so small throw something so much larger any distance?
Energy doesn't come out of nowhere, not even in fantasy, not even magical energy. (The Witch-king's power is Sauron's death-magic, frex, which he is channeling, enhanced by his victims' fear.) Rocks are heavy — I know this from moving them around in gardening, that's all. But it's very easy (particularly with the 'net!) to find out just how heavy and do rough geometric calculations, and that blocks the size of the ones in the movies would weigh over ten tons. It doesn't take any specialized knowledge, other than looking at books on castles, to realize that those wallstones wouldn't crush like icing sugar, or punch in like Lego bricks. One doesn't need to be an architect to realize that the bits of arches, like gingerbread houses, being thrown by catapults, are something you'd never see in this world or any realistic analogue of the same. It doesn't take any rarefied education beyond a National Geographic or Nova special to know that the larger a mammal, the more heat it produces, and thus African elephants need larger ears (which function as the vanes of radiators) to disperse their body heat — yet the big-as-brontosauri "mûmakil" in the movies have ears that are proportionately smaller than those of Asian elephants. They'd die from overheating before they even moved. And anyone who has ever dealt with dogs, or horses, let alone elephants, should be able to tell what was wrong with the "Éomer takes down two, thus proving his heroism" scenario. Believe it or not, Legolas' mûmak-surfing scenario was not the most implausible part of the "Pelennor Fields" sequence in ROTK-M; it was actually fairly believable, all things considered. (It just didn't fit with the tone of grimth and grandeur that is proper to LOTR, is all. In an Indiana Jones movie, it would have been fine.)
But look at the battlefield supposedly after the Siege of Gondor. Ignore the fact that Minas Tirith is revealed here to be not all that much bigger than Krak des Chevaliers instead of a great city, that they have not even bothered to give it a paved road, let alone the grand causeway, only a pony track, and concentrate on the foreground and middleground ground. Since no clear time scale is kept in the films, it could be anywhere from a few days to a week in the elastic continuum of the PJ-verse, but no more than that. Does it look like a major battle was just fought there?
I read someone on a board justifying this pristine state by saying that the citizens of Gondor (all 300 of them, I guess) must have cleared up all the corpses right away. Leave aside the plausibility of that, the amount of gruesome work that is involved in battlefield cleanup, and the research into such things that could be done fairly easily to establish parameters — Have they never seen the state of a field after people have been playing contact sports, or horses have been running about, or cattle? Even if they haven't looked at a single example of war photography (of which the last century and a half have alas! given us all too many examples) surely simple common sense, and a moment's reflection on how fast a turf lawn can be damaged or demolished by careless feet, ought to reveal that after having had tens of thousands of people, horses, and monsters roaming all over it, dragging heavy things across it and setting fire to them, no stretch of ground before the walls ought to have even a blade of grass untrampled! It ought to look as though it had, well, been through a war, after days of siege and pitched battle.
And Grond — don't let me get started on what was wrong with movie-Grond, the "Hammer of the Underworld" in design and construction. There was nothing possible or plausible about that battering ram. What was keeping all those vertical posts together? Those flimsy little angled crossbars certainly wouldn't do it. At the first swing, all those unstable sticks would have collapsed: there's no proper trusswork to hold them stable, they're like the posts of a fence that isn't finished. The chains themselves would never support that amount of iron. And what self-respecting battering ram has a hollow head? Answer: none. An "aries" was made of solid oak and metal, because anything like that lantern-structure would have smashed in at the first blow, even against wooden doors, along with the cute, useless little claws. It might have looked spooky, that jack-o'-lantern, but it certainly wouldn't have been scary. Not against a realistic Gondor, as written, with massive iron gates and even-more-massive walls, rather than a pretty church-facade porch entrance. They also missed, according to both the image onscreen and the commentary I have read, the symbolism of the totem adorning Sauron's secret weapon: by muzzling and chaining the Wolf, and bragging about how it should look as if it were trying to break free from its chains, as it is swung, it is clear that they are unaware that Sauron would never represent himself by a Wolf enslaved — his symbol is meant to be that of a Wolf triumphant and unhindered, driving through the defenses of his opponents as he himself once tore through the North of the lands that are gone…
And it was entirely too small. Grond, as written, was a plausible attempt to take down the Atlantean-designed and built fortifications (which, as I have said and will keep saying until forcibly prevented, were so strong according to the book that only a major earthquake could have damaged them). It was also possible: book-Grond is described as being a hundred feet long, and there really were a few rams built in antiquity that size. They were mounted in structures of mobile siege towers, they carried their own artillery banks for defense, and they had armour all over to keep off fire-arrows and/or commando raids, which were what the people inside the cities for the sometimes-years which sieges in the ancient world typically lasted did instead of running around waving their hands. It would have looked, with Sauron's improvements, like the War Machine From Hell that it was — a siege engine designed by the firm of Daedalus, Da Vinci and Bosch. —Not a wolf-o'-lantern on popsicle sticks. But in the imaginary, utterly fictive "Middle-earth" of J/B/W's vision, the Great Gates crush in without even needed a necromantic blast of channeled power, let alone three, and there is no triumphal conqueror's entry through the arch, like the one Kaiser Wilhelm dreamed of making into Paris, any more than there is an interrupted duel between the Lord of the Nazgul and the "most dangerous" person, after Sauron, in the world.
Part of this unreality I think is due to the "video game mentality" wherein nothing is real, only rendered, and so there do not have to be even physical if deceptive props in large part to compel the creators — and viewers — to contact the brute physical reality, in all its intransigence. (Most unlike stage experience!) Stuff is stuff; you can do anything with pixels, but stuff takes up space, even when you don't want it to. And it's heavy, and often has hard edges, or is breakable, or else isn't breakable, inconveniently so. Props must be manhandled around the set, people must move around them and deal with them, and then when one gets to animals and the outdoors, it becomes even more complicated. Only moviemakers who did not know much about animals would have thought the Ski-Slope Scene in TTT-M was either plausible or possible; the same, with the addition of history, is true of the mûmakil scenes in ROTK-M. Only people who do not know much about mountains, and fire, could have thought that those beacons were at all realistic, or even possible. But of course, with digital imaging software, all one has to do is tilt the horizon, paint in imaginary Oliphaunts behind pictures of running horses, or impose a silhouetted flame on a shot of a mountain-top. No inconvenient realities need apply.6
Then we get to the flimsiness of so much of the sets and props that were manufactured, how they do not stand up to scrutiny as real artifacts. One thing which struck me very strongly after TTT-M was how much better costumed the fans and reenactors in the line party were, than those who portrayed the people of Rohan. I began to wonder if this is partly due to a problem with having been filmed and made "Down Under" — trying to find much in the way of permanent ancient and medieval art exhibits in New Zealand brought me up zip. Likewise for Australia. The traditional arts of the Pacific are very dissimilar to those of ancient Europe and the Middle East, or northern and central Asia: they emphasize wood and fiber (and other organic materials like shell-inlay and bone) in a unique way which is easily recognizable and do not employ stone or metal to anything near the extent or in the same styles as Continental cultures. Without easy access — which is as possible in the US as it is in Europe, thanks to the robber barons of the 19th century and their wives, who raided the decaying cloisters and chapels of the Old World to establish their own legitimacy in their eyes, like Visigoth chieftains incorporating Roman elements into their new halls — to the actual physical objects, to see (even, occasionally, touch) great carved blocks of stone, or tiny filigree leaves of pure gold, to absorb the effects of weathering and wear on solid granite, and marble, and limestone; to realize that within the details of carving and casting there are further details of engraving and enameling, delicacy within delicacy, on statues, on the weapons and armour of "barbarian" warlords, as much as on the jewelry of their queens — any artistic copying or emulation is likely to come off as tawdry, unreal, fake.
—Such as the artifacts in LOTR-M. The costumes of the main characters, the ones that J/B/W thought important, are generally much better (embroidery is easier to get "right" it seems) — but the level of artistic quality and especially solidity to the non-jewelry objects, such as Boromir's horn, all the armour in the Siege of Minas Tirith, and the crown of Gondor — and anything supposed to be made out of stone, particularly marble — was very poor, and hence unbelievable to me, an art student with a childhood spent in museums. The "ruins" across Eriador were the first thing that really started bothering me, because they were so improbable for ancient stone ruins: they looked like a model-builder's copy of 19th-c "follies" based in turn on gothic fragments of chapels; they did not look at all like the remnants of old castles and fortifications after a thousand years. Thin, tall gothic arches are the first things to go; other structures, even neglected remain solid, unless pulled apart and cannibalized for materials afterwards. The Acropolis, after all, only reached its ruined state, including the loss of its marble roof, by the explosion of munitions three hundred years ago.
—But, as with so many flaws in FOTR-M, I happily overlooked them in the general enthusiasm. I have already spoken of the Argonath statuary. The ruins of Osgiliath were more of the same, along with the impossible artillery factor, and in Minas Tirith the statuary, and the great hall itself, the center of the realm, was far more majestic in its concept art than it was in its realization (q.v. the book The Art of ROTK) — it looks like a minor basilica, not an audience hall for a great realm, however much in decline, and the statuary like plaster, like cement, like something that would be gotten at a more expensive garden center, not found in a museum. It's possible, with care, and especially knowing what the real thing looks and feels, and even smells like, to make even stage props "feel" true, whether they are supposed to be stone, or wood, or metal, or anything else. —The quality of the rendering of sets, in terms of grandeur, solidity, and a sense of history, has been far superior in the Star Wars prequels, I'm sorry to have to say. Naboo looks far more like a majestic Rome-via-Atlantis than does the City of the Númenóreans.
But the crown — which should have had far more quality and effort devoted to it than any of Galadriel's jewelry (!) having so much more screen time than her ring, which is hardly visible in the text at all except as an Effect — looks like something made of brass and tin to be used in a school play. Don't believe me? Look at some real ancient goldwork in art books. Even if they were not going to follow the description in the book at all, they could have come up with something more rich and plausible than a bit of engraved brass and tin with shoe-black on it. —I know I could, at least, even without the resources of a film company to draw upon.
And were there so few reenactors in the ranks, that they could make howlers like the one in the Art of ROTK book, wherein a production artist explains that he'd designed a Rider's cape to have an elaborate embroidery design on the back because he envisioned it as a Rohirrim family heirloom, passed down for generations! How many misunderstandings and how little familiarity with historic costume design are betrayed there — yes, fabric was kept until it wore out, but recycled into other things (unless becoming burial goods.) A cloak worn in battle, particularly a wool one, would hardly have lasted in its present shape for generations — and the idea that embroidery would only have been expended on something meant to last for generations reveals a lack of understanding of the psychology of past generations: humans have decorated everything, even things meant for transience, like sacrificial offerings, or stage sets, or festival floats. The embroidery itself might have been done as a patch that could be transferred from garment to garment as the base fabric wore out (this is attested), but the original cloak would not have survived hard use. This is something that the most cursory attempts at researching historic costume, or an art history book, or a trip to a good museum will reveal: clothes are the least-lasting and rarest of artifacts (which makes the field of ancient recreation a most interesting and contended one) as they are the most fragile of materials, even more so than leather or wood.
Again, more of that lack of contact with the real world, the workaday world outside modern sheltering technology, where clothes don't grow on hangers in shops, and things wear out — but not all at the same rate! (Think about it: if those stones that they built with were so flimsy as to disintegrate like sugar, then how could those ruins in Eriador and Osgiliath — or the city itself! — have lasted so long without eroding into dust? Even sandstone, one of the most light and fragile of rocks, doesn't crumble that easily. Suppose a fully-loaded wain had hit one of those walls? They did, you know; ancient traffic jams chewed out hub-shaped holes in solid Roman marble over a span of thousands of years. )
But even if there is a dearth of antiquity available for examination by artists recreating an imaginative ur-Rome, in NZ, this mitigating factor does not apply to John Howe, trained and resident in Europe, and a medieval reenactor to boot, nor to Alan Lee. One does wonder how much influence they really had on the production...
8. Directorial Ineptitude
Why am I spending so much time on the technical aspects? Well, it was obvious from TTT-M that we purists should not have forgiven so much, bent so far over backwards in our eagerness not to be prejudiced zealots, at the release of FOTR-M, and made so many excuses for its failings. By the end of TTT-M, it was clear that in a film created by people with no love of language, no respect for the source material, and a faith in/love of darkness and selfishness instead of beauty or honour, that technique was going to be all we could hope for. Not acting, not the grand speeches, not the tense, tightly-woven coherent storyline of the books, in any way shape or form — but maybe some good visuals, yet. And those are, of all things, the easiest parts of a production to get right. Tone, acting, pacing are much more intangible and difficult to get right; but theatregoers are all too familiar with lackluster performances adorning spectacular sets. It isn't that Aristotle is wrong, that the Words are unimportant in a play, that the fact that say, the spiderwebbing was so glutinously inauthentic is more grave an issue than the desecration of principal characters — but that one takes what one can get, and looks to those things that have a hope of success, the music and the "spectacular effects."
Even some of the films' staunchest defenders have admitted that the camerawork and editing are in a word, bad — that the camera jerks around and holds unevenly, that the pacing and edits are uneven, but "the rest of it makes up for it." If all these excuses keep having to be made, how can either the films or their director be held up as the Greatest of the Century? And if that's the best we're going to get, I'm never going to the movies again, thank you, I'll work on catching up with the classics that are only now being released on video, which should last me.7
In LOTR, J/B/W had handed to them a script simply loaded with suspenseful events, and the options to make them even more so by judicious intercutting and other screen tricks. They wasted them all. After blowing the chase scenes in TTT-M — how can you blow chase scenes? — it isn't a surprise that they can't handle suspense and try to generate it with grue and loud dissonant music, but still — it was something of a surprise to read the following admission from an interview:
Q: Why does Frodo banish Sam in the movie?
A: Sure, it doesn't happen in the book but screenwriter Philippa Boyens says the book wasn't spectacular enough on this point.
"The reason Frodo turns Sam away is what would happen to that story if he didn't do something?" she asks. "You would have a very long climb up the stairs and then you would have Sam getting lost in the tunnel, which happens in the book, which is not dramatic."
Now, I seem to remember any number of Hitchcock films in which walking down a dark hallway is the height of nailbiting suspense. —But then, Hitch earned his cameos. —Unlike Jackson who even spoiled a well-animated Shelob by forgetting the horror-movie's first principle: never show all the monster, ever. The Beowulf poet knew this; Alien succeeded because of this, while the sequels fell by ignoring it. Here we definitely have a case of inserting irrational elements to move the plot along, supposing the audience to be too dull to comprehend a story without additional action, and the work of most inferior poets indeed!
Then, by his own admissions, the whole thing was a mad scramble at the end to get it together, so much so that Jackson never saw the final product until the opening night of the premiere, because they were still fussing with the special effects. Folks, they had seven years to do this. They set the deadline themselves. They made so many changes and screw-ups along the way that they were doing repeated reshoots all along — it can't be blamed on the inherent difficulty of the project, when you add in new plotlines replacing the original storyline, then rip them out and replace with yet other new plotlines, replacing the given (and rational) plot of the epic you are adapting and then have to redo the SFX several times. Sergei Bondarchuk's legendary (if somewhat controversial) version of War & Peace, up till now perhaps the longest film to make, and the most expensive, only took seven years and is more than six hours long.
I laugh when I read people claiming that Rings is the film standard to which all others will be held, that Jackson's battles "out-Kurosawa Kurosawa" and the rest of it. Objectively — forget the fact that it is the first complete film adaptation of your favorite book, and consider it as a movie — is it really better as a production than Lawrence of Arabia,8 which only took some two years to complete? Is there anyone in LOTR-M whose acting ability can stand up to comparison with Sir Alec Guiness, Omar Sharif, Claude Rains? Is there anything in it which compares to the magnificent music-accompanied sweeps of sky and land, the moment when they reach the Sea, the vindicating interactions at HQ, the heartbreak of the detonator, the train battle, the tragedy of the failing hero at the end? —Be honest.
Jackson gave himself cameos all over the place, only removing his own several minutes of sword-fight scene from ROTK-M after having decided to give Lee's Saruman the heave-ho (and such an insult to someone who is truly a legend in fantasy and film is particularly gratuitous, given what Jackson decided to replace him with) — but already having given himself the luxury of appearing at Helm's Deep and at Bree, in what ought to have been a warning as so much else: belching directly into the camera at the audience, as he turns the homely town of Bree into a haunted house. Then there are the magical teleporting Jackson-Walshes, his and his colleague's children also turning up everywhere from Hobbiton to Rohan to Gondor. This is self-indulgence, and prima donna behaviour, and inexcusable. An artist's first concern should be his art: not silly prancing and coy in-jokes before the camera, but the material being recreated, is his proper concern.
If he had been less concerned with playing barbarian and pirate — it still would have been a mess, because he can't pace, has no eye for a scene, and didn't care for the mystery and beauty and history that is the soul of LOTR.
Moreover, the claims by apologists that "the EE will fix it all" — including plot incoherencies — are belied by Jackson's own repeated declarations that the TEs are the definitive and proper, and that all the rest is just put in as a sop to book-lovers, who are the only ones who will care.9 Either the films stand on their own, or they do not. To claim that they must be seen as the preliminary to a full version, indicates that they do not, and is a form of legerdemain equal to that of those on the TORN boards who claim that reviewers who were baffled by the dropping of plot strands and the non-sequiturs of the film, and the stupidity of main characters, have no right to complain if they have not read the books. (!) —Now, either the changes were "necessary" to make the books work on film, in which case no recourse to the books can legitimately be made to explain them, or they were not; and if they are not intelligible without recourse to the books, then they simply do not work as adaptations.
But there has been a tremendous amount of legerdemain going on all throughout in the promotion/production of this film trilogy...and not the right sort, the illusions of a master magician, either. What do I mean by legerdemain? Well, there's been the declarations they were trying to be faithful, because Tolkien was such a great author; then contradicting ever more, as it became clear that their apologists would excuse and defend whatever change they made, bending over backwards to come up with rationalizations, until now they hardly are willing to credit LOTR for being a readable story. There was the original declaration that the Voice of Saruman as well as Shelob were being moved to ROTK-M, because there was supposedly not enough material in ROTK to make up a three-hour movie, it being the shortest of the books.
Oh, but now, surprise surprise, they couldn't make it fit. And they couldn't make anything else fit, either. The politics, the strategy, the personal interaction between friends and foes, all sacrificed to — what? Mûmak-surfing and the Scrubbing-Bubbles-of-the-Dead. Not enough material in ROTK, faugh!
There's more legerdemain in the way that things were put into the trailers, the exhibits and into careful discussion by the cast and crew, to make it sound as though they were going to be better than they were. Those things, the lines and scenes that were in the rapidly-downloaded and repeatedly, obsessively watched trailers, or in the pre-release stills, instill themselves into the mind and create the illusion that they are there, somehow, when watching the film — even when what is on screen is much flatter, as happened demonstrably with ROTK-M. (Gandalf's confrontation with Angmar, Éomer finding his family on the battlefield, Aragorn's speech, much worse in actual delivery than the trailer, to name a few.) Or the commentary talk about the Ents — Boyd and Monaghan say all the right things about how Treebeard is this wise character who represents so much, but that isn't what J/B/W actually gave us.
Or the fact that the photos of Edoras' sets and props were widely distributed even for those who could not make it to the advance exhibits, and the trailer clips were undistorted by digital bleaching and thus we were primed to think that the film itself would be as rich as those glimpses — mistakenly, as it turned out; but the residual impression remained for many, at least until they went to the exhibit again and were dismayed at how much better things were than what we got on screen, — which is usually the reverse in film and stagecraft: the props are supposed to look better on film or under the spots, not worse! (It's also a matter of self-indulgence to expend more resources on the props and sets and costumes than on the storytelling and acting: theatre fans are all too familiar with the problem of extravagant sets and lackluster casts, and the former never adequately makes up for the latter. That SFX and all the rest of the visuals and audio are second to The Words and how the actors read them, is as true today as it was in ancient Athens.)
Another example of legerdemain is found in the claim, oft repeated by apologists, that the films are a unity because they were all filmed at once. Well, if they were all filmed at once, that's the most creative definition of "at once" I've yet to hear. What about the years' worth of retakes, reshoots, new dialogue recorded and inserted, the general reworking of all manner of sequences? And in consequence, there is more chaos and lack of continuity in this trilogy than in anything I've yet seen. TTT-M has only been out for a year and a little, and already it has racked up more continuity errors, things like discontinuities of costume from line to line in a supposedly-single-scene, than a quarter-century of us fans nitpicking at Star Wars! (http//www.moviemistakes.com)
And claiming that it was a risky venture, that Jackson and New Line were taking a tremendous risk in the project (and thus implying that we have a moral obligation to be grateful) is also a bit disingenuous. Making a film based on a classic book, one which has remained as few have continuously in print for nearly half-a-century, all around the world, perhaps more widely read than Scripture, beloved by generations of readers, and which itself was guaranteed to bring in viewers simply to critique it — a risk? When I compare the problems — all self-created — in producing LOTR-M, with the history of filming epics, adaptations or otherwise, from the past, I shake my head. Huston took risks, Kurosawa took risks, Lean took risks, their studios took risks — but that there was risk involved in making a long special-effects laden movie post-Indiana Jones, full of medievalesque battles, post-Braveheart, and packing in extraneous romance, post-Titanic — really now!
So eventually we may get some straight stories, after all the hype has faded, and maybe I will be able to collect some bets then, but really it doesn't affect the end product or my response to it: that stands or falls on its own, and the rationale behind it is irrelevant, just as the stories of on-set and screenwriting chaos behind Casablanca may or may not be legend or truth, but do not make it any less of a masterpiece.
Jackson was sold to us as an independent, and is defended as such — but he's as cliche and stereotypically H'wood in his direction as anyone based in California. In fact, he makes Steven Spielberg look restrained and understated in terms of bathos or emphasis on action. Now, I keep reading the choices to eviscerate the plot and characterization being defended by supposed book-fans as "necessary" to make the films work as films. When was the last time you heard someone argue that a film was improved by being dumbed down? Or a character, by taking out all his conflict and depth? Or that a plot was made stronger by taking out all the options that make for uncertainty and therefore suspense? Yet this is argued every day, by people who apparently have never seen a decent adaptation or a decent war movie — I have even read one post which said, quite without irony, in all misspelt sincerity, that Gimli was stronger in the films, not a "cardboard cutout" as in the books. This is typical of a school which is becoming known as "revisionist" in opposition to "purist", and its adherents typically trash the books (often with bad grammar and worse spelling) with poor recollections and careless, superficial readings being used to defend J/B/W as "improving" on the original — not to mention demonstrable ignorance of history, logic, and other Primary World realities. I am not impressed by the bulk of the films' defense, I fear.
If the cuts/changes were really necessary to make the films intelligible [sic] to the lowest common denominator, then the films cannot be defended as a pinnacle of art. (Any more than if they truly were foisted on J/B/W by New Line, as many apologists aver, with no evidence whatsoever but wishthink afaik.) It's that simple. Can't have it both ways. —But they weren't, they were necessary to make it a simple-minded action film, because neither PJ nor his accomplices have the foggiest idea of what makes a good story with well-rounded mature, intelligent characters and a complex plot. And the average movie-fan has no idea of what does, either. Would it have necessarily flopped, however, if it had been done right, or better, as the TORN revisionists declare? Not at all. Intelligent films with epic visuals and moral conflicts have been notable successes, because instead of simply feeding the audience the swill which they are used to, they give them something rich and strange, something challenging and beautiful and more.
10. So What?
There are many, imo fulsome, warnings online to bring kleenex for the tears you will shed. Tears? If I had shed any, it would have been for the waste of opportunity, and the mockery of the original. Any chance at nobility or on-screen grandeur residual from the original materials was wiped out by the surrounding botchery and the pounding obviousness of it. It's just mediocre-to-bad fanart, and I feel no moral obligation to praise it, enjoy it, or spend any more money on it — or to refrain from criticizing it, either, any more than I do anything else. If they were an amateur theatrical group, with no budget and unprofessional performers, I'd cut them some slack. But a professional, financially-backed commercial film? I'm supposed to give them "A+ for effort", a guilt-inspired pity-pass to boost their little self-esteem, as if it were a kindergarten talent show? That's one quality that from all interviews, none of those involved are lacking in the least — some might even consider J/B/W guilty of hubris, to put it mildly.
This was a self-indulgent film by a director with not an ounce of romance or poetry in his soul, no experience in adaptation, no experience in high adventure, no subtlety, no sense of quiet personal interaction, no competense at suspense, no love of beauty — and a script adapted by people who missed the soul of the book entirely. Where the blame actually lies, in specific, will probably take a few years to be revealed: we are not getting anything like straight stories right now, since we are not even getting consistent ones from the people involved.10
Now that we have seen the conclusion, I can safely say that no, it didn't work as a unity, and yes, it has damaged the credibility of the books in the eyes of non-readers who have only seen the movies and are trusting fan assurances that they accurately reflect the originals. (Why shouldn't they? Fans say so, after all.) Thinking, sensitive viewers who are put off by the celebration of killing and battle and the incoherence of plot and character will never know that the themes of healing, restoration, mercy and love were so egregiously stripped out of the story — why should they, having been so repelled by the films, be inspired to go to the books? And the non-reader fans who are simply enthralled by big bangs and hewing are repelled when they do try to read the books, finding them "boring", not surprisingly. I know that I would never have read the books, if the films were my first exposure to Tolkien. A good adaptation, however, carries enough of the flavour of the original to lure the viewer to want more, and to ensure that they will find it when they do go to the source; and enough of the concrete details of the original, along with its spirit, not to repel a reader who comes to it with continual jolts of incongruity. But this will merely taint the perceptions of those who come to the books after — there are no impressions like first impressions, after all — and has indeed caused a troubling shift and inability to read the books without the film-prism's coloration to several readers at least that I have read. It is no mere chronological accident, in the books, that we meet Galadriel herself first, before encountering Éomer and the Riders' dim views of her.
Some book-fans can perform a form of legerdemain on themselves, whereby they substitute the feelings and logic of the original whenever the screen version fails — more power to them. I can't, and don't see why I should, either. I go to films and live productions to be overwhelmed by audiovisual mastery and to appreciate someone else's talent, not to do the work myself. Otherwise there's no reason for me to pay good money from my limited resources to do so, when I can create far more competent versions of the same in my imagination. The idea that I have some moral obligation to make myself like or praise or appreciate the little scraps of quality in a welter of wretchedness, because the production team "worked so hard on it," is laughable to me.
Perhaps this is the consequence of being a theatre fan long before I was a film fan: the idea that any one adaptation is The Perfect Version and The Best Of All Possible Versions, and cannot be criticized, is beyond absurd to opera goers and playgoers. The sets may be better here, the vocalists superior on that occasion; the enthusiasm of this actor painful in its contrast with his ability; the conductor simply incompetent; bad swordfights, but great soliloquies; this avant-garde setting may be utterly foolish, but that updated setting superb; the choice to cut this speech or that may or may not work, the interjection of jugglers and nudes prove bizarre and distracting, but an actor in a minor role may become the bright light of a given production; of course there are options, and different visions, and some of them work better, some worse, some fail utterly, some are so overall-superb that one walks away speechless. Thank goodness that Lawence Olivier's wretched Henry V didn't stop anyone else from trying again (how can one possibly make "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!" dull!?!? — but he did) and yet, while Branagh's 1989 version may end up becoming the definitive film treatment, it has not preempted stage presentations since — and who knows? There may be a better one yet to grace the screen, someday, by some as yet undreamt-of director and cast.
I walked away speechless from ROTK-M, but not from awe, I fear. More like sick with horror at this travesty, this "Triumph of Death" played out on the screen, being hailed as faithful to the spirit of the books and indeed superior to the texts. This popular urge to hallow the Jackson-Boyens-Walsh films and place them on an untouchable pedestal as the One True Lord of the Rings, beyond criticism or the possibility of improvement, baffles me. My prediction? Within five years it will be obviously dated and the flaws in it impossible to overlook, once the bloom has worn off (or the mass hypnotism) — and there will be a similar embarrassment to the ones that followed the euphoria over Titanic and the Godzilla remake, followed eventually by someone setting out to do it right and make a version faithful to the books, without the hubris of thinking they can improve upon it by H'wood conventions.
—Here's to a better — let a new day come! (But the next director should
most definitely not be someone with no love of poetry or nature,
who does not believe in the heroic, and thinks that violence is the solution
to everything, but someone who recognizes that there is more to the meaning
of the word Epic than "lots and lots of fight scenes," and Tragedy than
Q: Is that old-school Peter Jackson (pictured left) we see in the head Orc, who looks very Braindead, and those gruesome eating scenes?
A: "I don't know. I've never really felt there has to be too much violence or gore or anything in these movies, that wouldn't have been appropriate really," Jackson admits. "They're not R-rated books so they shouldn't be R-rated movies. I'm still the same guy that made those films I guess, I have the same sense of humour. I've had to suppress my humour a little bit on LOTR but I used Gimli mainly as my kind of foil to get a bit of irreverent humour out there but obviously there's very few characters where you can get away with doing that in this."
Clearly he had no care at all for the character of Gimli
as written, or for the Words at all. I do feel sorry for those die-hard
apologists who have been working so hard to try to come up with rationalizations
plausible in terms of the original for all J/B/W's stupid choices, but
they're putting far more work into it than those three ever did, and far
more love than the makers had, either.
Lighthouse's second album Suite Feeling, released in
1969, has a version of The Band's "Chest Fever" as the opening track. Not
the world's greatest version - the group's four string players do the Garth
intro (think ELO intro to "Roll Over Beethoven"). According to the critics
the whole album is so-and-so, but "a considerable improvement" from their
eponymously titled debut: "A hideous disaster where horrible production
meets bland material, and everybody loses - the Young Canadian Rock Fan's
expectations are crushed into the hardy Tundra."
—Again, contrast with Williams' successful piano career in acoustic jazz before becoming a film composer: the delightfully-skewed Cantina music was as much his as the rest of Star Wars, though so radically different in feel from, say, the Main Title or Leia's Theme or the Trench Battle music (as much as they are from each other.)
(I did like "May It Be," back in FOTR-M, but I was already
an Enya fan. Enya, like McKennitt, does grasp the
xenicos and convey
it in a quite different way, usually pretty well, in her music.)
Of course, I think no such thing: we have already had
and Commander, which is superior both as an adaptation and as a grand
adventure story to all of the Rings films put together, and I am
quite certain that there will be enough good works created by directors
of talent and restraint to bring me voluntarily to theaters more than once,
from time to time, in future years as well.
—David Lean can also be said to have earned his cameo
(singular!), and not to have been a prima donna about it: he dubbed
the voice of a motorcycle messenger riding by in one scene, but did not
even appear on screen. (And you know, he didn't even shoehorn in a female
role. But strangely enough it was a success…)
In your mind, what's the definitive version of these films?
Jackson: The theatrical versions are the definitive versions.
I regard the extended cuts as being a novelty for the fans that really
want to see the extra material.
And from SciFiWire:
Jackson said that he has created the extended versions of the Rings films in part to please fans. But he admitted that he doesn't want to lengthen the movies any more than they already run. "Every time I put a scene in it, it's mucking up the momentum," he said. "The theatrical versions are very carefully worked out. We spent a whole year trying to get the best possible cut. I do the extended cuts because we have 30-40 minutes of footage that people are interested in. Fans of the books. It's usually related to something that's in the book. It's a legitimate part of the adaptation of the Lord of the Rings, and you can either have it lost forever or you can put an extended cut out."
J/B/W apologists, take note!
Then again, he contradicts what he himself said before
at a CHUD "round table" interview:
Question: I felt that the extended version of Fellowship was so much better than the already amazing original version. What can we look forward to on the extended Two Towers?
Jackson: A lot of people feel that way about the
extended version. As for what will be on the next one, what we shot, I
haven't finished that yet. I've been working on it. There's some good scenes.
I think it's going to follow a similar sort of pattern with Fellowship,
in that a lot of the scenes that we cut out are basically character
development and dialogue scenes. There's not too much action. It's
a weird sort of thing. You can almost add more, slower paced scenes and
the film seems to run better, even if it's a half hour longer. (P@L
- emphasis mine)
Perhaps he should have paid attention to that "wierd sort of thing" he noticed—
Moreover, contrast Jackson's words back in August '98 before filming ever started, to AICN:
"I know this sounds glib and defensive ... the books are masterpieces and always will be. There's nothing anybody could do on film that could destroy the quality or influence of J.R.R.Tolkien's writing. In future decades, in a world of holograms and virtual entertainment, our movies will be old relics ... and the books will still be a great read.
I guess if I was making the movies for anyone else, it would be Professor Tolkien himself. I will never know what he would think of the films we are about to make, but by being faithful to his themes, his characters and the things he clearly cared about, I can at least feel I'm honouring his wonderful imagination in the best way I know how.
I do not intend to make a fantasy film, or a fairy tale. I will be telling a true story — just as I feel when reading the books. "
"It is true that most of the cuts will come out of the first book. We have to reach Rivendell a little quicker than the book does, as that is the point that the story picks up." (Yeah, right! in that Q&A session they made it sound as though they'd actually got a script mostly done, too:)
"Starting out with strong scripts (and we are obviously dealing with great material) will put us ahead of a lot of other fantasy films. "
and particularly this, in December 2000 to the New Zealand
How much have you departed from the original text to make them movie-shaped?
"We haven't created false endings or cliff hangers that
weren't in the book. The breakdown of the three movies reasonably coincides
with the breakdown in the three books"
In what alternate universe, hm? Major plot resolutions omitted, major cliffhangers that were there omitted? Warg cliff-hangers (and others) inserted because the story wasn't exciting enough as written? In the words of Huck Finn, PJ's been telling some stretchers.
Contrast with his words in February, 2002, after success was assured:
PJ: "There won’t be a downbeat ending because it’s not there". A bit of stunned silence in the room. I find myself still in denial. Peter goes on to explain how he knows that the SOTS was important to Tolkien, that seeing the English countryside destroyed was a big theme but that they did not plan to end the film this way. He said that’s why they paid a sort of homage to it in the mirror of Galadriel scene. He also said he found it the most awkward chapter personally. But he stressed that in order to make a film like this of Frodo and The Ring and his journey to Mordor, you "just couldn’t do it".
and of course all the glib dismissals in recent interviews and commentary, towards the quality of the books by Jackson, Boyens and Walsh. They don't need to worry about saying the right things anymore, they have a religious movement supporting them now…
— It is interesting how many historical similarities there
(1984) another book adaptation that departed signally
from its revered original in both specifics and spirit, by a director with
no SF experience or sensitivity to the material — right down to director's
cameos, self-indulgence in additions as well as egregious omissions, and
the presence of Brad Dourif. Unfortunately for David Lynch, there was no
internet in the '80s (in any meaningful sense) so that he could not "work
the crowd" beforehand, garner sympathy by guilt and underdog portrayal,
and thereby guarantee himself an audience of primed defenders.
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