Monday, November 15, 2021

yes, again

I'm not going to waste a reply on this latter-day review of Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring movie to the post's comments section, since I know from experience that the author rarely replies to comments. Instead, I'll write it here.

This is another golden example of a fan of the Jackson movies not getting what's wrong with them as adaptations. Again, I don't mind people liking the movies as movies. What bristles me is when they ship their liking into thinking the movies are adequate specifically as an adaptation of the book.

First N. says "there's very little to object to," but the list of objections he brushes off are entirely of things omitted. Everyone who loves the movies thinks that what people who disapprove of the adaptations want is to have everything in. No: the omissions are tolerable. In fact I'd rather not have Bombadil than have Bombadil done badly, which Jackson, who has no feel for anything in Tolkien other than the tense dangers and horror, and a little of the spectacle, would undoubtably do. It's not what Jackson left out, but what he put in, that spoils his adaptation.

But then N. goes on to note that "the fervent Tolkien fan" (that's a loaded term right there - "fervent." Makes us sound slightly unhinged) must "twitch at the infantilisation of the characters of Merry and Pippin." "Twitch" is putting it mildly. I knew we were in for trouble at the added scene of the lads stealing the fireworks at Bilbo's birthday party. Not that they might not have done such a caper: it's an entirely plausible notion. But if Tolkien had conceived it, it wouldn't be written, as this is, in the form of bad fan fiction. (And I specify bad fan fiction because not all fan fiction is bad.)

What most frosts me is when N. notes that "the timescale of the book is drastically compressed," which it is, but calls that "the last and most trivial ground of complaint." It's not trivial at all. Jackson systematically eviscerates the epic scale of the story, both in time and in space. The scale is an essential part of the greatness of Tolkien's story. It's not that Jackson doesn't take 17 years for Frodo to leave the Shire. It's that, when the hobbits do leave, it's rushed. The Black Riders are nipping at their heels almost the entire way. One result of that is that the actual attack in the book loses its power, because it's been anticipated and flattened. This is a consistent policy of Jackson's. He can't trust to Tolkien's sense of suspense, which is a pity, because it's Tolkien's sense of suspense, a concomitant of his sense of scale, that makes the book so engrossing.

On the same lines, Jackson miniaturizes the geographic space of the story. Instead of a whole continent, Jackson's story feels like it's covering only the space of a tabletop role-playing game grid. Example: Saruman monitoring their path over Caradhras and himself sending the snowstorm.

But wait, doesn't N. in his next paragraph praise Jackson's "sense of scale"? Yes, but he's referring to the physical size of the characters, making hobbits and dwarves look smaller than men and elves even though the actors aren't. And yes, the technical side of filmmaking Jackson handles very well (at least in The Lord of the Rings; in The Hobbit he gets tired and sloppy). As technical achievements in filmmaking, this trilogy may be the greatest set of movies ever made. Getting such a huge project completed on time and in budget is itself award-worthy. But that has nothing to do with evaluating its adaptation of the book.

The spectacle too is good, as long as it's on the scale of spectacle. Hiring John Howe and Alan Lee to design the film is the wisest move Jackson made. But while Jackson can do awesome to beat the band, he can't do beautiful. His Rivendell is rather bad and his Lorien is truly dismal. Plus those celebration scenes at the end of Return of the King are teeth-numbingly horrifying.

The net result of the achievement in spectacle is that New Zealand playing Middle-earth is by far the best actor in the movie. I can't agree with N. that the human-acting in this movie is very good. I know Elijah Wood is a good actor; I've seen him in other movies. Here he's namby and inert. Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn is a hopelessly introverted mumbler. The film actor who'd do a good job as Aragorn is Richard Armitage as Thorin in The Hobbit. He's a lousy Thorin, but he'd make a good Aragorn. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel would be good except for that transformation scene. I think Jackson read where Tolkien has her say that she shall be "beautiful and terrible," so he made a scene causing any sensitive viewer to say "That's terrible!"

I've no objection to beefing up Arwen's role, as such, even though keeping her under wraps was a deliberate strategy of Tolkien's: it shows there's more to Aragorn than you suspect. But there are other, less sexist, ways of presenting the material. (I've no objection to Tauriel in The Hobbit as such, either - probably the least objectionable of all Jackson's additions there.) It makes sense, too, on a film's scale of storytelling to fold Glorfindel into another character so that we don't have to waste time being introduced to someone who appears briefly and then basically disappears. (Bakshi folded him into Legolas, which makes even more sense: then you don't have to have the introductions of Legolas and Gimli and Boromir all dumped on you at once.) The objection to that scene is not to who provides the horse: it's that Jackson's Frodo isn't allowed to be the hero of his own story. Arwen rides the horse for him, she curses out the Nazgul for him, while a semi-comatose Frodo is strapped to the back like a sack of potatoes. Jackson can't figure out any less extreme way of showing the effects of the Morgul-blade.

N. praises moving the death of Boromir to the end of Fellowship from the start of The Two Towers. This should make no difference in the book, which Tolkien wrote as one continuous story. It was only divided into three volumes by the imperatives of publishing.

As for the music, it does the job asked of it. Howard Shore is always competent. But inspiration, greatness, worthy of the story it's being asked to accompany? No.

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