Sunday, December 12, 2021

yes, again again

The good fellow who's been watching his way through all the Hugo-winning (and Oscar Best Picture-winning, too) movies has reached Peter Jackson et al's The Two Towers. I responded to his enthusiasm for Fellowship here (with a link). I have less to say about his comments on The Two Towers because this time, he's figured out some of the problems with these movies.

This despite the fact that, unlike N., I consider The Two Towers to be the best of the set. This was the one which, when I went to see it at first run, I couldn't find an empty seat in the packed theater and watched it sitting on the carpet in an unoccupied wheelchair alcove, spending half the time marveling at the spectacle and grandeur, and half the time curled up on the floor whimpering in agony over everything else. That I still found it the best of the three movies should convey just how bad an adaptation the whole mess was.

(B. will say, "Wait a minute. We saw this together, and I don't remember anything about curling up in a wheelchair alcove." I didn't tell her this at the time, but with her was the second time I saw the movie. I had to see it again, because I couldn't believe my eyes from what I saw depicted on screen the first time.)

N. is properly critical of the adaptation of Faramir. J-Faramir, completely unlike his book counterpart, tries to arrest Frodo and Sam and take the Ring to Minas Tirith, and then inexplicably changes his mind and lets them go. I'd like to get into this from a couple levels, because I think it's the key to Jackson et al's failure.

I recently conversed with a man who said that listening to the film-makers' commentary on this scene is what finally enabled him to understand why the movies made the changes they did and forgive them. That's dismaying, I said, because I listened to the same commentary track and found it the final proof that the writers did not understand or appreciate Tolkien's book. To change a plot point because you consider it necessary for the adaptation is one thing; to change it because you can't figure out why the author wrote it that way is another.

What Jackson (or Boyens? I forget which of them was speaking, but I think both of them made this point) said is that, if the Ring is so powerful and seductive, it doesn't make sense for Faramir to avoid succumbing to its seduction. We lose a sense of the Ring's power, they said. Tolkien really fell down on that point and we can't figure out why, they said.

Boy o boy, they didn't read the book very closely, did they? Faramir himself answers this question, when he says, "I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee." His reaction doesn't diminish the Ring's power, it underlines it. Look, here's a weapon that could by itself win the war, a war which at this point the good guys are losing badly. And yet any good characters who have the power to wield the Ring adequately won't touch the thing. I think that avoidance conveys the danger of the Ring a lot more vividly than an endless series of Boromirs and Gollums falling victim to its lure would.

J-Faramir's lapse, for momentary lapse is what it turns out to be in the storyline, is illustrative of a continuing theme which is the movies' greatest continuing flaw. They keep having the good characters suffering failures of nerve. Faramir seizing the Ring, Gandalf socking Denethor in the teeth, the Rohirrim fleeing away from Saruman, Aragorn fearing he's too weak to be king, Frodo abandoning Sam in the wilderness because he no longer trusts him, Legolas having a nervous breakdown at the Battle of Helm's Deep (I bet you've forgotten that, but it's there), all seem to be serving the purpose of "humanizing" the characters by showing them as having weaknesses.

Jackson et al have missed the point and the structure of Tolkien's story. Gandalf and Aragorn, even Faramir and Legolas, are not the protagonists or heroes of Tolkien's story. The four hobbits are, or more accurately including Frodo in the first half: by Book 4, Frodo's burden has translated him beyond hobbit-kind, which is why so much of the viewpoint then focuses on Sam. It's the hobbits who suffer failures of nerve: see Sam fretting over what to do at Cirith Ungol, or Merry going nerveless at facing the Nazgul - which he does twice, by the way; I bet you've forgotten that too. Faramir and the others have already gone through any crisis of self-faith they're going to have before we meet them; and they've come out stronger for it. Their purpose in the story, from a structural viewpoint, is not to be the heroes but to provide noble figures, above quotidian heroism, for the hobbits to look up to and try to emulate. In the end the hobbits succeed at this (much of it shown in the Scouring, and where's that in the movie?). To excise this theme is to lose the moral heart of Tolkien's story.

There's further the problem of the half-hearted way Jackson pursues this. He wants to make his Faramir do something that Faramir would never do. But because Tolkien would never have Faramir do this, it changes the story utterly. But Jackson doesn't want to change the story, he wants to stick to Tolkien's outline as best he can. So he allows the story to run off the rails briefly, and then he has to wrest it back on to the rails by main force in order to continue with Tolkien's outline. That's Jackson's external reason, but he fails to come up with an internal one, so that's why J-Faramir's change of mind is so inexplicable.

This kind of problem happens again and again in the series, but especially in this installment. Aragorn falling off a cliff, also mentioned by N., though not involving lack of nerve is another example.

There's a further problem, which is that Jackson et al have not thought through what would have happened if Faramir had seized and kept the Ring. In the book, Denethor is pretty bitter when he learns that Faramir let Frodo go. He says that Boromir wouldn't have done that. "He would have brought me a mighty gift," and you know what that gift would have been. But Gandalf says it would not have worked out that way. "You deceive yourself. He would have stretched out his hand to this thing, and taking it he would have fallen. He would have kept it for his own, and when he returned you would not have known your son."

That's a chilling thought, and that takes us to Gollum, the treatment of whom is N.'s greatest praise of this film.

Well, no question, Andy Serkis is a great actor. His brief turn as the imprisoned mass murderer Ian Brady in the movie Longford is one of the most bone-chilling things I've ever seen on screen. A character like that needs to radiate evil, and Serkis's Brady radiates more pure evil per square inch than anybody. But he's equally fine as the foppish dancing master in Topsy Turvy.

But while Serkis understood these characters, he had a little trouble being Gollum. He's been quoted as saying that, in figuring out why Gollum made his "gollum" sound, he decided that Gollum was like a cat emitting a hairball. So J-Gollum talks like a strangulated cat. Can that be right?

And we also have this scene, praised by everybody and not just N., of the conversation between the two sides of Gollum's personality. Given Serkis's interpretation of Gollum, he acts this very well. The problem which everybody misses is in the writing and direction of the scene. The conversation is in the book, yes, but as usual Jackson et al totally misunderstand it. In the book it's an internal debate between two impulses within the same character. But Jackson frames it so that it looks as much as possible as if they're two people. Most astonishingly, almost the entire scene is cut as back-and-forth shots between the two personalities, as if they really are physically separate. And then at the end when Smeagol tells Gollum, "Go away and never come back," the direction to "go away" again implies that he's separable.

The result is that almost everybody, including myself above ("Smeagol tells Gollum"), writes as if they're two people. It feeds the mistaken impression that, as even Stephen Colbert has maintained, that Smeagol and Gollum were not the same being, but that Gollum was a different creature that Smeagol transformed into. That is not the case. Smeagol always remained Gollum's "real" name, and he would even answer to it in his better moods. Gollum was not an alien being that took over Smeagol against his will, but the manifestation of Smeagol's own character under the influence of the Ring. So it's erroneous to think, as Colbert does, that Smeagol had been a kind or friendly character. That doesn't sound like the Smeagol in Gandalf's report on the history of the Ring, or in Tolkien's letters, as I describe in the above link.

Two points specifically about the book. N. praises Tolkien for avoiding "middle-book syndrome," in which the middle book of a trilogy is mostly padding to get the characters through so many thousand words. I'd like to point out that this may be because Tolkien didn't write a middle book. He wrote The Lord of the Rings as one long book. It was divided into three volumes only by the necessities of publishing. And everybody since, not just Jackson, has mistaken it for a trilogy.

Lastly, N. notes that Tolkien "plotted out the movements of the characters against the calendar meticulously, and the fact that he has done his homework is modestly obvious." Yes, and that supplemental issue of Tolkien Studies we're about to publish will present the documentary evidence of Tolkien doing exactly that.

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