Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Extended Lord Of The Rings!

It's pretty impossible to express the excitement I was filled with anticipating the film version of The Lord of the Rings. Rumors had rumbled for decades that someone was going to do this eventually. But properly, we all wanted it done correctly, with a sufficient budge and with proper attention to the elaborate text. Tolkien himself had resisted film versions of the saga, especially when Disney considered the project. Apparently, Tolkien had a low opinion of Disney's efforts in regard to fairy tales. 

Writing up reviews for these movies at this date is difficult. So much of that world has been seen, that it's hard to remember how it was to enter Hobbiton for the first time or visit The Prancing Pony alongside four naive Hobbits about to enter a wild dangerous world. The Fellowship of the Ring remains my favorite to this day. In this story we are introduced to the vistas of Middle-Earth as reimagined by director Jackson and the small army of talents New Zealand brought to the task The movies showcase the splendid territories of New Zealand. The story starts small in Hobbiton as we meet our heroes who soon enough are forced to enter the larger and more dangerous world with murderous Dark Riders on their trail. The company of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin is a spritely gang, and the addition of Strider gives the story a heft and seriousness it previously was missing. 

The action is beautifully paced in this movie with respites between action scenes, scenes still grounded in reality and not having yet fallen victim to overwhelming CG elements. Just as in the novel the world continues to expand for us as we go to Rivendell and then beyond and ultimately the tragic mines of Moria. It is only in Moria that the creators lose their way a bit with the special effects getting a bit large and subjecting our heroes to impossible stresses. But it's a near thing still, not yet the cacophony we will endure some years later. 

I was struck watching it this time how much I'd forgotten how central Frodo is to the proceedings. As portrayed by Elijah Wood his gentle nature gives the movie a pleasantness it might otherwise lack. Ian McKellan's first turn as Gandalf is magnificent and his demise gives this first movie an emotional high it is never ever really able to match in subsequent films despite the ever-increasing stakes. I'd never noticed Viggo Mortensen before his turn as Strider, but he's become a favorite actor in the years since. I was especially struck by Sean Bean's performance this time, a part often overcome by braying. He gave it an emotional value which makes you genuinely mourn for a man who despite his mistakes clearly wanted what was best for his father and his people. 

This first foray into Middle-Earth was and is magnificent and holds up well after more than two decades. The battles had not swollen to engulf the warriors and we can still feel the potency of the battles. Jackson and his team do a grand job of getting the important bits in, creating a big movie from an even bigger story. I mourn the loss of Tom Bombadil, but it's easy to see why we have no time for him or the Barrow-Wight as well. 

But it was a darn good start. 

I remember waiting for The Two Towers to show up the following year. I was extremely eager to see the next installment of this epic movie series, a series I'd never imagined I'd see in my lifetime. With the second movie, we know most all our characters, though we will meet plenty of new ones as well. But what we'll really get a grand look at is the sprawling landscapes of New Zealand, even more so than the first film. What makes these films so much better than the trio of The Hobbit movies is that the CG has not yet overwhelmed the project. We are still watching people move across sweeping landscapes, real places which makes the fantasy feel more vital and alive. But we do see the beginning of the end of this in this movie as well. 

The fellowship has broken up and we follow three plot threads though The Two Towers and that's always made it a less coherent story by necessity. Merry and Pippin are kidnapped by Orcs and then find their way into Fangorn Forest and into the care of the Ent Treebeard. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pursue to save them until a revived Gandalf redirects them. Frodo and Sam are joined by Gollum who begins to lead them to their destination. At the time much was made of the Gollum character and how it was done technically and that's a warning sign. I'm of the opinion that no movie should be about how it's made rather than what it's about. But things are still fine as we are dealing with real people behind these characters, they have not lost their connection with humanity. We are still concerned with Gollum's moral choices and not so much how they made him so fishy. 

The highlight of this movie is the introduction of the Riders of Rohan and the culture found at Edoras and later at Helm's Deep. These are human places occupied by humans. The crews built real places for the characters to stand in, vast edifices which I know are surrounded by movie magic, but it remains invisible for the most part and doesn't call attention to itself. 

Legolas and Gimli are a lot of fun with their banter, and Legolas as superhero begins to assert himself. He was a nimble and deft fighter in the first movie and in this one he's Captain America, doing clearly impossible things. The Battle at Helm's Deep is the best battle of this kind that Jackson will ever stage. In the next movie the action will grow too large with the human connection being lost. The balance is on a knife edge but works, and that's in no small part due to the darkness and rain. 

Very entertaining stuff, and that's darn hard for a middle part of a trilogy to be since resolution is never on the table. 

The Return of the King brings the trilogy to a conclusion adapting, more or less, Tolkien's third novel. This is finale and in this one sadly the spectacle begins to swallow the story a bit. Nonetheless it's a rousing movie with the various plot threads finding their way either to Minas Tirith to defend against the hordes from Mordor or to Mount Doom where Frodo and Sam work relentlessly to get shed of the One Ring for all time. 

The transformation of Gollum is complete, and he is an utter villain as he leads the doughty pair into the clutches of the spider Shelob. Aragorn must walk to his own death of sorts to gather a ghostly force which will it's hoped will help defend against the deadly forces Sauron has launched at greatest city in Gondor. Legolas and Gimli help him out. Merry becomes a helper to King Theoden while Pippin finds his way to become a soldier for Gondor in service of the duplicitous Denethor. There's this and more as we follow Arwen's choice and Faramir's sacrifice, while Gandalf tries to save them all. 

The siege of Gondor is a spectacle for sure, filled with wild action sequences. And that's the lovely poison which is beginning to be felt, the action is overwhelming the character development to some degree. A major sticking point for me in the third entry is that it fails to pay off Saruman's story in any meaningful way. We get a few scenes, but they feel meager. Since we won't get a scouring of the Shire and Saruman's comeuppance in that, he needs a stronger send off. I also was very much disappointed in the ghostly army that Aragorn brings to save the day. They look like something from a science fiction giant monster movie. Here was Jackson's time to shine, to how ghosts battling Orcs for all the marbles, and we instead get a strange rambling blob. 

But having said all that, the movie is still a success and has emotional power. I enjoy it every time, and every time it makes me weep just a little. 

Making all three movies at one time was a brilliant stroke, though a heavy lift indeed for all concerned. Jackson is able to give each movie its flavor and still make them a coherent whole. With another studio in another time, I can imagine each installment getting its own director. But Jackson perceived that which is obvious really, there is not a trilogy of books which make up The Lord of the Rings but rather a very long novel which was divided up into three parts for reasons both logistical and economics. And he approached this movie adaptation in the same way. 

What makes these three movies successful is that Jackson and his team were charged with taking a mammoth tale and whitling it down to its necessary elements to translate the story to the screen and at the same time give it some modern flavor to make more than palatable to folks not already devoted to the late Professor's works, and they did just that. And they used the technology at hand to place real people in unreal places. What makes The Hobbit so relatively unsuccessful in the final analysis is just the opposite, a small work ballooned to giant-size while armed with all the CG money could buy, depending on animated characters too much of the time. 

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  1. Did you know that Tolkien's son, Christopher Tolkien, hated the LOTR movies? In his opinion his father's novels had been exploited to make bombastic action movies.

    BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series called Hordes Of The Things in November and December 1980. It was a fantasy spoof in four parts about the kingdom of Albion which is under siege from the legions of The Evil One. The series ended on a cliff-hanger because a second series was apparently planned but never made. In my opinion Hordes Of The Things is quite amusing and I'm glad to say it gets a re-run every so often .

    1. It doesn't startle me to learn that his son dislikes the movies. But truth told Christopher has had a pretty lucrative career extending his father's universe. Not that I'm unhappy about that. I would love to see a thoroughly faithful adaptation of the novel myself, we've gone twenty years, it's time for another attempt. The Jackson trilogy ran over ten hours and one getting every morsel from the book would be at least twenty. That's a lot of movies, but I'd go.

      I'll have to scout around for the Hordes of the Things and see if I can get a listen. Thanks for the tip.