Wednesday, October 12, 2011

" By Rights We Shouldn't Even Be Here" The Lord of the Rings and the crimes of Peter Jackson.

I took a big chunk of our long weekend and watched the Lord of the Rings again.  I know what the headline says, but before I say another word I want to assure you I believe the three movies Jackson made not so long ago are very good.  I've seen the Rankin-Bass Return of the King, the Ralph Bakshi LOTR and they were godawful.  Jackson's movies were ambitious, exciting and usually followed the story.

Let me be clear, taking on a massive masterpiece like J.R.R. Tolkien's masterwork is no easy feat.  It has a complex storyline, modeled on an alternate history with a huge number of characters and subplots that are almost impossible to make intelligible to a person who has never read the book a half dozen times or more. It's only natural the tale is simplified where possible.  Tom Bombadil and the Old Forest-gone. The conflict between the Moria orcs and the White Hand orcs reduced to a petty squabble.  Aragorn's raising of the coastal towns simplified to capturing the corsair fleet with the Army of the Dead.

In doing this,  Jackson was able to help us understand other important stories a bit better.  He lavished time on the tale of  Gollum/Smeagol, helping us to get inside his head a bit. He played out the story of Saruman and Isengard to better understand his role in the story and also bound the rise of his power to his depredations on Fangorn Forest.   A little artistic license on Jackson's part, but it furthered the story.

 However, in three areas Jackson exceeds the speed limit and rockets us off into places that don't further the story and simply left me scratching my head.
The winsome Ms. Tyler as Arwen. Unfortunately. Arwen has little mention in The Lord of the Rings.

First, there is the matter of Arwen and her story.  In the Lord of the Rings Arwen received about three lines in the 1200 pages of text.  One of those lines may actually be in the considerable appendices.  Was Liv Tyler short of work?  Did Jackson simply need someone to look lovely and mopey, or did the part call   for somebody who could speak perfect Elvish?  The Arwen and Aragorn story Jackson tells is made from whole cloth because certainly Tolkien didn't tell it, and it's a ridiculous distraction from the rest of the story.  We learn little from it regarding the struggle to control Middle Earth, and it doesn't enhance our understanding of other key parts of the story. Is Arwen's presence an effort to bring some gender balance to the story? Unfortunately, the Lord of the Rings is a tale largely about males.  Frodo and Sam.  Gandalf and Saruman.  Gimli and Legolas.  Aragorn and Sauron.  Only Galadriel and Eowyn stand out as female characters of note. It is inappropriate and outside the story to create this new subplot, one that isn't told very clearly or acted very well, and ask us to buy it.
I feel a bit of nausea coming on. 
Sam's comment at Osgiliath: "By rights we shouldn't even be here" may be the most unintentionally ironic in the The Lord of the Rings.
 My second complaint is the capture of Frodo, Sam and Gollum in Ithilien and subsequent removal to Osgiliath. The perpetrator of this crime is Faramir, captain of the rangers of Ithilien, son of Denethor Steward of Gondor, and brother of Boromir, the Steward's favorite son, killed by orcs at the breaking of the Fellowship.  Enough titles already.  This did not happen in the book.  Faramir, of all the characters, seemed to be the least ego-driven of all the men in the LoTR.  In the movie version of the Two Towers Faramir, driven by the insinuations by his insufferable father, discovers Frodo and Sam in the wilds of Ithilien and takes the hobbits to Henneth Annun, their secret hiding spot, learns of the Ring through mistreatment of Gollum, and carts the lot of them off to Osgiliath in order to turn the Ring over to Denethor as a way of earning his approval.  An attack on the ruined city by Nazgul changes his mind when Frodo, convulsed by the power of the ring nearly gives himself up to the Witch King and nearly slays Sam in the process. Sam waxes nostalgic stating the line "We shouldn't even be here."  Hell no Sam, you shouldn't be.  In the book Faramir turns Frodo and the boys loose, understanding the importance of the mission.  This needlessly sullies Faramir's image even if he eventually makes the right decision.  The fabulous footage of the Nazgul simply buries this faux pas. 
Nazgul at Osgiliath.  The awesome video vs. the awful truth.
 Jackson's last great crime is introducing elvish warriors to the defense of Helm's Deep.  This is simply wrong on so many levels and is the greatest of his crimes.  First, it wasn't in the book.  There's lots of goofy stuff around the defense of the fortress in the movie.  In the book Gandalf shows up with the remnants of the defenders of the Westfold-but that's a stretch for the casual viewer, so instead he shows up with Eomer's horsemen.  He leads a mounted charge down a hill impassable by any creature affected by gravity, into a mass of pikemen temporarily blinded by the morning sun.  It's okay; all in good fun. The elves, are another matter.  The most amazing aspect of Tolkien's or perhaps Sauron's War of the Ring is its dynamism: nothing happens in a vacuum.  At the same time our heroes are fighting at Helm's deep, Sauron is preparing to unleash his attack on Gondor.  Further east, Galadriel and Celeborn are defending Lothlorien from attacks out of Moria.  Even further east Legolas' father, Thranduil is defending his kingdom in Mirkwood from armies thrown at him from Dol Guldur. Where exactly did these elves come from?  We meet Haldir in Lorien.  How could they have released hundreds of defenders and marched them hundreds of miles from home in the face of an attack?  Not only this, but what does this do for the story?  The defense of Helm's Deep is still desperate.  The defenders still win.  In fact I would argue that despite the incredible visuals from the film the defense in the book is in many ways more eloquent.  Adding elves to the story is just silly.
Haldir and a wandering company of elves abandon the defense of Lorien to show up at Helm's Deep.  In Tolkien 's story the defenders win without you big guy.  You don't need to die.
  The books published in the wake of the movie releases created tremendous confusion for those following the story.  It substituted elements of the Jackson story for the Tolkien narrative.  This a crime.  While I admire Jackson's work, those dire deviations from the Tolkien story create problems for those who have not and never will read the book.  Which is the true version of Middle Earth?

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