The Lord of The Lord of the Rings

who is and who isn't

Just from conversations with friends and family, I seem to be surprisingly isolated in judging Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring to be a dismal failure. I'm sure that won't hold true in the long run: there will always be a lot of people ready to criticize any given effort by anyone. But I'd expected far more criticism than I'm hearing from some of the most devoted lifelong fans I know of the old book. In conversation I've been trying--with only the most modest success--to stay quiet.

My doubts built up to a sincere skepticism in the months preceding the film's opening, as piece after piece of news gave the lie to Jackson's protestations of faithfulness to the text. In the theater itself, fifteen minutes showed starkly that adherence to the book was never particularly important to the director. The remaining screen time got only worse. In a flurry of plot points recounted so rapidly as to be almost uniformly glossed over, any given thing we see is a striking departure from the story as we know it. Multiple chapters have been excised without a trace. So many entirely new events have been added as to be dizzying. Recognizable snippets of the original dialogue appear within a sea of unga-bug exchanges that wouldn't seem out of place in a Conan movie. (This could also be said of the combat sequences.) In the end, very little of what we are shown on the screen comes from the famous book at all: virtually every specific element is in some critical way the director's creation alone.

This, in and of itself--simple textual inaccuracy--suffices to bar the movie from fulfilling my hopes, mine and those of a few other fanatics like me. In my view, for a director to make movies of a well-known and well-loved book indicates at first flush that he is a fan himself (as is clearly the case in any event). For him then to change things around--in any extent more than the admittedly complex business of interpretation and translation to film--is a claim, a quiet one, on the director's part, that he is a better writer than the author from whose book he is working. But though I could go on for some time listing innaccuracies in the movie, that's neither my only complaint nor the greatest.

From a recent note to my old friend Hamish:

Regarding that movie, I'll soon have a rant up on my website about it, and I'll just send you a link then... I was pretty drastically disappointed. Half by its abandonment of the text--which I do think is awfully disrespectful, and not at all necessary--but equally because it simply wasn't a beautiful movie. I think the most important way to examine this movie is to get the feedback of a trusted viewer who had no familiarity at all with Tolkien. What I'm hearing so far from the few people I know who fit that mold is that the characters weren't developed, that everything happened blindingly fast, and that the end was disappointingly anticlimactic. Most important in my mind is the first. The dialogue tends to be drab and obvious; the action tends to be boorish or preposterous or both. Some actors are doing their damnedest and the scenery is mostly lovely, but at bottom the director is not sensitive to the internal life of his characters.

I love the book, and would love most of all to see a set of six long movies making a die-hard attempt to capture all elements, but failing that I would rather cut Gimli, Legolas, Boromir, Merry and Pippin if the remaining characters might thereby gain some depth and human interest.

Such a movie, of course, would be irrevocably different from the book, but in a way more openly so. And if it were compelling enough to generate its own fan base and be remembered for decades--which I cannot imagine Jackson's will--then I'd be much more prepared to let it take its place in cinema history, without rancor. Just as Apocalypse Now is not Heart of Darkness, it would be another story, but independently memorable.

Instead, Jackson has chosen to walk a peculiar tightrope; on one hand he slices and dices the story as freely as any director ever did (and directors are famous for leaving no script intact), while with the other he tries doggedly to present the appearance of having covered everything. Why? Is all this to appease the fans? Maybe that is why, and maybe it's working, but it has produced some really schizophrenic material. Strider and the hobbits are shown, for about one second, standing in front of stone trolls--but nothing is said about it. Legolas is seen walking over snow, but not going anywhere. The hobbits find mushrooms--not in Farmer Maggott's fields, which now seemingly grow carrots, but at the bottom of a cliff nearby. The seat upon Amon Hen is present, and functions more or less as it ought to, but how would anyone know that who hadn't read the book first? Narsil is shown, broken, but it is never re-forged and Aragorn doesn't seem to be carrying it. Boromir carries a horn, mentioned at the last minute, though we're never told it's an heirloom or anything else about it (this is leaving aside that it sounds like a tugboat). And maybe the funniest of all the continuity errors listed here is at the bottom of the list--the sudden appearance of Bill the pony, just in time to be dismissed from service at the Moria gate--even though no trace of a horse has appeared in any of the footage of the company prior to that. This, though, is not a simple continuity error at heart, I think. It's not exactly that the continuity editor (if there was one) fell asleep at the wheel, or even that Jackson didn't think of it, maybe--it's just that Bill's departure, his most memorable scene, was Jackson's only interest in the pony, the only thing had in mind to pantomime to his waiting audience as he shot through the plot line at his breakneck pace. It is one more instance of Jackson's frantic efforts to include the scenes the book's fans will expect--but invariably in a pared-down form, symbolic only, so harshly compressed as to be encrypted, because he was so desperate to squeeze the story into a typical movie length.

But you cannot serve two masters. Jackson has made a lot of noise all along about his painstaking fidelity to the book, to the point of at least one outright lie about all of Liv Tyler's added material being directly from the appendices (a remarkably good answer to the question of her large role, if it had been remotely true). He's working hard to soothe the book's fans--why? To court them as viewers, or just to prevent bad press in advance? He wants to rope in the readers with a litany of items extracted from the book, but above all he wants to make a huge and lucrative series of movies, and that's the desire that makes his decisions. The book wasn't made to be a movie, and the movie industry's autistically dogged insistence on movies of uniform length cannot, under any circumstances, serve such a long text well. Now, there was a day when movies were often little over an hour long, and at the same time when eight-hour sagas like Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia could be popular with artsy critics and the mass of viewers at once. No matter how rigid the system seems, it is always a choice to follow the herds at all costs. Once in a while somebody--Kenneth Branagh, Steven Spielberg--will brush such conventions aside, often to lasting acclaim. This project deserved such a measure. But its director was no such visionary. And that is the uttermost root of the film's malaise.

It is possible to make a good book into a good movie. I've seen it done twice in fairly recent years: in Contact and The English Patient. In each case, to be sure, big changes were made, important ones, maybe questionable choices. But the changes were at least made by good writers, and executed well. In one case--maybe the biggest change in Contact, the voyage through space made alone instead of in a group of five--the value of the new version was roughly equal to that of the original. The book made more sense, and covered more ground, but Jodie Foster's trip in the movie was emotionally harrowing in a way Sagan didn't seem able to write. For better or for worse, a good movie was made. A movie that was independently worth watching.

Jackson's problem is that he isn't a very interesting director, and whoever he got to write his script is a horrible writer. If he made a movie not based on a hugely famous book, it would have no hope of making waves. Movie hounds presumably know of him but I never heard of him before this project was announced. He's no great storyteller; he's a technician, a guy who knows how to make a movie happen.

Technically, he does great stuff with the movie; great effects, beautiful painstaking scenery, great props and all. The money shows in those respects. But sometimes even that gets in his way--Galadriel's trippy monologue at her mirror was interpreted aggressively, and in an ugly, creepy way that shows a very different character than the Galadriel we know. Similarly, the moment when Bilbo grasps for the Ring and Frodo seems him as a frightening creature--it's played in such a boorishly literal fashion as to miss the point entirely. It's a change in Frodo's perception, not some magical event.

The most reprehensible example is the troll in Moria. The troll's appearance in the book is a suspenseful scene, a frightening intrusion of an arm into the room, an arm and a foot belonging to some tougher'n'hell creature who'd presumably be giving them all a good whipping if only it could get the door open. This tension would not do for Jackson--why show an arm if you have the budget to animate the whole troll, pitching a full-blown tantrum? The delicate scene, the company trapped and in immediate danger but not yet assaulted, is tossed in favor of a chance to play with more digital toys. So in comes the troll, destroying most of the room, and all the good guys survive unscathed--just sort of because that's what happens in movies, I suppose.

Mind you, the troll is wonderfully animated. A lot of things in this movie look good. But the resulting action is utterly beside the point, and worse--it's dull-witted, hackneyed, inexcusably clumsy.

(I should say, there are things I unequivocally like about the movie. Just not very many.)

Jackson has the money and the technical ability to paint pretty much any picture he can imagine. Problem is he's not imagining very hard. Whenever he strays from the story (which, as I've been saying, is most of the time) and starts making stuff up, he produces drearily obvious events and dialogue. He simply lacks the touch to make a film that will move people or remain in their minds. The soundtrack is awfully overblown, and relentless, as though we cannot tell how we ought to feel about any given scene without help. Elrond is stormy and bitter; Frodo is clueless and helpless from beginning to end; Gandalf is fearful and indecisive; Aragorn is played by a man who looks like he's never spent much time outdoors, and who has maybe a tenth of the personal presence the fellow playing Boromir has; Lothlorien is inexplicably blue and artificial, and everyone there is cold, Galadriel most of all. Elves in general, supposed to be perpetually on the verge of laughing, supposed to be beautiful and warm and inspiring, are played as dignified in a broad and overdone way--which makes them come across as simultaneously snotty and boring. Boromir and Gandalf, laden with significance for readers of the book, are so underdeveloped as to make their dramatized death scenes puzzling, and tiresome, to uninformed viewers. Cobbled together so haphazardly, the plot piled gaucherie upon gaucherie in a disgraceful fashion, things that would be laughable in any movie. One or two might be a goof or a localized misthinking, but this leaves almost nothing of the movie.

To drive my point home, I will make a gamble: here are my predictions for the second and third movies of this series. See what you think.

Apart from all the particulars, the poverty of the film is in dialogue and character depth. At the top of this chain of command is dumb writing and dull direction. Jackson and his colleagues have tried to explain everything--the current action, the history, all the personalities and all their internal processes--using only one clumsy tool: literal, forgettable, narrative remarks by the characters. Why? Not only because they were determined to cover action quickly, in the name of a short movie. More than that, I think they were simply in a big hurry to get past the troublesome business of screenplay-writing to the fun stuff: building and staging and making cool effects. Understandable enough. Especially when we remember that Jackson simply doesn't have, or miss having, the gifts of a storyteller.

Well, some time has passed, and I've been mouthing off on this discussion board rather more than is good for me, and generally getting over the shock. I just keep reminding myself that Jackson wasn't the first to take a shot at a Tolkien movie, and there's no reason to suppose he'll be the last. Next time maybe somebody will try harder. I'm glad at least that I don't have children yet, so that this should all be well and truly forgotten before they run across the book.