Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Lord of the Wrongs

I've been rereading Lord of the Rings over the past two weeks, taking it fairly slow and reveling in the descriptions and the geography of Middle Earth. And over me has crept an insidious desire to rewatch Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, just to refresh on the visuals. Heck, we even have two box sets -- the theatrical release and the extended versions. So what's stopping me?

It's that I know this impulse is a mistake. When the movies first came out, I was excited, like many other people, just to see the thing done. And no money was spared on costumes or special effects or settings (though more on that later). But Jackson's failure is a failure of vision and understanding. Each time I read a new scene and think, "Boy, I'd like to see that on film," I remember something bizarre about the movies that makes me mad just thinking about it.

For example: I read the chapter about the Rohirrim assembling at Dunharrow, and considered rewatching that scene for the winding road up to the safe haven, with the Pukel-men at each turning. And then I remembered that Jackson had so rewritten that episode that Elrond shows up to tell Aragorn that Arwen is dying of Sauron-plague or something. 


I wanted to rewatch the Mines of Moria, to see the road that led to the mines, and Gandalf at the bridge, and even the misplaced conversation between Gandalf and Frodo about Gollum. Then I remembered the ridiculous CGI-laden scene with the staircase falling apart.


I thought about watching the charge of the Rohirrim and the battle of Pelennor Fields. Then I remembered Legolas and the elephant.


I thought about watching Frodo meeting with Faramir, then I remembered that Peter Jackson rewrote Faramir's character so that he decides to take Frodo to Gondor, and then in Osgiliath they meet a Nazgul.

Oh my stars.

Darwin was the one who pointed out the cinematic lack of agriculture anywhere in Middle Earth but the Shire. Tolkien, who lived a key formational time of his life in the country, had a good grasp on how exactly a kingdom is fed, and incorporated small details into the text that suggest a broader economy. In the films, though, no farms surround Edoras; no rich townlands on the fields of the Pelennor, with rick and cottage. Minas Tirith is surrounded by -- nothing. Where do they get food?

I know that this is partly because Jackson was filming in New Zealand and had to leave a minimal footprint, so when he build his Edoras set he couldn't also turn the surrounding fields into farms. So we get lots of pretty imagery in the films, without the smaller corresponding touches that would give those images life. Pretty, but dead. This fake awesome ethic -- immediately impressive, but incoherent on two seconds of rational thought -- pervades all of Jackson's Tolkien forays. If you're not already convinced of this on the basis of the Hobbit movies, I don't know how I can move you with further persuasion.

On the other hand, Darwin is gone for the next week, and I need something to do with my evenings. Please, people, talk me down from watching Lord of the Rings.


Jamie said...

Don't do it! One word: Galadriel.

Well, no, a few more words. My daughter and I are in the last chapter of Fellowship of the Ring, and so I have also been reflecting on Jackson's errors. He does not portray goodness persuasively, and the trilogy is focused so squarely on the power of goodness that this is a fatal flaw in my view. Galadriel is the clearest example for me, but it's a pervasive problem.

Leo Tea said...

If you are in the mood for some epic Tolkien-ness, might I suggest a re-read of the Silmarillion? It's all doom and tragedy and hope and I love it.

Brandon said...

Jamie's comment brings into focus for me why some of what the movies provide seems to fall so flat -- it *is* flat, based on a flattened understanding of the themes and ideas. The movies do fairly well with Boromir, but Faramir and Denethor get flattened, the latter to the point of being mangled, and this despite the fact that (e.g) John Noble as Denethor was inspired casting (like a lot of the casting, actually). Faramir's part gets thrown out of joint because (on the other side of the point about good) the scriptwriters pretty clearly don't understand how temptation actually works (or that Faramir can pass the test Boromir fails because he deliberately avoids even the occasion to be tempted).

Back when the movies originally came out, I remember some review somewhere talking about Rivendell, and how it was impressive in broad sweep but when looking at the details it was odd how the Elves seemed to get all their decoration from a garden supply store. The broad sweep worked because it was ultimately based on Tolkien's own paintings and drawings and descriptions of Rivendell, adapted for cinema; but while a huge amount of talent and effort had been put into the detail-work, none of it really conveyed anything about the Elves themselves. At times there's almost a Dungeons & Dragons quality to the Elves in the movie -- a very good sense of 'Elf' as a role and not much of a sense of the Elves as people, or indeed of what you would surround yourself with if you lived for millenia and remembered wonders that now survive only in your memories.

Anna said...

I've steadfastly refused to watch those movies at all. So I can encourage you not to!

What about Anne of Green Gables or Pride and Prejudice for "long movies so there's something to do for a week" but that isn't badly mangled? Or "Lars and the Real Girl" for something fun, but that isn't complete fluff either?

Or you could read Dorothy Sayers' "The Mind of the Maker." Acerbic and insightful.

Bob the Ape said...

You may find interesting this look at the Siege of Gondor by a military historian, comparing Tolkien, Jackson, and how things really work.

Journal Squared said...

Thanks for this!