Wednesday, December 24, 2003

LONG LOTR review

Oh, where to begin. Return of the King is an amazing spectacle, and in many ways, I think I really need repeated viewings to absorb all it has to offer. Sitting in the theater I did have a couple unsatisfied moments where I wonder why Peter Jackson did what he did, but overall I thought it was an amazing piece of work.

I really think that the LOTR films have to be evaluated as one work. In addition, I think when the dust settles, it will be the extended versions that should be considered the definitive Tolkien on film. With that in mind, a true review of Jackson's LOTR will have to wait until next fall when ROTK comes out in it's full version on DVD. In any event, I'm going to be inconsistent here and alternately talk about the three films, and ROTK simultaneously.

First of all, I feel that Jackson did an amazing job of remaining true to the spirit of the books. Sitting through Fellowship two years ago, I found myself annoyed at all the little changes, much like many Tolkien fans. But that quickly evaporated for me when I realized just how good that film was. In many ways, I feel that Jackson captured, as well as any filmmaker can, all of the thematic elements crucial to the story, and he did it brilliantly. For example, the colors of the film. The washed out and ethereal view of Elven realms like Rivendel and Lothlorien, capturing beautifully not only the differing nature of Elves and Men, but also giving a visual representation of two of the three Elven rings at work. The lush green look of the Shire, the grey stone look of Minas Tirith, the brown and wooden look of Rohan, and particularly Edoras. The angular stone look of Khazad-Dum/Moria. Brilliantly evoking visually what Tolkien did so well in prose.

Second is the issue of scale. The pure size of things in this film, impossible before modern computers FX, is stunning. Focusing on the third film, look at Minas Tirith, and the Battle of Pelenor Fields. The pure numbers of Orcs, or the sweeping panorama during the charge of the Rohirrim. Or even the Mumakil (giant Elephants) charging. Evoking a little bit of the Hoth Battle from "Empire Strikes Back", only bigger and better. Have to admit the first thing I thought of when Eowyn is galloping between the legs of the Mumakil was of Luke flying his speeder through a walker. Only it looked much better. Go figure, the FX are two generations removed. Even go back to the beginning of the first film, and this is obvious with the Battle of the Last Alliance that opens up the trilogy. The scope of that battle set the tone for the three films, and Jackson crescendos from there

But scale is more than just visual size. Scale for these films is in just about everything. From acting to dialog to plot to emotions. The whole thing is so "Over the top" to use a trite, but accurate phrase, that Jackson approaches the boundary between spectacle and camp. But I feel he never crosses it. Gollum's monologue/dialogue from Two Towers is an example of this. Both times I saw it in the theater, there was a smattering of giggling during this scene. It's just so uncomfortable to watch, but it should be so.

Scale is also about pacing. Jackson likes to build and build and build just to when there should be a climax, and then wait and build it some more. There's internal tension in Jackson's pacing. He's driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes so that the movie is both lurching forward and being held back. The end of Fellowship shows this perfectly. In the midst of the battle on Amon Hen, Boromir's death desolves into both a patient and urgent scene, as does Sams plunge into the river. Or in the prelude to the Battle of Pelenor Fields, where Pippin is singing for Denethor while Faramir leads a futile and absurd charge to slaughter. One of the most beautiful moments of film ever.

The films also are very strong in terms of characters. In this respect, I think the films take things in a different direction than Tolkien's writing, but it works. I'll use Aragorn as an example of this. In the book, Aragorn is almost a flat character. He's a mythological hero, with no abivalence towards his fate. He IS king, he realizes it, and he is at peace with his destiny. Witness his initial confrontation with Eomer in the pages of the Two Towers. He claims the title of Kind, and all are awed. Jackson has added a degree of self doubt to Aragorn's character, but it works on film.

Gimly, Legolas, Merry and Pippin all have their place, but they aren't central to the film. While not flat characters, they are definitely in the supporting role. Central to the entire story is the Sam/Frodo/Gollum interaction. Sam is the heart and soul of the story. Never doubting their mission, and though conflicted, always staying true. Frodo and Gollum are flip sides of the same coin. Gollum representing the absolutel corrupting power of the ring. Frodo showing how only his friends are keeping him from turning into Gollum.

And thank God that Jackson kept the phenomenal ending intact. Frodo ultimately fails, and Gollum has a role to play, all within the consistent framework of their characters. Briliant conception by Tolkien, and perfectly executed by Jackson.

Central to characters on film are the actors that portray them. In this, I think the films are good. Sean Astin is perfect as Sam. Viggo Mortensern has Aragorn down pat, although doesn't he look a little awkward while running? Or is that just me. The supporting roles are all well played. Sir Ian McKellan is wonderful as Gandalf.

aside: Max Leader and I saw Ian McKellan play Richard III on stage at the Kenedy Center about 10 years ago. Best live Shakespeare I've seen to date. Noone comes close. Best live performance I've seen to date as well.

Now, Elijah Wood? He's Ok. While not bad by a long shot, I don't think he quite hits a home run with Frodo. And it's unfortunately accentuated, because Sean Astin is right there with him nailing the character of Sam dead on. And then there's Gollum.

So much has been written about Gollum, that I'm not going into it. Suffice to say that it's an amazing performance captured on film. And if Andy Serkis doesn't get some sort of award for it, then it's just another example of how lame the Oscars are.

there has been a lot on line whining about how the films diverge from the book. I'm of two minds about this.

On one hand, film is a different medium than the written word, and Jackson has proven himself a master film maker. Ok, so he shifted the time scale of Fellowship to compact it, and make it less leasurely and more driven. It works. So he made little changes here and there... most of them work well. I would argue that most of his changes involve pacing and scale. Two examples: the elimination of the Saruman confrontation from the beginning of ROTK. It makes sense from the point of view of the pacing of the film. And not knowing it was supposed to be there, the film works fine. Secondly, the character of Faramir in TT deciding to take the ring to his father. He does come to his senses and do the right thing... the difference is that Jackson stretches out his temptation from a fleeting instant to bringing the hobbits to Osgiliath. Jackson doesn't alter substance, merely the mechanism of telling the story.

Now, on the other hand... from watching one of the documentaries on the Two Towers DVD, it becomes apparant that Tolkien broke all the ruled in telling his story, merely because he wasn't aware of the rules for writing a novel. Lots of stuff happens "off stage", there are long sections of exposition, and dialogue, you never see the bad guy, and on and on. But it all works. I would have liked to have seen Jackson have a little more faith in the story and not felt the need to make it more conventional. So the story breaks the rules a little bit. It works on the page, even though many publishers didn't think it would. Couldn't it work on film?

I chose to have faith that Peter Jackson did the right thing with this film, and his take on it. While I may have issue with specific details here and there, I really have no complaint about the overall quality of the films. Nothing short of phenomenal. Whats more, the shear scope of the story, and the visual scale of the film put it in a class all it's own. I think of the three films as three chapters of a larger work. It's very difficult to compare it to any other film. Keep in mind, we're talking about something that's three times as long as the LONG version of Lawrence of Arabia, and much BIGGER.

Ultimately, the question I have to ask myself is if anyone could have filmed a better version of Lord of the Rings. And the answer I keep comming to is No, it couldn't have been done any better.

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