Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Lords of the Lord the Rings

It's been three years since the last installment of the movie trilogy of The Lord of the Rings was released on DVD, and I've finally decided to sit down and speak my mind about the whole sordid mess.

Some of you may know that I wrote my Masters thesis on The Lord of the Rings, the book, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This makes me more of a purist than most viewers of the three movies. It also means that I take certain thematic and literary aspects of the books a lot more seriously than most people. And all of this translates to a more critical view of some of the events and characters in the movie, how they were portrayed, as well as some of the really crappy substitutions that the screenplay writers made over what Tolkien had previously intended.

I don't blame the movie's writers,
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, for trying to find directions for the plot that are more simplistic than what the books had achieved, especially since movie audiences don't tend to be as erudite as the reading public. But I do reserve the privilege to make comment on some of the aspects where I think they foundered.

Before I go on, I should mention that much of my consternation with the films stems not only from book-related mishaps, but also from the point of view of a movie buff. Almost anyone who loves movies has at least one, but usually more than one, favourite that they can watch over and over again. For example, I could watch The Empire Strikes Back, or The Shawshank Redemption, or Gettysburg - pretty much any time, and I would still enjoy those movies for what they are to me: really well produced, entertaining and meaningful stories. I don't find myself capable of saying the same for the Lord of the Rings

There's too much cliché to them, I guess. One device that is used in the movies which really turns me off is the use of "what ___ ?" In linguistic terms, this is called "evaluation," which is the story teller's way of quantifying the importance of what is going on. Music in movies is a form of evaluation. For example, in The Gladiator, the battle scenes represent excellent musical evaluation. But in strictly literary terms, repetition, exaggeration and alliteration can all mark evaluative writing - such as in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" ("The horror! The horror!") or Shakespeare's "Richard III" ("A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!") An often overlooked aspect of J.R.R. Tolkien's writing is that he was a master of evaluation. It is also for this reason that his books read so well and that so many people, who otherwise don't read Fantasy novels, pick up his books and then never put them down; and
his descriptions of Lorien and of the charge of the Rohirrim are among the great literary masterpieces of our time.

This brings me back to "what ___ ?" There are several instances of this poor evaluative device that pop up with irritating regularity, meaning to me that the screenplay writers were strapped for time & had no better device to fall back on. There is the instance where Frodo has just called Gollum by his rightful name, "Smeagol," and this latter responds with "what did you call me?" At the end of "The Two Towers," there is Sam's speech about going on with the fight, and there still being something to fight for. The music for that scene, and the cutting back and forth between Sam, the Ents and Helm's Deep is actually very nice evaluation - but Frodo's response, which is supposed to cap it all off, is like a flat balloon: "what is it Sam?" as though he wasn't about to tell us! In fishing terms this is like seeing your float strike downward from the vicious attack of a ravenous and frenzied ... old boot. Tolkien did not resort to this simple trick, in his books, and his portrayal of the scenes are vastly different.

But the movie is replete with these what? what? what? setups that don't exist in the book. It is very much like the blast of a hammer: the first time it is surprising, then it gets progressively less so until one just ignores it, or is bored by it. It reminds me of a critique that Mark Twain once wrote about Fennimore Cooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans), namely that:

Style may be likened to an army, the author to its general, the book to the campaign. Some authors proportion an attacking force to the strength or weakness, the importance or unimportance, of the object to be attacked; but Cooper doesn't. It doesn't make any difference to Cooper whether the object of attack is a hundred thousand men or a cow; he hurls his entire force against it. He comes thundering down with all his battalions at his back, cavalry in the van, artillery on the flanks, infantry massed in the middle, forty bands braying, a thousand banners streaming in the wind; and whether the object be an army or a cow you will see him come marching sublimely ...

This is very much the way the writers of the movie The Lord of the Rings approached their script. They hit us over and over with the same tricks, the same set ups and with the same mega-blast exaggerations of Tolkien's original. The Black Riders make creepy-crawlies slither out of the ground, the mountain troll in Moria walks into the chamber of mazarbûl and engages the entire kung-fu masters company in a brawl, the King of the Dead enters into disdainful scary-o discourse with Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas, Legolas turns into the mega atomic surfer dude snowboarding down stairs and extreme-skiing to death huge mammoths, the Ents turn into blithering idiots stupid enough to be tricked by Pippin the stupidest of all hobbits, etc... ad nauseum. In these (and so many more) scenes, the movies so misrepresent the books that anyone reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time must either find the real story bland in comparison, or be puzzled as to where the script writers got the inspiration for scenes that just do not exist in the book.

Finally, although I could go on and on, all of this forced hoopla mars the subtlety and poetry with which Tolkien had so painstakingly decorated his original stories; and I am left with the feeling, not so much of having seen something wonderful and artful, but more of having been to the carnival and having had a reel gud time.

And maybe that's all that Walsh, Boyens and Jackson had truly set out to achieve, when they sought to bring this massive beautiful and ungainly thing to the silver screen: just giving their viewers a good time. After all, it is Hollywood, and the name of the game is profit, above all else. Balancing the necessary flash-bang plot pyrothechnics with a sufficient amount of more deeply flowing literary matter is a very difficult and foolhardy thing to attempt, especially when your writer was J.R.R. Tolkien. And that is probably why the first time I saw the movies, it was a good time; but the second time, it was merely tiresome.