|Wednesday, November 26, 2003
14:13 - I'd like to return your so-called "Ultimate Belt"
Lileks likes the LotR DVDs, quite a lot:
Whew. Just finished the first extended bonus-edition director’s cut LOTR movie. I’m watching both EBEDC LOTR movies to prepare for seeing the third installment in the theater. I have the same reaction to this movie as I did the first time I saw it: gratitude. And a certain amount of awe – there’s not a note out of place. Every works; nothing clangs. Every frame has some sort of beauty, be it bright or dark. When asked for my favorite movie I give the old standard reply – Casablanca, because it has everything I want in glorious Warner Brothers monophonic silvery-toned perfection. It’s a movie in the sense that LOTR isn’t. Short, self-contained, pop culture that effortlessly transcends its limitations (perhaps because it isn’t trying to do anything of the sort.) But LOTR may be the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen on the screen. I say this as someone who was utterly immune to hobbitry right up until the day I saw the movie.
Which I find very encouraging. Because as should be fairly plain, I've been a Tolkienista since grade school. I'm one of those guys who can recite the names of the Numenórean kings and queens in order. I published a manual on writing in tengwar when I was in high school. (I went to a high school where that sort of thing didn't get you beaten up.) I don't need subtitles when Arwen talks.
And I, and thousands of other incurable Tolkien purists, think Peter Jackson has done the impossible: he's made the ultimate purists' story into a series of movies that to a man they fawn over helplessly.
Jackson figured something out that previous directors failed to see: that in order to please the seriously hard-core fans, the secret is not to simply treat the book as the screenplay; it's not to reproduce every last dorky line of dialogue and every verbal pun that only makes sense in print. Rather, Jackson struck boldly out into new territory; he made a movie that, astonishingly, has almost no verbatim dialogue straight from the books-- it's all either subtly altered or completely synthesized anew. When we saw the first trailers for the first movie, Tolkien fans were in shock. Not nearly frightened enough! said Aragorn in one of the shots. What the hell? When did he say that? What have they done to the character? We awaited opening day with the dread of a train-wreck of which we had foreknowledge, standing in the railway cutting with the camera rolling and a lump in our throats.
And then the curtain went up. And after the first perfunctory background scene, the first two lines of dialogue happened, which appeared nowhere in the book, and were manufactured from whole cloth by Jackson and his writers:
Frodo: "You're late."
Gandalf: "A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to."
.... trying to keep a straight face... lips quiver... both burst out laughing...
An audaciously un-canon exchange, never envisioned by Tolkien, and introducing the characters in a mixture of mock formality that gives way to an overjoyed breaking of the silly façade and the embracing of two long-separated friends. Ralph Bakshi would never have contemplated such a departure from the original story-- he would have stuck religiously to the script straight out of the book.
And that's why Bakshi's movie was such a turd, and Jackson's shines so brightly.
Because in the Jackson film, that opening exchange-- those two superbly-delivered lines, replete with McKellen's picture-perfect facial reactions-- are 100% in character for both Frodo and Gandalf... and in fact seem more natural, even, than what's in the book. Two lines into the movie, and we already know these two characters. Jackson expertly conveyed their respective essences in ten seconds where Bakshi failed in ten minutes to turn either character into anything to which any audience member could relate.
And as soon as we'd all absorbed those two lines, all the purists in the audience, all the hard-core Tolkien geeks around the world, leaned back in their seats, exhaled, and said: Oh! I get it. That's all right then. And we let go of our jealous defense of the canon plot and dialogue; we put our trust in Jackson's hands, and let ourselves be carried off into a new envisioning of the story. One that, to our profound surprise, we all had to admit was even superior to the book version in many ways.
Sure, some characters and plot elements are dropped. But did we really miss Tom Bombadil? Before the first movie was released, Tolkien purists were scowling on message boards about the injustice of it all, the rape of Tolkien's vision that this fat Kiwi slasher-flick maven was committing. But by the time we'd all seen ten minutes of the movie, Tom Bombadil was the last thing on anybody's mind. By the time we'd seen Saruman (Christopher Lee had an understanding with his old friend Tolkien-- if there were ever to be a live-action LotR movie made, Lee was to get the role of Gandalf; but as it turned out, he was simply poured into Saruman's white robes, and he had a voice that the role seemed all but written for, far unlike the gecko with a sore throat that played him in the Bakshi version; and Lee acted as the primary story consultant on the set with Jackson) and Elrond (Welcome to Rivendell, Misssster Baggins) and old Tolkienian hand Ian Holm as Bilbo, we knew there was not the slightest thing to worry about.
Never mind that Aragorn doesn't spend his time reciting love stories from the First Age. Give me his interplay with the breathtaking Sean Bean as Boromir, and the latter's Best Death Scene Ever (a far cry from the ridiculous rotoscoped arrow-studded Viking against the red construction-paper background in the Bakshi movie), to say nothing of Bloom's appropriately light-footed Legolas and John Rhys-Davies' iconic Gimli, and what you end up with is a movie that succeeds beyond anyone's wildest expectations. No hard-core fan expected it to be perfect (and no, it isn't). But even so, all the hard-core fans on Usenet and beyond had their lists of "ideal casting choices" and demands for such-and-such proper treatment of such-and-such plot point. Nearly everybody who had such a demand was flouted. But what they got was so much better than what they thought they wanted.
This is why-- and if you don't want to hear about any spoilers, stop reading now-- I'm not worried when I hear about certain things being cut from Return of the King. We already knew that there'd be no Scouring of the Shire-- like Tom Bombadil, it's a device that works better in print than (likely) on the screen, mostly for reasons of timing (after all, the three movies break in slightly different places than the three books do). But it also means that Saruman isn't in the third movie either, though he does appear here and there throughout the third book. Jackson says that his role, as the primary antagonistic force in The Two Towers, is over now, and to add him into the third movie (from which his final resolution scene has been deleted anyway) would be confusing and pointless. Word is that he'll have a couple of scenes in the extended DVD, but in the theatrical version there's no Saruman to be seen. Pity, but... if there's anything we've learned by now, it's to Trust your Uncle Peter. He knows what he's doing.
Being a Tolkien fan used to mean petulantly correcting people who said, "Oh, Tolkien! You mean, like, The Hobbit, right? I read that in grade school!" and seeking out those rare like-minded fans on campus or, later, online. But now The Lord of the Rings is the biggest pop-cultural fantasy phenomenon we've seen since Star Wars, and those of us who have been so deeply entrenched in Tolkienism as to imagine ourselves honorary members of the Notion Club, or to gaze out our westward-facing windows in the hopes of seeing Tol Eressëa, are now in the decidedly unusual position of having had all our wildest dreams answered. No longer do we have to long for the real version of the story to be put up on the screen, for some good director to come along and film the books the way they should have been done. Nobody will ever be able to even attempt this project again, because Jackson has nailed it. A true die-hard fan himself, the strange little Kiwi has shown that it's not enough to simply be unwaveringly faithful to the original source material in order to make LotR into a successful movie. You have to be a master storyteller in your own right, bringing your own vision to the table.
And that's the difference between all the fans who assumed that Tolkien's original work couldn't be improved upon, and the people who weren't afraid to say that it could. Whatever stroke of providence it was that gave one of those few latter souls the wherewithal to make these movies, it couldn't have been better placed.