Friday, February 24, 2012

Rewatching Peter Jackson

So, on my trip back from Arkansas just before Tolkien's birthday (e.g., in the terminal at Love Field and later during the layover at Albuquerque) I re-watched the theatrical version of Jackson's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING for the first time in years. It occurred to me recently that whenever I re-watch this, it's always the extended version, which I've come to think of as the 'real' version of the film.

Rewatching it again, first on my laptop with headphones on in airports and on the flight back to SeaTac (hardly ideal conditions), and then again last weekend under much more congenial conditions,* I'd have to revise that conclusion.

One thing I deliberately tried, as a kind of thought experiment, was to try to look at the film as a self-contained work rather than an adaptation. That is, how would this look from the point of view of someone who'd never read the book, who only knows the story as it's being told, minute by minute, on the screen.

First, the theatrical version holds up very well as a coherent film. There's an awful lot going on, --a complex plot and lots of names of people and places-- but the viewer doesn't get lost. It's moving, and funny, and frightening, and exciting by turns; a love story and a war story and a suspense story and a best-buds story. Its range can embrace thoughtful discussions (the Council of Elrond, Shadow of the Past, Gandalf's long talk with Saruman before the wizard-fu nonsense) to well-choreographed action scenes (the best of which was Aragorn's advancing to take on the entire uruk-hai company solo).

Second, the film contains and conveys an awful lot of information. Enormous amounts of backstory and debate and discussion, often taking up thirty-page chapters in the book, get presented in five minutes or so. The temptation to dumb down the story must have been enormous, and it's to Jackson's credit that he resisted it as much as he did.
Third, the film highlights something truly unusual in Tolkien's book that I've simply gotten used to over the years. Someone watching this film with no preconceptions might well wonder, a half hour or so into it, who's supposed to be the main character. At first it looks like Bilbo, but then he exits, stage left. Gandalf looks like the next best bet, but after the wizard-fu scene he's offscreen for quite a while. Just as you might firmly settle on Frodo, Strider appears and seems to take the lead. There have been so many articles over the years debating over who was the real hero of LotR --Frodo or Gandalf or Strider-- that I'd forgotten how unusual it is in any twentieth century work, fantasy or realist or modernist, to have this kind of bifurcation. Impressive that Jackson embraced this element of Tolkien's work and made sure it came to the fore.

Most of us at Mithlond felt that FELLOWSHIP (a) held up well, ten years later, (b) really did have its own merits vis-a-vis the later expanded/extended director's cut, (c) was the best of the three Jackson films overall.

My favorite comment, which either came from Chris or Yvette (I forget which), was the observation when Gandalf arrived at Orthanc: "when you find out your old friend is played by Christopher Lee, look out!"

--John R.
current reading: MIDDLE-EARTH AND BEYOND, ed. Dubs & Kascakova

*we decided to devote this month's Mithlond meeting to seeing the film, and our hosts' delightful cat Max joined in (their other cat, Maya, also made a rare appearance about two-thirds of the way through, perhaps wondering why we were still there).

1 comment:

Brian Murphy said...

I don't know if you have seen this:, but Fellowship recently made it on the AFIs 100 years/100 movie list. Even for those who don't like them as adaptations of Tolkien's work, it's pretty clear that they are excellent films.