Sunday, December 28, 2014

Is Jackson's Tolkien series the Best Fantasy Movies Ever?

So, as I said in my last post, I've been thinking over where the two three-part Peter Jackson Tolkien films fit in the grand scheme of things (whereas I usually consider them only from the point of view of their Tolkien content and as an expression of the larger set of All Things Tolkienian). The past few days I've been discussing fantasy films with a lot of friends at various holiday get-togethers, plus of course taking into account the comments made on my previous post by David B. and 'JL' (for which thanks).  The more I think about it, the more I think Jackson's films do indeed have a claim to being among the greatest fantasy films ever made.

Of course, any such judgment partly depends upon what you define as a fantasy film. Based on the strictures he laid down in ON FAIRY-STORIES, Tolkien wd have excluded such classics as the 1939 WIZARD OF OZ because of its frame tale (it's all a dream), which wd apply equally to the much-filmed (never altogether successfully) ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

Personally I view fantasy as a large and diverse field with a natural divide into two main groups: the Coleridgeian or secondary world fantasy, which presents a full-fledged fantasy world with its own geography, history, peoples, et al (of which Tolkien is the prime example), and the Wordsworthian or primary-world fantasy, in which magical intrusions make their way into a more-or-less normal everyday world (a great example being the classic film HARVEY).

Of these, it's obviously far easier to film the latter kind, and most of the great fantasy films (HARVEY, BEING THERE, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE) fit this pattern. Films set in fantasy worlds, by contrast, have tended to deserve Tolkien's scorn (to slightly paraphrase his memorable phrase, belief is not so much suspended as hung, drawn, and quartered).

Animation offers one way out --I'd say Miyazaki's SPIRITED AWAY is hands down one of the finest fantasy films ever made* -- but most animated fantasy is just as bad as live-action fantasy, as exemplified by the dreadful WIZARDS (which shd have shown anyone who was watching that Bakshi was incompetent to make THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which unfortunately he then proceeded to make).

 At the very least, Jackson's accomplishment has shown that full-bore secondary world 'high' fantasy is now well within the reach of modern filmmakers, and that fantasy film no longer has to be judged by LABYRINTH and WIZARDS and CONAN and the like. Thanks to him, we can expect from here on out to see more films with high production values and prestigious casts like THE GOLDEN COMPASS and fewer like WILLOW.

Here's looking forward to more adaptations of major works, and also presentations of original stories, in the years to come.

--John R.
current reading: THE HOBBIT AND HISTORY (con't)

*just as the late Satoshi Kon's PAPRIKA would get my vote as the best science fiction film, and Kon's PERFECT BLUE has to rank pretty far up there when it comes to horror.


Lover of Bible and Biblical languages said...

This short text actually says very little about its supposed topic - Jackson's "Tolkien" movies - and why they should be considered "best fantasy movies" by any standard. Yet perchance little treatment is the more fitting and possibly polite choice, should one consider with honesty and open eyes the nature of the "content" (and "stylistic sense" etc.) Jackson has been able to actually ADD to the mix - especially in the newer three-part public demonstration of his vocation (towards classic literature) and interests as a man with a paid camera crew.

Lover of Bible and Biblical languages said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul W said...

Considering how kind you are to Jackson (overly so, in my opinion) I am a bit shocked at the scorn you show to Bakshi. Given his budget limitations, I cannot see how his adaption of Fellowship and Two Towers is markedly worse then Jackson's. And in several scenes Jackson seems to be taking shots directly from Bakshi (for example, the Nazgul slashing the pillows at the Prancing Pony). And Fellowship is by far the best Jackson's work, IMO. And not coincidently the closest one gets to a faithful adaption.

Charlie Warren said...

I enjoyed the Jackson LOTR films tremendously! It isn't unusual for me to pull them out and watch them on the weekend still. I was able to separate the film LOTR from the original novels. I think this is why I enjoy them so much. When I heard about the adaptation of The Hobbit that would be coming soon I was pretty excited.

That excitement lasted until I saw the first entry into The Hobbit trio of films. It had some moments but it was jarring to see all the additional material and the changes from the novel. I know Jackson's LOTR films have differences from the books but I think he missed the mark on The Hobbit in a big way.

My wife got me the first two films of The Hobbit for Christmas. These films just do not capture my attention like the LOTR films. The Hobbit should be the easier book to adapt to the big screen. All of the deviations and additions are a distraction. I feel like he tried for over the top on all aspects and it has turned me off from these films. The Dwarves seem like comic relief in many scenes (the stupid dish scene), Radagast is a moronic buffoon with bird crap on his head, the goblins are irritating, the barrel riding scene was atrocious, and I could go on and on. I will see the final one just for the sake of completion.

I have the Rankin & Bass animated version of The Hobbit and enjoy it tremendously. It was fun without resorting to Benny Hill type chase scenes between Rastabell rabbits and a band of Orcs. Ugh, The Hobbit films are just not to my taste at all. I don't mean to get going on a tirade.

David Bratman said...

Aside from questions of quality, there's no doubt that Jackson's epic, especially but not only if you consider all 6 films to be one project, are the biggest fantasy movie project and indeed just about the biggest movie project of all time. That alone would make it worthy of note, at least.

What's more, Jackson proved to be entirely competent at managing such a large project. He produced a coherent product on time and (as far as I know) within budget. Again, totally apart from any questions of the quality of the movies, this is a notable achievement in film-making, the more so when you remember other large projects which were logistical or administrative disasters, like "Apocalypse Now" (which at least did result in a creditable movie) or "Heaven's Gate."

Your mention of Wordsworthian and Coleridgean fantasies makes me strongly urge you to read Farah Mendlesohn's "Rhetorics of Fantasy."

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Paul

I just went back and rewatched Bakshi, and I think the problem lies largely in my reaction to his animation style: his is, ironically, the worst-acted animation film I've ever seen. When he shows us rotoscoped characters, what I see are the actors beneath, whom he had make exaggerated facial contortions is order to give his rotoscopers something to work with. It immediately takes me out of the film. Perhaps a low-tech version of the 'uncanny valley' phenomenon?

And if this were not enough, his plot is relatively faithful in outline but not in spirit: it reduces one of the great works of literature into a cartoon. Tolkien's work cd be turned into a fine animated film in the right hands, but a cartoon it's not. Compare the charge that Jackson reduces LotR and H into mere adventure movies; his defenders would say that they're certainly adventure movies but also much more.

Finally, there's the whole competence issue. The fact is that Bakshi can't keep the characters' names straight from scene to scene (the script keeps going back and forth between "Aruman" and "Saruman" all film long), loves long dull set pieces of horses prancing (there are lots of horse sequences in WIZARDS too, I've just discovered), and released what is clearly an unfinished movie (the animation fails altogether in some of the final scenes).

So, yes, I'm harsh in my judgment of it. It's not all bad,* but lord knows it isn't good.

--John R.

*(the visual style of the backgrounds are striking, though not Tolkienesque, the soundtrack is enjoyable enough, and Bakshi captured a playfulness in Gandalf and Galadriel that most miss)

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Charlie

Not to worry: I've seen tirades, and that's no tirade.

Plus, since most people either liked or disliked all the Peter Jackson Tolkien movies as a group, it's interesting to hear from the (sizable, but largely overlooked) group that liked his LotR movies but not THE HOBBIT films.

--John R.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David

I think we largely agree.

I do think Jackson's success in showing that fantasy can be filmed will lead to a lot more fantasy novels being made into movies. Some will be good, some dreadful and, if we're very lucky, one or two will be great. Here's hoping.

Re. branches of fantasy, I recently ordered two of Mendlesohn's books but not yet had a chance to read them. Having long been interested in the topic, I'll be interested in seeing what she has to say on the subject.

--John R.

Charlie Warren said...

Hi John,

Cool. I don't want to say they weeen't enjoyable or had any well done scenes. All 6 films looked amazing! It just turns out THE HOBBIT films caught me off guard is all. It's like ordering a PEPSI for your drink and taking a big pull on it to discover you had accidentally been give Grape juice. I got caught off guard and didn't recover.

Paul W said...

Well, all of your criticisms of Bakshi are accurate, I have to admit. I just think that Jackson's faults are as bad or worse. I wouldn't say Jackson turned Tolkien into action movies, I would say he turns them into mindless thrill rides (especially the deplorable Goblin Town scenes).

Jackson is not alone in poorly translating prose to screen. I recently watched Solomon Kane which fails in much the same ways as Jackson (and The Dark is Rising and Earthsea films are even worse adaptions) but that doesn't excuse his failures. None of which are due to lack of funding or poor directing ability but from a fundamental misunderstanding of the books and the characters (his treatment of Denethor and Faramis, for example, or the way he mutilates Thrainduil in the Hobbit.)