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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Greatest Fantasy Movie

So, I'd no sooner seen the newest and final HOBBIT film than the question came to me: are Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptations the greatest fantasy films ever made? Certainly they'd have to be in contention. It cd be argued that, Tolkien being the greatest of all fantasy authors,* someone setting out to adapt his works has a built-in advantage, but I think that wd be to underestimate Jackson's own talents.

I remember when fantasy film meant WILLOW (fun but daft), LEGEND (pretty but boring), or LABYRINTH (muppets and rock stars? really?**) -- in fact, one of the things that got me interested in anime and manga was the realization that there was a lot of fantasy out there, far more than we were getting in US films, only in animated form. It didn't help that what American films were coming out were firmly in the 'B-movie' range, at best. We've come a long way now since then, with fantasy films now very much in the mainstream (the HARRY POTTER series, GAME OF THRONES, Peter Jackson).

Trouble is, I can't judge how great a movie the Peter Jackson LORD OF THE RINGS and HOBBIT are because I can't divorce them from their Tolkien content to arrive at a fair judgment. Similarly, when it comes to what's probably the most famous fantasy movie ever made, THE WIZARD OF OZ, its very familiarity makes it hard for me to judge on its own merits. What wd that film be like to someone who didn't grow up on it as a viewing tradition, year after year, in a society filled with references to it?  And, of course, I haven't seen every fantasy film ever made, nor do I want to, so any judgment has to come from partial knowledge.

But, given those caveats, I'd have to say THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT still wd have to rank at or near the top of the list.

So, the question: what's the greatest fantasy film ever made?

--John R.
current reading: Brodie's LOCATION GUIDE to New Zealand sites filmed in THE HOBBIT movie(s). [2014]

*I think his nearest rival to that claim wd be Lewis Carroll -- whom Tolkien didn't think wrote fantasy. But then Verne didn't think Wells wrote science fiction, so authors may not be the best judges of such things

**to be fair, I've never seen this one all the way through, so it may be much better than the bits and pieces I've seen wd indicate

Sunday, December 21, 2014


So, I'd been apprehensive about seeing the new HOBBIT movie, based on early reviews which praised the film for having jettisoned all the acting bits for one long spectacular special effects sequence of battle scenes (not being terribly impressed by special effects myself, however well done; I prefer plot and dialogue and acting).

I've now seen the film, and liked it better than I expected, and liked it better yet on a second viewing. I don't know how well it'll hold up to repeated viewings, but there's enough of what I like in a Tolkien movie to keep me coming back for more. And, contrary to my expectation, the battle scenes and long set pieces of one-on-one combats didn't pall on rewatching, as I expected them to.

I'll want to see it again (and soon!), but I suspect in the end this trilogy of movies will be like the LotR films: My favorite will be the first one, which sets up the scene and story, introduces the major characters, and relies heavily on the interaction between them. Then the second introduces a lot of new characters and delivers several of the most satisfying scenes and performances. Then the third has to both follow-up and pull together all the ongoing plot threads and at the same time deliver on a climax worthy of all those hours of set-up. Inevitably, the third film in each series draws more on Jackson's innovations (as opposed to Tolkien's original text) than the previous two have done,* meaning there's less for the purist in the final films of each set than in the ones that preceded them.

Even so, 'less' is a relative term, and luckily the claim (as criticism or praise) that it was one long roller-coaster ride turns out not to be true.  The character interaction bits that Jackson does so well (and with such an impressive cast to do it with) are still there, with Martin F's Bilbo and McKellan's Gandalf** and Armitage's Thorin all given a chance to shine. It's quite touching how, as Thorin descends into madness, his friendship with Bilbo (one of the high points of the second film) endures -- which makes Bilbo's betrayal all the harder on him when it comes. The minor roles are also well-done: Galadriel and Saruman and Elrond and even Radagast all shine. The wizard-fu is much better done this time than in the Gandalf-Saruman duel way back in 2001*** and we get a clear sense of just how powerful Galadriel is (despite some regrettable makeup choices). And while he can hardly be called a 'minor role' despite his relatively brief amount of screen time in this third film, Cumberbatch's Smaug is now firmly established as the greatest, bar none, of all the movie dragon's I've ever seen.

Of the other continuing roles, most (Thranduil, Legolas, Tauriel, Azog, Bolg) are just the same here as in the previous film. Frye's Master of Laketown is just as bad, but luckily his performance is soon cut short. Sadly to say, his lackey Alfrid lingers on and on and on with his cringeworthy antics for most of the film's running time. Bard is much better than in the previous film, mainly because they keep him busy so there's less moping around. Pretty much the only new character of note is Dain, here portrayed as a mad-eyed Scot.

The film's greatest departure from the original is the rather baffling omission of any wargs from the Battle of Five Armies. Given that they were one of the five armies from which the conflict gets its name, this seemed an odd omission (for the record, the 'five armies' of the book are the dwarves, elves, men, goblins, and wargs; those of the film are the dwarves, elves, men, orcs of Dol Guldor, and orcs of Mt Gundabad). Its greatest continuity gap is the presence of multiple trolls in the attack on Dale, all moving about in the sunlight with no explanation of how they manage this feat (it cd be rationalized that the book describes the bats as forming a cloud that darkens the day, but that's not the case in the movie, where they just flap around menacingly).

Ironically, the one thing which Jackson did to make this third movie more like the book than the previous two was to the film's detriment. Tolkien does not individualize all the dwarves of Thorin & Company much, whereas Jackson went out of his way in the first film to make each a distinct personality. There was less of that in the second film but it was still present. Now with the third and final film Jackson has reverted to Tolkien's example: of Thorin's companions Kili gets his own subplot, Fili gets enough development to prove he wd have been a good and worthy King under the Mountain, and Balin and Dwalin get a line or two apiece, while the rest fade into anonymity. A pity, given what a good job he'd done with them before. Let's hope the extended edition goes some way to fixing this shortcoming -- and I'm curious to see if, as seems to be the case in that quick glimpse of all the surviving dwarves near the end, Bifur finally gets that stone axe removed from his forehead.

Speaking of proportion, one thing I've seen over and over among the nay-sayers who hated the film (not all of whom have bothered to see it) is the whole argument that these shd have been two movies instead of three, or even a single one-shot film. Some go so far as to try to figure out how many pages of Tolkien's book correspond to how many minutes of film time, trying to quantify the qualitative -- a vain task if ever there was one.   I don't understand this argument at all; it seems to me wholly specious. Let me put it this way: if someone told me I could visit one of my favorite places in the world once, or twice, or three times, the idea that three times was too many and I ought to be satisfied with fewer doesn't, all other factors being equal, make sense. The same applies if they asked if I wanted a cup of my favorite tea -- why wdn't I want a second or third cup, if they were offered and I was still thirsty? I love Tolkien's works, and I'm glad to see more of them, not less. Tolkien himself said the chief flaw of THE LORD OF THE RINGS was that it was too short. I'm glad the original book wasn't abridged before publication as his potential publishers wanted. I'm happy there have been so many posthumous publications, and that the HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH SERIES ran to a full twelve volumes. I'm glad Peter Jackson got to do THE LORD OF THE RINGS as three movies, not two or one, and I'm glad he got to do THE HOBBIT as well. Those who hate Tolkien or the Jackson films or both think less is more. For the rest of us more is more, and less is less.

The parallel argument, that if the films were shorter there'd be more Tolkien in them, is demonstrably false.  In the extended editions, which are longer than the theatrical releases, there are scenes from the book that don't appear in the shorter version of the film. A good case in point is the recently released extended edition of THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, which includes the scene were Gandalf introduces the party of dwarves two-by-two to Beorn -- an iconic moment in the book that didn't make it on screen in the theatrical release. So there's good evidence that the longer the films, the more Tolkien Jackson gets on screen.

The strongest criticism I can make of this film is that a movie named THE HOBBIT needs more scenes in it starring Bilbo, the Hobbit. When Bilbo's there, my interest is riveted on the screen in a way it's not when Azog, Bolg, Legolas, Tauriel, Bard, or special effects dominate.  It's Bilbo, and Gandalf and Thorin, and the White Council and Necromancer, and Smaug and the other twelve dwarves of Thorin & Company, who made this a film I wanted to watch (and, now, rewatch).

So, in the end: a good film. Not as great as the first and second that preceded it,   but with enough memorable scenes to be worth watching and re-watching for years to come. And a satisfying conclusion to the series as a whole.

As for Jackson's legacy, I think he's proven to us that Tolkien can be filmed, something a lot of people thought impossible until he proved them wrong. For all the things in them that drive purists mad,**** they do capture the essence of Tolkien's books to a degree I wd have thought impossible. And they've now established themselves as classics -- at least, the first (LotR) series has, and it seems likely the second (HOBBIT) one will follow in its footsteps in this, as in so much else. As such, I think it's inevitable that someday these movies will be remade, with a whole new cast and script and director, now that Jackson has proved it possible. Just as we get a new film version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE each generation or so, so too I think with Tolkien.  In any case, it'll be interesting to see. And, if I may make a prediction, I strongly suspect the people who hate Jackson now will hate his successor all the more, and will hold up the Jackson as examples of what he (or she) shd have done, just as some of Jackson's biggest critics began to praise the wretched Rankin-Bass HOBBIT (which they had preciously disparaged) once the Jackson films came out. 

But for now, this is the end of the line. And I must say it's been quite a journey. I think Jackson can be proud of what he's accomplished. 

--John R.
current reading: THE HOBBIT AND HISTORY (slowly)
current music: Big Star (1st and 2nd albums)
current anime: TOKYO ESP

 * just as Tolkien himself started out imitating Morris and Dunsany et al and over the years came to draw less on outside sources and more and more on his own earlier works, so too Jackson tends to became his own main source as each series extends: the great imperative at the end of this movie is to make it both wrap up Tolkien's story and sync up as much as possible with the first of the LotR movies (some of the opening dialogue of which actually plays just before the closing credits).

** it's ironic that McKellan actually comes first in the credits, rather than Martin F., the Hobbit of the title.

***I've decided that my favorite use of all that special effects technology in the film was its enabling a ninety-two years old man (Sir Christopher Lee) to engage in a swordfight

****the dwarven battle pig now has to be added to that list, alongside all the trolls attacking Dale in daylight

Friday, December 19, 2014

McWhorter on Sindarin

So, while I'm working on my review of THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (which I liked better than I expected, and enjoyed more on a second viewing than the first), here's an interim piece I wanted to share, in which linguist John McWhortor (author of THE POWER OF BABEL, which figured prominently in my piece for the Blackwelder festschrift ). It's nice to see Tolkien taken seriously by The Powers That Be (McWhorter is Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University) -- it's a long time now since language-invention was a 'secret vice'.  And I think the key to that transformation was Tolkien's insight that the language has to be used for something before it can capture the imagination. People want to learn Sindarin (et al.) because it's a means of getting deeper into an enormously appealing subcreated world, and I assume to same applies to devotees of Klingon, Dothraki, &c.

Anyway, here's the piece:

--John R.
current reading THE HOBBIT AND HISTORY, ed. Liedl & Reagin (2014)


So, I'm happy to say I've been interviewed for a piece on the new Tolkien film. The interview was yesterday morning, and the piece is already up on SMITHSONIAN.COM:

This is the third of three pieces by the same SMITHSONIAN author, Rachel Nuwer,* concerned mainly with distinguishing the layers of what came from Tolkien (especially when brought in from elsewhere than THE HOBBIT) from what is Jackson's invention. It's also a good place to find out more about what Michael Drout (who wrote his own review, available here**) thinks about the films.

For the two earlier pieces in 'The Tolkien Nerd's Guide to THE HOBBIT', they can be found here ( and here ( Enjoy!


*who's also the author of a number of other interesting pieces on (itself an interesting site in general); check out for a sampling.

** .  I shd note that Drout's judgment of the films is much harsher than mine.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Two Days and Counting

So, tonight Janice and I picked up tickets to the Wednesday morning showing of THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES at Kent Station.

It's been a long wait; hard to think that the day after tomorrow it'll be here.

Tick tock

--John R.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Halfway to Eleventy-One

So, technically I suppose I was half-way to 'Eleventy-one' on my unbirthday six months ago, but close enough.

Another birthday, another milestone; now I probably really do qualify for some of those 'senior discounts'.

This was one of those rare birthdays spent in Arkansas, where I got to see lots of family, with an enjoyable get-together at what for years and years has been my favorite restaurant in Arkansas, Franke's in Little Rock, followed by a gathering at my uncle's, where I was able to show my mother et al me on a dvd (part of the dragon-commentary on the extended edition DESOLATION OF SMAUG). We looked at unexpected family pictures in some old Southern State College yearbooks Mama and I had found a day or two before and did a lot of visiting and catching up.

Janice wasn't able to be with me this trip, but her little book PARKER'S CHRISTMAS ADVENTURE was a big hit.

--John R.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Me, in Bremerton

So, I've been asked to give a talk on THE HOBBIT at an upcoming Hobbit Event at the Sylvan Way library in Bremerton. After some thought, I've decided to give a redacted version of my Blackwell-Wiley essay, "THE HOBBIT: A Turning Point", since (a) I don't think many if any people there will have seen the original essay (it having been published only in the U.K. and I myself not having yet received my author's copy) and (b) it places Bilbo's story in context with the rest of Tolkien's work, both mythological and scholarly, a subject I find fascinating; one I've done a lot of work on and which I feel comfortable expounding upon. It'll be followed by a question and answer session, and then some more Hobbit-party-ish activities. So, if you have any questions re. THE HOBBIT, now is the time to come and ask them.

Here's a link to the library's description of the event:

--John R., still in Arkansas (Magnolia)

Friday, December 5, 2014

DMG is out!

So, it'd be remiss of me when passing through Little Rock not to stop by the local Barnes & Noble to check their Tolkien shelves (to see if they had anything I didn't already have),*  refill the thermos, and sip tea while waiting for the thunderstorm to die down. And so I came to discover that, in addition to 100 copies of THE HOBBIT,** they had the new Fifth Edition DUNGEON MASTER'S GUIDE. This completes the long-awaited Fifth Edition rules set, and I have to say I'm impressed. It's certainly better than Fourth Edition and should give 3e a serious run for the money as the best core rules set since 2nd edition.***
   Looking forward to incorporating this new material into our ongoing game.  And to there being an ongoing game these past few years, after the wandering in the wilderness during the period 2007-2011 or thereabouts of not being in a regular D&D campaign.

--John R.

*the answer turned out to be yes: an end-cap had the latest of Brodie's guidebooks to New Zealand sites used in the filming, plus Sibley's 'Battle of the Five Armies' movie guide.

**plus 22 more packaged with sets of LotR

 ***the classic 1st edition still rules supreme as the best iteration of the best rpg.