Friday, January 30, 2015

A Bad Movie disses Tolkien

So, several months back I saw some discussion online (I think on the MythSoc list) about a new movie that at one point spoke slightingly of Tolkien.  While the description sounded pretty bad, I wanted to suspend judgment until I had a chance to watch it for itself, both to confirm the quote and to make sure I got it in context. And it turns out to be just as bad as they said.

The movie in question is THE CONGRESS [2013], staring Robin Wright as an aging actress named 'Robin Wright'. Nearing the end of her career, she reluctantly agrees to sell rights to the studio to continue to make films using her digital image.

Although this sounds like descriptions I've read of Connie Willis's REMAKE [1995], the filmmakers instead credit Stanislaus Lem's THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS [1971], which I've also never read. In any case, Ari Folman, the director, says that he added the entire opening third of the film (the whole framing story regarding 'Robin Wright'); he also said that his film shd not be thought of as an adaptation of Lem's work but as having been inspired by it.

As for the Tolkien content, this comes in the scene, about thirty-two minutes into the 2-hour movie, in which 'Wright' is being badgered by her studio's executive to sign away all digital rights to her image. In need of the money, she eventually agrees but her agent stipulates a few reservations: no Nazis, no porn, no sci-fi. The executive  ("Jeff", a vicious parody of arrogant, clueless Hollywood tycoons in general and Miramax's Harvey Weinstein in particular*) protests that Nazis and Holocausts bring in awards but eventually waives the point. He insists, however, on the sci-fi as a big money maker, which leads to the following exchange:

No sci-fi, Jeff. Sci-fi is a dumb genre in our opinion. She's never done sci-fi before. And she's not gonna do it now.

Well if she'd done one sci-fi this contract would be worth six times as much!
No sci-fi, no contract.

['Robin Wright'] 
Then no contract.

Why? Why, sci-fi — Sci-fi's fantasy.

 Do you know how many people read Lord of the Rings?
One-thousandth of a single percent, of the people
that went to see the movie, read the book.
And you wanna know why? Because it's one hell 
of a complicated read, that's why.
It's a nightmare to get through. it's boring!

Did you read it before you made the movie?

ha ha. Are you kidding?
But I saw the movie. And that's why we make movies.

Aside from the obvious irony --- a character in a sci-fi movie deriding sci-fi movies -- this is wrong on so many levels. Granted that 'Jeff' is presented as an expert who doesn't really know what he's talking about, scriptwriter Forman** has picked an egregiously inappropriate example. If he were to go with, say, how many people have read THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ as opposed to how many have seen the film THE WIZARD OF OZ, or how many have seen Hitchcock's film PSYCHO vs how many have read Rbt Bloch's novel, his example might hold up better. Some books are buried by their movie adaptations, but THE LORD OF THE RINGS is not one of them.

Granted that the Tolkien movies were huge, world-wide hits (bringing in about a billion dollars each at the box office, plus another billion each through dvd sales, plus billions more through computer games and merchandising), his math simply doesn't work out for the simple reason that a LOT of people have read Tolkien. There's no way to know just how many, but estimates run to some one hundred and fifty million copies of THE LORD OF THE RINGS sold,*** and about another hundred million copies of THE HOBBIT. And while not everyone who's bought a copy has read it, there are many, many copies in libraries out there.

Now it's been a long time since I did much math, but given that the world population is now about seven billion people (7,000,000,000), one percent of that would be about seventy million (70,000,000). And a thousandth of that would be seventy thousand (70,000) -- which is obviously off to a massive, staggering degree so far as the number of people who've read Tolkien goes.  Or to look at it from the other direction, take a hundred and fifty million readers (150,000,000) and multiply by a thousandfold, which get us about a hundred and fifty billion (150,000,000,000). Then multiply that by a hundred for a total of fifteen trillion (15,000,000,000,000). In short, the movie's claiming that the number of people who've seen THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies massively exceeds the total world population.

No wonder the movie-making industry is notorious for 'Hollywood accounting'!

The natural conclusion is that the film-maker wanted to make a point about films reaching a massively larger audience than a work of literature -- a debatable point in itself, given that some books are far more successful than the movies based on them, while some movies are more popular than the book they're based on; it depends on the book and the movie -- and picked an egregiously inept example to try to make his point.

--John R.
current reading: THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS by Colin Dexter [1992]
today's song: Tecolote by Bread.

P.S.: Did I mention that the movie was bad? The first third is slow and mannered, with the characters self-consciously delivering speeches rather than carrying on dialogue with each other.  The remaining (animated) two-thirds is incoherent, more stream of consciousness than anything else. It may have a plot, but if so the director doesn't feel any obligation to share it with the viewer.

*just to show that they're specifically targeting Weinstein, the fictional studio is called MIRAMOUNT in the movie, an obvious dig at Weinstein's MIRAMAX (as well as also Paramount).

**some of the blame shd probably go to script editor Ori Sivan, who really shd have fixed this.

And yes, they're counting all three volumes as one book, so this figure doesn't mean 50 million each of the three volumes but 150 sets or single-volume editions -- a truly staggering amount.


David Bratman said...

The claim that LOTR is a boring and unreadable book has come around before (I recently came across another example), despite its manifest falseness.

It also conflicts with the more than verified truism that the Jackson movies were made on the basis of a huge potential fan base made out of readers of the books.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David

Yes, some people find LotR boring; their loss. And the evidence is overwhelming that many, many people find it an engrossing read and return to re-read it over and over and over. Famously it's a book people read without being made to, which I think speaks for itself.

The other example you cite in the link puzzled me a bit, since in and of itself it didn't seem particularly egregious. I think the context must have made it snarkier than the brief excerpt you give conveys.

--John R.