Saturday, December 27, 2014

Forgive Peter Jackson, For He Knows Not What He Does

30 minutes into the movie
Tonight I went to see Peter Jackson's final installment of The Hobbit with family, having seen the previous films together the last two winters. Rumors circulated that the third and last film stretched the book's final chapters with some gratuitous material borrowed from other Tolkien sources, which worried His Traddiness, but I decided the eight dollars could hardly be spent on much else that would occupy me for three hours. What a mistake. Only New York State wine could have been a worse entertainment purchase for eight dollars, although the wine would dull my ability to think about films as bad as this one.

Fifteen minutes into the film the dragon was dead, the denouement unraveled, I remembered the novel from fourth grade and said to myself, "This is where the book ended. What could they do from here on?" Make it up. Make it all up.

I know two of my readers are Tolkienophiles and that many of the rest will at least hold the Oxonian philologist in high esteem. I enjoyed The Hobbit when I was young and read The Lord of the Rings books once, but claim no expertise over the broader material that constitutes "middle earth." Still, I could not shake the feeling that Peter Jackson, or his bosses at the studios, were simply amalgamating bits and bobs of reference material from other Tolkien books to excuse the remaining 135 minutes of pseudo-Nordic warfare and slapstick inspired combat scenes. Genuine story and dialogue was substituted with vague, formalistic addresses to "X, son of Y, heir to Z" about fleeting, superficial ideas about friendship, love, and loyalty. 

I liked the first Lord of the Rings film, Fellowship, and, aside from mercifully eliminating Tom Bombadil, it was faithful to the original story. Viggo Mortensen said last year that the first movie was the best in the series because it allowed the actors to bond as a fellowship and create the chemistry to make Tolkien's fellowship of the Ring a reality. The movie had a very organic feel and, while it was violent, the fight scenes never seemed self-indulgent. By Return of the King all those good traits were gone. The complex and confusing character of Denethor is made into a mere madmen so we can watch Gimli and Legolas squabble with ghosts. 

Forgive Peter Jackson, for he clearly knows not what he does. Let us hope that there is nothing else he can bring to the big screen from Tolkien's bibliography.


  1. The Fellowship of the Ring was the only part of the Peter Jackson trilogy I saw in its entirety. I was disappointed by many aspects of the film but impressed by others, including the scenery, choice of actors (notably Ian Holm, Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee), and the music. I went to see The Two Towers at the cinema and walked out within the first twenty minutes. I never saw Return of the King and have made a conscious effort not to bother with The Hobbit, despite repeated intercession from friends and family. I'm afraid I can only agree with Christopher Tolkien when he said that the chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has gone too far for me. There is only one solution for me now, and that is to turn my head away.

  2. I believe Jackson's studio only has film rights to "The Hobbit" and to the followup trilogy, so they shouldn't be able to banalize any more of Tolkien's literature without a foolish but unlikely deal on the part of the Tolkien Estate.

    The problems with the Jackson's style of adaptation were obvious to me from the first LotR film, and of course they only got worse as time went on. He's a schlock director who's always been most comfortable directing exploitation films, and that's the true mark he left on these movies. I had some interest in the "Hobbit" adaptation when Mr. del Toro was still on board to direct—he has his own problems as a director, but his art style is intriguing, and he would have make the films more visually rich—but when Jackson was announced as director and the film count expanded to three, I wrote them off as "fan fiction with a budget." There's really no other way to describe them.

    1. I believe Jackson's studio only has film rights to "The Hobbit" and to the followup trilogy

      That's correct - Jackson was able to get the rights to LOTR and, after a great deal of legal wrangling, rights to lens THE HOBBIT.

      But any extra material he works in must come from the LOTR appendices, not THE SILMARILLION or any of Tolkien's other writings - and I think Christopher Tolkien's feelings on Jackson's work suggests that it will be a cold day in Hades before the Tolkien estate sells off the rights to anything else.

    2. I always wanted to see the Lay of Leithian as a ballet and the Narn i Chîn Húrin as an opera...

  3. I was also disappointed by the final HOBBIT movie, too, but then I was disappointed by the entire trilogy, which struck me as badly bloated, poorly focused, and too overcooked with CGI - and yes, "slapstick inspired combat scenes." So much extra material and frenetic action sequences were worked in that poor Bilbo gets lost in his own story in all three installments, especially the last two.

    The LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy on the other hand was a success, albeit a qualified one - Jackson stayed closer to the source material and exercised more restraint (or the studio exercised it for him). Jackson and his team are at their best in visualization, especially of settings; he also picked a first rate composer in Howard Shore to score it. The first 40 minutes or so of FELLOWSHIP was just about perfect, setting up the story beautifully, especially in setting up Frodo's character. Which helped in bearing with the deformations visited on other key characters (notably Aragorn, Faramir, Treebeard, Denethor, and Gimli) by Jackson and his writers in the quest to ratchet up dramatic tension, even when it created other narrative incoherence. It's not the departures from the text that bother so much as the fact that for the most part, the departures actually make the films weaker as films - if (for example) you're going to have the Army of the Dead save the day at Minas Tirith, why are Aragorn and company bothering to fight at all rather than sitting back for a good pipe smoke on the docks while the Dead clear out the city? Still, in the Extended Editions, the result is a surprisingly faithful, if occasionally uneven or overcooked at points, adaptation of LOTR.

    Alas, all of LOTR's flaws are greatly magnified in Jackson's HOBBIT, and too few of its virtues remain. The visualizations and music still are impressive, but there is not much else to be said for it. Read the books, and wait for another filmmaker to take a crack at the books in 15-20 years.