Peter Jackson directs Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Miranda Otto and Christopher Lee in this high fantasy epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic good versus evil in Middle Earth novel.
It is fair to say The Lord of the Rings Trilogy came at exactly the right time. I had spent my adolescence almost completely devoted to blockbuster cinema. Tarantino and Beat Takeshi were as about as left of field as the teenage me went, comics were my only other passion. But when eighteen hit then came drinking, girls and eventually university. The Phantom Menace, Pierce’s terrible final two Bonds and John Woo’s dire Mission: Impossible 2 had jaded me. The first X Men movie and an extended rerelease of The Exorcist were the only two (just TWO?!) Hollywood films I got excited about in all of 2000. My plan of going to film school hit the wall of being utterly useless at basic art (the only accessible courses were at art schools that wanted you to do a year of illustration and have a portfolio before you got access to film learning and equipment), grants disappeared and were replaced by fees and loans. I had stopped buying Empire, I had started exploring older and arthouse-ier stuff at the Edinburgh Film Guild rather than going to the Odeon each week. I gave my massive, cherished but increasingly obsolete VHS collection to a charity shop and was avoiding its format usurper, DVD, with a disgruntled chip on my shoulder. I was falling out of love with big modern, spectacular movies… and then Peter Jackson’s massive gamble came along.
I always remember my Dad’s copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings sitting on his bedroom chest of drawers. The Hobbit was well read and looked like it wouldn’t survive another reading. The Lord of the Rings was immaculate and unwieldy. I daren’t touch either of them. But what we did share was trips to the cinema. So each Christmas, when I dutifully returned from Edinburgh to London, a massive sword and sorcery crowd pleaser that even my Dad wouldn’t turn his nose up at was a must go to. And for three years going to see the latest instalment of The Lord of the Rings with him, my mum, my sister and even my little old Nanny became a family tradition. All three experiences restored my faith in popular movies.
Why did the Lord of the Rings work quite so well? Sure the scale was both phenomenal and rare but that wasn’t quite it. The action and FX work, although constantly of a top quality, was not particularly groundbreaking – Gollum aside. What it was, was consistent and always used for storytelling, which in itself felt luxurious. I think what truly sets the trilogy apart is that it was the first time such a mythological and naive piece of genre narrative had been told with a straight, authoratative voice. No on screen winking to modern audiences, no fumbly half measures in production and no abridging to cherry pick merely the crowd pleasing stuff. That a tale of wizards, orcs and dragons had been afforded with a generous budget, an indulgent running time and a creative freedom to feel unconstrained by merely appealing to the uninitiated… and therefore ironically was accessible to all. The first time the axes, the keeps and the cloaks were made by a production crew who were not trying to get away with cribbing what camp fantasy flicks had cobbled together before, but who cared about building from scratch a world so convincing in its detail it more resembled a period prestige picture than Krull or Conan. The achievement of the trilogy was to lend the journey of hobbits trying destroy a magical ring with the same sense of verisimilitude as Spielberg brought to his recreation of the Holocaust or Mel Gibson in his reenactment of the William Wallace legend. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Weta painstakingly take you to and keep you in Middle Earth with every stitch of its hessian shirts, every Uruk-hai scar, every dirty fingernail that claws at the one ring. Tolkien’s words are treated as a sacred text, every idea and concept is afforded the best quality tools to realise it on screen or it is deviated from so the rest of the adaptation can thrive.
As with all productions of this size, The Lord of the Rings is the work of thousands. To lay all the praise at Peter Jackson’s feet is churlish. Yet you have to admire his achievements. A decade before he was a cult director of low budget schlock. Inventive, gory, self aware, penny wringing, imaginative schlock (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Braindead) but schlock none the less. But then he leapt along two stepping stones. Heavenly Creatures proved he could do serious and get critics on board, The Frighteners showed he could work within the studio system and deliver an effects based film that was cutting edge and convincing. It is a very similar route Sam Raimi took from being the independent Evil Dead guy to Sony’s Spider-Man auteur over the same period with his more grounded studio endeavours (A Simple Plan, For the Love of the Game, The Gift). Jackson convinced New Line he wasn’t just all about red spatter and rubbery brains, he could marshall a professional film crew and deliver something sheeny and respectable (that still contained enough of his punkish exuberance). But he somehow convinced them to finance three films shot together (rather than one at a time or even back to back), with three hour running times per film that were highly uncommon back then and at costs that often bankrupted studios. And in a genre that has never really turned any exhibitors record profits. That is some fucking convincing. It has never been achieved before or again.
Of course, if you come at The Fellowship of the Rings as someone who fully embraced the zombie babies and serial killer flashbacks of Jackson’s previous output it can seem more than a little tame. Studio interference? His own uncertainty against putting in any splatterhound flashes that might lose him his PG rating or mainstream audience? Or the fact Tolkien’s first part is naturally more innocent, what with hobbits being the sole focus and Mordor a distant threat? Whatever the reasoning, by The Two Towers we start to get more and more imagery that satisfyingly looks like it belongs on a heavy metal album sleeve. Ghost armies, wraiths flying eel-like dragons over ruins, decapitated heads catapulted at besieged walls, soldiers behind those walls being visibly disgusted when the pelted heads land on them, gallons of censor untroubling black goblin blood as lurid fantasy creatures are hacked, impaled and squashed. My own personal favourite bit of trademark Jackson nasty is the diplomat of Sauron who turns up to goad the armies of good before the final battle. Slimily played by the brilliant Bruce Spence and looking like a refugee from a Clive Barker novel, it is no surprise that such a full flavour grotesque was held back from the multiplexes and saved for the extended editions. Then at least the kiddie winks can hide behind the throw pillows. I wonder how many mums and dads desperately reach for the fast forward button at that bit?
Another success of the trilogy is the budget casting. Star power is actively avoided. Sure, you get the best homegrown actors Australia and NZ have to offer filling out the ranks (David Wenham and Karl Urban are strong in early roles, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving regal), some well placed Hollywood C-Listers out in front on point like Wood and Mortensen, plus a host of solid Brits. Liv Tyler was the biggest name involved in 2001 but she feels crowbarred in, as does the amount of screentime devoted to a wobbly Miranda Otto. Tolkien didn’t really care for female characters so to scour the footnotes for them is brave but not always a successful move over the extended running time. Admirable but not overly necessary.
There are five stand out performances though. Sure, Sean Bean dies as always but he also adds a much needed bit of gritty humanity to the often overly positive first episode. McKellen’s Gandalf is very loveable and compelling as Gandalf the Grey, less so as Gandalf the White. There’s just something untrustworthy about the newer incarnation (I can’t be the only one to feel this) and you yearn for the rationed flashes of the original more playful, paternal variant on McKellen’s craggy face. John Noble’s blinkered and petulant Denethor is a smaller role but one that feel noticeably fully formed when surrounded by unwaveringly dignified and brave heroes. No one would discredit Andy Serkis’s brilliant performance capture and voicework as Gollum and Smeagol. Whether battling with himself, hobbits or cooked dinners he is a vicious, sympathetic, stroppy and self centred tour de force.
But while all those above actors have a bit of duality to play around with in a world where even the most likeable protagonist is admittedly one dimensional in their heroics, the one true pleasant surprise is Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee. A unwavering friend to the end, reluctant hero and a symbol of all that is under threat by cursed rings, orc hordes and glowing eye-shaped necromancers. Astin imbues his little loyal hobbit with the right stuff. While everyone else wants to become legend or martyr he just wants to get back home, and home means with his friend still alive and unsullied by the burden of the ring. Goonies Never Say Die!
One thing I noticed on this watch is the pattern of the openings. All three parts kick off with a flashback. We start with an epic montage of a battle to end all battles after the formation of the ring. By the Two Towers, our opening is revisiting the one on one climatic battle between Gandalf and a monumental Balrog. And by the final part, our prologue is Smeagol’s murder of his lover over the ring on a river bank, followed by his fall into becoming the Gollum. Jackson reduces the scope each time, from the legendary and overwhelming to the personal and intimate. The first opener has to set up a universe. The last one, the stakes for Frodo and the tragedy of Smeagol. That is how invested we are in the quest by Return of the King. No thunderous clashing of swords and lava is necessary any more, character is key. We just need to see how one character was wholly corrupted by the ring, and know that Frodo could at any point murder his own friend now he similarly is in the small inanimate object’s thrall. It is no longer a battle for castles, towers and lands but for one soul.
How do the films hold up individually 15 years on? The Fellowship of the Ring is the most family orientated. It sets out the characters and the world well. As a travelogue of an imagined country it is awe inspiring. The highlight is the battle in the Mines of Moria. I remember at the cinema being overwhelmed as the Fellowship raced through the caverns with goblin armies flowing at them seemingly from every orifice.
To me the indisputable masterpiece of the series is the pure war movie though; The Two Towers. Action packed, propulsive, with the freshest look at Gollum and most confident in its fantasy imagery. The siege of Helm’s Deep has to be the most gargantuan sustained battle ever committed to cinema. Game of Thrones, the TV series, was born in its cacophonous wake. I also have a lot of time for the poetry spouting Ents. Probably the adaptations’ biggest risk, like Gollum they are CGI creations that cause wonder and convince. Their eventual storming of Isengard is one of those moments that definitively couldn’t exist in any other franchise nor be as smartly conceived by any other director.
Which leaves The Return of the King and its many, many, many endings. Obviously when viewed as a 12 hour mega epic boxset you expect a bit of epilogue but the sheer amount of conclusions, amendments and fade to blacks feel like a patience testing pisstake even now. And I would argue, while Return is obviously cut from the same high end cloth as the previous two chapters, it is troublingly more indulgent. Frodo and Sam’s battle with Shelob is not just carried over to the last entry from the already action packed The Two Towers but doesn’t arrive until midway through. This leaves them and Gollum covering a lot of the same ground (literally and figuratively) as in Part 2 for another hour until we get there. It is not bad company but does feel superfluous when things could coming to a head a lot faster. Likewise the battle for Gondor is easily one of the most elaborate elephantine scale set pieces in cinema but it lacks the urgency of Helm’s Deep. The Return of the King is a fine blockbuster but it betrays symptoms of the rut and excess The Hobbit prequels would be hamstrung by when Jackson ill advisedly returned to the well. Surprising this was the one that swept up at the Oscars, but it is the Academy, so go figure.
Obviously these days, like all fans, I watched the trilogy in their DVD extended editions. My memory is starting to fade as to what was pure original cut and what was fan friendly reinstatement. But I think it is fair to say that maybe, just maybe, the original theatrical cuts are the better movies. Sometimes what is edited out to make something a more endurable experience is a good thing. Even if you lose a little meat you can enjoy all the flavours of the meal more. 12 hours of Middle Earth shouldn’t seem greedy in this era of Breaking Bad and House of Cards binges. But those shows are episodic. They break up neater and have smaller, purposely compelling internal arcs to keep you gripped. With the Rings extendeds, some of the form and the shape and definitely the pace of the original vision is squandered. It often turns a quest into a ramble, sometimes that lacks direction, sometimes that harms your love for all that is magnificent . But I’d still rather not give up the hideous Mouth of Sauron, so three extra hours it’ll be next time again.