Friday, 28 December 2007

The Lord of the Rings (2001-3)

At around Christmas and New Year, a new tradition had started for film fans: the December fantasy movie, a trend begun in 2001 with the release of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING - about which this blog will mostly concentrate, because that was the one film of this particular trilogy which had the biggest impact on me.

Its release was highly anticipated by fantasy film fans; the advent of special effects, which had steadily grown during the 1980s and taken a giant leap with the arrival of digital technology in films such as Jurassic Park, meant that old barriers were being broken and potential new frontiers of storytelling could be reached, where epic works of fiction that were once deemed too imaginative to be adapted onto film, could now be considered. It was time to return to the work of Tolkien, provided someone could be found who could manage such a massive undertaking.

Step forward the Lord of the Ring-bearer, who came not from Middle Earth, but from Down Under.

Peter Jackson was not by any means the first to attempt to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novel: John Boorman had collaborated with Tolkien himself for a time, in the hope of creating a live-action version of the saga in the 1970s, which fell through ultimately (partly because of Boorman's intention to slash the story down to an economical one hour and forty minutes), but soon afterwards came an animated version of the story, directed and supervised by Ralph Bakshi (see Film Review blogpage), who had at the time notably made the first adult "X" rated cartoon feature, Fritz the Cat.

The 1978 film had its pros and cons, and only attempted to tell part of the whole story of Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the mighty ring of Sauron. But Peter Jackson was taken with the film sufficiently to want to know more about Tolkien, and 23 years later, the result is in some ways, a "live action" remake of the Ralph Bakshi film, with certain images directly imitated in The Fellowship of the Ring - but also with far more meticulous attention to the huge, sprawling narrative of the book, and the benefit of 21st century digital technology to help bring it to life.

Being already an acclaimed film maker in New Zealand, and becoming noticed on the international scene with Heavenly Creatures (the film debut of Kate Winslet) and The Frighteners (a useful warm-up for further films with scary special effects), Jackson was just the man to be able to tackle head-on with typical Antipodean energy the challenge of putting Tolkien onto film properly. His full-blooded adaptations of all three volumes of the novel (which was clearly influenced by the horror of two world wars) always allow the right amount of pathos without ever letting the special effects dominate too much.

But, ye Gods, on hearing some of the publicity build-up to the first film, I discovered that The Fellowship of the Ring was to be THREE AND A QUARTER HOURS LONG - and this is just the first of a trilogy.

Okay, the quality of a film should not necessarily be determined by its length - as Alfred Hitchcock once said "the length of a film should be directly proportionate to the endurance of the human bladder." In comedy a film that is longer than 90 minutes is frequently pushing the endurance level of its audience. The average drama can probably sustain itself for the first two hours. But any special effects fantasy film which exceeds three hours - with no intermission - is frankly, overkill.

By a coincidence, that same winter also saw the release of the first Harry Potter film, at an overlong 150 minutes for children and their parents to sit through - and it still cut several scenes from the book, to the younger audience's dismay.

If Warner Brothers' Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone seemed long, then what was to follow from New Line Cinema would feel like an absolute eternity.

Nevertheless, armed with a lot of curiosity and a certain amount of trepidation, I persuaded my sister Catherine to come along with me and see the film at the Odeon Colchester, as she was sufficiently intrigued by the concept to pass up her plans to have a special pasta lunch that Saturday, in favour of the 3 hour-plus marathon in Screen One. At the end of it, I think she would probably have preferred the pasta.

But the fans were hooked.

What is so impressive about the first film, to me, is how it sets its sense of time and place so brilliantly in the first few minutes, from the softly atmospheric prologue (narrated by Cate Blanchett) explaining the history of Middle Earth, and the subsequent build-up to the discovery of the one ring "to rule them all." All of the best (and worst) elements of the trilogy are demonstrated here: a fine sense of medieval whimsy and the scale of the battles, with Lord Sauron batting off literally thousands of Elf soldiers, until his sword arm (containing the Ring) is miraculously hacked off by King Isildur, who subsequently takes possession of the Ring, until it corrupts him, and the ownership of the Ring eventually passes into the unlikely hands of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), at which point Tolkien's story begins proper.

The title caption sets out Peter Jackson's intentions from the start too: this is to be "The Lord of the Rings" as one film, and this is the first part, "The Fellowship of the Ring".

Seconds in, and we see the Luke Skywalker-ish hero, Bilbo's cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood), the quintessential innocent sitting under a tree in the Shire, when he hears the approaching sound on a horse and cart of his old friend Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and sits down beside the wizard on the front seat, like a child - of adult Hobbit size. The transition is seamless, and the viewer is instantly transported into Middle Earth without any sense of fakery.

Soon afterwards, Gandalf is knocking on the door of his old friend Bilbo, who is turning away all intruders in the midst of his hectic preparations for his "eleventy-first" birthday - except that is, for very old friends. The two are thus re-united, and the sense of nostalgia is immediately evoked from The Hobbit, a story which I've never seen on film, but instantly recognised the characters' relationship, having read the novel at school when I was 11.

The birthday party scenes that follow are perceived by some to be the weakest of the trilogy, but they have a sense of light relief about them (in the light of what's to come), before Bilbo unexpectedly disappears - literally - to take "a long journey", but not before Gandalf has persuaded him to leave the Ring behind, into the custody of Frodo...

...and from there the story suddenly swings into dramatic fifth gear, with the return of Sauron's power, and his sinister and demonic Ringwraiths riding out towards the Shire in search of the Ring, and the stage is set for one of the most epic chases in fantasy literature.

On the advice of Gandalf, ringbearer Frodo heads out of the Shire altogether, with his loyal servant Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) and two other close Hobbit friends, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Gandalf himself meanwhile sees the stormclouds gathering over Mordor, and goes to his old friend Saruman for consultation. As Saruman is played by Christopher Lee however, this can only lead to something sinister. Sure enough, the two old wizards are duelling each other ferociously, in a style that reminded me of Christopher Lee's memorable head-to-head confrontations with Peter Cushing in the classic Hammer films.

The highlight of the film for me is the ensuing race towards the ford by the Ringwraiths in pursuit of the wounded Frodo - who has been stabbed by one of them - with Princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) riding him to safety on a white horse in a thrilling chase scene, daring the black riders with the bold line "If you want him, come and claim him!" Tolkien purists grumbled at the diversion from the book in having Arwen riding the horse at all, when her character is basically depicted (by Tolkien) as a lady-in-waiting rather than an action girl, but Peter Jackson, attuned to more modern tastes - and sensibly in my view - gave Liv Tyler's character some backbone and helped to bring out the drama.

Thereafter, the film slightly soft-pedals as the cured (but not totally) Frodo is reunited with Gandalf and, equally unexpectedly, cousin Bilbo, together with the rest of his Hobbit friends, at the castle of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who soon summons the other leaders of Middle Earth united against Sauron, for an urgent conference.

The strength in depth of the film's cast is demonstrated here, with the brooding, disillusioned Aragorn - son of Isildur - played very well by Viggo Mortensen, Legolas by the soon-to-become hot property Orlando Bloom, the dwarf warrior Gimli played suitably rumbustiously by 6-foot John Rhys-Davies (another brilliant trick of special effects), and the determined but doubtful Prince Boromir played by Sean Bean, whose presence in the film and untimely death towards the end makes one sorry for the loss of his character in the rest of the trilogy, and also gives the ending a suitable amount of poignant reflection.

This merry band, including of course those pesky Hobbits, join together to help Frodo in his daunting quest to take the Ring into Mordor - the only place where it can be destroyed - and the Fellowship of the Ring is thus formed......

Two epic films later, the quest to destroy the Ring is finally achieved, but not of course without lots of thrills and spills, and the breaking up - or in some cases death - of our heroes along the way. In the course of the first stages of this epic quest, Jackson was able to utilise some of the spectacular and multi-faceted locations of his native New Zealand, that were ideal for his vision of Tolkienland.

It's not too difficult to spot some of the similarities with other films such as Star Wars (George Lucas was clearly influenced by Tolkien in writing his fantasy space saga), with the Obi-Wan Kenobi-ish Gandalf making a dignified but unexpected "death" at the hands of the mighty Balrog. I think it's fair to say that Ian McKellen readily stepped into the shoes of Sir Alec Guinness, who would otherwise have been probably the ideal choice for the role, say, ten years previously. The loss of Gandalf is further emphasized by the eventual arrival of our remaining heroes to the sanctuary of Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who says with mournful recognition "he has passed into shadow", and any film which has an actress the quality of Cate Blanchett waiting in the wings to make a belated cameo appearance, has to be special indeed.

At the end of the three hour onslaught of action, noise, special effects and pathos, I was pleased that Jackson had chosen to ironically finish it with a relatively straightforward image (alluding almost to European/arthouse cinema) of Frodo and Sam sailing away on a single boat towards Mordor, leaving the story in limbo but nicely poised for audiences to anticipate the follow-up - which they did, eagerly.

THE TWO TOWERS duly came along the following year, which I saw with friends and fans at the Odeon Leicester Square, and a mounting sense of expectation after the acclaim and success of the first film. Happily this second instalment was less than three hours long - by one minute. The Odeon Leicester Square, being what it is nowadays, had me bracing for a bombardment of digital stereo sound, especially during the later battle scenes.

After the ads and trailers were over, the lights dimmed, the curtains opened, and the BBFC certificate displayed the film's title, to the delighted whoops and gentle ripples of applause from fans in the audience.

Jackson kicks off the second film with another stirring flashback, as Frodo dreams about the fate of the unfortunate Gandalf at the hands of the Balrog - keeping this in mind for later when the wizard will make an unexpected return as "Gandalf the White". Ian McKellen is well into his stride in the role by now, and in general The Two Towers allows for a deeper study of the characters, and contains for me the best performances in the trilogy, particularly by McKellen and also Bernard Hill, as the despairing King Theoden, who eventually rises out of the spell cast upon him (by Saruman), and defends Helm's Deep from literally thousands upon thousands of Orc soldiers.

The most celebrated aspect of The Two Towers however, much more so than the Battle of Helm's Deep, was the creation of the character of Gollum, that could only be created effectively (as Tolkien described him) using CGI. For this, they also hired the services of a relatively unknown but brilliantly energetic British character actor, Andy Serkis.

Gollum, for me, is an irritation - the same as, in their way, the Ewoks, Yoda and even C-3PO & R2-D2 were in the original Star Wars trilogy - but this I suppose was Tolkien's (and Peter Jackson's) intention. On nearly every occasion when the story looks to be moving along nicely, in both The Two Towers and The Return of the King, he pops up annoyingly, but thanks to Serkis's brilliant interpretation, you also see the character's schizophrenic torment with his alter ego Smeagol. I watched some behind-the-scenes footage recently with Andy Serkis filmed in a leotard, with visual reference points for the CGI animators to work on, and found his performance to be touching, real, and to be honest, much more believable than the emaciated character created - brilliantly - on computer.

For the second time in the saga, I made a customary visit to the toilet when the natural intermission point came, and caught up with what I missed when I saw The Two Towers again a few weeks later at the new Odeon Colchester. As I was with a friend, the second time round I restrained myself from taking another self-imposed intermission, and sat grimly through the whole 2 hours 59 minutes - at the end of which Saruman is briefly humbled, but the bigger fight is still to come: Ian McKellen's resurrected Gandalf paraphrases Churchill, declaring "The Battle of Rohan is over, the Battle of Mordor is about to begin."

THE RETURN OF THE KING begins in unexpectedly gentle fashion, flashing back to the prologue of the story, and the sight of Smeagol fishing, and played movingly by the real, undigital Andy Serkis, who is quickly corrupted by the Ring's power, and compelled to commit murder for it, a path of darkness that leads him inexorably down the road to becoming the monstrously parasitic Gollum, from which point the story resumes where The Two Towers left off.

Thanks to a churlish local magazine article, a major spoiler in the plot was revealed to me about one of the main characters (having not read the novel at the time), when I admit my enthusiasm for this saga was flagging. But having gone this far, it would have been foolish not to go through with the rest of it and see "the third part" of this one film. I waited until the Easter of 2004 for the inevitable event, once it had come round to the superb Electric Palace in Harwich.

At the end of the third and final 3-hour marathon (which stretched to 4 hours on the Collector's Edition DVD), I was pleased that Jackson had at least faithfully used the last line of the book as the last line of the film, at the end of an epic 4-year journey for both audience and crew -principal filming having taken the better part of a whole year, with constant subsequent revisions of certain scenes. I can remember (if you'll forgive my name-dropping here) talking to Ian McKellen's sister Jean (a doyenne of local amateur theatre in Colchester) about how she and her husband had spent their holidays in New Zealand with Ian during filming.

Sadly Jean died in 2002 before the completion of the trilogy, but Christopher Lee fulfilled his one wish (as he stated when receiving a BAFTA fellowship award) to live long enough to see The Return of the King. Unhappily for him however, his own character Saruman was inexplicably missing from the cinema version of ROTK - and only dedicated fans were able to see his cameo on the Collector's Edition DVD the following year - and so the dark epilogue to the book is lost, where the Hobbits return to the Shire to find it enslaved.

Otherwise what is left in the third and final instalment is more of the same: bigger and, arguably, better than the first two (the Academy Award voters certainly thought so, giving ROTK a staggering 11 Oscars - typical Hollywood sycophancy after the comparative lack of awards for the first two films.)


As a 3-part whole, The Lord of the Rings is not, for me, a great film. I was initially totally captivated by The Fellowship of the Ring, but felt beaten into submission by the end, through the sheer amount of noise and action to have to put up with in one sitting. In some ways, that first instalment pushed the boat out so far (particularly with Howard Shore's overbearing score), and set the bar so high, that it left the following two episodes with simply too much to follow.

It's certainly a landmark film (how could any trilogy that length not be?), influential enough for Hollywood to have churned out other CGI fantasy "franchises" such as The Narnia Chronicles, His Dark Materials, and the contemporaneous Harry Potter saga. And in fairness, it's a much more interesting and self-sustaining saga than the recent Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Whether or not Peter Jackson will slip into the realms of becoming another George Lucas (ie. a promising director who basically slipped into producing special effects) remains to be seen: his subsequent work has followed in a similar semi-digital vein, with another huge remake of King Kong, and his current plans include producing a remake of The Dam Busters, no less. I sincerely hope that in due course he moves on to more arresting material like Heavenly Creatures, because he is far too prestigious a talent to be left just remaking other people's work.

Technically, The Lord of the Rings is also a remake, but full marks to him for giving fans of the book the adaptation they had been yearning for.

With thanks to Mark Richards for Leicester Square photo.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films