Brace yourself fanboys, LOTR Part I, or, Hobbits and Orcs and Elves, Oh My!

by TheLitCritGuy

Right,

The sharper eyed amongst my excellent, and no doubt growing readership, may have noticed that of late I haven’t exactly been keeping my word. When I set up ThePageBoy I wanted this to be a place that got people in the habit of dropping by so I set rigid dates and a schedule for when I would update with new content. Suffice to say I haven’t exactly been keeping to it, for a variety of reasons involving many a complicated and draining thing. Thankfully, I think the worst is behind so I am trying to bring back the schedule of regular updates for you guys who have been so patient with the blog and with me, and of course, to hopefully widen the conversation about the process of turning books into films.

So, that’s out-of-the-way, on to the book in question for today and yes I know – it’s a big one. I will be reviewing all three of Peter Jackson‘s seminal film version of the Lord of the Rings and today we start at the beginning of the sixth highest grossing film series of all time. This is the 2001 smash hit, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring.

From the beginning of reading about this franchise the facts and figures are frankly epic in scale. The entire project took Jackson and his creative team over eight years to put together, entirely in New Zealand. The projects total budget was over $280 MILLION dollars and the films were nominated for 30 Oscars. Collectively it won 17 of them, and the trilogy’s final installment tied withe Titanic and Ben-Hur for most Oscar wins. The first film made a profit of over $700 million dollars, simply put everything about this film series is designed to send your jaw in a downward direction.

So, I’m going to try to avoid talking about the mind-blowing facts and figures and instead focus on the finished product. Looking over the IMDB page, it hit me that this film came out over a decade ago, so let me list all of the things about this film which are simply phenomenally good.

Production, design and cinematography. Middle Earth? Done. The biggest and most sprawling of English fantasy novels is rendered on-screen with almost obsessive attention to detail. The film’s opening thirty minutes is one of the finest examples of world building I have ever seen on the big screen and shows how it is possible for film makers to adopt a mythos for an audience that may not have encountered this world before. The good people at Jackson’s studio and Weta Workshop have clearly slaved over what they  were creating and it all looks great. Particularly successful is the idea of keeping the locations and aesthetics of each race distinct and clear. The world never feels confusing to be in, and the well-defined differences between the people’s and places mean that you are always excited as a viewer to see the next stage of the journey.

Casting: Now this is damn near perfect. Seriously. There is not one single thing I could pick holes in here. Yes, I could always slam on Orlando Bloom again for Leagolas and yes, Elijah Wood is a little annoying and whiny as Frodo Baggins but when you are confronted with this much quality – why bother? It feels unfair to pick out my own particular favourites, (though I am sure that everyone has their own) but Ian McKellen as Gandalf is incredible, Hugo Weaving adds some extra gravitas as Elrond and Viggo Mortenson is the perfect choice for Aragorn. The rest of the cast, as I said, is very very good. Oh! Sean Bean is another favourite of mine! (Always a good sign when the cast is so good that you miss out your own personal favourite…Moving on…)

Direction: Well here’s where some might get picky. Before this trilogy, Peter Jackson was probably known best for his work on a series of fairly lo-fi gore-comedy films, or as he called it, splat-stick comedy. Whilst he may not have had the track record, Jackson proves he has the directorial chops to not only carry off a great sense of epic scale and world shaking conflict but to keep the whole thing from becoming just a spectacle of swords and swinging. There is real emotional weight to the story that is being told, affecting not just the whole world but the smallest characters that we get to go alongside.

So, no criticism? No down side to this movie?

So, this must be a great adaptation then?

Well… In a word?

No.

Wanting my reasoning in a few more words? Well read on… As a film adaptation I believe this is highly flawed when contrasted with its source material. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic film and easily one of the most important movies of the last decade but sadly I don’t have the luxury of considering films in there own right. But let me say it again – this is a great, great movie.

With that defence in place, lets dig a little deeper and find out some of the problems. Firstly, there is the problem that cannot be gotten away from and thus a criticism that some may feel is unfair. Namely, this is a MOVIE. So, once again we come to the problems of form. Now, as anyone who reads this blog even a little will know, I don’t just simplistically think that books are better and films are inherently worth less, I don’t. However, here the arguement is fairly easy to make – the books are some of the best writing produced, not just in the 20th century, but ever in Western literature. Tolkien invented a mythology, a history, multiple languages, multiple religions, a canon of literature and so much more. For fun? No, he did it to make this world a real place. Whilst the film touches on the bigger picture that Tolkien intended to pass on to the reader we only see a tiny fraction of the detail and work he put in. Sometimes, this works well actually – for example, we don’t get much of the Elvish poetry in the film and that is nothing but a good thing in terms of narrative coherence but when you know the work the great man put in? The film may start top look a little insubstantial by comparison.

This leads quite nicely onto my next point. The characters who don’t get a look in to the film. Now, I won’t spoil things from the books, if you haven’t read them in a while go away and check out the differences because some of them make some major differences to the understanding of the plot. For example, in the sequence that leads up to the arrival at Rivendell, it isn’t Arwen who comes to find the stranded party and for good reason. Lest this sound too much like nit-picking, let me move on to the third point…

Arwen. Now, this isn’t a slam on Liv Tylor. She turns in a great performance and at first my problem felt like it was hard to put my finger on. Then it hit me. Her romance with Aragon. Here’s a challenge – go away and watch the first film, then come back and tell me a few things, about what stuck out. Was it the epic SFX, the great story? Not, I’m willing to bet, a romantic sequence that falls short of the books intended vision and looks like a cheesy shoe-horned in subplot put in by the request of the studio? The rest of the script, nay, the entire film works, but then they throw this in – and I have to be honest, it just feels odd. weirdly flat, uninvolving and slight emotional manipulative, it’s as if someone watched the film, saw Aragon and then decided that he needed to be 15% more emotionally appealing. Just, no.

I’ll stop here. I could go on but I hope I’ve made my point for today. I wanted to lavish some praise on this one, and the film certainly deserves it but to be a great film isn’t quite enough to be a great adaptation. It comes close, that is certainly true but to come close isn’t quite enough. As I said, I could have picked out more flaws and issues that the film contains but I feel I should add that these issues are a direct result of the adaptation process – turning the biggest fantasy series ever written into a film series was always going to be a nigh on impossible challenge. Issues such as narrative cohesion, time and the constraints of making not just art, but product are all involved.

I hope I haven’t been too harsh here and once more I’m down to splitting hairs, but I can’t say this is a great adaptation instead it is just a wonderful movie. And an even better book.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

PS If anyone knows of more adaptive problems, or even bloggers/writers who have covered this then let me know. Disagree with me? Think I was too mean? That’s what we have comment sections for!

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