ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Ian McKellen

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

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!

Let’s help Tom Hanks’s career, or ‘Dan Brown has much to answer for’

Right,

Can anyone remember a good Tom Hanks movie? I mean, seriously, what’s the guy done lately that has done well? No, I’m not counting a certain animated franchise involving Toys and Stories but live action, him, in the flesh. Saving Private Ryan? Years ago. Castaway? Eons ago. Now, don’t get me wrong, Hanks as an actor is nigh on impossible to dislike and I think the man does have some seriously good acting chops. Wait a sec, Road to Perdition! That was brilliant! Aaaaaaand done in 2002. Catch me if you can! That was a fantastic film! Classy, funny and some great acting. Aaaaaaaand DONE IN 2002! AGAIN. Come on Tom, help me out here.

The little rambling introduction should serve as a mild mea culpa for the unfortunate Hanks and a good explanation of why he felt that this was time to make a jump back into the big leagues. He needed a hit, a global smash that could be turned into a star vehicle to take him back to the top of the heap of Hollywood’s A-list actors. Maybe a book? Maybe the biggest selling book of 2003 that didn’t star a certain boy wizard. Maybe, The Da Vinci Code

Oh Tom. Oh Tom, Tom, Tom. Don’t worry, I don’t judge you. It must have all made such sense at the time. Or maybe it was like an illicit thrill. Like an affair, or hard drugs. Somehow then, your old pal Ron Howard called you up – you worked together in the past on some great movies so obviously I can see how he must have been a persuading factor. The only reasonable solution I can think of is after Dan Brown milked the studio executives of something like $5 MILLION he managed to suck in poor defenceless Ron Howard, who, with the zeal of a recent convert to a cult dragged in Hanks. I don’t want to imagine any other way of this happening because that means that the man who was once thought to be the next James Stewart of modern American cinema is, well, an idiot…

But OK, when I started this blog I signed up for not just dealing with the good but also giving a few kicks to the stuff that deserves it. And, oh-my-word does this have it coming…

So, as if you didn’t know the Da Vinci code is a psudeo-historical thriller featuring a Harvard symbology academic who helps unravel a Catholic conspiracy theory involving the covering up of the fact that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had been married and produced an heir. The church, fearing the power of the bloodline has been trying to kill the survivors off for the past thousand years, whilst the remaining carriers of the royal bloodline are defended by the Priory of Sion. Yes. I think. Now, if those preceding sentences had made you nod sagely and stroke your chin and think, ‘well quite! What an excellent idea! Finally, the revelation we’ve all been waiting for!’ Then, I suggest you report to the nearest medical facility and let the doctors know that you have been living very happily with your mouth and arse in the opposite places.

For the rest of the population who do not suffer from mouth/arse inversion then you will of course recognise that the plot is completely bonkers. The book’s success largely depended upon the writers ability to generate a plot with enough twists and some fairly obscure facts and historical theories to keep people interested. Nothing else. The characters are clichéd, the dialogue is absurd and the writing is HORRIBLE. There are, frankly, far too many sentences I could quote but for a good overview of what Dan Brown considers a publishable sentence please read the article below, written by the excellent Tom Chivers. (@TomChivers on Twitter)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6194031/The-Lost-Symbol-and-The-Da-Vinci-Code-author-Dan-Browns-20-worst-sentences.html

Yet, the book sold by the truck load and thus, the movie studio came a-calling…

So, here’s the question – will poor source material be rescued by excellent adaptation? Can the great Ron Howard rescue this??

NO. Not even close. This is not a terrible film, nor a terrible adaptation, it is just hugely, massively mediocre. But before I nail the coffin lid down on this one, let’s get the positives out of the way.Don’t worry, it won’t take long.

– Tom Hanks is Robert Langdon. He’s OK. Hampered by a poor script and a character arc that sees him go from being the history academic accusing another character of twisting facts to suit his weird theories to being the man who FINDS THE HOLY GRAIL!

– Ian McKellen and Jean Russo are the main supporting characters and are both woefully too good to be in this film. All Russo has to do is glower and speak French and McKellen camps his way through his villain scenes, clearly enjoying himself. I just hope that they both managed to put in really nice swimming pools on their third house.

– It looks nice.

That is really about all I can think of.

I’m going to try to keep the rest of this review short so I will be glossing over some of the sins of this film…

Firstly, the script. Dan Brown is a frankly awful writer of dialogue and an awful literary stylist. All the scriptwriter had to do is to take the plot, (the one good thing about this book) and brush up on the conversation. Still, the film struggles to string together a sequence where characters actually sound like real people. Either the dialogue is short and slightly odd, or the film swings far too far the other way. There are at least two ten to fifteen minute scenes where all that happens is that characters explain some odd historical theories. The plot doesn’t move forward, characters aren’t developed, the movie pauses for a conspiracy theory lecture. Yes, they sprinkle in some nice CGI, (except for one staggeringly pointless use of it where the two leads walk into Westminster Abby) but these scenes are mind-blowingly dull, to the point where I’m relieved that Paul Betney tries to shoot someone!

Ah, Paul. A great British actor but he really is one of the worst things about this film. Not through any fault of his own but thanks to one simple truth. Paul Betney is not scary. At all. He’s dashing, charming and British but here he plays an albino monk with an accent from, I think, Spain. As a villain he isn’t bad, but I am just not scared of him. At one point the film has him chasing down the two main characters, in a Renault! FLEE! FLEE THE COMING OF THE MONK IN A RENAULT! No wonder Hanks and Tatou aren’t scared of him – so how are we supposed to be?

As I’ve already mentioned here the pacing is inconsistent and the film makes the strange choice to re-order certain films from the book. For example Sophie Nevau tells Robert Langdon mid-way through the book why exactly she hasn’t spoken to her grandfather – the scene serves to explain her as a character and the slightly seedy nature of the Priory that her grandfather leads. The film does not do this to the end. Where it serves NO POINT AT ALL! ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH!

To be honest this is the main problem with the film as an adaptation – the choices made by the screen writer and editor are all the wrong ones! The scenes that slow down the book in places are turned into glacially placed exposition scenes in the movie. The characters are barely characterised and have all the depth of a cardboard cutout. If they had tightened the dialogue and simplified the narrative this could have been an interesting historical thriller, that, (crucially) would have been about thirty minutes shorter. Instead the film smacks of a desire to make a quick buck. I really feel that the people behind thought this would be a quick cash in and they just refused to engage in how to adapt this book properly. To call this film adaptation half-assed is to greatly over-estimate the amount of ass used in this adaptation.

If I can draw anything positive out of this, the lesson seems to be that to adapt something is not something you can do half way. To adapt is a process that requires an understanding of two completely different mediums. It’s something that takes time and a desire to do something special. What it doesn’t take is a desire to make a quick buck from a book that is so horribly written it contaminates everything it touches. To sum up, I think I can leave the last word to the great Stephen Fry, in all of its forms the Da Vinci code is just “arse gravy of the worst kind.”

So thanks for that Mr. Fry. I haven’t even covered the way this is offence to Christians, historians or people who like good writing!

ThePageBoy

PS: I do feel sorry for Tom Hanks – next time someone offers you something that feels too good to be true, Tom, JUST SAY NO!