"Go away and never come back"

A talk given at Oxonmoot 2004

 

There were two different Peter Jackson's involved in the making of Lord of the Rings.

The first Peter Jackson was Peter Jackson the movie maker. The cinematographer. The person who wanted to make a film which would stand or fall on its own merit. This Peter Jackson is certainly capable of producing thrilling cinema. His version of Helms Deep doesn't take much more from the book than the basic idea of the defense of a castle against overwhelming odds—which he uses as a pretext for a stonking movie battle, complete with dwarf tossing, skateboarding elves, and oodles and oodles of male-bonding. ("This is a good sword, my boy. There are always cliches."). It's not really adaptation: it's more "scenes suggested by Lord of the Rings." This Peter Jackson could have produced the best piece of piece of post-Dungeons and Dragons fantasy cinema of all time.

Unfortunately, there was a second Peter Jackson involved in the movie:  Peter Jackson the Tolkien fanboy.

(Not that I have anything against Tolkien fanboys. Some of my best friends are Tolkien fanboys.)

Like most of us, this Peter Jackson had spent his entire life wishing that he could go to Middle-earth. Unlike most of us, someone gave him a hundred million dollars and told him that he could. He really was walking around with the price of the Shire in his back pocket. And naturally, he wants to get his moneys worth. The wall paintings at Minas Tirith, hobbits farming in the Shire, even Aragorn's ring—no detail is so trivial that he won't spend a couple of grand getting it right.

This second Peter Jackson keeps interfering with the movie that the first Peter Jackson is trying to make. The first Peter Jackson only wants to use characters, locations and scenes if they make sense in cinematic terms: if they push the plot forward and create action and conflict. He mercilessly chops out Glorfindel and Tom Bombadil and Farmer Maggot and Erkenbrand and the Mouth of Sauron and even cuts Christopher Lee's big scene from part 3 because he doesn't think they are necessary to the movie. But the other Peter Jackson keeps adding rather irrelevant characters, and lines, and scenes and props—just because they were in the book.

The end result is a movie which is uneven in tone, at crossed purposes with itself. Neither a successful adaptation of Lord of the Rings, nor a stand-alone fantasy movie.

I have a nightmarish vision of what the early scripting conferences must have been like

 

"We're are dropping Galadriel's gift giving. There's no action or conflict it's sentimental, it doesn't advance the plot. And Gimli's present is going to look sappy, however we film it."

"You can't cut the gift giving. It's my favorite scene. It never fails to brings tears to my eyes. Next you'll be wanting to translate the "Namarie" poem into English".

"Even better than that!...I cut it altogether. I didn't think it would get a laugh."

"You are going to show the Elves giving them Lembas, aren't you."

"Oh yes. That's an important set up for a scene I've thought up for part 3. You are going to love this... Gollum goes through Sam's rucksack, and..."

"At least make it clear how special Lembas is. Tolkien said it was an unconscious allegory of the Eucharist.""

"Allegory. Allegory...  Well, I could bung in a belch gag for Merry and Pippin. Would that do?"

"You can't change what Tolkien wrote. Tolkien is our master. Good, kind, concise master..."

 

This conflict isn't helped by the fact that the first Peter isn't exactly the most subtle of all film makers. He seems to judge whether or not a scene is cinematic according to two basic criteria

#1: Is someone moving – jumping across a chasm, falling into an abyss, hanging off a precipice, or preferably, thumping someone else.

#2: Does it resemble anything out of Star Wars?

So Tolkien Geek Peter wants to do the scene where Gandalf frees Theoden from Grima's influence—which is, granted, a "talking heads" scene. Other Peter makes it more cinematic by having Gimli and Legolas thumping things in the background. Tolkien Geek Peter left in the (wholly gratuitous) self-immoliation of Denethor, which Movie Geek Peter hugely improves by having Gandalf thump the Steward of Gondor with his staff.

 

There's also the problem of dialogue. It is pretty clear that Jackson the cinematographer wanted to make a movie where people spoke in modern English. But Jackson the Tolkien fan snuck into his office at night, scribbled lines from the book into the script, and hoped no-one spotted it. You end up with people who say "What does your heart tell you?" at one moment and "I hold your oaths fulfilled" the next. I felt as if I was watching a set of movie characters who quote their favorite lines from the book at each other. Look at the death of Theoden:

Theoden: "I know your face, Eowyn"

Eowyn:"I'm going to save you"

Theoden: "You already did."

That conforms to Jackson's second rule: any scene is a good scene ifit quotes Star Wars.

 "My body is broken. You have to let me go."

That's Hollywood psychobabble: a helpful bit of grief counseling.

"I go to my fathers in whose mighty company I shall not now be ashamed."

That's a line out of the book and it sticks out like a sore thumb. You should have used either Tolkien-esque language or modern English. Mixing the two sounds ridiculous.

 

Sometimes, this tendency reduces the script to gibberish. Jackson the Tolkien Fan had obviously used his marker pen to highlight some of his favourite lines from Appendix 1. It will be recalled that Aragorn's body became preternaturally beautiful when he died:

"Then a great beauty was revealed in him, so that all who after came there looked on him in wonder...And long he lay, an image of the splendors of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world"

Jackson liked this line so much that he forced Elrond to say it, when he is trying to persuade Arwen to leave Aragorn and go into the west.

"Whether by the sword or the slow decay of time, Aragorn will die and there will be no comfort for you, no comfort to ease the pain of this parting. He will come to death, an image of the splendors of the king of men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world."

What? In this context, the line makes no sense at all. (Not that the scene makes much sense, mind you.) The Tolkien fan has forced the film maker to fill the script with meaningless dialogue.

 

The Tolkien fan also keeps quoting Tolkien's descriptions and metaphors—which the movie maker proceeds to take literally. In Bag End, Tolkien says Gandalf  "seems to grow tall and menacing": Jackson reflects this by messing around with the lights and having a wind blow through the room. (He does avoid the temptation to have a pantomime style thunder flash.) When Frodo offers Galadriel the Ring she "seems tall beyond measurement". This is a figure of speech which refers to Frodo's subjective impressions. It should have been represented in the movie by "acting, darling". Instead, Jackson the Movie Maker does that weird negative effect, with Galadriel looking as if she's been shot by a Dalek. It's a ludicrous scene, and it would never have occurred to any film maker off the top of his head. It is only in there as a result of misguided fidelity to Tolkien's text. One could also mention the attack by the Wargs, which seems to have been suggested by a metaphorical reference to "the wolves of Isengard" and the quite laughably literal depiction of the Eye of Sauron.

 

I think that the cinematographer resents the Tolkien geek's interventions, and starts retaliating. Often, when Tolkien-Fan-Jackson puts one of his "favourite" scenes into the scripts, Movie-Maker-Jackson deliberately spoils them, by adding a weak joke or making the characters appear more cynical and less noble than they do in the book.

The Tolkien Geek will not allow the director to leave out the scene where Pippin swears allegiance to Denethor, even though arguably not much comes of it in movie terms. So the director deliberately spoils it. In the book, it is a dead serious scene and everyone—Pippin, Gandalf, and Denethor—come out of it pretty well. Gandalf explicitly tells Pippin "that was well done." Here, Gandalf's reaction to Pippin's offer to Denethor is not "Take the hilt and speak after the Lord if you are resolved on this " but "Get up you fool!", which raises a laugh from most audiences. This means that Pippin's character never really gets to grow up.

Or look at Jackson's handling of Legolas and Gimli's orc-slaying competition. This is mentioned perhaps four times in the Helms Deep passage of the book. Movie maker Jackson makes it a major theme in three different battles—the fight with the Wargs, Helms Deep itself, and Pellanor fields. Before "the great battle of our time", what is on Gimli's mind is who is going to win the competition. In the book, after Helms Deep Legolas says

"You have passed my score by one, but I do not grudge you the game, so glad I am to see you on your legs"

In the movie Legolas is annoyed when he finds that Gimli has beaten him and shoots an orc corpse in the head claiming that it was still twitching. Gimli's reply is both stupid and anachronistic:

"It's twitching because it's got my axe in its nervous system."

This has gone beyond adaptation and passed into the realms of parody.

 

I'm not even going to mention the Oliphaunt. It would only upset me.

 

The most extreme example of Tolkien Geek Jackson's scuppering of the movie is the ending of Return of the King: Or, rather, the six endings.

To begin with: Mount Doom. As the trailers kept telling us, all our paths through wilderness and war had lead to this point, so you might think we'd try to get it right.

As the scene starts, Cinematic Jackson is in control. The scene is constructed to look like the flashback with Elrond and Isildur in part one, which is cool. Sam is given a slightly increased role compared with the book, shouting "Throw it in. No, really, throw it in" rather than just standing there being subservient. And Peter Jackson takes Tolkien's line "I have come, but I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine" and reduces it to "The Ring is mine" which is something of an improvement.

It's only once Gollum has grabbed the ring that we run into problems.

Jackson obviously judged that what happens in the book was not "cinematic". And much as it pains me to say it, I think he had a point. After nine hour's slog, Gollum, er, somehow trips over his silly computer generated feet and falls into the fire. Hmm... If you listen to the radio version, even with Peter Woodthorp acting his little cotton socks off: ("I used to do Samuel Beckett you know") and Stephen Oliver doing his special Significant Music ("One day I'm going to write straight opera!") there is a slight sense of bathos.

Jackson's radical solution is to chuck the book into the Crack of Doom and make stuff up. Frodo gets up and starts fighting Gollum. We have a great image of the two of them wrestling on the edge of the abyss. This conforms to several of the rules of "good cinema": the hero is taking action; there is movement; there is collapsing scenery, someone is on the edge of a cliff, people are thumping each other. And then Frodo and Gollum go over the edge.

I think that Cinematic Peter intended that Frodo really would fall over with Gollum: that Frodo would die in the closing minutes of the film. The only way for Frodo to destroy his shadow-self and evil reflection is to drag him down into the abyss with him.

This ending was set up in Two Towers. Galadriel has told Elrond that "The Quest will claim Frodo. I have foreseen it. I know it to be true. It is your destiny". (Sorry, wrong movie again.) The scenes outside the Black Gate with everyone shouting "Frodo" and looking sad seem to have been filmed with this ending in mind. It would have been different in content from the book, but rather faithful thematically: Frodo sacrifices himself to save the Shire; one person gives something up so someone else can enjoy it. I think cinematic Jackson would have liked to end the movie with Frodo disappearing into the lava and the Dark Tower collapsing. (He could have thrust out his arms as he fell, thus conforming to another important cinematic rule: at least one character has to be Jesus.)

But of course, Tolkien geek Jackson was aghast at the suggestion that someone might want to Change The Plot so radically, so Jackson has to splice in a terribly corny Flash Gordon get out clause in which Frodo grabs the edge of the cliff and is left hanging on by his fingers, and then does another love scene with Sam.

Having had his ending messed up, Jackson now can't work out how to get out of the film.

Cinematic Peter Jackson knows how movies end. Once you are passed the climax, wrap things up as quickly as possible. Use very clear signs to signal to the viewer that the movie is ending: swelling music, kisses, farewells, marriages, books closing, people laughing, people going off into the sunset

Or, in this case, all of the above.

So. Ending #1. Frodo wakes up in bed. Gandalf laughs. Everyone reminds everyone else what their names are. For one terrible minute it looks as if Merry and Pippin are going to start a pillow fight. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf form a neat line, as if for a curtain call. (That's something else we have to blame George Lucas for: ending movies with "curtain calls". In fact, I felt that Sam's slightly detached melancholic pose was a lot like Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.) Close up of Frodo's face. Black out. The end.

"No", says Tolkien Peter, "We can't end it there. We have to have the coronation scene."

"Why?" says cinematic Peter, "We know what happens."

"Because it's in the book."

So. Ending #2. The Coronation. By this point the audience are rustling their pop corn and preparing to leave. But like a strange "reduced Shakespeare" company version of the book, lots of dangling plot threads gallop past us. The Aragorn and Arwen plot line is resolved in 20 seconds, and we never find out why Elrond looks so pleased. (Is the fact that she is hiding behind a banner Jackson's way of reminding us that the only action she takes in the book is to embroider Aragorn's standard?) We see Faramir and Eowyn standing together, even though, so far as I can tell, they have never actually met before. But Tolkien Geek Jackson at least wants a fossilized relic of that sub-plot in the movie. The Hobbits line up for another curtain call, there is another close up of Frodo's face. The End.

"No", say Other Peter. "If you won't let me do the Scouring of the Shire, at least let the hobbits go home."

So, Ending # 3. A quick look look at the Shire, and then the marriage of Sam and Rosie. (The Aragorn and Arwen story gets a lot of screen time but no real pay-off; but Sam and Rosie and Faramir and Eowyn get a pay-off for which there was no set-up.) The wedding guests line up for one last curtain call. Close up of Sam and Rosie. Close up of Frodo. The end? Please God?

"No", says Peter, "We have to have the Grey Havens."

"Why?"

"Because it's in the book"

"Ah!"

Note that we haven't seen any sense of the change in Frodo which occurs in the last chapters of the book and which make us understand that the Grey Havens are necessary. Frodo says that his wound his hurting because it is three years since Weathertop, and that's about it. (This must baffle non-Tolkien readers in the audience, since the name Weathertop has not been mentioned before. He should have said "It has been three years since the great watchtower of Amon Sul.") Cinematic Peter makes a rather half hearted attempt at ending #4, Frodo finishing his book at Bag End—and wouldn't the hand written cover "The Lord of the Rings by Frodo Baggins" have been a nice image to end the film on? But no, we have to go through ending #5, everyone saying good bye at the Havens.

The one thing that matters about the Havens in plot terms is the revelation that Gandalf had the Third Ring. This is, of course, the one thing which is left out. There is an elf who is neither Elrond nor Galadriel and therefore is probably Cirdan the Shipwright, but we aren't introduced to him. Bizarrely, given Aarwen's extended role in the movie, there is no hint that Frodo can leave because (in some sense) she has given him her seat on the boat. Instead we have long, long, long scenes of everyone hugging everyone else and one more bit of the Sam/Frodo romance. But at least Jackson gets to end the film on a really beautiful image, Close up of Frodo's face. Close up of Sam's face. Long shot of last ship. For variety, white out. The end.

Except of course, it isn't. Jackson still insists that we go back to the Shire one last time, for no better reason than that he wants the last line of the movie to be the same as the last line of the book. And once again, it makes no sense in movie-terms. "You can't always be torn in two, Sam" says Frodo. Why? Who said he was? In what sense? Another pay-off to a plot that never quite got around to happening.

And this really is the end, unless you count the song, the sepia illustrations, the credits, and the charter members of the Lord of the Rings fan club.

 

I wish that Jackson the movie maker had had the courage to say "Go away and never come back" to the Tolkien geek. The film might have been more rounded. There might have been more swashbuckling, which he does well, and less backstory, which he does badly. It would have hung together. There would have been no plot threads without payoffs and payoffs without plot threads. It would have been a movie, rather than a Tolkien love-in.

It would also, I feel sure, have been much, much shorter.

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