Tag Archives: Peter Jackson

Back, and there again

GOLLUM“I feel thin, like butter scraped across too much bread.” That line, and the way Ian Holm delivered it, was the moment I realized that The Fellowship of the Ring was going to be a lot better than I expected, back in 2001. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s new Middle-earth epic, brought that line to mind again, but not in a good way.

I was actually pleased to hear that Jackson and his writers would be expanding their planned two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel to three full-length features. After all, in their adaptation of The Lord of the Rings the same team had shrewdly brought forward story elements Tolkien left buried in the back matter of The Return of the King.

But for all the talent on display here — and there is a great deal that’s likeable about this film — this initial Hobbit feels like 90 minutes of story rattling around in a nearly three-hour shell. Of course the story doesn’t have the same emotional weight as The Lord of the Rings, but still. The pacing is off. There are long stretches of wheel spinning, and an extended visit to Rivendell that only adds to the sense that the filmmakers are twiddling their thumbs instead of getting on with the real business. Jackson’s lavish take on King Kong had the same problem — he took too long getting started, and then didn’t know when to stop.

On the plus side, however, Jackson hasn’t repeated his biggest casting mistake from King Kong. Jack Black was never for a moment believable as a charismatically roguish filmmaker, but Martin Freeman is the distilled essence of Bilbo Baggins, and even when The Hobbit was at its logiest I kept watching just to see what subtle character touch was coming from him. The film picks up considerable steam at the halfway mark, and the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Gollum — more convincing than ever, thanks to improved special effects, and more affecting than ever, thanks to the consistently remarkable Andy Serkis — moved from comedy to menace to pathos with complete mastery. The genuinely emotional finale ended the movie on an undeniable high note. I still wish Jackson and company had stuck to the idea of making two films, but reservations aside, I’m on board for three.  

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Hobbitunes

Howard Shore’s extraordinary music was a big part of why I fell hard for all three Lord of the Rings films, so I was delighted to hear that Shire was on board to score all three installments of The Hobbit, due to hit the cineplexes  in about a month. His music for the first film is streaming here. Shore is still the perfect composer for Middle-earth. 

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So much for that idea

I knew John Boorman was one of the parade of filmmakers who took a run at adapting The Lord of the Rings but I didn’t know the details of the script Boorman wrote. Apparently one of the high points of the Lothlorien sequence was Frodo getting it on with Galadriel:

United Artists (which acquired the movie rights to The Lord of the Rings from Tolkien before his death) originally was going to have John Boorman write and direct a film adaptation, but Boorman’s script confused the heck out of the studio. (Actually, with its Frodo/Galadriel love making scene, his script confuses the heck out of me as well.) And to make matters worse for United Artists, they had agreed to pay John $3 million for this badly written piece of garbage. As they were deciding whether to move forward or not, Ralph Bakshi (a big fan of Tolkien) approached them and asked the studio heads what they thought about having him direct three animated films that were closer to Tolkien’s original books. United Artists said that was fine, but they needed $3 million to cover the cost of throwing away Boorman’s script. At that point, Bakshi approached MGM (which wasn’t hard, because they shared the same building with United Artists) and MGM was so interested, they bought all the rights from United Artists for the $3 million, wiping UA’s books clean and taking on the project themselves with Bakshi as director. Unfortunately for Bakshi, the man who made that decision for MGM (Dan Melnick) was then fired, and the new guy (Dick Shepherd) didn’t want anything to do with Tolkien. That’s when Bakshi contacted Saul Zaentz, whom he had previously worked with, which led to Zaentz acquiring the movie rights from MGM and asking United Artists if they were still interested in doing the project. United Artists was back on board, and Bakshi ended up making the animated film that cost $4 million to produce and grossed $30 million. (Despite making money, neither Zaentz nor United Artists had any interest in a second or third part.)

Well now. I think we can agree that it’s just as well United Artists pulled the plug, even if it did lead to Ralph Bakshi’s inept and incomplete animated version. The daisy chain continued for another couple of decades and at the end waited Peter Jackson, so happy smiles all around.

Something just as ridiculous almost happened to Dune, another bulky classic that defeated a number of directors before making it to the screen. According to Harlan Ellison, the screenplay written by Alejandro Jodorowsky added an incestuous relationship between Paul Atreides and his mother. (That version, needless to say, was never made, but Jodorowsky had hired Swiss artist H.R. Giger for design work, and through him Giger met Ridley Scott, who used him on Alien, so once again happy smiles all around.) There must be a dumb screenwriter’s textbook somewhere that advises spicing up a difficult literary property with a sex scene between the two least likely characters. It’s been done over and over with Beowulf, and each time the screenwriter was convinced he’d concocted something outrageous and original. The saying “there’s nothing new under the sun” goes double for bad ideas.   

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Not-so-middling Earth

This new trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has me thinking Peter Jackson was put on this earth for the express purpose of showing up John Boorman, Stanley Kubrick, and every other big-name director who contemplated taking a crack at The Lord of the Rings.

I’ve watched the trailer several times now with the alternate endings (thoughtfully compiled in the clip above) and it has me remembering the evening, ten-plus years ago, when a friend invited me to a screening of the Lord of the Rings preview reel Jackson had prepared for the Cannes film festival. At the time, I knew Jackson chiefly  as the splatter auteur behind Brain Dead. He’d shown unexpectedly depth and discipline with Heavenly Creatures (and, with his casting of Kate Winslet, an eye for talent) but the followup, The Frighteners, had been more than a bit of a mess. Meanwhile, I’m old enough to have seen Ralph Bakshi’s bungled attempt at an animated version of The Lord of the Rings in the theater, and let’s just say my hopes weren’t very high.

The half-hour preview started on exactly the right note, with a hobbit-sized Peter Jackson sitting in Gandalf’s wagon. The montage of scenes carried through to the Mines of Moria sequence, with everything from the bucket falling falling down the well to the fight with the cave troll and Gandalf turning to face the Balrog. After that came another montage, leading up to Frodo in Mount Doom, turning and announcing that he wasn’t going to destroy the ring after all. As I recall, Frodo’s eyes were like black marbles, so the climax obviously underwent some rethinking.

At any rate, I left the screening eager to see the whole film, and since then I’ve been a complete fool for all three movies. I’m getting some of that same buzz from this Hobbit trailer, and I can hardly wait for December to roll around. This time I’ll be able to go with Eldest Daughter, who got hooked on Middle-earth watching the extended DVD versions.

Meanwhile, I wonder if that Cannes preview reel is posted anywhere online? I’d love to see it again.

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A moment of geekery

Is it too uncool to acknowledge how much I’m looking forward to seeing The Hobbit? So be it. I was never the biggest fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, so I went to see Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring with no particular expectations and ended up falling hard for the entire series. Funny to think that was a decade ago. What I particularly like about this trailer is the emphasis on character and the details of performance: the way Gandalf says “No” when Bilbo asks if he can guarantee a safe return, or the seriousness that fills the room when Thorin sings. (I’m reminded of that gorgeous scene in The Two Towers when Theoden recites “Where is the horse, where is the rider?” as a wordless chorus fills the soundtrack.) So, yes, I’m dying to see both installments of The Hobbit in the cineplexes, listen to Howard Shore’s soundtrack music, watch the extended editions (can there be any doubt of those?), and finally get a look at Smaug. Jackson has said he wants to outdo Vermithrax Pejorative. It’s high time somebody tried.

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Friday finds

The Top 29 chalkboard gags from The Simpsons, thoughtfully compiled with images. Funny stuff, but what happened to “It’s ‘potato,’ not ‘potatoe,'” the show’s tribute to the administration that early on provided it with so much material.

Lance Mannion reads Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel and finds . . . something like his past.

When I heard that Nicolas Sarkozy wants to award Albert Camus a posthumous honor, my first thought was, “And George W. Bush wants to give Noam Chomsky the Medal of Freedom.” But whatever.

The oldest book in Scotland gets dusted off. Take a look.

Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s novel about a rape-murder victim watching events unfold from the afterlife, is lacking in backbone, according to some critics.

“‘Richard Dawkins points out that he could with equal validity, though with less impact, have called his famous first book not The Selfish Gene but The Cooperative Gene.'” Well, that’s nice to know after all these years, now that three decades of popular-science enthusiasts have convinced themselves that Nature herself speaks in the language of Ayn Rand. One hopes the word will get around.”

A fond tribute to Rick Danko, underrated bassist and songwriter for The Band, on the tenth anniversary of his passing. And a tribute to folk icon Lead Belly on the 60th anniversary of his passing.

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Dream projects: Peter Jackson

This notion of linking up filmmakers with books that would benefit from being adapted into film hasn’t produced the kind of response I’d hoped for, but I post on anyway. The first four are here, and now on to the fifth.

PETER JACKSON: Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg.

Dying Inside, published in 1972, was the culmination of Robert Silverberg’s drive to lift himself from a fast-working genre hack to a thoughtful writer who consistently stretched the boundaries of literary science fiction. His Dying Insidework from the late Sixties, beginning with Thorns, already stood head and shoulders above that of his colleagues, but Dying Inside was the perfect merger of a well-established science fiction theme — telepathy — with the kind of prose treatment found in top-notch literary fiction. SF abounds in stories of persecuted people with hidden powers who ascend to something like godhood; Silverberg stood the idea on its head by making his protagonist, David Selig, a man born with extraordinary powers, who must now cope with their loss as he ages. What makes the book engrossing rather than depressing is Silverberg’s skill at showing how the ability to read minds has warped Selig’s life: it has ruined two love affairs, spoiled his relationship with his younger sister, given the people around him a creepy sense of being under surveillance, and burdened Selig with a sense of himself as a grubby eavesdropper into the lives of others. The loss of this double-edged gift is paradoxically uplifting; unable to use his super power in any positive way, Selig now has the chance to become fully human through its loss.

Silverberg tells the story in fragmentary fashion, shifting from the first-person to omniscient third-person in response to the level of pain and embarrassment Selig feels as he looks back on his life. Not all of the memories are unpleasant: there’s a bravura sequence in which the teenaged Selig wanders a farm, idly slipping into the minds of the creatures around him, jumping from a trout swimming past to a pair of lovers in the throes of passion. At least one memory is downright thrilling:

One summer when I was eight or nine — it was before they adopted Judith, anyway — I went with my parents to a resort in the Catskills for a few weeks. There was a day camp for the kiddies, in which we received instruction in swimming, tennis, softball, arts & crafts, and other activities, thus leaving the older folks free for gin rummy and creative drinking. One afternoon the daycamp staged some boxing matches. I had never worn boxing gloves, and in the free-for-alls of boyhood I had found myself to be an incompetent fighter, so I was unenthusiastic. I watched the first five matches in much dismay. All that hitting! All those bloody noses!

Then it was my turn. My opponent was a boy named Jimmy, a few months younger than but taller and heavier and much more athletic. I think the counselors matched us deliberately, hoping Jimmy would kill me; I was not their favorite child. I started to shake even before they put the gloves on me. “Round One!” called a counselor, and we approached each other. I distinctly heard Jimmy thinking about hitting me on the chin, and as his glove came toward my face I ducked and hit him in the belly. That made him furious. He proposed now to clobber me on the back of my head, but I saw that coming too and stepped aside and hit him on the neck close to his adam’s-apple. He gagged and turned away, half in tears. After a moment he returned to the attack, but I continued to anticipate his moves and he never touched me. For the first time in my life I felt touch, competent, aggressive. As I battered him I looked past the improvised ring and saw my father flushed with pride, and Jimmy’s father next to him looking angry and perplexed. End of round one. I was sweaty, bouncy, grinning.

Round two: Jimmy came forth determined to knock me to pieces. Swinging wildly, frantically, still going for my head. I kept my head where he couldn’t reach it and danced around to his side and hit him in the belly again, very hard, and when he folded I hit him on the nose and he fell down, crying. The counselor in charge very quickly counted to ten and raised my hand. “Hey, Joe Louis!” my father yelled. “Hey, Willie Pep!” The counselor suggested I go over to Jimmy and help him up and shake his hand. As he got to his feet I very clearly detected him deciding to butt me in the teeth with his head, and I pretended to be paying no attention, except when he charged I stepped coolly to one side and banged my fists down on his lowered back. That shattered him. “David cheats!” he moaned. “David cheats!”

How they all hated me for my cleverness! What they interpreted as my cleverness, that is. My sly knack of always guessing what was going to happen. Well, that wouldn’t be a problem now. They’d all love me. Loving me, they’d beat me to a pulp.

Like Silverberg, Peter Jackson made his own craftsman’s journey upward, Peter JAcksonfrom splatter movies to the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings films and the upcoming prestige release The Lovely Bones, which is also being touted as Oscar bait. The artistic transition from Bad Taste to The Lord of the Rings is as dazzling as Silverberg’s leap from Invaders From Earth to Son of Man. Jackson also has an unabashedly broad appetite for fantasy and science fiction, as well as en eye for talent: in Heavenly Creatures, for example, he gave Kate Winslet her first major showcase.

The glimpses I’ve seen of footage from The Lovely Bones make me think Jackson would be the one to find an ingenious and original way of visualizing Selig’s telepathic experiences. Just as importantly — perhaps more so — Jackson knows how to imbue fantasy material with well-grounded, earthly emotions. My two favorite sequences from The Two Towers — Elrond’s warning of what awaits Arwen if she stays behind, and Theoden’s recitation of “Where is the horse, where is the rider?” — have little to do with special effects and everything to do with the power of the human voice, and the savvy of a director who knows when it’s time to hang back and simply let the actors carry their scenes. To see that kind of artistry at work on adapting what is arguably the finest SF novel of the Seventies would be a rare treat.

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Dream projects: David Cronenberg

Since books and movies are my two most frequently blogged-about subjects, I’m going to spend the next several days combining the two in a semi-meme. More of a challenge than a meme. The point is to identify a work of literature that ought to be made into a film and point to the living director best suited for the job. I invite any and all lit-bloggers and film-bloggers to weigh in with their own choices and let me know so I can link to their posts. I’ve got books in mind for, among others, Spike Lee, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, and Carroll Ballard, but I’m going to get things rolling with a nightmarish dream project, an extreme choice for one of our best and most extreme filmmakers.

DAVID CRONENBERG: The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, by Junichiro Tanizaki.

In a review of Dead Ringers, a New Yorker critic described David Cronenberg’s storytelling mode as “debonair cruelty.” That’s a pretty Tanizakigood description of Junichiro Tanizaki’s blackly comic 1935 novella about a sixteenth-century Japanese warlord whose feats of valor on the battlefield are rooted in a bizarre erotic obsession  formed when, as a boy, he watched women preparing the severed heads of enemy soldiers taken as trophies in battle. In particular, his fixation centered on a young woman’s enigmatic smile as she prepared a “woman-head” for presentation. In order to experience the rapture of this vision once again, the budding warlord becomes the catalyst for a revenge plot that changes the course of a small, extremely bloody piece of history during the period of Warring States.

Tanizaki’s novella couches this tale in a parody of tediously didactic Confucian history — sort of the Asian version of Parson Weems — that upends the idea of ignoring a hero’s faults and listing only his virtues for moral instruction, and the lecturing tone gets drier and funnier as the exploits get ever more outrageous. Since just about every Tanizaki story except The Makioka Sisters (his best known work outside Japan) hinges on some kind of outre sexual obsession, the author is offering his readers an exceptionally shrewd self-parody as well.

The mingling of beauty, grotesquerie, and cynical humor in The Secret CronenbergHistory of the Lord of Musashi would be right up Cronenberg’s alley. He may have replenished his bank account with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, but we’ve already seen how commercial success only whets his appetite for extreme material. This is, after all, the man who followed relatively conventional genre films like The Dead Zone and The Fly with Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, then detoured for a Broadway adaptation (M. Butterfly) before heading right back to the edge with Crash. Watch the bondage scene in Dead Ringers, then imagine how Cronenberg would handle a scene like this:

When Hoshimaru arrived at the attic on the third night, an extraordinary head lay before the girl. It was that of a young samurai of twenty-one or -two, but, strangely, the nose was missing. It was an attractive face. The complexion was wonderfully pale, the freshly shaven places glowed, and the glossy black hair was as splendid as that which draped luxuriously over the girl’s shoulders and down her back. No doubt the warrior had been an extremely handsome man. His eyes and mouth were of classic form and there was a certain delicacy in the firm, well proportioned, masculine features. Had there been a fine, straight nose in the middle, the face would have been the epitome of the young warrior, just as a master dollmaker might conceive it. But, for some reason, the nose was missing, as if it had been sliced off with a sharp blade, bone and all, from the brow to the upper lip. A pug nose might not have been so sorely missed; but one would expect to find a sculpturesque protuberance soaring from the middle of this splendid face. Instead, that vital feature had been cleanly removed, as if scooped off with a spatula, leaving a flat, crimson wound. s a result the face was uglier and more comical than those of ordinary ugly men. The girl carefully ran her comb through the noseless head’s lustrous black hair and retied the topknot; then, as she always did, she gazed at the center of the face, where the nose should have been, and smiled. As usual, the boy was enchanted by her expression, but the surge of emotion he experienced at that moment was far stronger than any he had felt before. Juxtaposed with the mutilated head, the girl’s face glowed with the pride and the joy of the living, the embodiment of flawless beauty. And her smile, precisely because it was so girlish and unaffected, now appeared to be brimming with the most cynical malice, and provided the boy with a wheel on which to spin endless fantasies. He thought he would never tire of gazing at her smiling face. The fantasies it inspired were inexhaustible and, before he was aware of it, had lured his soul away to a land of ambrosial dreams where he himself had become this noseless head and was living with the girl in a world inhabited only by the two of them. This fantasy was very much to his liking. It made him happier than he had ever been before.

I’m imagining Cronenberg’s eye for color and texture at work among the silk robes, polished floors and bloody carnage. I’m also imagining the blend of lushness and austerity Howard Shore could bring to the soundtrack music. Until he broke the bank with The Lord of the Rings, Shore’s best and most challenging work was done for Cronenberg, and he needs another challenge. And I’d like to see the actress who could play Lady Kikyo, the tormented noblewoman whose wish for vengeance allows the hero to realize his deepest wish, and provides a closing tableau that would give the definitive answer to anyone who wondered if Cronenberg could manage to come up with anything wilder than Crash.

ADDENDUM: If Cronenberg doesn’t want the job, second choice would be David Lynch. From Blue Velvet to silk kimonos would be a natural evolution for Lynch.

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Tech-tempus fugit

When DVDs were introduced a while back, I felt no great urgency to get a player: I’d spent plenty of money on the VCR and videotapes, so I was inclined to take my time, though even then I understood that VHS is not a preservation medium. The experience of the first wave of compact discs, which despite all the squawking about superior sound were usually no better and sometimes demonstrably inferior to vinyl LPs in the Eighties, made me reluctant to join the steeplechase race of consumer electronics.

Of course, CDs improved, and the flood of previously hard-to-find music as record labels churned their catalogues for product, made a believer out of me. What converted me to the DVD way of life was the release of the extended editions of Peter Jackson’s three Lords of the Rings films, which I not only had to see but own as well.

So maybe this will be the spur that leads me to buy a Blu-Ray player.

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Green thoughts

Back when his friend J.R.R. Tolkien was grumping about the way people were reading all kinds of allegorical meanings into The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis offered both sides a way out by drawing the distinction between allegory, which presumes to read an author’s intentions, and applicability, which is what the reader himself brings to his reading of an author’s work.

I wonder what Lewis– or, for that matter, Tolkien — would have had to say about the way the Iranian government is trying to keep people off the streets by broadcasting, among other things, a marathon of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, or the way people are subverting the government’s intentions by reading all kinds of unflattering meanings into the characters and situations.

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