Tag Archives: The Lord of the Rings

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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Drive, he said

Cosmopolis, an unreadable novel by Don DeLillo, has begotten a somewhat watchable film from David Cronenberg, which in turn has begotten a highly listenable soundtrack by Cronenberg’s longtime collaborator, Howard Shore. And I do mean “collaborator.” Cronenberg gave Shore his entree to film scoring with The Brood in 1979, and he’s used Shore’s music on all of his subsequent films except The Dead Zone.

Though there are plenty of long-running relationships between directors and composers — I’d be hard-pressed to think of a Steven Spielberg film that hasn’t been scored by John Williams — few compare with Cronenberg and Shore in terms of artistic quality. Alfred Hitchcock relied on Bernard Herrmann to give his films warmth and humanity, to the point that I’d give Bennie co-auteur status on just about all of Hitch’s certified great films. But Shore’s approach is more adaptive than Herrmann’s. His scores for Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and Crash, for example, do not announce themselves as Shore’s work the way Vertigo, Marnie, and North by Northwest are instantly recognizable as Herrmann’s compositions. Shore is also exceptionally astute in his choice of collaborators. His use of Ornette Coleman makes Naked Lunch an exceptional soundtrack. The Lord of the Rings is a showcase for beautiful female voices, such as Aivale Cole, Isabel Bayrakadarian and Emiliana Torrini.

Shore’s work for Cosmopolis has some of the same metallic sheen as Crash (appropriately, since cars figure heavily in both flicks), but without the earlier film’s spiky menace. Shore wrote his music to be performed by Metric, a Canadian band with a bright, synthesizer-heavy sound that works for the protagonist’s disaffected mindset. Like the young financier in his stretch limo, the music combines forward motion with a sense of drifting. There are very few composers whose work I want to get even before the film comes out. Shore is one of them.

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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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Linktopia

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley were published within a few years of each other, but their visions of America and “the road” are much different. Compare and contrast. (We’ll put aside the question of just how far Steinbeck really got on his journey.)

How to play Gandalf the Gray, from the man who ought to know. Consider it a refresher for The Hobbit in eight months.

I had no idea there were so many Harry Crews fans in the ranks of alternative rock. But I’m not surprised at the writer’s cussed response to that fact.

James W. Hall speaks out in defense of “trashy” fiction. Since he moved from poetry to thrillers such as Under Cover of Daylight and Bones of Coral, he knows whereof he speaks. I’ve noticed that the novels of a supposedly downmarket writer like John D. MacDonald have a lot more to say about their era than much of the critically lauded works of the time.

James Madison and his slaves.

The Hustler magazine stylebook.

James Baldwin meets William F. Buckley Jr. The argument has a very familiar ring to it.

Robert Caro has been writing his biography of Lyndon Johnson for 38 years. That over half as long as his subject’s actual lifespan. The next volume of the epic comes out May 1. I revere Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, but I have to admit I became exasperated with the length of Master of the Senate, the previous LBJ volume.

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Bob Anderson

Bob Anderson, who just died at the age of 89, was second only to William Hobbs when it came to staging swordfight scenes in films. He started out showing Errol Flynn how to swing steel in The Master of Ballantrae (1953) and stayed busy right up through Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. Along the way he choreographed the briefly glimpsed sword work in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, along with the Antonio Banderas Zorro films (gotta love the idea of undressing Catherine Zeta-Jones during a duel — swordplay as foreplay) and the first Pirates of the Caribbean flick. At the time of his death he was back in Middle-earth for the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit.

The clip up top features what is probably Anderson’s most beloved work, the duel between Inigo Montoya and Westley in The Princess Bride (1987), a perfectly shaped parody cum homage to the old clash-and-flash school of Hollywood swordplay. Another highlight was the bruising saber duel in the James Bond film Die Another Day, which you’ll find below.

For my money, Anderson’s finest work was the three-part duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I first wrote about it as part of a series on what I consider the best movie swordfights of all time, and I still think it’s the jewel in Anderson’s crown, right up there with William Hobbs’ brilliant choreography in Rob Roy and Ryu Kuze’s almost hallucinatory climax in The Sword of Doom.

This is superb work: action revealing character every step of the way. It starts with Luke’s flashy, grandstanding challenge, and the insultingly casual way Vader activates his weapon in response. It continues as Luke throws everything he has at Vader, who keeps ratcheting the pressure on the young wannabe until the brutal final act, when Vader uses brute force to bring Luke to the brink of disaster. Though Vader’s costume was usually worn by the hulking David Prowse, Anderson himself donned the black visor for the fight sequences, simply to ensure that Mark Hamill (who wore no protective gear) wouldn’t get his head knocked off. Even when he was being a villain, Bob Anderson was a gentleman. Now that’s a class act!

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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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Snobs is as snobs does

If you thought the artistic and commercial success of the three Lord of the Rings films, capped by the 11-award sweep on Oscar night for The Return of the King, would finally earn the fantasy genre some long overdue respect, take a gander at this New York Times review of HBO’s Game of Thrones mini-series and think again.

I haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s underlying novel, or indeed any of the books in his Song of Ice and Fire cycle, but I have read enough of Martin’s other works to understand that the man is no joke. I was still an avid Analog reader when his early SF stories, such as “With Morning Comes Mistfall” and “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” helped serve notice that the John Campbell era was most definitely over, and I consider Fevre Dream a neglected Eighties classic — one of the most original and ingenious vampire novels ever written. I gather that the bulky A Song of Ice and Fire series is Martin’s bid to write a fantasy epic with the scale and ambition of J.R.R. Tolkien while avoiding slavish imitation (and even staking out higher literary ground). I have no doubt he’s the man for the job.

But, as Jeff Sypeck notes, Ginia Bellafante’s review is a sour-smelling landfill spilling over with the stalest, tritest cliches ever excreted about fantasy fans and authors. There’s nothing in the piece you haven’t read a thousand times already, from the gibes about boys with no dating prospects to the whining about having to keep track of so many names and characters. The craft of criticism is not well served by lazy hacks who disdain the effort of understanding a work on its own terms, and knock it for failing to rise to their limited expectations. A critic isn’t required to like a given work, but the critic is required to show at least some interest in what the work is trying to do. If Ginia Bellafante couldn’t be bothered with this task, she should have stepped aside and let a real critic show her how it’s done.

Bellafanate’s clueless wanking reminds us that one of the many blessings of the Internet has been the elimination of credentialism in arts reporting. The days when a Times copyhack could command respect simply by virtue of collecting a paycheck from the Gray Lady are over, and good goddamned riddance. Most newspapers have already dealt themselves out of the cultural criticism game by getting rid of book reviews — after all, why would an industry that depends on readers want to cultivate people who buy books? — and training their lenses on whatever dive Snooki has decided to pass out in. The most informed, passionate and worthwhile arts writing has been exiled to the Internet, and Bellafante’s piece shows why we should be happy about it. There was a time when someone like Edmund Wilson — a valuable and versatile intellectual, but also frequently a ridiculous snob — would take a few sniffs at Tolkien or Lovecraft before cocking a leg over them, and we were all expected to be grateful for the golden shower of attention from a Certified Big Time Critic. Well, in this wide-open arena, the credit goes to writers with wit, style, and knowledge, and none of those qualities apply to someone who writes something like this:

If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

I hope this doesn’t shake you up too badly, Ginia, but this Wire fan understands that stories where the characters wield swords instead of Glocks can have just as much to say about human values and instincts. My literary world is big enough to put Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance alongside John O’Hara and John Steinbeck. When the Game of Thrones boxed set of DVDs comes out, I’ll give it a privileged place in the bookstore rental collection alongside The Wire, Treme, and The Singing Detective. An artist engaged with real human emotions and actions, regardless of the genre he works in, is always more interesting than a two-bit critic scoring cheap snark-points.

Embrace your irrelevance, Ginia. You’ve earned that, if nothing else.

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There goes your afternoon

As time-sucks go, this list of The 50 Greatest Movie Trailers of All Time is formidable, even potentially lethal. Aside from Where The Wild Things Are, I can’t disagree with any of the choices. In fact, the trailers for Independence Day, The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield are textbook examples of trailers that create movies in the imagination that far exceed the actual films themselves. And am I the only one who thinks the trailer for Alien has a certain David Lynch quality? Right up to the moment the egg cracks open, the trailer looks like an outtake from Eraserhead.

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