Saturday, December 1, 2012

Six Tolkien Scenes that others did better than Peter Jackson

With Jackson's upcoming The Hobbit, everyone is rushing about wondering what Jackson will do with Tolkien's original Middle Earth saga.  If the The Hobbit is like Jackson's first go round, there will be much hashing and trashing of any previous attempts to bring Tolkien's delightful children's book to the big screen.  That means, mostly, it will be a hash fest of the Rankin/Bass cartoon special from 1977.

I was introduced to Tolkien through that special, and later when I read the book, I was amazed at how faithful the little TV cartoon actually was to the source material .  At no point did I have to wonder where the book went wrong.  Sure, things were missing.  But notably, nothing had been added.  Except for some strange animation choices due to the animation work at the Japanese studios, I've always held the animated special in high regards, and still consider it the most faithful adaptation of all Tolkien's works, Jackson's attempt included.  Oh, and I adore the songs, and consider the recited version of the Dwarve's lamentation over the fall of the Lonely Mountain to Smaug, narrated by the great John Huston and Hans Conried, to be one of the artistic high points of any filmed version of any of Tolkien's works.

Still, the modern Internet tendency of 'everything before 1992 sucked, isn't everything since 1992 so cool?' will no doubt play up the comparisons with the release of Jackson's The Hobbit in a couple days.  This is in keeping with that post-Jackson fashionable trend to trash and hash every previous attempt at bringing Tolkien's works to life.  I can't help but notice, however, that the critics who weep over Rankin/Bass's removal of Beorn or the Arkenstone, seem to overlook the myriad additions, plot holes, post-modernizing of the characters and general dumbing down of Jackson's versions.  Oh, there was plenty that was good and watchable, especially at the beginning (dismissing Arwen, Warrior Elf Princess), but for every profound Tolkien dialogue or cinimatic wonder of Jackson's trilogy, we were beset with surfing elves and belching dwarves.

So in thinking of what the upcoming three part movie series based on The Hobbit will be like, I'm reminded that each and every attempt to adapt Tolkien's works has had some hits and misses. And in all due respect to Jackson fans, those hits were sometimes well beyond anything that Jackson, with all his superficial over-directing of CGI battles scenes, was able to overcome.  Naturally I can't speak to upcoming The Hobbit, but based on his first three Tolkien films, the following are scenes that he filmed, but were done much better by previous attempts, at least IMHO.

The Flight to the Ford: The appeal to feminist sensitivities by adding Arwen, Warrior Princess to the mix was one of the glaring assaults on the story.  No movie has to stay in line with the book, and some of the greatest movies of all time are hell and gone from the original source material.  But the changes have to be for the better.  The imposition of Arwen created a story line that was later reworked, leaving gaps and portions of the movies that seemed to be lacking at best.  In Fellowship, Arwen shows up to flex her feminist muscles, outshining a bumbling Aragorn, and proudly boasting that she, herself, has no fear of those pesky Black Riders (prompting my boys to ask why she wasn't included in the Fellowship if she's the only person in Middle Earth they don't seem to scare).  Jackson's slice-and-dice editing of the chase, with the cumbersome Ringwraiths-as-living-tanks, left me wondering what was happening, only hoping the scene ended soon before any more embarrassing interpolations.  Next to this, while Bakshi suffers from the famous psychedelic sequences of vanishing landscapes, once those fade, the chase itself is far more exhilarating than the sliced up version of Jackson.  And having Arwen, Warrior Princess make the bold stand for an out-cold Frodo, simply added to the ongoing question of just who has what qualities in the story worth celebrating?  Frodo, in Bakshi and the books, has a resiliency that will bear him through many ordeals in the coming months.  Here, he never even makes it, and wouldn't have had it not been for a person able to overcome all odds who was, strangely, not so much as invited to come along with the Fellowship (yes, I know Jackson had other heroic plans for her, and their thankful omission only makes her role in Fellowship seem that much more awkward).

The Inn at Bree: Like so much of Jackson's work, he seems almost bothered with having to worry about dialogue, and wants everything to involve some form of physical altercation, fighting, tumbling, belching, or something.  Bakshi shined here more than most of the rest of his animated movie.  Again, excepting the strange rotoscope technology, the interactions in the tavern, Frodo's song and dance, the introduction and interplay with Butterbur, the introduction of Strider - all of these brought forth the spirit and heart of the books, and gave great introductions to the character of Aragorn.  Jackson, on the other hand, can't help but rely on quick cut and paste editing, fast paced scene shifting, rushed dialogue, and the usual 'nobody speaks that they aren't threatening someone' tendency of his films.  While some parts hint of potential quality (I'm thinking of the eerie closeup of Strider as he smokes his pipe and observes the hobbits), the later parts all melt into convoluted imagery, with a very strange appearance by the Black Riders, rushing by a bedridden Butterbur.  In Bakshi, the scenes are similarly ordered, but the menace of the Black Riders is greater, the tension thicker, and the wisdom and intensity of Strider is better established because Bakshi is willing to let the dialogue do the heavy lifting.  It's not for no reason that when I read The Fellowship of the Ring, my mind conjures the Indianesque nature-ranger of Bakshi, and not the brooding, leather and mail draped Mortenson.  On a side note, Aragorn's smack down of Butterburr as nothing other than a 'fat innkeeper who only knows his name because people shout it at him all day', which demonstrates the urgency of the mission, was again sorely missing from Jackson's film, which preferred Jackson's own contributions, such as the ever-famous 'let's hunt some orc!'

The suffering of Theoden: Nowhere was Jackson's lack of depth as a story teller more apparent than his dealing with Theoden's mental enslavement to the wiles of Grima Wormtongue.  Not that the actors were to blame, they did what they could with the material at hand.  But to anyone who has read the books, it's clear that Theoden is not captured by some satanic possession spell, but by the sweet deceptions of Saramon through his agent Wormtongue.  Just how to show this?  For the briefness of the scene, Bakshi shows it could be done as it was intended: psychological abuse and exploitation of an old man feeling the crushing weight of a world spinning wildly out of control.  Instead, what we get with Jackson is a look of demonic possession so ripe with The Exorcist ripoffs that I was waiting for Bernard Hill to spit pea soup.  Like his battle of the two wizards in Fellowship, the over-the-top drama of Gandalf cleansing him made Max Von Sydow that much more appreciated.  A perfect example of Jackson being a mile wide and an inch deep when it comes to unpacking profound insights.

Gandalf and the Witch King: Rankin/Bass wins this one easily. Once again, a scene filled with drama and intensity by virtue of masterful storytelling is compromised by Jackson's belief that if there isn't physical brawling involved with heavy CGI effects, it must be dull.  The final confrontation between the Witch King and Gandalf at the gates of Minas Tirith is one of great dramatic high points in Tolkien's works.  After the mega-ram Grond decimates that which had never been broken, all men of sound mind and common sense flee for their lives, as a being of the supernatural, who is reputed to be invulnerable,  marches triumphantly to seize his prize.  Pippin witnesses the event, and notices how small and bent Gandalf appears before the terror of the Nazgul Lord.  With mockery, the Witch King challenges Gandalf, and Gandalf, taken aback by the otherworldly appearance of his opponent, looks to be making peace with his maker when, all of a sudden, a cock crows.  Invoking images of another rooster whose crowing shamed the a delinquent apostle, this noise breaks the dread of the darkness, and causes the Witch King to realize that a new threat to his victory has just arrived.  Jackson, however, feels it must all boil down to a physical duking it out by the two parties, leaving us missing what could have been, especially after a previous scene where Jackson does shine by allowing Gandalf to comfort Pippin about what lies beyond this life.

Eowyn and the Witch King: If Rankin/Bass outdid Jackson with their version of Gandalf's encounter with the Witch King, they obliterated Jackson when it came to the the passing of the Witch King at the hands of Eoywn.  Already Tolkien has established that the Witch King is nigh on unbeatable, and R/B did a nice job of reinforcing this with an introduction to the character in its earlier battle scenes, making sure each kid watching understands that this being is invulnerable, and that no living man can hurt it in any way.  This is one of the truly great scenes in LoTR, and when I first read it ages ago, it knocked my shoes off.  This is also a great slam against moderns and post-moderns who accuse Tolkien's works of being sexists for not beating men down and elevating the superiority of women.  There she is, neglected Eowyn, relegated to the kitchen by her uncle-king, but sneaking into battle to prove her worth.  In the book, her identity is hidden - though careful readers may guess something is amiss with the sudden introduction of the character Dernhelm.  In Rankin/Bass, she is plopped before the viewers with little fanfare, but a brief explanation of her identity courtesy of Merry.   Jackson has plenty of time to introduce the struggling warrior wannabe, but in typical Jackson form, he concludes his audience won't get it unless he clubs them over the head and reveals her identity from the get go.  So it's no surprise who she is at the point of the battle.

When the confrontation finally arrives, you have some of the best writing that came from Tolkien's pen.  Theoden is left for dead, all the bravest warriors fleeing the terror of the Nazgul - except Eowyn.  As she stands between the creature and her kin, she is mocked then threatened by the otherworldly menace.   But she holds her ground.  And Rankin/Bass allows the scene to unfold as Tolkien wrote it, including some of the actual verbiage of the parties.  "Foul Dwimmerlaik" she calls him (that awesome phrase is kept in Rankin/Bass's version), and defies his threats.  He then finally explains why opposition is futile, for no living man can harm him.  At that point she reveals her identity and her gender.  And in a fabulous moment in the book, shown well in the cartoon, the Nazgul Lord, nightmare of humanity, second in command of all evil, pauses 'as if in sudden doubt.'  Just the idea that this ancient force of darkness is left befuddled by a sudden spin on an accepted prophecy - wow!  And yet Jackson cannot allow a good battle scene to be broken by boring dialogue.  His audience already knows who she is, and when the Witch King is finally brought to his knees (literally), Eowyn only informs him of her gender as if to rub it in - she'd already won. It accomplishes nothing but a flicking of a middle finger before finishing the job.  Plus, with the directing and attitude, you could imagine her adding some modern day colloquialism just to add punch in the great tradition of 'Let's hunt some orc'.

In all, not necessarily the worst job Jackson did, it's just that Rankin/Bass did it so much better.

The Council of Elrond: The presence of Bakshi's Elrond, a someone nondescript figure, pours a bit of water on what is otherwise a good presentation of the all important Council of Elrond.  The dialogue is crisp, and contains all that is needed in order to help the audience grasp what is happening, who is in the Fellowship, and why.  Jackson's Council is not so much lacking as it is filled with too much.  Once again, Jackson makes it clear that he is uncomfortable allowing the talent of the actors to carry a scene.  He feels he must add action, Action, ACTION!  Even a council, where leaders of the various free peoples of Middle Earth have gathered to discuss the fate of the world, is not immune to the need to inject physical action, fights and brawls, and confusing editing and camera work.  The audience still knows what is going on, it's just that Bakshi showed that Jackson could have accomplished the same thing better, even if it involved actors delivering their lines, and nothing more.

Sometimes the scenes Jackson filmed were six of one, half dozen of the other.  Both journeys portrayed by Jackson and Bakshi had their merits, though Bakshi did better keeping things within the characters, while Jackson's tendency to portray the young as hip to things and the old as losing it, has Gandalf less the bold leader as often as the grumbling geezer who has to wait for others to solve his problems (see the puzzle at the entrance to the Mines of Moria).

To be sure, there were some places Jackson shined when he altered the material, most noticeably the destruction of the ring sequence, showing the sudden realization of the Fellowship regarding Frodo and Sam's plight in the midst of the destruction, immediately before the movie switches to two little figures shown running for their lives through a collapsing Mount Doom.  And this isn't to say the Rankin/Bass or Bakshi versions didn't have their own problems.  Sure they did.  But again, if you dismiss those problems, as fans of Jackson are so quick to dismiss his, then they were great films, too.  The point is, no attempt to bring Tolkien to the screen hasn't been without its problems. A plight not exactly confined to Tolkien's books either. There is going to be something that has to go.  The best version so far, Rankin/Bass's 1977 animated The Hobbit, is good at keeping with the heart of the story, keeping basic elements of Tolkien-fare within the production, and not adding things that become cringe worthy after the first viewings.  We'll see how Jackson does in a few days.

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