Thursday, July 14, 2005

Peter Jackson: con-artist

Of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films: most people I know -- people who have never read the books -- were mildly entertained by the movies. The Tolkien fans were either ecstatic or furious, depending on how close they thought Jackson got to their scripture. I wouldn't call myself a Tolkien fan. I think Tolkien had some great ideas for a story, some of which he pulled off, others would have been better left for another, better writer. But I did enjoy reading his books.

I HATED the movies. And I think of them as sort of a con-job, pulled on the movie-going public. As a HUGE movie buff, I get irritated every time I hear Jackson talked about as if he's some sort of great director -- as if he's a Kubrick or a Welles. He's not. He's a hack.

Here's what he did: he took the Tolkien books and ILLUSTRATED them. And he used the most banal illustrations he could find. People think the films are "visually stunning" because they contain huge battle scenes and show expansive landscapes. But they are actually visually sterile and cliched. Gandalf looks exactly the way we all imagine him to look when we aren't thinking about him in any meaningful way. So does Gollum. So do the landscapes and castles. Everything looks the way these things look on dozens of mediocre book-jacket illustrations. A REAL director -- a Copola or an Ang Lee -- would have his own, unique and brave take on the book. Jackson's visual style seems to be to accept the first thing that pops into his head and then MAKE IT REALLY BIG.

If he didn't have a really unique take on the books, he could have hired someone who did. This is how the makers of "Alien" worked. They wanted something really special, so they combed art books and found H.R. Geiger. And with him, they came up with a really original, scary style. (Which doesn't seem so original now, but that's because it's been copied so much since.)

Imagine you were going to make a movie of "Frankenstein." What are the first images that pop into your head? They are probably pretty style-less and cliched. Compare them with this drawing:

Bernie Wrighton, the artist, had his own personal take on the story. And it shows, whether you like his art or not. And that's key. Jackson was cowardly. If you pretty much stick to dull illustration, most people will pat you on the back. "You were faithful to the source," they will say. They may not be deeply deeply moved by your work, but they will praise you. If you take a risk and pour some of yourself into the film, some people may damn you for bastardizing the source. Jackson either wasn't willing to risk this, or he's so empty inside that he can't risk it.

His Sauron was horrible. That big flaming eye. In the books it's a big eye, so he makes it a big eye. But Sauron should be SCARY! I was never scared -- not once -- by Jackson's literal imagery. They only parts of the movie that got to me were the parts where some of the actors -- mostly the Hobbit actors -- transcended Jackson's work and made me FEEL. But good actors would have done this in anyone's version.

There was a moment in the last film where I ALMOST forgave Jackson everything. I thought he was going to make the bravest decision in the world. In the novel, Tolkien creates this beautiful (almost religious) structure in which he makes it clear that Frodo, Sam and Gollum are somehow mystically bound together -- that it will take the three of them to destroy the ring. But I didn't feel this at all in Jackson's film. Which isn't necessarily bad -- it's just different.

In any case, there was this moment when Frodo was standing on that ledge, above the crack of doom, and in a horrible move-cliche way he became EVIL (one of the worst bits of acting in the film). Sam BEGGED him to throw in the ring, but he wouldn't do it. Meanwhile, the power of the ring was making Frodo stronger and stronger. Soon, clearly he would be able to destroy Sam. So Sam had very little time to act. Since Jackson hadn't really set up the Frodo/Sam/Gollum trinity, and since (much more than in the books), Sam seemed to be the emotional center of the tale, I suddenly KNEW what was going to happen. And my heart broke.

I realized that Sam was going to have to do that only thing possible in order to save the world. I realized that he was going to rush his best friend, Frodo, and push him into the fire. He would sacrifice Frodo to save the world. How brave! How achingly sad!

Had Jackson been brave enough to let this happen, he would have been damned by Tolkien fans worldwide, but he would have come up with something truthful to HIS movie -- something noble. Something transcendent. But, of course, he didn't.

And then he lopped off the end of the novel. That part where they all go back and save The Shire. But cutting that out, he destroyed the point of the whole thing. "Lord of the Rings" has a classic, Joseph-Cambellesque structure: the hero leaves home, learns something, and they returns home to use what he has learned. You CAN'T just cut off the end of that structure. It makes no sense.

Of course, had let Sam kill Frodo, he COULD have ended it that way. But he was too unoriginal, cowardly and uninspired.

Here are some images that, to me, are more interpretive of Tolkein's world that merely illustrative. There's no point in illustrating. Tolkein's books vividly describe his world as is. Illustrations add nothing. They're redundant. A strong, personal visual take should go beyond just illustrating.)

1 comment:

Seth Wagoner said...

Hey, that's a national hero you're dissing. As a Kiwi I feel honour bound to defend him.

Sure, an arty re-interpretation of LotR would be nice to see someday. We might get one after it drops out of copyright. Until then anything you'll see will be very true to the original, because otherwise the Tolkien family is unlikely to let it happen.

Peter Jackson is more than capable of writing and directing arty and original works - have you seen any of his work before LotR? There's a lot of it, and you can't really get away with calling him a hack without considering it as well.

With LotR I think there was more than sufficient challenge involved in making 3 films that pleased the Tokien fans, the film critics, and the public, in a reasonable timeframe, with a reasonable budget, without trying to please the relatively few folks who were hoping to see some sort of re-interpretation rather than movies that honored the spirit and preferrably letter of the books.

And anything that didn't honour the sprit of the books would have done more than irritate the family, it would have been panned by the Tolkien fans and the movie would have made a massive loss rather than a massive profit.

Frankly, I thought the big battle scenes were awesome, but that was more due to the folks at Weta Digital than to Jackson himself.