Friday, April 22, 2016

Peter Jackson's Ring of Power

As Gandalf famously stated in the Fellowship of the Ring, the Ring of Power appealed to the good-hearted and heroic wizard, giving him a desire to use it for good. But in fact, as every LOTR fan knows, it cannot be done. The Ring of Power will eventually corrupt every person who attempts to use it into an evil being.

Watching the Fellowship of the Ring movie last night reminded me of this principle. The fact that evil cannot be used for good is one of the things I love most about The Lord of the Rings. It’s a powerful statement about the attempt human beings make over and over again to gain power supposedly for good—which simply cannot be done by evil means. Not without becoming evil.

By the way, back when it was first released, I strenuously objected to the plot changes Peter Jackson put into the Fellowship of the Ring. No, for me, the original story was quite good enough and didn’t need to be streamlined or “Hollywoodized” or anything of the sort. When Frodo sneaked away without telling anyone in the book, that’s exactly how the movie should have been as far as I was concerned. When Aragorn was described by Frodo as someone who would, “Look fairer and seem fouler” if he’d been evil—indicating the character was not particularly good-looking—I thought it was a mistake to cast the ever-so handsome Viggo Mortensen in that role.

While I still may mourn the lost message from Tolkien about the value of inner character over looks in Aragorn’s face, I actually now see the rationale behind putting Mortensen in the part. As a scruffy-dressed guy who happens to be very good-looking, he looks like he was always intended to be king, though his stubble argues he doesn’t have the refinement a king should have. The movie makes him an evident “diamond in the rough” and perhaps the visual nature of movies makes that a good thing. Perhaps the audience needs to SEE in his face that Aragorn is good.

And as for Frodo sneaking away, his goodbye speech to Aragon is a great moment of the film, as are Merry and Pippin voluntarily becoming decoys for him, which was in fact totally missing from the book. In fact, Samwise observing him leave and joining him as he crossed the river (as opposed to simply crossing the river later because a boat was on the other side and finding Frodo after a while) made for a powerful movie moment which clearly improved on the story as originally written.

But here’s what I’m suggesting here, my point of writing this post. Plot changes became like the Ring of Power for Peter Jackson. Oh, it’s evident he intended them to be for good--but in the end, his power as a director to make arbitrary changes in an original and beautiful story led him down a path of metaphorical darkness.

Post-LOTR, the Hobbit movies have entertainment value, sure, but they are a travesty of the original. There are certain things Tolkien believed in, such as battlefield heroism having real value. Of a real world existence of such a thing as “noble blood,” that is, people who are good and decent beyond the norm because of their ancestry—that such a nobility can be passed down in family lines (even though he never rejected the idea that individuals are individuals).

In the last of the Hobbit movies, The Battle of the Five Armies, not only is the audience pushed through amusement-park-ride-like action scenes that are silly and unrealistic, completely lacking the sense of terror and heroism that mark war as both tragic and paradoxically beautiful, we are made to suffer the loss of the original story in other ways as well. Not only did Jackson foist upon us a CGI-fest that will seem even more vulgar once the novelty of such technology wears off, we were “treated” to the personage of Stephen Fry, cast in role designed to pontificate about the corrupt nature of kings in a way Tolkien wouldn’t have agreed with. Not only did the battle itself lack almost all the pathos and fear and courage in face of death that mark a real war, the movie wandered off in other directions with other purposes, and became wholly unlike the charmingly original, almost fairy-tale-like substance of the book as Tolkien wrote it, with a shocking brace of realism at the end. No, the movie has plenty of grit, losing much of the charm of a fairy tale—but also is wildly unrealistic in its portrayal of battle, an error Tolkien himself never committed.

And the movie version changed the original characters in many ways, too. To give only a few examples, Beorn, a secondary but important person in the original tale, virtually disappears from the movies. Tauriel appears out of nowhere, as does her love interest in Kili, though she and he were far from the worst of Jackson’s missteps. The king of Laketown, barely mentioned in the book, swells to bloated importance in Stephen Fry’s portrayal. Eww.

A director cannot fairly make his money of the writings of a man long dead while simultaneously warping the substance of that work into something the dead man would never have agreed to. That directly parallels the attempt to make an evil ring do good work. It is a fundamental contradiction—it cannot be done. Not justly.

Which is why the power to make plot changes in Tolkien’s works proved to be Peter Jackson’s Ring of Power. Why it lead him down a path of film-making “darkness.”


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