Rings with everything, Nicholas Reid

From my teenage years I have a rather silly memory related to J R R Tolkien. Three learned professors of English were at the family dinner table and they were discussing what a fastidious fussbudget Tolkien had been. One claimed to have seen the famous author bustling around Oxford in a dreadful state of anxiety. When challenged, Tolkien said his publisher’s contract had neglected to secure the film rights for The Lord of the Rings. He was dashing to his solicitor to amend the oversight.

At our dinner-table, this anecdote provoked explosions of laughter. “Film rights? Ha ha ha ha HA!” As everybody knew, The Lord of the Rings was self-evidently unfilmable.

I read The Hobbit when I was about twelve and thoroughly enjoyed it – but I resisted The Lord of the Rings until 14 years ago, when I read it out loud to my older children as a bedtime story. My fat paperback copy had a cover illustration from Ralph Bakshi’s feature-length cartoon version. At the rate of one hour a night, it took two months to get through. The children seemed to enjoy it, and I enjoyed the experience of reading it to them, though I think I would have found it fairly tedious if I had been reading it for my own diversion.

My score card for Tolkien’s magnum opus reads as follows:

Plotline – Vigorous but highly repetitive. Climax fudged.

Character development – Non-existent really. They are colourful caricatures.

Moral perspectives – Dead obvious. It says that power tends to corrupt.

Sense of humour – Pretty good, especially the idiocies of the lesser hobbits.

Use of language – Nice lush descriptions of things and places. Inventive pseudo-ancient names. Does all go on a bit.

Verdict – Great escapist rubbish. Basically an overgrown bedtime story.

Best taken in small doses.

As for the past hippie or present New Age people who claim to have found all manner of profundities in it  – I’ll politely pass them by on the other side of the road. I’m not sure how Tolkien would have reacted to their cultishness, websites and internet chatter. By all accounts, he was a fairly conservative Catholic and no candidate for a course in Wicca. Perhaps he would have been amused. Many years ago, a puritanical commentator in a BBC documentary condemned Tolkien’s literary output as a “donnish pastime”. Shorn of the disapprobatory overtones, I think that phrase just about hits it. Tolkien was deploying his great knowledge of ancient languages and mythology to spin a long yarn for fun. Nothing more.

2

But a book is a book and, while it may be a literary adaptation, a film is a film. And this is all occasioned by a film, even if Peter Jackson in one interview did describe Tolkien’s published trilogy as “the Holy Grail” for fantasy film-makers.

The problem with approaching The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of the film trilogy, is all the baggage that precedes it. The most expensive film-production undertaken in New Zealand – perhaps the most expensive undertaken anywhere. A great provider of employment to the large New Zealand contingent in the crew and the 15,000 extras. Who doesn’t know at least somebody who joined the cattle-call? (One of my nieces lurks fleetingly under Orc makeup.) A magnet for overseas stars who have in turn been a magnet for gossip. A showcase for Jackson’s own Weta Digital effects. Interest has been fanned by the steady rush of news stories about how many millions it was costing, or about persistent fans trying to get glimpses of closed sets at Mata-mata (“Hobbiton”) and in the South Island. The minor controversies have simply fed the publicity. (Did New Line Cinema get an over-generous tax-break? And would they have ever come here if they hadn’t?) Mildly tacky stuff has been part of the publicity too. Burger King’s onion rings are licensed to help sell Jackson’s Rings.

At the Wellington premiere, Helen Clark spoke of all the spin-offs that may come to New Zealand in tourism and film. Wellington got a touch of the twees and rechristened itself Middle Earth. One of its newspapers briefly became the Middle Earth Post, while the New Zealand Herald printed a tour guide to the film’s 23 New Zealand locations. Fortuitously, television coverage of the funeral of Sir Peter Blake in England showed Blake’s daughter reading one of Tolkien’s hobbit poems. Massey University gave Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson honorary doctorates, and Jackson got gonged in the New Year. And after the film’s release international box-office records were said to have been broken, the American Film Institute and the (American) National Board of Review handed awards to the film, with (at time of writing) nominations for Golden Globes and early rumours about possible Oscars.

In the face of this, local reviewers are all on their best behaviour. Adverse comments on Jackson’s film might seem mean-spirited, or even unpatriotic. We don’t want to be responsible for driving away another billion-dollar production, do we? Out comes the praise that sounds alarmingly like PR blurbs. But then, God knows, it’s hard to write an enthusiastic, brief newspaper review that doesn’t sound that way.

The most objective comment I can make about the film is that it has most of the strengths, and all of the weaknesses, of Tolkien’s original work. To at least some of its potential audience, this will be the highest recommendation. In its opening, with Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, it is as tea-and-crumpets cosy as the original book. In its visual effects (equivalent of Tolkien’s descriptions) it is as Colossal! Stupendous!! Titanic!!! as the book.

But in the development of its drama?  Oh dear. The road does indeed go ever on. And on and on and on and on for three hours.  Black riders and horrible Orcs chase Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin. They get into a series of dreadful scrapes. But there’s always the next bit of magic or friendly muscle or improvised mythology to help them out, and it’s soon established that the Orcs are fairly stupid anyway. At some stage, while respecting the internal logic of this particular fantasy world, I began to ask awkward questions. Such as – if a giant eagle can rescue Gandalf from the evil wizard’s tower, then why doesn’t Gandalf simply summon it to fly Frodo over Mount Doom, drop in the offending ring, and be done with it?

I note also that the screenplay beefs up the story’s scant female roles (Arwen and Galadriel). The books are notoriously Boys’ Own affairs. But the structural repetitiveness is a harder nut to crack. At least some overseas critics have made the same point. Check out the very ambivalent reviews, including that by Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times who waspishly called it “as close to great film-making as an epic-sized pop-mythological kiddyflick can get.” Contrary to the claims of the publicity department, the international critical reception has not been unanimously favourable.

The visual effects are worth all the lengthy, painstaking care that Jackson’s team have reportedly lavished on them. There may, however, be a law of diminishing returns with special effects. The more spectacular they are, the more the adult audience queries them. A huge fireworks dragon swoops spectacularly over Hobbiton; Arwen thwarts the dark riders by turning a river into rushing surf-horses; Gandalf faces the monstrous fire-demon Balrog over a precipice in a huge cavern. And we inevitably ask, even as we are watching, “I wonder how they did that?”, and begin analysing the multi-level computer technology involved. We know that in ten years time the most expensive effects will have become the common currency of television advertisements. I find myself comparing the desolate dwarfish mines with the beer ad that parodies Indiana Jones, or the one where Gary McCormick and his mates build the Wooden Kiwi of Troy.

In this context, the best visual effects are the most subtle, such as the apparent three-dimensional solidity of those huge statues. Or Jackson’s smudged impressionistic approach to the way Frodo would see things when he is invisible. Or (best of all) the simple matter of scale – how Ian Holm’s Bilbo is made to look tiny, and Ian McKellan’s Gandalf gigantic, as they converse at Bag End.

Does this mean that I can find something approximating a sense of wonder only when I am caught up in the dramatic situation? In that case, for most of this movie, I was not caught up in the dramatic situation.

3  

And what of those weighty national questions? Will The Fellowship of the Ring (and the next two films) stimulate tourism and film investment the way tour operators and Prime Minister have hoped? It’s not strictly relevant to assessing the film, of course, but I have my doubts. Certainly it was made in New Zealand, certified as a New Zealand film by the Film Commission, and is the product of a doggedly New Zealand director and crew. A flagship for the country, surely? But will the international audience, following an English story with a largely British and American cast, necessarily see it that way? And will they really care?

As a New Zealand viewer, I diligently and delightedly noted every New Zealand face that popped up: David Weatherly’s inn-keeper; Ian Mune’s one line before he’s knocked down; the near-subliminal shot of Peter Jackson himself; glimpses of Martyn Sanderson and Ray Henwood and Martin Csokas, and so on. I also enjoyed the helicopter-swooping shots of real New Zealand doubling as Middle Earth. Just as the Kiwi actors are strictly in minor support mode, though, the real landscape is secondary to the imaginary landscape. Mount Doom and Mordor and the blizzard-blasted mountainside may have been assembled in a visual unit in Wellington, but they could have been assembled in a visual unit anywhere.  Movie magic of this order turns Anywhere into Cyberspace and presumably most viewers in Australia, Europe or America will be sophisticated enough to appreciate this fact. But this matter of economic benefits can only be resolved by any rise or fall in tourist bookings over the next couple of years.

For the more fastidious botherers of national identity, though, there’s that problem of New Zealand’s tiny film industry devoting itself to such conspicuously non-New Zealand material. Not that the legions who have found employment on the film will care much, but a few muted wailings have been heard suggesting that we should be singing our own songs. Personally, Peter Jackson’s choosing to film The Lord of the Rings worries me no more than the NZSO choosing to play Mozart rather than Douglas Lilburn, or Don Selwyn filming a Maori version of The Merchant of Venice. There has always been something a little precious in pretending that New Zealand culture grows only out of this soil, and that we don’t in fact spend most of our leisure time reading books and watching films (and having our imaginations formed) from elsewhere.

What would worry me, however, would be a New Zealand film industry that only played variations on other countries’ literary properties, backed by foreign money and foreign producers. Then we would really see nothing of our country on screen, for The Lord of the Rings is essentially an English story filmed on Backlot New Zealand. 

Peter Jackson has said that he would like to take on a more modest New Zealand project once the next two Tolkien films are post-produced and out of the way. I look forward to that project, and hope it will engage me as much as Heavenly Creatures and Forgotten Silver did. Which, I am almost embarrassed to say, is considerably more than The Fellowship of the Rings.

 

Nicholas Reid is an Auckland film-writer.

 

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