“The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing discussion between Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
Black, as the credits begin to appear, out of the mist. And, gradually, behind it, there’s a slow, lilting whisper – for most, it sounds like an old, archaic language, and only as it’s English translation follows can they begin to make sense of it. A woman’s voice, sounding somewhere on the through-line between youthful and elderly, tinged all over with what sounds like regret, and sadness, even. “The world is changing,” she says.
Thus is our introduction to Peter Jackson’s three film adaptation of Tolkien’s novels, The Lord of The Rings – here looked at collectively as one whole film. It’s a quiet opening, especially in contrast with that used by Ralph Bakshi’s animated film some twenty odd years beforehand, which opened with a loud, brassy score, announcing the title in bold, red tones – interestingly, Jackson has often cited Bakshi’s film as the one that introduced him to Tolkien’s novels, in the first place, and he visually references that film several times, throughout the course of the three movies, but Fellowship of the Ring in particular. And, like that film, the prologue was almost an afterthought in the minds of the filmmakers – however, where that film saw fit to use silhouettes and shadows against a red backdrop, here Jackson follows the ring from it’s casting and through into the hands of Bilbo Baggins in a series of sequences where the characters aren’t secondary so much as they all seem to orbit around the ring – the Ring, who is almost a complete character in itself, becoming firey-red and almost flushed with anger, much of the time.
Jackson’s bold face-first style that defined his earlier, ‘schlockier’ films is still more than apparent here – an interest in craggy, lined faces thrust into the camera, with the lens perpetually off-kilter in some way or another. And, with a bold, not-quite-gallows sense of humor that runs throughout – “I see you!” But, this also marks the emergence of new pieces of his filmic flavour that had gone heretofore unnoticed – the wide, roving landscapes, often filmed in a slow-moving 360-degree rotation shot around the characters as they make their way across vast, empty plains or engage in battle on the back of some snarling creature or another – or both, as is twice the case – which would again be found all up in his next film, 2005’s King Kong. And New Zealand, with it’s smoky mountains and emerald fields, lends itself entirely to it’s role as Middle Earth – much like Australia, there’s something archetypal about it’s contours and hills, and the smoke that rings the mountaintops off in the distance. It’s now nigh-impossible to imagine Tolkien’s words any other way. This is New Zealand as the winded and mythic overworld, and the dark and dreary underworld – and, as the wet swamp where the one side can break through to the other with ease.
There’s an old, oft-quoted saying that comes with adapting a book or a graphic novel into the filmic medium, and that is: “Do what you have to to get at the spirit of the work, above all.” And, no other film in the last twenty years embodies that philosophy so wholly as these three films – Jackson has an eye for what from Tolkien needs to be emphasized, and moves between the various characters and their stories with cat-like grace. I think a little of this comes from Jackson’s method of organization that he refers to on the Extended Edition DVD’s, multiple times – that of chronologically organizing the story, and laying out every single character’s path individually, first with Frodo and Sam, and marking their intersections. At the same time, he also seems to notice and realize those little minute things of Tolkien that have a great risk of coming off unnecessarily kitschy, or unintentionally camp – those sections of the book, and particularly The Two Towers, where Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas sing in remembrance of Boromir. And sing. And sing. And, sing, until they run right smack into the Riders of Rohan on the fields. Jackson also moves events around, in an effort to both preserve the chronology of the story as well as fit it together in a dramatic sense – where Sam’s hunt for Shelob originally took place in The Two Towers, here it’s been moved to the beginning of The Return of the King. There’s also the absence of the character of Tom Bombadil, although the co-writer admits that nothing in the films as they stand precludes his presence in the story. In another adaptation of another book, things like this would be minute – but again, the scope being dealt with makes such things another matter, entirely.
It’s often taken for granted, but there really has never been anything of this scope done in the sword-and-sorcery genre’s film counterpart. There have been previous attempts at constructing something of a similar magnitude, but very few have been successful. The closest that comes to mind is – well, nothing really comes close, to it’s strenuous three-year on-end production schedule, or it’s absolute attention to cultural and aesthetic detail in the various societies and cities that we see throughout the films, or the smaller side-stories that only add to the film’s context like the relationship between Boromir’s younger brother and his father, or it’s unique blend of CG and motion capture in the creation of the character Gollum, played by Andy Serkis under a million light-receptors. There was a drive around the time of the release of The Two Towers to get Serkis nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and a more valid cause this side of Irish Civil Rights I’d be arsed to find. Serkis, who also portrayed Kong in his aforementioned remake, is a master of body language and facial expression – all of which is aptly carried through by the motion capture technology to create a character that’s almost the embodiment of pity, at once malformed through years of bodily mistreatment, and torn between who he is, bluntly, and the small pieces of his near-hobbit former self that are being drug out of him. And, like most genre-bending films, there’s come in recent years a slew of imitations – most of them low-budget ditties, although surprisingly, not one comes from Italy.
And, we begin with a hobbit – Frodo Baggins, played by the vividly blue-eyed Elijah Wood; and I don’t think there’s any other actor who has so perfected the ability to simultaneously appear vulnerable and at the same time communicate an impenetrable nature underneath. And, of the various relationships in the films, including the new addition of Aragorn and Arwen, it is Frodo’s hetero-lifemate relationship with his gardener Samwise that holds us at attention the most. And, it’s theirs that leads to the best singular scene in the series – as Frodo lies unable to walk on the doorstep to Mount Doom, and all seems lost, Samwise’ eyes become hard, and he slings Frodo over his back, with “I may not be able to carry the ring – but, I can carry you!” And, then he begins his continuously unsteady walk up the mountain, his back buckling under the weight of his doubly large burden. Really, the films undergo a shift as they go on, with Samwise becoming just as important a character – if not more – than Frodo, who spends the majority of his time fainting, or being attacked constantly.
They of course represent only two of the four-hobbit team that makes up the first half of the Fellowship – the other two, Merry and Pippin, played respectively by Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, begin their role in the film as a sort of Greek chorus, but soon after becoming separated from the rest of the Fellowship, and then from each other, their stories begin to constitute another third of the second film in the trilogy, The Two Towers, entirely, with each of them becoming witness and participating eventually in the giant battle of distraction near the end of the third film.
And, there is Aragorn’s arc, as well – his is the main subplot, behind Frodo’s story, and his return to his throne as the King of Gondor, played with a quietness to himself by Viggo Mortenson. When first we meet him, he’s known only as Strider, and he acts very much as a courier for the hobbits, on their way to Rivendell – his story weaves in and out of Frodo’s main quest, and, throughout the films we’re given hints as to what’s coming, until the finale of The Return of the King, where he informally assumes his given role, after the death of the previous king Theoden, taking command of his soldiers and leading them toward battle with the thousands of Orcs on guard at the foot of Mount Doom, “for Frodo.” The final time we see him, he’s clothed in velvet and rouge, with the crown placed upon his head, walking up the steps and waving to his people among the falling petals.
In these obviously mythic films, character is revealed in the gradiations between good and evil – and, those in-between, and above it all. And, so comes the character Gandalf, portrayed here by Sir Ian McKellen, the wondering old man and the herald in Tolkien’s Campbellian outline – at first a craggy old man in grey cloak and crooked hat, who speaks in hushed tones and urges Frodo’s uncle Bilbo to give up the ring, and upon presenting it to Frodo for safe-keeping with “keep it secret, keep it safe” and a doff of his hat, disappears. And, his is the hand that pushes Frodo out the door, popping out of the shadows of Bag-End one night, hair tussled and clothing ripped from untold harrassments, grabbing Frodo by the shoulder and spinning him round, and giving us another example of Jackson’s trademark ‘face-into-the-camera’ shot that I’d mentioned earlier, with “Is it secret? Is it safe?” After his death at the hands of the Balrog near the end of the first film, we’re witness to his mythic rebirth, through literal fire and rain, as Gandalf the White – he’s become, in the words of Jackson, more able-bodied, and virile. This rebirth is represented with potent visual symbolism as Gandalf throws off his grey cloak and to reveal the blinding white light that shines from underneath. And, at the end of the film, along with Frodo and a much withered Baggins, he makes his way onto the boat leaving for the Grey Havens, never to return.
And, so to do the films end with a hobbit – with Sam, actually. Who has found solace in his life afterword, married to the girl we’d seen him pine for, and having finished the grand memoir started by the two Bagginses. He stands at his doorway, daughter crooked under his elbow, and sighs. “I’m back,” he says. And, walks inside, closing the door behind him.
– Glenn Heath’s intriguing selection for the #9 spot on his “Best of the 2000’s” list, Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford can be found here.