Classic Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Summary:  A superb adaptation, the most suitable cinematic echo of Tolkien’s immutable trilogy, and one of the greatest epics ever put to film.

Review: In setting out to review Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s supreme fantasy epic, I’m forced to consider the three films in their entirety (i.e. the extended editions) and as one work, because unlike other famous trilogies such as, say, ‘Star Wars’, the studio didn’t wait to pursue a sequel after a successful first installment — it was a single gamble from the beginning, and divided only by marketing and logistical necessity, as with the source material.

But to tackle such a monumental work, something that is so inseparable from my personal development, a little biographical reflection is necessary.

Tolkien first captured my imagination when I was about 9 years old, as I read his playful ‘The Hobbit’, the witty, straightforward adventure that serves as the prelude to ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  As anticipation built for the upcoming film trilogy, I absorbed the giddy excitement of my friends through osmosis, and plunged into the thick prose of the greater work with gusto.  I came out the other side somewhat changed, in ways I of course can only now appreciate.  Being an imaginative boy, I had always loved fantasy, but Tolkien’s lengendarium was different — it had substance, having in fact less in common with strict fantasy than history.  What Middle-Earth lacked in physical reality in made up for in spiritual truth — both in the religious sense and the broader rational sense.  I would never touch The Shire, but it was nevertheless solid to me.

When ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ hit theaters, I was simply too young to handle the emotional intensity of it, and so I had to rely on the secondhand experience of my older brother, my parents, and my friends.  To me, it was like hearing from people who had visited Middle-Earth, and could describe it as fresh observers.  I relived the book, again, from the perspective of a witness.

A habit of mine at the time was to stay up way too late and wait for the creative part of my brain, perhaps in want of the dream-state, to be released.  Then I would write, draw, and imagine with the freedom only a child can possess.  As if I needed any more motivation, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in its two forms, literary and witnessed, inspired a new burst of creativity, as I intuitively sought to capture the emotions of reading the novels, the anticipation of revisiting the world in a new way, hearing about it from friends, and finally seeing it.  To the point, Jackson wasn’t just adapting the story I loved, he was adapting me — into a filmmaker.

My fate was sealed when ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was released on DVD.  The experience was everything I wanted, and more.  It was actually not as though the filmmakers had reached into my imagination and created my vision of Middle-Earth — the dissonance, in fact, made it more profound.  The emotional intensity was great, but my absorption into the world was complete, and I believed once again.  A great film is like a stage magic act — you know that somehow the artist has fabricated what you are seeing, but the method escapes your notice, and the thrill of magic, the mystery of it, appears.  The magician is at the top of his form when you most want to be like him.  The best thing a magician or a filmmaker can win is not applause, nor critical adulation, nor an apostle, but an apprentice.

The second most beautiful thing about ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films is that the filmmakers never compromise on the level of graphic detail that is present in the source material.  The plot is highly condensed, and with good reason; Tolkien’s dense, meandering prose is impossible to translate beat-for-beat to cinema.  What works for an invented history does not work for narrative film, even one that stretches 726 minutes.  The story itself survives.  Filmmakers should always understand story in the sense of a retelling, as if you had to explain everything that really mattered in a short amount of time.  Proper film craft stresses  economy and emotion.  When the key emotions are tied up in how real the world feels, it takes a special effort to achieve immersion.  Here Tolkien’s description and the filmmakers’ production design synchronize; the visuals suggest all the depth of history that Jackson never has a chance to share with us.

By far the best quality of the trilogy is the cast.  Their chemistry is fantastic.  Not a single actor is miscast.  It’s clear from the extensive behind-the-scenes material that they grew into a family.  There’s not a relationship, scene, or line that feels wrong.  If life did not so directly compliment the art, these films would not work.  There’s no such thing as a flawless film, only a film you can’t quit.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is highly addictive.  Like the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, the people give this production, which could have easily collapsed under its own weight, such soul that the story transcends standard cinematic storytelling.  In this way, its emotional detail alone equals the historical detail of the novels.  You couldn’t hope for a better adaptation.

Considering the films as a single experience, it becomes much more difficult to criticize the weaker sections of the narrative, in particular the ending.  In the theater, I did not begrudge Jackson’s decision to follow Tolkien to the Grey Havens.  Later on, as other viewers complained that it was too long and perhaps too sad, I flipped over.  Now I’ve flopped back.  I understand why the long ending is the right one.  After all the darkness and despair, to transform the final section of the film into a potion of joy through a veil of sadness  — well, I think it’s obvious that it’s poetry.  Heck, the ending is kind of short in the proper perspective.

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the ‘Star Wars’ of my generation, because obviously the ill-conceived prequels were not.  All things considered, I’m pretty happy with that.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ pushed filmmaking craft forward in all the right ways, with a timeless story at its core, and it is undoubtedly a classic, one epic to rule them all.

Classic Review: Star Wars (Episode IV)

Stars:  ***1/2 out of Four

Summary:  With a simple but mythic story to tell, ‘Star Wars’ continues to captivate audiences and deliver an authentically adventurous cinematic experience.

Only half this poster is true.  Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

Only half this poster is true. Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

Review:  In the 1930s and 40s, people often flocked to theaters to experience the thrilling exploits of heroes such as Zorro and Flash Gordon, in an action-driven form of film known as the serial.  Serials are what they imply; episodic sections of a story, in this case usually about 20-30 minutes long, ending in a “cliffhanger” that sets up audience expectation for the next chapter.  These were shown before the main picture.  They focused on plot, action, and suspense, and were often done with stock footage and dismally small budgets.

People like George Lucas grew up watching Flash Gordon’s matinee adventures, though he was not around for their initial theatrical run, and they left an indelible impression on him.  When he started rising as a filmmaker, he tried to purchase the rights to film a ‘Flash Gordon’ feature length adaption, but he couldn’t.  Instead, he invented his own, and after taking many forms it became the modern classic ‘Star Wars’.

Unlike the more serious and grounded bent of science fiction in the late 1960s, ‘Star Wars’ was to be a throwback to the serials, with a mythic heart.  It is, more appropriately, fantasy than science.  As his later character Indiana Jones was prone to do, George made it up as he went along, inventing and reinventing methods of filmmaking, making flashy special effects henceforth connected to what became known as the blockbuster.  Along with his friend Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’, this film defined the summer movie and the idea that wide release was the best possible way to rake in the cash.  George wisely mixed high adventure with deep mythic tradition, using Jungian archetypes and ideas drawn from Greek theater.  That’s not to say that ‘Star Wars’ is strictly a game for the intellectual, it has a much broader appeal than that, catering especially to the youth market, causing impressions much like Flash Gordon had on young Lucas.

The film opens with a device that nearly all of the serials used; concise, dramatic text, framing the action that was to come.  Unlike its inevitable imitators, ‘Star Wars’ uses a very simple structure for its famous opening crawl, and doesn’t dump information on the audience.  After the yellow text vanishes into the starry background, we already know there are an EMPIRE, DARTH VADER, a DEATH STAR, a PRINCESS and a REBELLION.  Each word, though not completely telling, reveals enough to get us interested.

After this, we take in the battle between two spaceships, an Imperial Star Destroyer and a Rebel Blockade Runner.  The superior firepower of the Star Destroyer quickly overtakes its prey, and we quickly sympathize with the Rebels on board the captured vessel as they are stormed by, well, Stormtroopers.  The Evil Galactic Empire draws heavily from serial villains, which incidentally drew heavy inspiration from Nazi Germany.  The Nazis were a threat everybody could hate, and so everybody modeled their bad guys after the fascists.  The main villain, Darth Vader, with his black helmet and mask, evokes both the vampiric horror films of the serials’ era and the Nazi soldiers’ helmet designs.  With a baritone voice provided by the legendary James Earl Jones, Darth Vader is just about the most classic villain ever created.  It’s proof that execution, not concept, is key, as the serials had their own Darth Vaders, but none were anywhere near this guy’s level.

Despite all my glowing praise and desire to pick apart this beloved film scene-by-scene, I should look at this concisely and objectively.  Let’s be honest: ‘Star Wars’ isn’t Shakespeare.  It doesn’t try to be terribly clever, and really, the reason it goes over so well with kids is that it is gleefully archetypal and black-and-white.  The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and even though we would find out things are more complex than that in the sequels, this same tone of simplicity was carried on throughout.  It’s important to know there’s nothing wrong with this. Intellectualist film critics tend to dismiss films such as ‘Star Wars’ (at first glance) for somehow being less-than, since they don’t strive to be any more than fun.  The film received a mixed reaction upon release, but the audiences loved it.  It connected.  There is beauty and poetry in simplicity, and in straightforward, mythic storytelling, not just in the complexities and angst of hurt lovers like Romeo and Juliet.

In a technical sense, the film was extraordinary for its time.  I mentioned its effect on the summer blockbuster, how it created the pattern of “Wow!” films, which continues to be followed each year.  The battles in space, forgoing the scientific realism that Stanley Kubrick invested in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, allowed for sound and drama, again evoking World War II.  Lucas watched old dogfight footage for inspiration, and having viewed a few hours of similar footage myself, I can definitely see its influence.  After so many blockbusters pushing the envelope and blurring the lines between reality and special effects, you can see how dated ‘Star Wars’ has become, in one view.  On the other hand, the drama is so effective that despite the technical shortcomings, it has added to the charm.

Now, for music.  I keep reviewing films where John Williams was involved!  He’s definitely my favorite composer, which is probably why my mind keeps coming back to these movies in particular.  His work on ‘Star Wars’ shows much less of a Bernard Herrmann influence than ‘Jaws’ did, instead it takes influence from Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite.  This isn’t my favorite of his scores, and fans of the ‘Star Wars’ series that haven’t revisited this film in a long time will notice the absence of the Imperial March, which he wrote for the sequel, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

One big stumbling block for the religiously concerned- particularly Christians -is the quasi-spiritual “Force” that ultimately helps Luke Skywalker, the hero, destroy the Death Star.  Now, it is true that George Lucas was interested in “reintroducing” spirituality to youth, but he has also stated his complete disapproval of the ‘Star Wars’ inspired Jedi Church, a really weird but real religion.  It’s only a movie.  Of course, we can say that about all kinds of things, from sex to violence to satanic rites, but the Tao-inspired, while ultimately fake, Force is just an invention to drive the plot, not to corrupt the audience.  It is part of the mythic flavor of the story.  If ‘Star Wars’ is taken as what it is- myth with a moral -then it makes balking at the Force seem silly.

After everything I said about complexity versus simplicity, it is ultimately a lack of complexity that keeps the film off the Four Star mark for me.  That’s just my personal feelings.  I don’t like it as much as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, which is pretty much in the same vein, but I gave that film the maximum number of stars.  Why?  Well, it just seems more solid, better woven, and the complexity is a part of that.  Nevertheless, ‘Star Wars’ accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, bring back the spirit of adventure to film, and we should be tremendously thankful that George Lucas did not fail.