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exclusive news

Ten Years of Sucking: Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy

Posted by msunyata on Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Man, was I excited to see The Fellowship of the Ring just a tad over ten years ago. Though I had only seen the well-intentioned-but-still-very-mediocre The Frighteners before sitting down in the theater that cold December night, I was very confident of Peter Jackson’s ability to transcribe J.R.R. Tolkien’s fully-realized literary world onto the big screen lovingly, faithfully, and, above all, accurately. After all, several million people on the internet couldn’t be wrong about his filmmaking bona fides, right?

They were wrong. Horribly, tragically, depressingly wrong.

Fellowship of the Ring is one of the most epic failures Hollywood has produced in the last quarter century, if not longer. And it’s apparent from literally the first moment the screen flickers to life, when a ten-minute(!) narration explaining every last nook and cranny of Tolkien’s millennia-long backstory starts up. The origins – and even the visage – of Sauron, the history of the One Ring, the events of The Hobbit… all are dutifully and dully listed like the transcript from a court case. It’s a boring and static way to convey incredibly rich and dense information. It also features some particularly cheesy lines of dialogue, cheesily delivered.

 

Letting the Cat out of the Bag

Even worse, it ruins the narrative flow of the movie and, what’s more, completely undermines its and its sequels’ later developments. In the book, not knowing what, exactly, the Nazgul are, the first time a Black Rider creeps onto the scene, sniffing after Frodo and pals, it’s a creepy sequence, with a sense of mystery that leaps off the page and explodes in the middle of the reader’s brain. Just hearing about Mordor in Frodo’s house in the Shire is chilling, since, as all great storytellers (and theme park designers) know, apprehension is at least half the fun.

Peter Jackson’s version? The cat’s already out of the bag. Since you know what Mordor and the Nazgul and even Sauron look like and who they are and what machinations they’re up to, that introductory scene in the woods is stripped of its suspense, of its intrigue, of its magic. It’s essentially paint-by-numbers – and it’s an occurrence that repeats itself again and again throughout all three films, in ways big and small.

Just for the sake of comparison, let’s take a step back and look at the situation in the context of a different story told in a different medium. Imagine jumping into the videogame Braid and being greeted with a 15-minute dissertation on the world, the characters, and their backstory instead of being slowly, tantalizingly immersed in the narrative. What if BioShock spelled out exactly where the story was going to go even before the first time you could swing your crowbar, let alone harvest a Little Sister? It’s the One Rule of Screenwriting to Rule Them All: if you have to resort to voice-over narration to explain your characters or the world they inhabit, you have failed, fundamentally and completely.

 

The Jackson Effect

The reasoning behind such a reshuffling of narrative events is easy enough to understand: don’t confuse the audience, ever. Explain, in very clear and obvious ways, who the antagonists are and why they’re chasing after our heroes, regardless of the effect it has on the momentum of the story. Gandalf disappears for a long stretch in the novel? Show what happens to him right away, rather than wait to do it later on – it might be a little too complicated for dumb Mr. Average Joe otherwise. Oh, and while you’re at it, make sure that the duel between Gandalf and Saruman has plenty of pretty pyrotechnics and wirework thrown into it; we don’t want to bore anyone, after all.

Call it “Lord of the Rings for Dummies,” all sexed up and sold in a bundle with an Orc action figure. This is what Peter Jackson managed to do with one of the 20th century’s greatest tales (and what he similarly wrought with King Kong, another enduring classic from the last century, just a few years later).

Granted, all of these complaints fall in the adaptation category; Fellowship as a film, independent of source material, is still solid, right? Well, as it turns out, no – not at all. As nice of a guy as Jackson might be (and he genuinely seems to be), and as much passion as he has for the wonderful world of filmmaking, the sad fact is that, at the end of the day, he is no director. Fellowship is literally the same four shots over and over again, with some rather beautiful production design thrown into the background (though not shot terribly well). Kong can be shown in Editing 101 classes on how not to intercut two completely different scenes together (the same example that the ending lightsaber duels of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith has to offer, incidentally). And The Frighteners… well, we’ll leave his pre-LOTR days out of the discussion, just for politeness’s sake.

 

One Ring to Suck Them All

It’s bad enough that such a scarring experience had to be endured the first time, a decade ago, and it’s downright torturous to have to relive it now at every entertainment website and on the cover of every film magazine for the next two years. This is particularly true since, in the intervening years, adaptations like Watchmen or Game of Thrones have been released, productions which are not only faithful to the original work, but which also don’t feel the need to mercilessly dumb down their stories.

But, then again, I guess suffering through this first milestone anniversary will be worth it: 15 years from now, no one will remember just who Peter Jackson was.

Or, at least, they won’t want to.

[Marc N. Kleinhenz freelances for several sites, including Gamasutra and Nintendojo, where he co-hosts the Airship Travelogues podcast. You can find a very Lord of the Rings-centric interview with renowned painter Ted Nasmith here.]

Strider
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

Really? Really?

All of your complaints are very superficial and subjective.  Sure, you may disagree with some of the things that are different in the movies, but you cannot say that they are failures or that they suck.

Letting the cat out of the bag? Okay, so the way the films are structured is different from the books. Get over it! Just because the story is put together in a different way doesn't make it bad, horrible, sucky, or terrible.  It's just different.

The Jackson effect? Fellowship is the same four shots over and over? What kind of a bullshit statement is this?  The LOTR films are some of the most rich visual experiences of any film ever. The same four shots over and over? Give me a break!

One Ring to Suck Them All? This isn't even an argument! This is just you saying that you didn't like the movies so the fact that you have to "relive them" by reading something on an entertainment site is torture. Boo hoo! Cry me a freaking river already! So the fact that you don't like the LOTR movies becomes a bullet point in an article about why you don't like the LOTR movies? Yeah, that makes sense.

 

The LOTR trilogy is full of great acting perfomances, spectacular visual effects, a kickass musical score, near perfect set/costume/weapon design, and stunning cinematography.  Far from sucking, these movies are classics.  Get over yourself and come back when you have something more substantial than "I hate the LOTR movies! Grrrrr!"

www.gamingoutsiders.com
Corporal_Hicks
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

So where is the rest of the article? This one only (kind of) covered the first hour Fellowship.

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Corporal_Hicks
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

And why is this relevant now?

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Corporal_Hicks
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Posts: 1664
Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

Explain the plot of "Braid". You have 2 sentences. Go!

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Corporal_Hicks
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

Explain the plot of "Bioshock". You have 2 sentences. Go!

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The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

msun wrote:

[W]e’ll leave his pre-LOTR days out of the discussion, just for politeness’s sake.


Focusing on Frighteners and making no mention of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Braindead, or Heavenly Creatures is going to look like an oversight to people. Most of these were critically well-regarded.

msun wrote:

This is particularly true since, in the intervening years, adaptations like Watchmen or Game of Thrones have been released, productions which are not only faithful to the original work, but which also don’t feel the need to mercilessly dumb down their stories.


I don't think Watchmen is a movie I'd want to hold up as an example of an adaptation that is faithful and not dumbed down.

It's true that it is (often) remarkably visually faithful, but it was unfaithful to me where it mattered. A lot of the visual faithfulness felt hollow to me, and more like fan-pandering lip service than anything that needed to be done to forward the plot.

There are plenty of unfaithful moments--some good, some bad. A bunch are brought up in this AV Club article. In many cases, I think the movie's unfaithfulness hurts it. I think the movie's [SPOILERS]let's-blame-it-on-Manhattan a-bomb solution[/SPOILERS], for example, was too illogical an option for someone of Veidt's intellect to have pursued. (I have written about this extensively, and will dredge up this writing if anyone is interested.)

A lot was left out, naturally, and I was sad about a bunch of what was left out. I understand that an adaptation of a longer work requires that certain things be left out, but when stuff like a slow motion sex scene with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" playing in the background and a generic, Snyder-esque Night Owl/Silk Spectre vs. Faceless Security Guards fight scene gets shoehorned in their place, it makes me feel the absence of the left-out things even more.

I also understand that an adaptation is its own thing, and that a person should seek a way to judge it based on its own merits and do his best to divorce himself from his familiarity with the source material. I feel I did this sufficiently. I've disliked every movie Snyder has made, so I've been pretty consistent. Now my biggest problem is divorcing myself from my dislike of Snyder movies every time I go to see a new Snyder movie.

I'm working on it.

Strider wrote:

The Jackson effect? Fellowship is the same four shots over and over? What kind of a bullshit statement is this? The LOTR films are some of the most rich visual experiences of any film ever. The same four shots over and over? Give me a break!


I agree that this comes off a little curt. What are these four shots? Strider (or another fan) isn't offered much of a chance for rebuttal if Msun doesn't give them a little more to work with. I can say "Natalie Portman only has three acting tricks up her sleeve!" in an article and leave it at that, but it is unsatisfying to the reader.

The reader may be able to conjure up seven acting tricks, but without knowing the three I propose to be her only acting tricks, there's a chance it will hardly feel worth it for the reader to elaborate. Beyond the reader not knowing if my three are among his seven, he is made to question if I just pulled the number "three" out of a hat.

If I offer what I believe to be the three tricks (say, 1. "looking terrified," 2. "weeping violently," and 3. "looking fierce"), the reader is better able to counter, call bullshit, or challenge my definition of "acting trick."

Corporal_Hicks wrote:

So where is the rest of the article? This one only (kind of) covered the first hour Fellowship.


The article does feel incomplete. I was wondering if maybe there were more parts planned for the future. The complaints feel a little superficial, which would make more sense if this were a setup for something more in depth.

I'm not a huge fan of Jackson's Rings movies. I have my laundry list of complaints (I will also list these, if anyone cares; it will be another copy/paste job, as I have already listed them elsewhere, and am too lazy to create the list from scratch a second time)--same as I do with pretty much everything, but I think they're generally passable as entertainment. If someone who had yet to watch the movies read msun's article first, he might suspect they were on par with a Bay film.

I have a laundry list of problems with Tolkien's books, too. I don't think them sacred ground. (I'm a little less reluctant to offer examples in this regard, since it has been decades since I read the books, and since it has been at least a decade since the last time I complained about specific things in the books. I guess I'll still do it if there's some demand for it, but it will take me a while. I'll probably need to go digging around in the e-mail annals.)

Corporal_Hicks wrote:

And why is this relevant now?


I was a little curious about why the article was coming out now. We're two months and a handful of days removed from the December 2001 release of Fellowship. The tenth anniversary has passed us by.

Corporal_Hicks wrote:

Explain the plot of "Braid". You have 2 sentences. Go!


Msun lives in a world of constant gaming (at least, that's the impression I get), and talks games a lot in his movie writing, but the comparisons he draws sometimes feel labored to me. This could be because I don't live in a world of constant gaming. I know of both Braid and Bioshock, but my knowledge of both is superficial, and doesn't extend too far beyond seeing demos of both on YouTube. The two games could be perfectly analogous to Jackson's Rings movies, for all I know.

I'm sure my bringing this up puts my Natalie Portman and Bay film analogies under scrutiny.

All that said, to return to Msun's original point, I don't think Jackson's to be faulted too much for the "abbreviated history lesson" he gives at the beginning of the movies. It's a technique that's been used effectively in the past. Bakshi did it in his version, and it's pretty clear Jackson was influenced by the Bakshi version. Coppola uses it to good effect in his Dracula adaptation. Disney movies used to use it a lot.

I also don't think voice-over narration is always a bad thing. It's a noir film staple. It's done to good effect in all sorts of movies. It's done well in The Third Man and Sunset Blvd. It's done in Memento. (The gimmickry of Memento annoys me--I guess I feel it's pretty proud of itself, and that gets under my skin--but the voice-over narration works well in it, and it probably wouldn't work as a movie without it.)

It's done in Watchmen.

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

I just made a whole bunch of edits. If you read it the first time, that means you must read it again.

MUST!

atrejub
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

The Swollen Goi... wrote:

Disney movies used to use it a lot.

I can't believe no one has put together a youtube compilation of all of the storybook beginnings from Disney animated films.

Corporal_Hicks
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Posts: 1664
Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

Wide. Helicopter-cam. Tight. Follow the arrow after it leaves the bow (a la Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).

Those are obviously the 4 shots msunyata is referring to.

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The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

What about the "Vertigo shot"/dolly zoom ("Yo, guys! We should get off the road!"), low angle shots ("It's a good thing we got off the road, dudes!"), camera pans, forced perspective shots, and shaky cam? These were used, too.

Were there any dutch tilts? I can't remember.

Jack S. Pharaoh
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

What an awful article.  I shouldn't have expected anything more from this writer, but I just figured there were a lot of things to criticize about the LOTR movies, and this idiot couldn't get it completely wrong.  The opening history of the ring sequence is probably the best part of the movie.  I know those kind of things are sort of easy (they're kind of like making a trailer look interesting) and Jackson had some cool stuff to work with there, but that intro is still a lot of fun.  I also generally dislike the idea that giving the audience information ruins things: if it does, and the story requires holding a great deal of information about characters, plot points and events back to make the material interesting (and this article's author seems to think almost everything needed to be held back for Sauron and the Nazgul), then the story is probably very poor.  That doesn't mean that holding information back can't also be an interesting way to tell the story: how information is laid out for the audience is part of the art of storytelling.  Anyway, I'd say introducing the idea of the Nazgul and the fact they are hunting Frodo creates its own suspense, and the Nazgul are kept mysterious enough in the beginning until information about them is revealed by Aragorn and they are then revealed to Frodo while wearing the ring.  That concludes the part of the story where the Nazgul are most involved, as they only appear sporadically for the rest of the series, so focusing on them and revealing information about them in that first hour makes sense to me.  I'd also like to comment on the idea that filmmakers shouldn't use voiceover narration: VO is very similar to how information is relayed in a book, since the author is basically able to speak directly to the reader.  Claiming that there's a rule saying that's a fundamental failure in any type of storytelling seems ridiculous.  I'll add some rules of my own, just for fun: people who use vague adjectives like "fundamental" are terrible writers, and people who use the word "wrought" without being sarcastic or quoting are douchebags.

Quasar
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Posts: 7588
Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

Gimli sucked.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

For ten whole years.

Corporal_Hicks
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

I should've posted that 2 weeks ago.

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Quasar
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

Peter Jackson's King Kong sucked.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
Corporal_Hicks
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

You should post that 3 years from now!

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Mal Shot First
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

The title of this article made me curious about the approach the writer would take in criticizing the LotR trilogy, but I was disappointed when the post turned out to be more of an angry rant than a real analysis of the films and Peter Jackson's impact on the movie industry. As far as I know, the movies are still beloved by the majority of people who have watched them, and I would have expected a critique of them to go at least a little beyond calling Jackson a hack or comparing his trilogy to works in an entirely different medium.

I'm not a fan of Lord of the Rings and never was. I've never read the books, but I am familiar with their influence on other works, from Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft to the countless examples of paperback fantasy fiction you see in bookstores. As a result of cultural osmosis, I was at least somewhat familiar with Tolkien's world, but it was never very compelling to me because dragons, elves, orcs, and sorcery are not necessarily my cup of tea. That's not to say that I don't enjoy any work set in a fantasy realm (I like things like The Neverending Story or Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian). All I'm saying is that the fantasy genre doesn't inherently catch my interest.

Here is where Peter Jackson's LotR movies fail, in my opinion: they make no effort to create an experience that is as enjoyable for viewers unfamiliar with the books as it is for viewers who are already acquainted with Tolkien's universe. I watched all three movies - not really because I truly wanted to, but because my college roommates thought it was outrageous that I hadn't seen them - and was bored for the majority of the time. I think I might have actually fallen asleep for part of The Two Towers. True enough, some of the vistas were pretty amazing, the costumes were very well done, and some of the special effects were pretty impressive, but the trilogy simply fell flat in terms of storytelling. There isn't one character whose fate mattered to me in the slightest. I felt no emotional connection to Frodo or Sam; Gandalf feels like a character that has been established before the first movie even started and I never got to know him properly; and the wide array of secondary and tertiary characters introduced in the course of the films is simply too overwhelming to have any real meaning to someone entering this world for the first time.

Some of that is probably not Peter Jackson's fault. From what I hear, Tolkien can be pretty messy in his writing and cleaning up his mess is not always an easy task. As someone who translates texts on a regular basis, I also understand Jackson't need for fidelity in his treatment of the original. However, when you are creating an adaptation, as opposed to a translation, you need to make certain sacrifices for the sake of the medium into which you are adapting the original, and I feel that Jackson was too rigid in his faithfulness to Tolkien in order to make a series of films that actually feel like they were meant to be films.

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

Mal Shot First wrote:

The title of this article made me curious about the approach the writer would take in criticizing the LotR trilogy, but I was disappointed when the post turned out to be more of an angry rant than a real analysis of the films and Peter Jackson's impact on the movie industry.

That's more or less what my Black Swan review was.

Of course, I was going more for a comedy piece than an actual review. And I'm sure I failed miserably, as I usually do.

Zog the Obvious
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

A lot of different people have made very impassioned and impressive replies to this article, so I won't revisit their thoughts here. I have a more succint comment: You're insane!

 

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 8 years 6 weeks ago

The LOTR movies were about as good as they were ever going to be when making a film adaptation of those stories. They were also damned good.

I cannot help but shake the feeling that people who are now trying to say they sucked are the same kind of people who say The Dark Knight is a crime against both cinema and the Batman mythos. In other words either doing it for a joke to provoke a reaction or wilfully contrarian bastards.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Kaeos
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Posted: 8 years 5 weeks ago

It's not the opinions expressed in this "post" that bother me. Everyone is entitled to their own dumb opinions on movies they don't like, thats what Forums are for.

What bothers me, and Pat I have to direct the question to you my friend is, HOW does a "post" like this become a front page "Article"?

It has no current context or relevance. And not to knock whatever "credentials" Msunyata might boast, frankly if this is an "article" it's very poorly written. I'm no journalist by any stretch but I know a professionally written piece when I read it. This is a fanboy rant that belongs in a forum thread. Sorry.

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