The Dwindling Magic and Diminishing Returns of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth
In 2004, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King achieved a near-unprecedented sweep of the Oscars. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it won all 11, including Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design, Best Adapted Screenplay (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, & Peter Jackson), Best Director (Jackson), and the Big One – Best Picture. The film’s monumental success helped usher in a new cinematic age of sorts in which fantasy films could finally boast mainstream award show legitimacy. Furthermore, Return of the King‘s shellacking of its competition, as well as its enormous box office receipts, meant that the moviegoing public truly understood the importance of the right combination of director, cast, and crew coming together to bring real gravitas and emotion to what could easily have been dismissed en masse as a popcorn sword-and-sorcery lark.
I loved the Lord of the Rings movies when they were released and still do. Occasionally, my wife and I will pop one in during a lazy afternoon. They have an air of comfort and familiarity about them that makes you want to curl up and escape for a little while. But there’s something about Return of the King that has always bothered me. And, having seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and now, just two days ago, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, I think I’ve finally put my finger on it. I almost hate to say it out loud, because I truly admire Peter Jackson and all he’s done to bring Middle Earth to life, but here goes:
Every Lord of the Rings movie has been worse than the one before it.
Yes, that includes Return of the King, which undoubtedly benefited from the unofficial ‘Stuck the Landing on a Massive Epic’ bump in the minds of Academy voters. The truly wondrous Fellowship of the Ring should have won Best Picture in 2001 over the forgettable A Beautiful Mind and The Two Towers may have deserved the same over Chicago in 2002, depending on your tolerance for contemporary musicals. But since neither did, and the main competitors of Return of the King (a rather overlong and exhausting war film that slightly overstayed its welcome, if truth be told) were the too-plodding Master and Commander, the too-indie Lost in Translation, and the too-depressing Mystic River, the Academy’s giant thank-you card to PJ for his beloved trilogy was a done deal. And with a wave and his ever-present affable grin, Jackson walked off into the sunset, bare feet and all.
But oh, that almighty dollar. There were further tales to be cranked out of JRR Tolkien’s prodigious literary outpouring, most obvious of all the prequel to Lord of the Rings, that silly little children’s book called The Hobbit that Tolkien wrote almost on a whim back in the mid-1930s. From the outset, while MGM, New Line, and the Tolkien estate haggled over copyrights and red tape, Jackson wanted nothing to do with the adaptation. It was time to move on, to let another try his or her hand as Middle Earth tour guide. He had done his part and done it well. In stepped Guillermo Del Toro… and out stepped Guillermo Del Toro when the incessant wrangling became little more than a colossal time suck while so many other notable projects languished on his calendar. Naturally, the prospect of megabucks soon smoothed over the fractious relationships of the various parties involved and a potential multi-billion dollar franchise was given the green light but left without a director. So, rather than see the whole venture go up in smoke and ever the good New Line soldier, Jackson swallowed his pride and misgivings and returned to Middle Earth.
In some alternate universe, audiences are witnessing what a Guillermo Del Toro Hobbit franchise looks like. Is it better? Worse? Who among us Regular Universers can say? What I can surmise, based on what 2/3rds of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit franchise looks like is that Alternate Hobbit probably doesn’t feel as… well, tired. I have the distinct sense that PJ’s relationship to these films is akin to a father whose 30-year-old son has just moved back into the house. Still loving, yes, and still affectionate, but tempered with a touch of stern aloofness and disappointment at one’s lot that renders what had once been wide-eyed whimsy into a more paint-by-numbers and rote tolerance. Peter Jackson still loves his baby and always will, but dammit, he thought they had talked about getting on one’s feet and becoming someone else’s problem already.
In no other area is this Clerks-esque “I’m not even supposed to be here today” sense more pervasive than the script, again co-penned by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, a team once so assured of Adapted Screenplay Oscar noms that you could set your clocks by them. Suffice it to say that An Unexpected Journey did not attract similar accolades and I dare say neither will Desolation of Smaug. By far the most engaging section of the film is its first act, while the narrative is tightly focused on Bilbo, the titular hobbit. The surrealistic and dangerous trip through Mirkwood, Bilbo’s ascent to the forest’s sunlit treetops to find a way out (evocative of Sam and Frodo’s glimpse of the stars in deepest, darkest Mordor from Return of the King, that film’s most powerful moment of ‘beauty within danger’), and the wonderful acting done by Martin Freeman after killing a spider to defend his newly-precious ring are all scenes in which the storytelling is careful, methodical, and engaging. Then Legolas and Tauriel swing in on cobweb vines and the whole thing goes to shit.
It’s a rare thing when a massive blockbuster actually contains a pinpointable instant in which the entire thing deflates like a sad balloon, but The Hobbit does. And how. While George Lucas tried to appeal to the younger masses in his Star Wars prequel trilogy with buffoonish characters like Jar-Jar Binks and flatulence humor, Jackson attempts the same by working chase scenes like a deranged carnival barker. Elves are not ‘merely’ near-immortal beings who are handy with a bow; they are Cirque du Soleil shows unto themselves, spinning and gyrating madly while killing orcs by the truckload. As military numbers go, I’m confused as to why this whole eternal war between elves and orcs is a problem for the good guys. I can only assume that orcs ultimately outnumber the elves a thousandfold. They must. Why else is it possible for Legolas to singlehandedly massacre enemies with ease and yet elves still cower inside their respective forests waiting for the end? One may perhaps think this skill is reserved for Legolas alone and one would be wrong, for we are told that Tauriel is a “low born” elf and she has hardly any more difficulty than Legolas in dispatching orcs in droves back to the hell from whence they came.
And while these ludicrous ‘crazy whirling stuff happening’ scenes play out (I hesitate to call them ‘action’ scenes, as such a moniker implies danger and PJ’s Hobbit action scenes carry no danger), the screenplay repeatedly whiffs on its chance to gain control of a discombobulated narrative. At the Desolation of Smaug screening I attended, I almost embarrassed myself by laughing out loud in a quiet theater at one of the most abysmally scripted lines I’ve heard in years. After indirectly helping the dwarves escape Mirkwood by effortlessly beating back an invading party of orcs easily numbered in the many, many dozens, Tauriel and Legolas reconvene in an open area by the river. The scene is handled by Legolas suddenly appearing behind Tauriel who whirls, arrow drawn, and, after a beat, says “I thought you were an orc.” Legolas’ reply? “If I were an orc, you’d be dead.” Really? Tell that to the mountains of massacred orcs left in both characters’ wakes. Lines like that make me wonder whether Academy voters wrongly bestowed a roomful of undeserved gold upon a couple of average writers thanks to 2004’s crest of LOTR goodwill or if Walsh and Boyens have simply joined Jackson in phoning in their respective duties the second time around.
Interestingly (and with a due sense of expectation), the script regains its footing in the third act after the focus shifts back to Bilbo in time for the long-awaited introduction of Smaug, deliciously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (who may or may not have watched the HELL out of Tim Curry’s character in Legend while prepping for his role). The battle of brains between the calculating Smaug and quick-witted Bilbo is one of the novel’s true highlights. But even with oodles of source material to draw upon, Jackson can’t even get this part quite right. Overly anxious to get to the parts where people run around and fast stuff happens, PJ shrinks the scene of portentous repartee in favor of an extended ‘Smaug chasing Bilbo chasing the cartoonishly-bouncing Arkenstone’ set piece. Then the dwarves pile inside Erebor, turning said extended chase scene into a mindnumbingly exhausting one. Earlier dig at George Lucas aside, the guy once understood the necessity of creating danger in a screenplay. Obi-Wan Kenobi had to die in A New Hope. Otherwise, a ragtag bunch of rescuers could infiltrate the most terrifying battle station in the galaxy, grab the princess, and escape with no consequences, thus rendering the supposed danger of the Death Star as wholly impotent. But Kenobi dies, giving the Millennium Falcon’s escape a ‘by the skin of its teeth’ feel, fraught with loss and tragedy. Jackson didn’t get the memo. Bilbo and the dwarves infiltrate Erebor, outwit and outrun a massive fire-breathing dragon, throw together a Rube Goldbergian ‘flood of liquid magma-gold trap’ plan on the fly, and basically fight Smaug to a draw, leading him to attack easier prey in the form of the nearby and hapless Laketownians. Of course, all this grousing is probably just silly on my part, because, hey, that’s what happens in the novel, right? Except that’s not what happens in the novel. At all.
Not only does the Desolation of Smaug screenplay negatively affect the Hobbit franchise, it actually bizarrely walks back portions of the Lord of the Rings franchise, to its obvious detriment. In his zeal to tie together his eventual six-part epic and to manufacture some ‘oh shit!’ moments, Jackson creates a scene out of whole cloth where Gandalf fights the ghost or shadow or whatever of Sauron (!) in Dol Guldur. While giving viewers an opportunity to see some truly amazing special effects, the scene creates a narrative problem of hilarious proportions: Gandalf knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Sauron has returned in Desolation of Smaug, which makes his mild suspicion of the One Ring in Fellowship now unavoidably dumbfounding in retrospect. Between being physically attacked in DoS by Smoke Monster Sauron and deciding to leave the ring on the floor of Bag End upon seeing a brief and terrifying vision of the Eye of Sauron in Fellowship, putting 2 and 2 together should be about as easy for Gandalf as, well, putting 2 and 2 together. Instead, his distracted fireside whisperings while waiting for Frodo to arrive after Bilbo’s party no longer come off as the intelligent puzzle-solving of a great wizard but instead the befuddled mutterings of a doddering old fool. One of the greatest beings of his age can’t see the painfully obvious and must ride to Minas Tirith and pore over moldering parchments to solve the world’s most easily-solvable mystery. It’s bad enough what Desolation‘s script does to its own film, but it’s so lousy that it makes the superior films before it sink towards its own level.
There’s more to dislike about the film, of course, but how much time do you really want to spend reading about it? Turns out that orcs as guys in elaborate makeup and costumes >>> CGI orcs, as if there was any doubt. Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown is a sleazy joy to watch, but there’s precious little of him and his conniving unibrowed assistant Alfrid is a clear throwback to Saruman’s no-browed lapdog Grima Wormtongue. Kili’s (Aidan Turner) considerably undwarvenlike appearance now makes more sense now that the character has been shoehorned into a Jackson-imagined love triangle with Jackson-imagined character Tauriel. What is Jackson telling us here? That scruffy Aragorn-like characters are always caught up in the love triangle bizness in Middle Earth? More than likely, it’s a simple attempt at trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice and not having the creative energy to do so via a different method.
All in all, the depressingly common thread regarding the impetus behind Jackson’s Hobbit films as final product is “Why come up with new methods, characterizations, and approaches when my first approach went so well and I made the studio so much money and we all won so many awards and I’m so tired?” Peter Jackson is a hell of a director, a master of kinetic filmmaking and staging, and one with an adept and knowledgeable mind who knows what appeals to the masses. He also doesn’t want to be doing this right now. Is he still trying hard? Sure. But the magic is going away, to paraphrase Larry Niven. While some directors are more than happy to hit the jackpot with a successful film, watch that jackpot beget further jackpots, and comfortably settle into artistically-lazy but financially-successful franchise work, I don’t think Peter Jackson fits that description. But this isn’t Jackson at his best. This is Jackson as Reluctant Hero, grinding away to See This Thing Through, when nobody else would/could, as a gift of sorts for you and me. It’s just a shame that by doing so, he’s probably (and perhaps unknowingly) diluting his greatest work in the process.