Monday, June 11, 2012

Lord of the Rings Geekout, pt. 2: Best & Worst Changes

For the second half of my unabashedly nerdy look at the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, I’m going to examine some of the differences between Peter Jackson’s films and J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. Many changes were made, of course, because adapting a thousand-plus-page epic into three movies (even long movies) is a Herculean task. Much must be altered or dropped. Needless to say, many nerds out there will always despise the films because they MISSED THE POINT and TOOK OUT THE BEST STUFF and are HIDEOUSLY DISRESPECTFUL to the books which are the BEST BOOKS EVER WRITTEN. Sorry, nerds, but they’re really not. Tolkien was a folklorist and historian, not a novelist, and while his trilogy is a wonderful, timeless, and groundbreaking example of fantasy, it’s only a mediocre example of literature. But that’s off-topic. Time to analyze Book vs. Movie!

First off, I’ll continue to piss off the Tolkien fanboys by discussing some of the changes Team Jackson made that were actually for the better -- that improved or clarified the plot and made for a more compelling adventure. Controversy ahead!

The 5 Best Changes Made to the LotR Films

5. Showing Stuff Instead of Just Describing It
Tolkien loved to have his characters give long, grandiose monologues about events that had happened, were happening, or would happen. A good filmmaker knows that no one wants to hear about cool stuff when they can see it. The opening battle against Sauron? Saruman’s imprisonment of Gandalf? Gandalf’s zero-gravity fight with the Balrog? Gollum’s origin story? These and many other sequences are only described secondhand in the novels, but in the films, we witness them in all their badassery.
4. Gollum Acting Batshit Crazy
Everyone was impressed by how vivid a character Gollum was, especially considering he was made up of pixels and mocap. Team Jackson got inside the creepy little dude’s head in a big way, creating scenes in which he literally argues and converses with himself. This tug-of-war between well-meaning Sméagol and vicious Gollum was incredible to watch; he stole the show from Frodo and Sam, and his schizo complexity would have won Andy Serkis an Oscar nod if the Academy weren’t run by backwards-minded old carrion birds.
3. No Tom Bombadil
I want to slap people who whine about this character’s exclusion. Seriously, fuck Tom Bombadil. He’s a capering, singing, blue-clad weirdo whom the Hobbits encounter early on, and waaaayyyy too much time is spent on this doofus, his sexy wife, and their awkward interactions with Frodo and company. Tom is supposed to be the avatar of Gaia, or the embodiment of human innocence, or something, but I personally think he’s one of Tolkien’s dumbest creations and he would have worked in the films about as well as a machine gun that fired pink tortoises.
2. Actual Female Characters
Was Tolkien sexist? No, but he was working with tropes of high fantasy, in which women are either stuck on a distant pillar and idealized, or stranded somewhere in the background. It was absolutely necessary that the few female characters in LotR be given depth and complexity, and while it didn’t always work (I’ll get to that shortly), it strengthened the story a good deal. Éowyn in particular is an absolutely wonderful character whom I adore; in the books, she’s austere and humorless and never really seems like a real woman. I also liked that Rohan lady who’s reunited with her kids in Two Towers. Humanity! Tolkien didn’t do it well! But the filmmakers did, thank God.
1. No Scouring of the Shire
People complained that Return of the King (the movie) takes forever to end. They would have rioted if Team Jackson had been dumb enough to include the Scouring of the Shire, an additional adventure that occurs after the Ring has been destroyed and the good guys have triumphed. Frodo and co. return home to discover that Saruman has escaped Isengard and royally fucked things up in the Shire. The place is in ruins, the Hobbits have been enslaved by evil Men, and our heroes must rally and kick some ass. It’s supposed to be a solemn rumination on how innocence can be spoilt and evil can creep in anywhere...but it’s also one extended climax too many. I honestly think that putting this in the movie would have ruined its ending and lessened what came before. And they were going to put it in, initially. So heave a huge sigh of relief that they didn’t, because three or four climactic scenes were more than enough!

But I can’t totally defend the films. I freely admit that a lot of the changes were misguided, bizarre, or just plain dumb. Here are the five that make me groan the most.

The 5 Worst Changes Made to the LotR Films

5. Anachronisms
I’m not a huge fan of the arch manner in which the characters tend to talk. But every now and then, a line of dialogue occurs that makes me facepalm because it is so goddamn inappropriate for a Middle-Earth setting. Examples include “Let’s hunt some Orc!”, “C’mon, we can take ’em!”, and “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!” What exactly were the screenwriters thinking? I believe the worst verbal anachronism comes in a deleted scene in Two Towers where Gimli actually uses the term “nervous system.” D’oh!
4. Arwen Mopes....a Lot
Like I said, I’m grateful that they did something with Tolkien’s sparse female characters. And I have nothing against Liv Tyler. But her misty, dazed portrayal of Arwen clashes with the overall tone and brings the films’ momentum grinding to a halt whenever she appears. She is just not an interesting character (except for the early bit where she rescues Frodo from the Ringwraiths), I feel no investment in her relationship with Aragorn, and...for fuck’s sake, Liv, why are you talking like David After Dentist? Stop moving in slow motion, Liv! Stop it! Can someone turn the actual movie back on?
3. Elves to the Rescue!
Those Elves sure know how to make an entrance. Unfortunately, Team Jackson apparently decided that their main function was to pop up and save the day in ways that make no goddamn sense. Yeah, those Elves abruptly joining the battle at Helm’s deep? Nothing as contrived as that in the book! And how about the time Elrond apparently teleports from Rivendell to give Aragorn his new kingly sword? Aragorn was, by the way, supposed to acquire that sword way back in the first book when he first visits Rivendell. Jesus, guys, if you’re gonna alter the plot so much, can you at least not make the Elves into your own personal Deus Ex Machina? They’re awesome, but they’re not that awesome.
2. All the Fakeout Deaths
A couple times in the books, Tolkien has characters seemingly die, then turn up alive once again. Fair enough. But the number of times the movies pull this shit is shameless. Seriously, there are better ways to generate fake tension. Gandalf apparently dying in the first film? I can accept that one; it’s canon. But Aragorn “dying” in Two Towers just so he can have a dream about mopey Arwen? Or the fraudulent editing that makes it look like Merry and Pippin die earlier? And let’s not forget the eight or nine times Frodo appears to kick the bucket. Every time this happens, it weakens the film, especially to a fan of the book who knows it’s all bullshit.
1. A Short Detour to Osgiliath
Rrrrgh, this rankles me. Two Towers (the book), when Frodo and Sam encounter Faramir, the young captain is briefly tempted by the Ring, but gets over it pretty quick and lets them go on their way. Hooray! In the movie, he drags the Hobbits and Gollum all the fucking way to the city of Osgiliath so they can have a big action climax there. THIS RUINS EVERYTHING. It totally fucks up the trajectory of Frodo and Sam’s subplot and renders pointless all the journeying they did in the second film. Plus it seriously diminishes Faramir as a character; the whole point Tolkien was trying to make in the book was that some people are inherently truthful and good! I know the filmmakers were itching to show off their cool Osgiliath set, but come on! Of all the drastic changes made to the plot, this is one of the most glaring, and a slap in the face to those of us who know our Tolkien and our Middle-Earth geography.
Honorable Mention: Denethor’s Ridiculous Death Scene
Denethor, Steward of Gondor, sinks into despair and madness and tries to burn himself and his son Faramir alive. Faramir is saved but Denethor perishes on the funeral pyre. In the book, anyway. In the movie, Denethor catches on fire, runs a mile (I’m not exaggerating. It is literally a mile) while still on fire, and falls off the giant stone prow of the city (as he continues to be on fucking fire). I know the movies have some dumb moments, but this sets a record. It’s not on the main list because it happens so quickly. But it’s still dumb, dumb, DUMB.

Lastly, I’d like to educate the masses a little. As previously noted, the LotR books contain a metric ton of info and a lot had to be left out. But some of that stuff is good to know, especially since it adds a lot of clarity to stuff that is in the films. So here’s...

5 Tidbits of Information Missing From the Films That Are Useful To Know

5. Faramir is Gandalf’s pupil.
Yep. He is. Do the movies ever acknowledge that Gandalf and Faramir know each other well? Not really. But, in fact, the wizard gave much tutelage to the Gondorian captain during the latter’s upbringing. No wonder Faramir is so much more thoughtful and compassionate than his macho father and brother! And no wonder Gandalf seems so invested in Faramir’s safety! Denethor briefly mentions this relationship in a deleted scene, but that’s it. Now you know.
4. Merry’s sword has magical anti-Nazgûl powers.
For such a terrifying villain, the Witch King sure dies easy. Merry stabs him in the leg, which apparently paralyzes him for the five freaking minutes Éowyn takes to finish the job. What, is Merry’s sword magic? Actually.....yeah. In the book, the Hobbits get their swords from a burial mound (after nearly being killed by its undead inhabitant), and Tolkien flat-out says that the swords are old, arcane, and magical, and that Merry’s blade is one of the few in the world that could seriously wound a Ringwraith. Contrived? You bet. But at least it’s an explanation.
3. What’s up with those eagles? Well...
Soooo, when you’re a Level 80 Wizard, you get a Summon Giant Fuck-Off Eagles spell? Not only does one rescue Gandalf from Saruman, but a whole squadron turn up during the final battle to kick some Nazgûl ass and retrieve Frodo and Sam. Well, if you’ve read the books (as well as their predecessor, The Hobbit), you’d know that Gandalf has a long-standing friendship with the Eagles of Middle-Earth, having saved the life of their king once. So, yeah, they’re good guys who rally to the aid of the humans. Oh, and they can talk. Would giant talking eagles have been too silly for the films? Naaaahhhhhh.
2. Denethor has a Seeing-Stone.
What’s Denethor’s problem, anyway? Why is he so hostile, so paranoid, so quick to abandon his post, and so all-around whacko? Fear not, there is a reason. When Saruman unveils his Palantír (the magical Seeing-Stone that allows him to commune with Sauron), Gandalf mentions that not all the Stones are accounted for. Well, one of them is in Denethor’s possession. That’s how Denethor seems to know so much all the time, and also why he’s crazy. Sauron has been using the Stone to spy on his foes and warp the Steward of Gondor’s fragile little mind. The movie hints at this; there’s even a deleted scene where Aragorn uses a Seeing-Stone right there in Denethor’s throne room. So, yes, there is method to his madness.
1. A lot more time passes than you think.
Obviously we know on some level that traveling places takes awhile in a world where the horse is the height of technology. In order for a movie to flow smoothly, it must hasten from plot point to plot point, ignoring the passage of time. But the films don’t quite clarify how much time is going by. All those journeys and quests take weeks, sometimes months. Enough for the characters to spend lots of personal bonding time with each other that we never get to see. But here’s the biggie: did you know that a number of years pass between Bilbo’s birthday party and Frodo and Sam’s departure from Hobbiton with the Ring? Years! What, you thought Gandalf popped over to Gondor and back in a freaking week? Sorry, Elijah Wood lovers, but Frodo is technically middle-aged by the time he begins his quest. Next time you watch the films, keep reminding yourself that the characters have been at this Ring business for a good chunk of their lives. It helps.

Perhaps my little geekout made you appreciate the movies more, or maybe it just cemented your hatred of them. Or maybe you never gave a shit about Lord of the Rings in the first place. But I hope you’ve enjoyed geeking out with me! Till next time, my precious.

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