Sunday, May 7, 2017

$uccessfu! Films: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)


Franchises and series have had a long history--particularly in books--prior to the motion picture industry in the 1900s onward, from Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan adventures to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes investigations to the Grimm Brothers' countless interpretations of classic fairy tales. The novels of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) carry an equal baggage of adventure, mystery, and fantasy. Despite the author's dislike for allegory (unlike friend C.S. Lewis's use of the form in his beloved "Chronicles of Narnia" series), his admiration for history, linguistics, and applicable themes and characters is evident throughout his most famous works that comprise his world of "Middle-earth"--"The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings". (The same goes for his posthumous work, "The Silmarrilion," which chronicles the history of elves in this universe.)

Only previously adapted into several audio versions and a 1978 animated feature directed by Ralph Bakshi, the thought of adapting what was long considered (even by Tolkien himself) an "unfilmable" work was risky, let alone daunting. Nevertheless, acclaimed filmmaker and New Zealand-native Peter Jackson (whose previous credits at the time included low-budget, gross-out horror movies, as well as the true-story crime-thriller Heavenly Creatures [1994] and the Michael J. Fox-led horror-comedy The Frighteners [1996]), wife and screenwriting partner Fran Walsh, co-writer Phillipa Boyens, creative director Richard Taylor and the folks at Jackson's visual effects company Weta Digital and the Weta Workshop, embarked on a seven year odyssey to bring The Lord of the Rings (which celebrated fifteen years last year since it first premiered in theaters) to the big screen. The results were unprecedented at the time, considering a motion picture trilogy had never been released within the span of three years (predating the two-part finales of fantasy novels Harry Potter and Twilight, and, of course, almost all the films in the Marvel Studios canon), and they remain phenomenal.


The story, which begins with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), centers on the One Ring of power that the evil lord Sauron plans to use to destroy Middle-earth, and the quest made by hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who was entrusted with said Ring from his cousin Bilbo Baggins (the hero of "The Hobbit"), to the fires of Mount Doom, the one place where it can be destroyed. Accompanying Frodo on his journey are the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan); loyal friends Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd); ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen); soldier Boromir (Sean Bean); elf and archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and dwarf warrior Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), each representing distinct cultures. Those that stand in Frodo's way include, of course, Sauron (represented in the shape of a giant eye), the corrupted wizard Saruman (the legendary Christopher Lee), armies of orcs and trolls and other frightening creatures as wolf-like Wargs and a giant spider, and the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), once a simple individual who had, long ago, tragically fallen captive to the Ring's power).

The main reason the films hold up is that Tolkien's themes remain in tact. Multiculturalism. Power. Deception. Fellowship. Courage. Heroism. Heritage. Legacy. Myth. Environmentalism. History. It's all there. Having served in both World Wars, Tolkien, like many of his comrades, had traumatic experiences and would express them through literature. In "The Two Towers" (part two of this series), for instance, the scenes involving the Dead Marshes represent fallen soldiers. Meanwhile, Aragorn (who is revealed to be the lost heir of a fallen kingdom) fears that he will fall into the same weaknesses as his ancestors, whereas Boromir (the son of a misguided and maddening steward of said kingdom) feels equally misguided and conflicted in his quest to do what he believes is right for his people, considering the loss of hope in the process.


At the same time, Tolkien believed that there were things worth fighting for--friendship, family, and above all good triumphing over evil. The prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring provides an understanding of the history and mythology of Middle-earth, as if it were a real world with real and fantastical places. Therefore, the "War of the Ring" in his fantasy epic represents a war that had to be fought. The epilogue of The Two Towers (2002), as spoken by Sam, assures this point. With that in mind, the central heart of the story is the journey of Frodo and Sam (representing the role of English officers and their loyal and accountable batmen).

Other themes include the role of technology, specifically in Saruman's role of greed and power (a la the Industrial Revolution) against the forces of nature, and vice versa. Then there's the role of fear, not only in the form of a giant fiery eye (Sauron, representing monoism and true evil), but also that of a giant diseased and decaying spider. And there is the theme of leadership and heritage, illustrated in the White Tree of Gondor (as seen in The Return of the King [2003]), which reportedly represents a line of kings.


From Page To Screen
The script process started out as a 90-page treatment in the mid-Nineties, followed by a two-film promotion, at almost every major studio. Finally, it was the Time Warner-owned New Line Cinema that insisted there be three films--since there were three books. (Decades before George Lucas had initially intended with Star Wars, Tolkien had intended "The Lord of the Rings" as one whole book, and it reportedly took him eleven-to-twelve years, between 1937 and 1948, to write and complete it before it was first published in 1954-1955.)


As with most films adapted from novels or plays or books, there are certainly many elements that purists would likely argue over. In this case, the absence of the popular character Tom Bombadil and the "Scourging of the Shire" climax, as well as the restructuring of different stories being intersected or told simultaneously rather than separately. (Tolkien's purpose in doing this, particularly with the second and third volumes, was to create "realism from not knowing what's going on," therefore providing tension and anticipation in the overall narrative.) Jackson and company also turned to the Appendix sources found at the end of the text for "The Return of the King" for certain ideas and materials.

The overall structure of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, compared with Fellowship, is different and complex, with the former being the middle chapter, of course. Various story lines alternate or are juxtaposed, from Frodo and Sam's unlikely guidance by Gollum to Mordor, to the journey to the kingdom of Rohan by Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf; to Merry & Pippin's encounter with the age-old Ent Treebeard; and to Saruman's dominion over the land of Isengard. Both this film and King use careful chronology of events in the book while maintaining the essence of the overall story. The Two Towers improves on the first film with an even more engaging and progressive story about holding on to hope, regardless of the world and its circumstances. (There's a great moment where Aragorn encourages a young boy readying for battle.) It even emphasizes the importance of tales and storytelling (as in the scene where Sam wonders if he and Frodo will be remembered by such means). But it's The Return of the King that culminates all of the technological and emotional sophistication that Jackson and company had carried through the seven-year odyssey in creating and completing this story for the screen. Here, they pull out all the stops, as never before seen in film, with the darkest, most grim, and most emotional of the films. Is it any wonder this final film won Best Picture of the Year at the Oscars?


The advancements in computer-generated effects at the turn of the 21st century bring Tolkien's work to visual life, including improvements and reshoots (and "pick-ups") made in each subsequent film. An interesting fact: principal photography finished in December 2000 (with a scene at Minas Tirith), and the last "pick-up" reshoot took place in July 2003, five months before Return of the King was released. The fact that these films were made in New Zealand, for one thing, has made the country not only synonymous with Middle-earth but also an acclaimed and popular tourist attraction in recent years.

In addition, the growth of Weta Digital over the years has been staggering. For instance, Fellowship has 540 VFX shots, The Two Towers has 799, and Return of the King has 1488. The development and revolution of motion-capture technology (or, "mo-cap"), especially with Andy Serkis's dedicated and unforgettable performance as Gollum, is equally impressive. Serkis has practically become a legend in the "mo-cap" community, with his subsequent work on Jackson's remake of King Kong (2005), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), and the reboots of Planet of the Apes (2011, 2014). Again, the detail is not just there for its own sake, but to represent and illustrate culture and history (putting aside that it's all fantasy). Howard Shore's score is epic, adventurous, emotional, and "culturally significant."

Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) on the set of The Return of the King (2003)
The work of the entire cast and crew not only paid off commercially and critically, but also led to an unprecedented and deserved recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, with a total of eleven Oscars (tying with 1959's Ben-Hur and 1997's Titanic) in every category it was nominated for, including Best Picture. Not bad for a fantasy epic long considered "unfilmable," not to mention a once low-budget filmmaker soon on his way to returning another "King."

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