The Hobbit: The Phantom Menace – The Desolation of Prequels

Hobbit TMP

jokerside badgeGoblins and Gungans… CGI Cousins…

Prequel Prequel

NO MATTER WHAT THE MEDIUM, THE ROAD TO MAKING A PREQUEL IS FRAUGHT WITH DIFFICULTIES. 

There’s a place for them of course, and more often than not a compelling reason to tell them.   It allies with the general human desire to discover origins; we all live in prequels waiting for the next sequel after all.  But then, when it comes to fiction, there is a great obstacle course of expectations to navigate.  In recent years, film’s biggest prequels have been even bigger than they might be – and it’s even worse if you’re aiming for a new trilogy that’s every bit as big as an original one.  No matter which direction you take – littering it with cameos, setting it almost parallel, minutes or decades before or following formerly minor characters – something of the sequel will always linger in the audience.  That’s as guaranteed as much as the well known fact that sequels, let alone prequels, trigger the laws of diminishing returns (this year being the 40th anniversary of The Godfather II just to rub that fact in).

A failure to innovate comes with more risk than falling asleep on Elm Street.

Of all film genres, film sequelitus is more prevalent in horror.  And like many a good horror franchise, any creator looking to create a prequel may want to serve up exactly the same thing that flooded the box office last time round.  But while references are crowd pleasing and to a point expected, a failure to innovate comes with more risk than falling asleep on Elm Street.  And innovation doesn’t just mean filming in 3D or High Frame Rate (HFR)….

Take Star Wars; minor, insignificant franchise that it is…   The idea that the prequel trilogy would follow the rise of Darth Vader, was unnecessary.  George Lucas could well have picked any idea as the central crux of the prequel trilogy, but it was the Dark Lord wot won it.  But it’s part of a nine of 12 film synopsis?  I know.  But ever since A New Hope (Star Wars for God’s sake!) launched in 1977, the fate of that synopsis irreparably changed. It may well have fallen at the front of an original 9 or 12 film script, but in light of the original trilogy’s standing come the end of the 20th century, it just didn’t have to any more.

The Hobbit is a different beast, at least on the face of it.  It’s a book to begin with, and a legitimate sequel that was actually published before The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) volumes.  There’s no retconning necessary to make this a prequel, that’s clear. Any retelling need simply be a concession to flashbacks already established in LOTR. Unlike Star Wars, this is set in stone.  Despite the obvious differences developing both set of genre prequels brought immediate pros and cons… And one main similarity.  A mass of screaming and salivating cosplaying fans whose hopes it would be personally damning to dash.

It’s An Unexpected Journey and The Phantom Menace that absorbed the damage lobbed at both prequel trilogies…

Considering the major differences between LOTR and Star Wars franchises then, it’s amazing that the first Hobbit film fells into as many Sarlacc pits/warg pens as the Star Wars prequel trilogy had a decade earlier.  With The Hobbit, there’s not only another, but now another two films to save it just as there was after that fateful 1999 release… But in any event, it’s An Unexpected Journey and The Phantom Menace that absorbed any damage lobbed at the trilogies first.

Not the myth you’re looking for

“It began long ago, in a land far away to the east…” begins The Hobbit, so far so almost familiar.

Of course there are a number of superficial and a number of rather more concrete links between the two stories.  That was almost unavoidable.  When he plotted Star Wars out, Lucas purposefully studied the groundbreaking work of the late American mythologist Joseph Campbell.  It so rigidly follows the quest structure that similarities with the Norse epic derived Tolkien epic were inevitable.  So far so, Biblical, Arthurian and generally Earth mythological.  What’s strange is that Lucas significantly departed from this winning formula when it came to The Phantom Menace, perhaps swayed by the perceived popular appeal of Darth Vader (He still is… “Ani” however, is not).  In contrast, Peter Jackson inherited a short quest novel, with a reduced content and lighter level of risk than even The Fellowship of the Ring.

There’s the age old issue of origins, compounded by being the further origin of an origin.

Spinning, at a fairly late stage we’re led to believe, The Hobbit into three films makes the comparison with LOTR trilogy all the more acute.  But after part one, truth be told it seemed even more of a stretch.  With the course of The Hobbit trilogy, certainly the main storyline, taking place over a few years at most, The Phantom Menace sits distinct.  Still, there’s the age old issue of origins, compounded by being the further origin of an origin.  Neither film beat the first film of the original sequel trilogy.  More on that later.

The Unexpected Tech…

… It’s very difficult to rationalise the two.

A main enemy of any prequel is time.  There’s the aging effect to contend with, as any prequel obviously falls before the original (sequel), but later in the timeline of rapidly advancing technology.  Just look at the horrible solution to aging Brett “Fountain of Youth” Ratner came up with in Red Dragon and even worse, X-Men: The Last Stand.

The Hobbit has few characters it needs to de-age, although Jackson expanded the cameos as he expanded the story.  However, even with a 10 year delay (as opposed to Star Wars’ two decades) technological innovations have had an impact.  Jackson (and Guillermo del Toro) was conscious of retaining a similar look to LOTR trilogy and he had a distinctive advantage in doing so: both trilogies fell in the CGI age.  Still, in the intervening decade came the furious return of 3d…  and ever on his own quest for new technology, Jackson couldn’t resist filming in HFR.  Still, the consistency of director, location  and broadly the same techniques ensure that the change between the two trilogies is minimal.  With all the R&D consideration in the known galaxies, the return of Lucas, move to CGI heavy green screen and shift away from Blighty couldn’t ensure the same for Star Wars.  Even in the smidgen of consistent set design at the end of The Revenge of the Sith, it’s tricky.  The Tatooine reference points may be there, even the Tunisian locations, but it’s very difficult to rationalise the two.  Here it’s a distinct advantage to overlap the films as An Unexpected Journey does with The Fellowship of the Ring.

 “Where sickness thrives, bad things will follow”

Cumberbatch’s Mirkwood shadow is a little more appealing than Jake Lloyd, bless him…

A bit of an obvious one this and admittedly, a bit of a cheat.  The Phantom Menace leaves the audience in no doubt as to “what” Anakin Skywalker will become.  Even a passing familiarity with spin-off toys and fiction solves the Palpatine riddle immediately.  The threat is implicit in the series’ fixed destiny.  Jackson employs a larger canvas but with similar effect.  There may be a larger bad, but the main villain in The Hobbit has to be the dragon Smaug, and it is the threat of the latter in the former’s “hands” that provides a satisfying link-up.  In An Unexpected Journey Jackson keeps the dragon under wraps.  It’s a nice and well staged move, harking back to classical cinematic suspense while saving on CGI modelling (ish) and keeping the reveal for the next film.  It is in expanding the Necromancer story that Jackson sets up LOTR itself.  The real (and quite literal) Phantom Menace is indeed the big bad of the Hobbit trilogy, just as Vader is in the Star Wars prequels. that said, Cumberbatch’s Mirkwood shadow is a little more appealing than Jake Lloyd, bless him…

Preciousssss comedy

In short, it has Jar Jar Binks but it doesn’t have Han Solo.

Times change and tastes with them, but Jackson inherited a lighter far more child orientated story to wield box office magic with.  Similar to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit’s a simple quest tale on the face of it.  But this time, it features a bunch of dwarves, a fastidious Hobbit and a straggly wizard.  It’s inherently funnier than LOTR, and injecting a sense of jeopardy while retaining fidelity must have been Jackson’s biggest challenge.  Lucas was similarly caught but took an odd approach.  It may well have appealed to children in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the leap into ridiculous comedy is immediately galling in The Phantom Menace. The droids comedy is too drawn out, the pithiness of the original trilogy gone.  In short, it has Jar Jar Binks but it doesn’t have Han Solo.

Nothing compared to the power of the cameo

Boba Fett’s presence makes you wonder how Lucas resisted including toddler Solo.

Cameos are essential to these prequels – they are after all setting up the story that everyone’s familiar with.  More than that, they are both designed to feed directly into the original trilogies and are propelled by that inevitable dovetailing.  But here’s where the real trap lies.  It’s a simple trick to bookend The Hobbit trilogy in the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring.  The books even come prepared with Bilbo’s memoirs and there’s plenty of room to effortlessly introduce the younger Bilbo with parallels and in-jokes.  Star Wars had no such constraint or aid, bar knowing where everything had to end up.   In telling this story, it was a safe bet that the twins would appear at some point and when you have young Vader there’s likely to be a certain General Kenobi and a Master Yoda.  Of course there are inherent plot problems emerging from taking one line of Alec Guinness’ dialogue from the original trilogy and disregarding one of Frank Oz’s.  It’s Star Wars so there have to be the lovable droids, but the idea of C3PO and R2D2 belonging to young Vader stretches credibility and reason.  Jabba and Chewbacca and particularly Boba Fett’s presence makes you wonder how Lucas resisted including toddler Solo.  The Hobbit leaves it to the middle film to bring in Legolas, an addition to the story, but not an unnatural one.  The awkward moment in that falls to Gimli’s sketch (I presume it’s a sketch!).  Saruman, Galadriel et al do have a reason for being in the film but it noticeably unbalances the tale in search for a darker tone.

Over complication? In our moment of triumph?

Tolkien handed Jackson the handy moment that Gandalf nips off for half the book…

In the age of simplistic blockbusters, the over-politics of The Phantom Menace took almost as many people by surprise as the much mentioned casual racism – and with similarly poor feedback.  While not a tremendous surprise, the short amount of time that the Empire had been in power as of A New Hope for was surprising. As was the fact that it was such a delicate military operation. I’ve a soft spot for that keen observation on the convenience of short memories that A New Hope raises, although I’m not so sure that it was intended.   In the context of The Phantom Menace some of the top brass’ dismissal of Vader’s sorcery looks even more like (career) suicide than ever – there were thousands of Jedis running around less than two decades before!  With The Hobbit it was necessary to complicate the plot and Tolkien handed Jackson the handy moment that Gandalf nips off for half the book.  Again, the problem is really gravitas.  In The Fellowship of the Ring we were left in no doubt as to the seriousness of the cause.  Here, while effort is made, the set-pieces laid down by the book ensure a constant levity.  One way around this was to increase the role of Thorin’s bane: Azog.  But then he’s a problem in himself…

An energy field created by all living things

At least we have a  distinction between goblins and orcs, but they’ve lost a visceral appeal with it.

LOTR may well have fallen in the age of CGI, but things sure came on in 10 years.  Jackson was forced to update somehow, but sadly chose to go a little… Jar Jar.  Now, it doesn’t reach the horror of the Star Wars prequels, but if there’s anything that’s going to date both sets of films it’s the CGI characters.  In a film already struggling for gravitas, that The Hobbit‘s two big bads are entirely comprised of pixels is a mistake.  There needs to be far more tactility in the mine scene – at points it even rivals the platforming ‘hope it’s an in-joke’ of Attack of the Clones.   Above ground, Azog is a far cry from the Orks of LOTR.  Here at least we have a (fairly unnecessary) distinction between goblins and orcs, but they’ve lost a visceral appeal with it.  In the second film, Azog is called to the court of the Necromancer, much as Jar Jar slinks off to the Galactic Senate (to inadvertently pave the way for the Empire).  In doing so he leaves a far better lieutenant in his place, though Azog still looks nauseous and far too bland.

The Goblin king is effectively The Phantom Menace’s Boss Nass, but with Barry Humphries given a far better script than Brian Blessed.  At least there the Cockney/Antipodean accent creeps back in after far too much reliance on subtitled ork speak – but how much better if these had been physical performances.

Gollum’s the small elephant in this piece, missing from both the cameo and CGI section.  Of course he takes a fine part in the book which is duly translated across as this film’s highlight.  The CGI used in motion capturing Andy Serkis is clearly another level (if not as imperceptible as films such as Life of Pi, whinge, whinge), but it also unfortunately serves to showcase some of the lack of polish in other CGI only characters who shouldn’t be there.

Millions of voices… Silenced

…That lack of man really smashes a hole in the picture.

It took a while for me to realise my main problem with The Unexpected Journey – and it’s horribly xenophobic.  The lack of man.  Gandalf may look one, but he’s one of the Istari, effectively an angel of Middle Earth.  He’s not mortal and those who can die aren’t man-like: Dwarves and Hobbits.  With the fine and difficult of balance of threat and comedy to overcome, that lack of man really smashes a hole in the picture.  Why does it matter?   The razing of the plains in LOTR and defence of Helm’s Deep are some of the most emotionally powerful parts of the trilogy, as are Aragorn and Boromir’s struggles.  With these dwarves and a couple of eccentric wizards, the same can’t be mustered, especially when there are so bloody many.  I predicted that Lake Town and its human inhabitants would bring something stronger to the latter films and it looks like the well cast Luke Evans is rising to the occasion.  Bard and his kin may well do that.  There was more emotion in the flashbacks to Bard’s ancestor Girion in The Desolation of Smaug than the whole of the first film.

The Phantom Menace features the men of the Star Wars Universe who are as useful as ciphers to us as the men of Middle Earth.  But when a major plot revolves around the origin of the stormtroopers as clones, a certain joyous part of the original trilogy is lost.  Or ripped from the heart of your young child heart, depending on your perspective.

The Scouring of the Shire

A few months ago it broke how Sir Ian McKellen was caught wistfully sighing under his breadth at the amount of green screen work he was required to undertake when filming The Hobbit.  It’s tricky of course, but The Hobbit is just fortunate that Jackson manages to work it far better than the static and stilted performances found in The Phantom Menace.

Production Notes

Special mention must go to The Phantom Menace’s Duel of the Fates

Both films had consistency in score. Star Wars seems to be the one franchise that John Williams can’t ignore and Howard Shore obviously has a rollicking time too.  Both composers pay much attention to consistency, picking up themes and recurring motifs that are sometimes far more powerful than the images on screen.  Special mention must go to The Phantom Menace’s Duel of the Fates though.  A powerful and brilliant composition that sits with the best Star Wars themes, a trick sadly not repeated in the two sequels (although The Return of the Jedi can also re-holster its saber…).  Sadly, in Middle Earth, even the mighty Neil Finn can’t quite compete.

A strong influence on the weak-minded

Okay, one benefit of The Hobbit coming before, and in fact before Tolkien had formulated LOTR.  Smaug may be a retooled as the greatest weapon in Middle Earth, but he’s hardly midichlorians.  I’ll leave it there.

Must fix the Thermal Exhaust Port

…That Serpent is very much alive and well

The wonderful highlight of a trilogy is often the second part.  Freed from beginnings and endings, it can hit the ground running and not worry a Barliman’s Best about tying it up.  The first part has the tricky job: setting everything up with a weight of plotting without the momentum of the conclusion.  Both An Unexpected Journey and The Phantom Menace purposefully end with an ominous finale, a blockbuster trilogy tradition that can be traced back to The Empire Strikes Back in 1981.  (A New Hope didn’t have the prospects to set up a miserable cliff-hanger).  In one of the highlights of The Phantom Menace, Palpatine issues a chilling promise/threat to the young Skywalker.  In An Unexpected Journey , a shot of the ruined mountain reveals the eye of Smaug and that Serpent is very much alive and well.  It’s a broad brushstroke stab at future threat and while it does the job, it’s weak.  That was compounded when The Desolation of Smaug opened so weakly (a great shame considering the brilliant recap/set-piece that opened The Two Towers).  I’ll not mention Attack of the Clones anymore, but The Phantom Menace’s revelation that there are Siths in the house is hardly groundbreaking.

Tempt and tempt again

Both storylines are constrained by temptation

If there’s a linking theme between the two trilogies, in fact the two franchises it’s temptation.  Both sequel and prequel trilogies tussle with the appeal of evil and the weakness of life.  It’s more pronounced and more emotional in the Star Wars prequel as the audience knows that the young child does give in to temptation.  In The Hobbit, the temptation that is so central to LOTR is blown up for the benefit of continuity and Bilbo’s unknowing struggle can only recollect Frodo’s darker path.  In their own way, the storylines are constrained by temptation, each coming from the opposite side and meeting in the middle.

The light and dark and all the greys inbetween.

Lord of the Rings III: “The Taste of Strawberries” – The Return of The King

LOTR cartoon ROTK
“I know my place”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the third set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  Three’s a big, bloody, brutal dream…

DO YOU REMEMBER THE TASTE OF STRAWBERRIES?  DO YOU FRODO?  NO.  BASICALLY, NO…  THIS IS BLEAK, FAR BLEAKER THAN IT SEEMS. 

Tolkien stated that his war experiences had a limited impact on his writing, but the writer of the account of the War of the Ring, rife with description of a land of evil, had not only survived the Great War, but Somme.  By the time of Return of the King, after The Two Towers has split the Fellowship but reduced the fronts, the story is little more than one large and brutal battle.  The scale is on a whole new level and the first prize in this raised game is not a trusted keep, scattered villages or ruins, but Minas Tirith: The White City that represents all of Man’s promise, while containing all his weaknesses.

Return is as huge as an oliphaunt, but the majority of the tale takes place in a small corner of Middle Earth, already stacked (literally) with the ghosts of the dead from millennia of previous battles.  Much of the tale is bleak – until the ring is returned, allies of Middle Earth’s victory is not guaranteed – and would remain pointless if Frodo failed.  It’s so bleak, a series of hopeful and much commented codas can surely be forgiven.  After quests and countless battles that could prove Pyrrhic, Return shows the fight to be worth it.

With such a focus on war craft, some war logic inevitably fails to hold up.  Strategy and movement may be difficult to track on a map when it comes to live action, but certain scenes such as the confusion over the direction of attack on Osgiliath seems strange when it’s been under siege for months.  In other ways, the battles’ hectic approach carry things along at a pelt.  There are no timing doubts as there were when the Rohirrim arrived at Helm’s Deep.  Much as I liked it, I couldn’t help thinking they’d been standing around looking at their wrist-dials for a few hours beforehand.

A certain degree of momentum comes with the introduction of two new lieutenants of evil; not a new thing in the films – they have previously come and gone like Sith apprentices.  Gothmog is a fantastically and twistedly rounded creation in his brief appearances (see the way he resists help to dismount his warg); his accent is also refreshingly mean when surrounded by Aussie/cockney orcs.   In the air, the Witch-King entrance seems a little sudden – even if we do get to see his walk-in wardrobe.  Fine, we’ve met him before – but why didn’t he have a crown, or demonstrate any leadership skills then? – bar skewering a hobbit.  If there are any faults with Return, it’s that this Nazgul could have been built up a little  more, especially as he’s a presumed ancestor of Aragorn’s.

Returns is of course more than just a war analogy.  The trilogy draws on many sources from the Nordic sagas, to Arthurian legend to Christianity.  Many of these had cross-pollinated long before Lord of the Rings was written – the paganism that fed into Christianity was in turn and itself retconned into Arthurian legend.  But combined, the effect is more than complementary, especially as Jackson adds his own cinematic nods.  He pays tribute to many conventions and classics of film.  From score to shooting, there are contemporaneous reactions to Harry Potter as well as ribs on The Godfather and Star Wars – the latter, particularly, and pleasingly in the multi-partite climax.  When scenes turn to Mordor and its Black gate, things even go a little – and unavoidably – Labyrinth.  The reference is cyclical and reassuring: many of these films had been heavily influenced by Tolkien’s story before.  One key part of Returns is Aragorn’s flight to the land of the dead.  The make-up and imagery don’t even attempt to hide the neat throwback to Peter Jackson’s early horror film roots.

Whilst in zombie-land, Aragorn’s prolonged absence gifts a chance for other humans to seize their moment, but it’s a mixed-bag.  Théoden gets his rightful martyrdom/punishment as a conflicted man, albeit via the Klingon school of motivation.  Of his kin, Eomer remains a peripheral figure while Eowyn picks up the mantle of strong female character.  Her compassion drives much of the development of Merry and Pippin, but her resounding success in battle – albeit a rather odd semantic get out – also neatly signifies ‘man’s’ further development.

It’s as easy to pick holes in Return as it is to lavish it with a trilogy’s worth of Oscars.  Even with multiple codas some strands remain undeveloped, particularly those relating to those ‘other’ men.  Faramir and Eowyn’s romance is vague and considering what she achieved, let alone how bloody little he did (bar remove a White Wizard from the front line!) it may have been better to see some of that rather than that overlong long hobbit bed hopping sequence.  Still, as their names aren’t in the title, maybe we’ll just have to wait for a spin-off soap opera.

There is another major player whose name bestrides the whole trilogy.  The final moments of the One Ring, its volcanic fate one drop away, are wonderfully done.  Jackson increases visual echoes and references to Isildur that were always simmering in Frodo’s scenes.  Even at the end he struggles with his insurmountable task, and Sam proves to be the strength carrier.  It’s only Gollum’s single minded and unique desire of the ring that really saves Middle Earth.  When he finally regains his precioussss after 80 years, His pleasure before realising they’ve lot each other forever is brilliantly captured and a fitting sign-off.  In fact, after some dietetic and non-diegetic stumbles on the way, the end to the Hobbit’s linear tale is wholly satisfactory.  Even the arrival of the Eagles serves to reinforce the point that they couldn’t have just flown there in the first place.  Sacrifice is key and not just for Frodo.  In Return, Hobbits are seen sacrificing their nature, men their lives and Aragorn realises he must sacrifice himself regally for Middle Earth.  Perhaps a key change in tightening the story is Aragorn’s resistance to this; in the book, his simply waiting for the right moment has its point, but increased reluctance ensures that the spring is coiled tighter.

And so, the Elves, and  couple of Hobbits set sale for the Grey havens, the Dwarves mine further and deeper under mountains, the Maiar wizards are forgotten in the minds of men, who multiply on the plains of Rohan and the towers of Gondor in peace and prosperity.  Over in the East, during the Fourth Age the Hobbits fade away too – though not cleansed, not in these films; that would have been too severe.  They could keep themselves to themselves safe in the knowledge that one day a few of them went on a trip to the publisher.

Jackson’s main trick may be overcoming the fact that we know the fate of so many of The Hobbits’ characters before that trilogy has commences…  But I’m sure he has some tricks up his long wizard sleeves.

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Two Towers live Storified in this Crack of Doom

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon concluded: 682 mins (11.37hrs)

Also consumed during part of this pre-Hobbit marathon:  Shore’s magnificent full trilogy score, X-box resurgent ‘Lord of the Rings: the Third Age’ (VG), Wii add-on ‘Aragorn’s Quest’ (VG), Brian Sibley’s ‘The Making of The Lord of the Rings’, Virgin’s sorry missed film companions – and heir guide to ‘Lord of the Rings’, the draw-dropping illustrations of Lee and Howe…  All of which simply wouldn’t exist without JRR himself.

Lord of the Rings II: “Let’s Hunt Some Orc” – The Two Towers

TTT
“I look down on him because he is lower class…”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the second set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  On to the Two…

‘LET’S HUNT SOME ORC’.  It’s a phrase that is not going to pass for Tolkien’s own no matter how good Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Aragorn is.  But then, not much of the dialogue in Peter Jackson’s trilogy is lifted from the tome itself; its trick is capturing the gist so it appears faithful.  But then, with those rather combative words, Fellowship made way for The Two Towers; a different kind of film.

The generally linear plot of the first part is replaced with multiple strands following three distinct parties of the original fellowship continuing their quest; but that is too is a bit of an illusion.  While Merry and Pippin remain, rather importantly, stationery for the majority of the film, any urgency that Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s haste to save them injects into proceedings is ultimately rather pointless.  Most of The Two Tower’s journey follows a loop wider than the turning circle of a Rohirrim.  Of course, this fatalistic treading of water is a pretty heavy handed metaphor for man’s general weakness.  That said, that and the analogy do provide a pretty solid build-up for one of the most gripping parts of the trilogy (Set-piece Mark VI, below…).

In the book, despite years of suggestive front covers, the identity of the titular two towers is rather vague.  The film chooses to explicitly draw the link between Sauron’s Barad-dûr and Saruman’s Isengard, an invisible line that cuts right across Rohan, land of the Rohirrim, and threatens all Middle Earth.  Rohan is an interesting place.  A kind of sub‑kingdom of men it’s broad Anglo-Saxon set-up a rather stark counter point to the lost and now mythical kingdoms of Aragorn’s north and the more majestic, decadent and dare I say Aspirational Norman Gondor.  It’s effective in presenting ‘man en masse’ for the first time and Théoden’s rural kingdom also administers a sharp shot of Shakespearean tragedy and intrigue into proceedings that was lacking from the Arthurian mix of Fellowship – before administering a fine keg of history at the end.

Split into three ‘journeys’, The Two Towers makes ideal use of its ‘middle’ status.  But it is really is the beginning that sells it.  Jackson wisely kickoffs off at the very heart of the climax of Fellowship’s main highlight.  It’s a fine catch-up, a great action sequence at the front once again and also a neat conveyance of depth.  Gandalf and his demonic foe battle while Aragorn leads the Fellowship to Galadriel and their inevitable breaking.  It’s a soft and effective arm around the shoulder, leading us away from Fellowship’s simpler narrative to a world of parallel concerns.  Even if Gandalf the White’s initial impression of Saruman is rather mean/irresponsible/inexplicable (depending on your perspective).

In those same woods, the Ent scenes seem rather frivolous when you think of Tom Bombadil’s fate in Fellowship – but their ultimate contribution to the plot is considerable.

In Gondor, by contrast, Gollum is an addition that keeps the rather cloying twosome of Sam and Frodo bearable.  The technology and performance are rightly lauded, but it also shows how good Fellowship is; anticipation for the small grey one should have been far greater.

The extended version of The Two Towers really highlights how staccato the theatrical releases of the films could be. Additional runtime creates room for Denother’s first appearance and a brief cross-over with Boromir which does much to bridge the trilogy.  It even adds a little more to (a still quite insipid) Faramir.  It is there in Osgiliath, the ruins of Gondor’s old capital, that the heart of The Lord of the Rings really lies.  Man’s time is coming, the Elves are leaving them to it while the corrupted Elves (Orcs) stop at nothing to halt it.  Here is the despair, retreat pride and hubris ripe for the Return of the (still reluctant) King.  Of course, Lord of the Rings is a totally faithful historical account of a few thousand years ago, but remembering that would rather spoil the danger (nudge, nudge).

The ‘historical’ elements of the book really hits home in the last and greatest set-piece of The Two Towers.  Before that, the wizard and Balrog’s battle with gravity is neat and stylish for the service it provides the film.  Gollum’s little chat with Smeagol is the highlight of performance in the film, and certainly ranks as a set-piece.  Later on the warg attacks on the fields of Rohan are well realised, another great example of another action piece finding its own voice.  Rohan’s more familiar Viking imagery of settlements amidst the vistas is a long way from either the mines of Gandalf’s or the woods of Boromir’s demise.  Even against the decade old CGI, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a lot to take on when it confronts a similar set-piece

But it is in the beautifully built up siege of the last act that something special happens.  Set-piece Mark VI: Helm’s Deep.  The threat carefully grows while Saruman’s ‘magic’ in mixing gunpowder adds a new and real military aspect; the mighty Helm’s Deep itself draws on countless sieges against impossible odds, not least Rorke’s Drift or the Battle of Thermopylae.  In its build up, every crumb is placed delicately:  The weakness of man, the retreat into that ‘unsinkable ship’, the noble last-minute sacrifice of elves.  After tour-de-force brutal action, Gandalf’s arrival is a new invention, but provides a far more satisfactory conclusion than the book’s.   Meanwhile, many miles away, Saruman finds himself similarly besieged in his One Tower: an odd, comic and bleak assault all in one.

The Two Towers, despite its wildly loose structure and rather illusory narrative is but a Hobbit hair, the best of the bunch.  It lacks the focus of Fellowship and the Bombast of Return but perfectly nails the sterling work that any middle film should do while also failing to show it like good special effect.  It kicks off with an audacious opening and on an emotional level it seldom gives up.  By the time Helm’s Deep appears on screen, the worry of whole species is palpable; far from the individual crises and burdens of Fellowship – not that this aspect ever really leaves).

And so by the end of the film, while little land has been gained, the focus of the story has completely changed.  With Isengard paralysed, the two-front war is over (The Hobbit looks to play up the idea that the third front was eliminated in anticipation some 80 years before); and Return of the King is set up to cover the simple slog of Man versus Mordor.  If there is a weakness in the piece, it’s Frodo,  Sam and their bloody elf bread – it drags, but there’s little way around that; it seems to be in a Hobbit’s nature.  This frailty is almost completely is lost behind the impressive Gollum.  Still, it seems strange that, with the ring bearer so dislocated, their conclusion of the film hangs on the suspense of Gollum’s luring Frodo into a rather inconsequential trap.  By pushing that Shelob sequence back to Return of the King, Sam and Frodo’s journey lacks that clinical punch it really needs here, but ultimately it’s for the greater good.  A new story has finally, properly arrived:  It’s no longer so much about the one ring, but the future king.

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Two Towers live Storified in this Keep in the Rock

Lord of the Rings I: “A Wizard is never late” – The Fellowship of the Ring

LOTR cartoon FOTR
“I look down on him because I am upper class…”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the first set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  First, a quick 101 on Middle Earth history…

THERE ARE BENEFITS TO ALL TRILOGIES, BUT NOT ALL TRILOGIES TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THEM. 

Criticism of Hollywood trilogies have often walked a well worn track; one that new trinites are general measured against.  In general, the first part is weighed down by its duty to origin, while the third part may struggle to tie up all plot strands as it strives for a suitable send off.  In between, part two can go in any direction; Constraint free, there’s no need for a beginning or an end and that open-endedness is only constrained by the creative team behind it.

In the Lord of the Rings however, there was a distinct advantage.  Circumstances (World War II) had led to a sweeping single story told across multiple books and published in three distinct volumes.  The names of each film and a rough structure, though rather inadvertently, was already set.  Easy.  But then again, no other adaptation, film, or radio had ever really done followed that… So it can’t be that easy…

Despite a fervent fan base, adaptation also brings the advantage of something tangible to react against.  With such a literary and fairly unwieldy tome, 14 years in the writing, the need to modify the narrative for the medium of film wasn’t just recommended but essential.

Simply, all Fellowship needed to do was begin and that was that.  Structurally much of it draws on Ring’s lighter prequel, The Hobbit and countless other quests.  Starting at the Shire, a danger is developed, a fellowship formed and then the journey undertaken across Middle Earth.

On film, Peter Jackson imbues proceedings with a new speed ; in fact, a perhaps indecent haste which struggles under scrutiny.  In any event, that Gandalf takes hours to realise the importance of the One Ring and practise his Marathon Man routine, rather than the book’s years, is a signal of intent.  Across the many hours of the story, there has to be a strong narrative drive through and past countless villains and trials which could otherwise appear weak or sporadic.  The enemy point is a key one; while there are many heroes on show, there are also many foes, not all of whom operate directly under the all seeing eye.  The epic opening, rather strangely narrated by a powerful but fairly inconsequential elf (a consequence of a story lacking in strong female characters), provides not only instant action gratification but the big bad himself.  Striding out onto the plains of Mordor to slug hundreds of man and elf pins is an interesting touch, considering main villain duties subsequently fall to a large orange eye…  But it’s visceral, it’s physical, and that’s its main contribution.

And if there are any words that sum up this adaptation, they’re visceral and physical.  Emotion is widened in what can be a terribly academic tale, the action drawn out and the scale constantly on show.  Even without the 3d or 48fps, Jackson instils a real tactility to proceedings that’s commendable considering how much of it lives on a hard drive.  From the squint of Elrond’s eyes as elf arrows volley past his face to Boromir’s thudding perforation.  This really is no mean feat where so many of the cast on screen are synthespians and its most quoted ‘creation’ is motion captured.  It shows how demanding the schedule was that Fellowship’s Gollum, with his green pallor, is quite different to the one we would meet in the subsequent films.  But in his own brief and sinister appearance, it works.

Two legendary set-pieces fall within the film.  The first is outstanding, and potentially the most important of the trilogy.  For whilst Fellowship simply had to begin the story, it also had to ensure the audience would come back to watch further two films that had already been made; and the Mines of Moria sequence does that brilliantly, especially in the context of the open plain and siege battles that would follow.  It has added resonance in the context of The Hobbit, but manages to stand on its own all the way to its fiery finish.  Set-piece Mark II is the singular journey of the Bane of Boromir Uruk-hai from Saruman’s Isengard to meet the fellowship.  Again, it’s physical, it’s scrappy, but it also works very well in slow-motion.  It helps that as a general rule, films where Sean Bean dies a horrible death are generally quite good.  And then with the fellowship disbanded, the story can begin proper.

For an opening assault, Fellowship isn’t actually constrained by origin as lore would have it.  Beginnings are shared across the trilogy, as rather befits a tale that’s all about death and rebirth.  Gollum’s origin was supposedly bumped back from each film, but makes a fine beginning to The Return of the King.  Arguably, we see Gandalf’s (necessarily cloudy) origin in the second film.  The sense of origin adds strength to the trilogy; guiding structure and keep things fresh while also providing a constant thematic reinforcement (Aragorn even has an extra resurrection analogy dragged over a cliff with him in The Two Towers).

Many changes have been made for timing, but the main character omission from the book is perhaps the most obvious nut understandable change.  Rhyming immortal Tom Bombadil is a bit of an anomaly, hard to represent on film, and as character voted most likely to ‘misplace the One Ring’ would only really serve to undermine the plot.  In fact, while speed played a role in many narrative changes, most serve one other distinct purpose: to put the focus firmly on the One Ring.

In this adaptation, no character is immune to it, with only Gollum seeming to desire its possession rather than its power.  It’s a clear, direct yet intangible horror than creeps through the films to such an extent that it highlights the ambiguity of the series’ name itself.  After all is the Lord of the Rings the Dark Lord, or in fact the One Ring?

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Fellowship of the Ring live Storified in this hole in the ground

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