Peter Jackson’s ‘Ring Cycle’ – a love letter
I’ve read a lot of complaints over Peter Jackson taking a short book and making a trilogy out of it merely to screw us all for extra cash.
Bullshit. Well, mostly.
I don’t doubt it makes Time Warner a heap more money and I don’t doubt that to get all the big stars on board from the Lord of the Rings films he had to extend it for them as reports have suggested.
However, he did so by deciding to make three films that equate to George Lucas’s Episodes 1-3 for Star Wars. Jackson hasn’t intended on merely and only telling the story of The Hobbit at all. He has been far more (delightfully for me) ambitious than that.
The Hobbit trilogy is in fact the first three installments of a six movie epic that tells the tale of the One Ring, from its re-discovery by Smeagol after its escaping Isildur, to its end at Mount Doom. (I say ‘its escaping Isildur’ because in the books Tolkien cleverly posits the notion that the Ring has a will of its own, that is bent on finding a way back to its master, Sauron.)
Seen this way, The Hobbit trilogy gives us an adventure that charts the journey of the Ring from Sméagol to Frodo while telling in parallel the rise in power of its Master from the defeat seen in the intro sequence to The Fellowship of the Ring, through the sequence in The Hobbit at Dol Guldur where he martials his minions, his power returning, to the climactic battle against his forces in The Return of the King.
I think the cause for such ire regarding the expansion of the much shorter The Hobbit stems from the juxtaposition between it being conceived and told as a children’s book, drawing on Tolkien’s deep exploration of his Middle Earth, and the weightier more grown up tale of Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring. The events in and around Bilbo’s journey were part of that more ‘grown up’ web.
I only recently re-read The Hobbit to my kids and had forgotten how powerful Thorin’s arc was, bearing comparison with Aragorn’s and Théoden‘s. There are elements of the dispossessed king seeking to regain his rightful kingdom, shared with Aragorn, but also the flaw, the ‘less than unyielding perfection’ that seals his and Théoden‘s fate, each faced with a redemptive and heroic death against impossible odds.
Arguably the Ring itself, its dangers, are not presented in the text of The Hobbit with any of the portent of the film, but I believe this was merely Jackson rectifying the quite natural innocence Tolkien had at the time of writing, not having realised what the ring could really be and what it could mean until later. Jackson’s The Hobbit was able to exploit his knowledge of all the published texts, so for example, he could make much of the meeting between Gandalf and Thorin from this passage in Unfinished Tales:
“For just as I was nearing Bree I was overtaken by Thorin Oakenshield, who lived then in exile beyond the north-western borders of the Shire…I soon understood that his heart was hot with brooding on his wrongs, and the loss of the treasure of his forefather”
The brooding alone, in Tolkien’s world, cements his fate as someone given to negative emotions, and these flaws are always tested, all with them found wanting, whether it be Saruman, Smeagol, Boromir or Denethor to name a few. The notion of ‘dragon sickness’ from which Thorin suffers, the idea of a curse on treasure, goes all the way back to Hurin, in Tolkien’s wider history.
Equally, the story told in the appendices to Lord of the Rings and in the chapter containing the Council of Elrond, regarding Sauron being expelled from Dol Guldur, could be brought into play with that hindsight. The grand tapestry of the events running alongside Thorin’s quest could, with Jackson’s expanded treatment of The Hobbit, be explored in order to tell a much bigger story.
Purists will argue he’s taken numerous liberties with The Hobbit, primarily adding a love triangle with a new elf and twisting the story of Azog (who was actually killed at the gates of Moria by Dáin) to give Thorin a suitably epic foe, given Smaug is slain by a character that only appears late on in the book.
But films are not books, to state the obvious. Here then is the sop to the studio funding the venture, but more interestingly, here is Jackson taking the ‘canon’ and crafting a movie experience with it. I don’t think the additions are quite as strong as, for example, the triangle he set up between Frodo, Sam and Gollum as they climbed to Shelob’s Lair. I thought it was a masterful improvement on the original text to bring to the fore how Frodo and Gollum had, in the Ring, a connection, like drug addicts, that could not be understood by those who have never shared their addiction. It added too to the sympathy felt for Gollum, whose addiction proved fatal, while Frodo’s own addiction was dangerously close also to his undoing. Arguably, such additions to the more mature storytelling of Lord of the Rings had less narrative weight to carry and a richer soil on which to flower than the more drastic narrative alterations in The Hobbit.
Nevertheless, they do some work to leaven at least one of the dwarves, Kili, out from the mass, thus giving a bit more depth to the otherwise bland ‘dwarf hate elf’ interplay between Thorin and Thranduil while the former was imprisoned, leading to a successful escape in some barrels.
The rollercoaster scene itself was also in some quarters considered ridiculous for that reason, a theme park ride. But Jackson used it to create some high octane and well choreographed ‘Saturday morning cinema’ action; unashamed fun, in a trilogy which, for all the weight of the larger story Jackson chose it to bear, never quite forgot that it was something for children as much as adults or the Tolkien geeks to enjoy. (I say children, not sure mine are ready for the spider sequence!) This light-hearted aspect of the trilogy (along with the trolls sequence and the reading of Bilbo’s contract as a thief) was for me agreeably concluded at the end of Battle of the Five Armies, where Bilbo, devastated by the loss of Thorin and his witnessing the true horror of war, has at his side a wizard cleaning out his pipe noisily, showily, attempting to distract him from his awful thoughts, though of course Gandalf had battled Sauron himself. Ian McKellen plays the scene beautifully, they both do in fact, as Martin Freeman can do more work with a few twitches in his face than many can manage in a soliloquy, a talent I enjoy, tangentially, of Olivia Colman’s. Nothing is said in those moments, it was purely physical, a great choice after a film that was almost all noise.
So yes, I’m a Peter Jackson apologist. I’ve read as much of Tolkien’s lore as any ordinary fan of his work, and I doubt I won’t be corrected on some aspect of what I’ve written here by the extra-ordinary fans of his work. The books couldn’t have been brought to life better.
I wrote in a previous blog post how Star Wars changed everything when I was seven. Another abiding memory I have of my childhood, and there are sadly so few, is of sitting on platform seven at Cardiff Central. I couldn’t have been more than twelve and I’d had to go into town on an errand for my mum. (Don’t ask me why, I remember being in the haberdashers at Howells asking the lady about something, but the rest is a blur.) I just remember that I was back on the platform early enough that Saturday that I was alone on a hot summer morning reading The Hobbit for the first time. I recall feeling real bliss; the sun warm, the platform silent and me sat there with this book I was absolutely in love with and nothing more to do or worry about than to sit and read it.
I was fourteen when I read Lord of the Rings, and I wept at the end as Frodo and Sam lay on the slopes of Orodruin waiting to die, very far from home. If it’s sad now, it’s because I remember the feeling more than that I re-feel it, in the same way as I recall how I felt when I read Pooh begging Christopher Robin to remember him in the years to come, knowing full well the fate that awaited him (a moment perfectly exploited and extended in the Toy Story trilogy).
I recall my shock at Gandalf being dragged into the abyss in Moria, the first time I’d been subjected to such a shocking move with respect to the all powerful good/wise guy in a book or film. George RR Martin is much admired for this these days, and it can still shock us when it happens. Gandalf returning from the dead? I was reading it while sat on the 304 bus from Cardiff, with my uncle Geoffrey. Every Tuesday we’d go into Cardiff City FC’s club bar, where he was the resident DJ, and I’d help him index the thousands of singles he had stretching back over twenty years of him DJ-ing.
So many moments of Tolkien’s two most popular books are linked to moments in my life I’d have forgotten if not for the fact that I was reading them and, like Star Wars, my passion for them partly determined who I identified with and became friends with, and what I got into (RPGs, wargaming and god knows how much more sci-fi and fantasy).
While I wanted to become a writer much earlier, probably after Star Wars and my love of reading and words, I wanted to write fantasy novels because of Lord of the Rings. Thirty three years later I did it. I’ll walk into Waterstones next year and I won’t be too far away along the shelf, alphabetically at least, from the master. The fiction I’ve written is a homage to those books really, an attempt to create and somehow capture anew the sense of wonder I had reading them, and then the awe as I picked up The Silmarillion and saw just how far down the rabbit hole I could go. I realised too how much work I would need to put in if my own world was to come to life as vividly. It won’t of course, in much the same way as many diligent guitar players won’t ever quite lick it like Hendrix.
So it was inevitable that when the movies were announced and then released, I was filled with trepidation and excitement, one of millions. But Peter Jackson nailed it. I was engrossed by the films like I hadn’t been since Aliens. They justify cinemas, because any smaller screen could not do justice to them.
He nailed it because for all the changes he made, he was clearly in love with the books himself. He had to make films that everyone could enjoy, mass appeal films. But they had to also appeal to those like me, so all he could do he did, namely, take what was important and special about the source material, where it could not be relayed verbatim, and tell it with seriousness and passion, not to mention the colossal budget required to deliver on the scale necessary to get even close, with film, to what my imagination could so easily and freely conceive.
I sometimes wonder why I keep this blog, and post these thoughts. Sometimes I hope I’ve written some stuff that makes other people think, other times I find I just want to lay out in words why something matters to me. The latter should be curtailed as far as possible I think, there’s enough self-indulgence on the internet to bury Mars. All the same, it’s free and I doubt I could have passed the time more pleasantly doing something other than codifying my love for Peter Jackson’s ‘Ring Cycle’, or I would have :)