The Lord of the Rings and its Extended Movie Universe

I was talking to a colleague the other day about movies, and he revealed to me that he and his roommate are making a concerted effort to watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its entirety for the first time ever. After I got over my initial shock that there still exist people in the world who haven’t seen these magnificent pieces of cinematic history, we started talking about some of the scenes he had seen so far (he hasn’t yet got to The Return of the King), his immediate impression of the characters and ideas within, and how he felt overall about the films.

He loved Gandalf, and how he straight up gets blazed with Bilbo right at the outset of The Fellowship of the Ring (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Tolkien wouldn’t have meant it to be actual ‘weed’); he also told me how he was ROFLing at the Gandalf the Grey/Gandalf the White scene where he forces Saruman out of Théoden’s head, but that he nonetheless recognized it as an important scene.

One of the things my colleague revealed to me, however, was how it took him some time to get over the clichés of the movies, until he took a moment to recognize that virtually every medieval/fantasy film ever was in actual fact inspired by The Lord of the Rings, and that the clichés are there because it’s really the originator of so many of them. And he was thinking of it from a filmic perspective of the last two decades – never mind the near-century since Tolkien first started writing about Middle-Earth.

His enthusiasm, however, has made me want to revisit these epic films again (I usually watch the trilogy from start to finish at least two or three times a year) with a naive eye, if possible, and try to remember what it was like when I first saw them back in the early 2000s. Whilst some of the CGI has aged better than others (Gollum: yes; Legolas fighting an oliphant: no), and the more I watch them the more critical I become of everything – despite still loving them to death – there is to this day something magnificent, incredibly epic, and almost magical about these three movies that has (so far) transcended time and allows them to remain as one of the most unlikely successes of modern cinema.

But I find myself also – perhaps in anticipation of Amazon’s extended Lord of the Rings TV series – wanting to revisit a trilogy that has not done as well, and that I have certainly not watched as much: The Hobbit films.

Where the scenes that stick out to me in The Lord of the Rings are usually the ones that are epic, magnificent and truly grand, the ones that stand out the most from The Hobbit films are more often the ones that drag it down into an abyss from which even Amazon may struggle to rescue the franchise from: the barrel scene, or Legolas defying gravity, or even the fact that they completely failed to bookend the trilogy properly (it starts with a flashback from which we never actually return). Whilst some of the scenes are simply poorly adapted from the book, some of the more egregious and unforgivable parts include the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili – two of which were never even in Tolkien’s original work.

That being said, I have a soft spot for these films – in descending order of softness as the films go on – partially because, like them or not, they’re what we have as a cinematic adaptation of one of the most beloved books in history, but also because I understand the difficulties and pressures that Peter Jackson et al were under to pull off something that even approached the grandiose heights of The Lord of the Rings trilogy: a foreshortened filming schedule, disastrous reshoots, cast and crew that were in despair of being unable to share sets with each other (Ian McKellen in particular was devastated that he was almost entirely alone in green screen for the entirety of the shoot), and a change of director halfway through all contributed to a project that Peter Jackson would later say nearly destroyed him.

Besides, if we can forgive Legolas surfing on piles of Orc corpses in The Two Towers and Aragorn and crew diving through cascades of skulls in The Return of the King, can we really object so strongly to a CGI orc that didn’t need to be in the film, or side plots that were extended beyond need just to fill time? There was plenty of silliness in the original trilogy, and plenty of deviations from the source material, and in some ways I would argue The Hobbit films are actually more faithful to the book: in order to flesh out three lengthy movies, there’s virtually not a single thing in the book that was omitted from the films.

At the end of the day, I still believe we’re fortunate to not only have all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings adapted into high-budget films, but to have them done (in the end) by the same team of writers, producers and directors such that they at least have a consistent feel and tone, and feel very much like part of a single cinematic universe (something Marvel took a page from when creating their own magnificent cinematic universe). I don’t know how necessary Amazon’s billion-dollar TV series will feel when it eventually comes out, but I remain hopeful that it will take heed of these thoughts and make it feel like it fits with the films themselves (the fact that it’s being filmed again in New Zealand is a positive thing in this regard).

I think I may re-approach this set of films in the near future (hey, maybe even tonight!), starting with An Unexpected Journey and going all the way through to The Return of the King. This way I can get a feel for the entire story from start to finish, and still end on the strongest film of the six. I feel The Hobbit films deserve a second chance, at least from me, and I want to experience the good parts (the Misty Mountain song near the beginning of An Unexpected Journey, or the battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug in The Desolation of Smaug) despite the worse parts, many of which I’ve broached already.

And of course, I feel for Peter Jackson. He’s personally one of my favorite directors, and not just because of his work on The Lord of the Rings; I adored his take on The Lovely Bones, and even the more recent Mortal Engines was a decent film, despite the logical fallacies of the entire concept, which of course is more to do with the original book than anything Peter Jackson did. I just think that his career and reputation were ruined by The Hobbit films, and it really wasn’t his fault; when he took over the helm from Guillermo del Toro, the studio refused to allow him any additional time for rewrites and reshoots, meaning some of it was filmed without even a basic storyboard.

What are your thoughts on the entirely of The Lord of the Rings cinematic universe? Do agree that The Hobbit films ruined it, or do you think that – for what they are – they should still be respected as the best cinematic adaption of Tolkien’s masterpiece that we likely will ever get?

Black History, As Told By White Cinema

I was thirteen when I was taken, with my school class, to see a preview screening of Amistad. I was probably a little too young, and a little too sheltered, to really understand what I was watching, because I mostly remember the murder scenes more than anything. But I’m glad I was given that opportunity, because it opened my eyes to a brutal history that is often glossed over.

Of course, if you’ve seen Amistad, then you know that, like with almost every other film Stephen Spielberg has ever made, it has a feel-good ending that makes you forget about the atrocities you witnessed up until that point. And as satisfying as it is to have a well-rounded, happy conclusion, I think it does a disservice to the reality that Africans were subjected to as they were kidnapped, brutalized, and enslaved.

I think we have a deep propensity to sanitize horror and tragedy in history, whether it be through schoolbook facts or Hollywood entertainment. We glorify the martyrs, shy away from morally gray characters, and conveniently skip over anything that might make us – the majority – feel uncomfortable about our past. Think about what we learn in history about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how the murder of 200 thousand civilians is defended as necessary to have ended World War II. Think about movies like Braveheart, which idolizes a man who was in every way as violent, brutal and vile as the supposedly ‘evil’ English.

History is, of course, written by the victors, and is often less than truthful. It’s hard for me to even come to terms with the fact that idolizing Christopher Columbus – a staple of my elementary school history lessons – is glorifying a man who instigated the systematic extermination of millions of Native Americans. I was taught, from a very young age, that I belonged here more than those whose ancestry stems back to the dawn of humanity. That this country was my country, and I should hold in the highest regard those who made it possible for me to live here. Even Ridley Scott made me believe this with his 1992 film 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

Film has, since its inception, been predominantly white, written for by white people, directed by white people, and acted in by white people. Even movies that try to tackle racism and historical horrors such as slavery are often thought of by white people (think back to Amistad – directed by Stephen Spielberg, written by David Franzoni, and produced by a host of people – only one of whom was black). This means that, if we rely on film to educate us about the past – especially older films, like Gone with Wind (more in a moment) – we’re relying on a white narrative of black history.

There isn’t, of course, anything inherently wrong with a white writer or director wanting to shed light on the racial horrors of the United States’ exceptionally bloody history – these sorts of stories should be told – but to do so without perspective from the people who still today live in the fallout is at best ignorant, and at worst deliberately misleading.

There are people who are outraged that movies like Gone with the Wind are being taken to task for their portrayal of slavery, particularly when they depict slaves as content with their lot, and their white masters as overall caring and benevolent. This is a nice narrative; it makes us feel better, because we can say hey, look – not all slave owners were bad people!

The problem with this is that the focus is shifted from how those slaves were obtained, and the utter lack of basic freedoms they experienced, to the kindness and benevolence of white people toward those less ‘fortunate’. To paraphrase, we frankly shouldn’t give a damn – it doesn’t matter how nice they seem, or are portrayed – they owned people like … horses, or bicycles. Human beings, capable of thought, reason, emotion and love, living generation after generation in captivity like rats.

Now of course, there’s always the ‘period’ argument – we shouldn’t judge things in the past because things were ‘different’ then. What seems wrong today was considered normal back then.

Well no shit – otherwise we wouldn’t be trying to change things! And whilst it’s certainly true that standards have changed over the years, there were plenty of people going back centuries who never owned slaves – even when they could have.

The difficulty is, of course, to find a line between historical context and censorship. Pulling Gone with the Wind from HBO Max can feel like a slap in the face to artistic history, and a disservice to the original novelist and a film that has been considered one of the best movies ever made. Let’s not forget, it allowed Hattie McDaniel to become the first African American to win an Oscar.

But the idea that it needs historical context is relevant. The movie is over 80 years old – it’s not just a classic, but quite literally a piece of history. And like all history, it should be studied within the context of its time. Without that context – and a deeper understanding of the truths of slave-owner dynamics during the Civil War and beyond – it becomes a dangerous piece of propaganda, in which we’re led to believe that black people are nothing more than servants to their white masters.

A question I’ve started to ask myself, particularly when considering historical dramas, is whether the film would have been different if written, directed or produced by a black person. What nuances would be changed? What story elements would be emphasized, or minimized instead? What characters would be given more depth? If the answer is no, it wouldn’t have been any different, then you probably have yourself a pretty solid piece of unbiased cinema. But I challenge you to find one.

There has been a surge, or so it seems, in black-written and black-produced cinema recently (I think that it’s really just been given more spotlight in the past few years, but I don’t have numbers to back that up), and that’s a good thing. But I think that more can be done to listen – and watch – the stories of those whose ancestors suffered – and who to this day continue to suffer – prejudice, racism and oppression.

There’s good news, though. As difficult as it is to see at times, and as slow as the progress might be, I feel that the world is slowly waking up to the idea that history does not equal truth. We all have our own perspectives on current events, but it’s harder to have perspectives on history, simply because we cling so tightly to what we’re taught as children. But for every Robert E. Lee supporter, there are a few others who are willing to open their minds to a possible alternative.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the concept of being an ally vs. a rescuer, and how what the black community seems to be asking for – has perhaps always been asking for – is for allies. When a white person makes a movie about a black person, without consultation, permission or involving their experiences, we’re falling into the realm of rescuer. We’re trying to show the world that racism is a bad thing – without even asking those who suffer from it.

I’m not saying that Spielberg should hang up his hat, or that Kevin Feige should step down from Marvel; there are many, many talented white people in Hollywood who are fantastic storytellers. But there are certain stories that aren’t ours to tell, and I think it’s about time we allowed others to make their voices heard.

Black Art and Film

I want to preface this by saying this is a topic I know very little about. In fact, that’s why I’m writing about it. I can’t strictly call myself a film buff; I enjoy movies, and have a reasonable collection of digital films in my library, but I didn’t study film history in school, I don’t go out to the movies every Friday (or didn’t, prior to COVID-19), and honestly, as I age, find myself less and less inclined to watch something I haven’t seen before.

That being said, I enjoy the art of cinema, and enjoy the emotions, thrills, scares and joys that come with it. But with current events, it didn’t feel right to go on about another favorite film of mine tonight, not because film is any less important, but because cinema, Hollywood and society’s perception of film is possibly one of the largest bastions of industry-wide white privilege I can think of.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t black cinema, or that it isn’t good; nor does it mean that there aren’t famous black actors and actresses – of course there are. But in a space where tokenism remains dominant and white film is the norm, there is, I believe a lot of room for improvement. And it starts with me, and you, and all of us.

Take the following numbers as an example. I currently own 267 movies digitally, and I’m not going to start on the movies I’ve owned previously on DVD and VHS. Of those 267 films, the following contain black primary protagonists:

  • Black Panther
  • Blade 1-3
  • Independence Day (co-protagonist)
  • Lethal Weapon 1-4 (co-protagonist)
  • Men In Black 1-3
  • Rush Hour
  • The Shawshank Redemption (narrator, but not necessarily primary protagonist)
  • Suicide Squad (sorry)
  • 48 Hours

That’s 16 out of 267, or roughly 6%. Ninety-four percent of my movies are either entirely white, or the black characters feature as a minor, secondary, or token role. And arguably, the movies above are a) exceptions to the Hollywood rule, b) written, directed and produced by white people, and c) major blockbusters that everyone went to see anyway.

I can do better. There’s no reason I can’t expose myself to black cinema more, immerse myself in a world of stories that are every bit as engaging, fantastical, and human-centric. There are incredible movies out there written by black people, directed by black people, starring black people, that I can and should seek out.

Except … actually, there is a reason why I can’t expose myself to this realm of art more: it’s harder to find. As someone who primarily watches Hollywood films over independent cinema because it’s easier to access, I end up limited in my choices because those kinds of films don’t usually include an awful lot of diversity. Let’s look at the top ten films from a domestic box office revenue perspective in 2019:

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. The Lion King
  3. Toy Story 4
  4. Frozen II
  5. Captain Marvel
  6. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
  7. Spider-Man: Far from Home
  8. Aladdin
  9. Joker
  10. It Chapter Two

Of these films, five have black actors within the first four credited actors (two are the same actor, however), but only two have a first-billed black actor – The Lion King and Aladdin (in neither of which do we actually see the actors themselves). Of these same 10 films, none were directed by black directors, and none were written by black writers.

Oscars are great, and critical reception is wonderful, but if people don’t pay to see a more diverse ensemble of cinematic talent, those films will never achieve the recognition they might otherwise deserve. And it’s a difficult thing to tackle; Hollywood loves old stories that it can repurpose again and again, and the old stories aren’t black stories. The adaptations, the rewrites and the re-imaginings of everything from Jane Austen to Philip K Dick, those enduring stories of humanity were, nonetheless, written by white people.

It’s difficult to ask Hollywood to take a risk on a new story, naturally; a lot of money goes into these films, and no one wants to risk millions of dollars on something no one might want to see. And the only old stories that feature black people are, naturally, ones about slavery – and no white person wants to be reminded of that, even though they should.

I think, perhaps, this is what it means to support black artists. Their stories should be told, and they should be heard. But they won’t be, and can’t be, unless everyone chooses to hear them. They might be uncomfortable; they might be hard to see. But change can’t come through comfort. And if the only language Hollywood understands is that of money, then we need to put our money where our mouths are.

And this, perhaps, could be the most difficult thing for us to do. Because of my environment, my upbringing, my exposure to art as I grew up, I’ve only ever associated art with white artists. I love western classical music, composed by white men. I adore European heavy metal – created by white artists. I love classic stories of hope and failure, written by white authors. I love these things because I grew up with them.

By nature, it means I end up associating non-white art with difference; with ‘otherness’, with change. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, or rap; I don’t know anything about black authors. And change is scary; it closes the mind to new experiences. It makes me say, “I don’t like this”, when in reality I haven’t even given it a chance. It turns me into a kid again, refusing to eat his broccoli.

But my starting point is this: I acknowledge this failing in me, and I acknowledge that change starts from within. It starts by giving others a chance.

So if that means that I look a little deeper into myself, and ask where I can find black art, then perhaps more people the world over can, too. And of course, art is interpretive – you don’t have to like it, just because it’s black! But don’t dismiss it for the same reason.

Support black artists. They deserve to have their stories heard.