Why Peter Jackson Is One of the Most Underrated Filmmakers of Our Age

I, like most of the world, was introduced to Peter Jackson through his seminal and utterly game-changing film adaptations of Tolkien’s timeless classic, The Lord of the Rings. For me, those three movies represent perfection on celluloid (so to speak), and remain to this day my favorite movie(s) of all time.

And yet, today, Peter Jackson is more often than not looked upon as a pariah, a dismal failure who could never live up to his former achievements. Films such as King Kong, The Lovely Bones, and even Mortal Engines are looked upon with disdain by the critical population as an outright abuse of style over substance, and an over-reliance on CGI. In fact, it’s hard to think of a film of his since 2003 that anyone has truly loved the way they loved The Lord of the Rings. Even the sequels, the three Hobbit movies, have been thrown away as an abomination to Tolkien’s vision, and, to some, something that should have never been made. Once gold, everything Peter Jackson touches these days turns to crap.

Except … I couldn’t disagree more. After The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has either produced or directed no less than eight feature films: King Kong, District 9, The Lovely Bones, the three Hobbit movies, The Adventures of Tintin, and Mortal Engines. I’ve seen all but one of them (District 9, for some odd reason), and I’ve personally loved every one of them, often for different reasons. I shall, below, attempt to explain why.

Many of Peter Jackson’s movies are adaptations, typically of novels, but sometimes (e.g. King Kong) of previous movies. We all know, of course, what an incredible job he did with The Lord of the Rings, so we’ll skip those and move right on to the first post-Rings film he was involved with: King Kong.

King Kong (2005)

When it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to follow his success with The Lord of the Rings with an adaptation of the original 1933 creature feature, I recall people being uncertain what would be in store. So far removed from the grandiose scenery and epic battles of The Lord of the Rings, it seemed an odd project to take on. And I think that, when it was released, people didn’t know what to make of it. If Peter Jackson is to have a fault, it’s that he doesn’t know how to be succinct, and at over three hours long, it seems simply excessive.

And indeed, it does drag along at times, but no more so than The Lord of the Rings did. The key thing to understand about about Peter Jackson’s King Kong is that it most definitely is not a creature feature; despite featuring numerous fantastical beasts, including the titular great ape, these aren’t the point of this movie. Instead, King Kong is an ode to the art of filmmaking, both through the character of Carl Denham and his obsession with creating the best film possible, and through the actual movie itself. It’s a subtle jab at the Hollywood executives who first rejected him, and then demanded more of him. And, above all, it’s an outreach to the outcast and misunderstood, a way of reflecting the part in all of us that longs for belonging, even in places where it is never to be found.

King Kong is a film about film, a story about love, and an example to Hollywood of what you get when you throw money at a project without truly understanding it. And for this, I love it.

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Since I haven’t seen District 9, we’ll skip over that one for now and move on to Peter Jackson’s next effort, an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel of the same name. Telling the story of a thirteen-year-old girl from her perspective in the afterlife after being tragically murdered, it is a touching and heartbreaking tale of tragedy and hope, loss and renewal. Torn between remaining with her family and passing on into the afterlife, Susie Salmon can’t rest in peace until her family finds their own, and so she helps them in whatever way she can to find closure with her untimely death.

As always, this is a stunning spectacle, with vast dreamscapes filled with giant ships, flowering trees and demons in the shadows, but this is only the backdrop to what is ultimately another story of love and despair. Like King Kong, there can be no happy ending, but the final moments, when they come, are bittersweet nonetheless, and certain to bring tears to your eyes.

At only 2 hours and fifteen minutes, it also showcases that Peter Jackson is able to learn from his previous efforts, and condense a novel adaptation into a movie that can actually be watched in one sitting. And like he did with The Lord of the Rings, his adaptation here is beautiful, moving, and faithful to the source material.

The Hobbit (2012 – 2014)

We come now to perhaps the most contentious of Peter Jackson’s films, the three Hobbit movies (An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies). Panned by critics and audiences alike, these are movies people love to hate.

And unfairly, I believe. When looking at the outcome of filmmaking, it’s worth taking into account the background and context of the project itself. The Hobbit movies were not originally what Peter Jackson wanted to do; in fact, he intended to be involved only in a production capacity, and leave the direction to Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro even began work on the film before leaving the project altogether, and faced now with the challenge of directing reshoots, finishing the film, and a deadline that Hollywood refused to budge, Peter Jackson very nearly worked himself into an early grave. Forced to produce a trilogy (he originally only wanted two films), Peter Jackson was forced to dig deep into the lore of Middle Earth, restricted again by the renewed copyright on The Silmarillion, held by the Tolkien estate, who refused to allow its characters or events to be used.

Considering all of this, I think The Hobbit movies came out surprisingly well. Whilst they do decline somewhat in quality as each movie progresses, I firmly believe that Jackson did his best to bring to life such a beloved book, and there are many exquisite scenes, such as the dwarves singing before Bilbo’s fire, or the incredible motion-capture performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as the terrible Smaug. I appreciate the fact that, again, Peter Jackson takes his time with the plot, giving due screen time to small details that could have easily been glossed over, such as the stone giants in the misty mountains, or the detailed set pieces of Laketown. The biggest problem with these movies is simply that there wasn’t enough source material to make three movies – something Peter Jackson understood, but Hollywood didn’t. Are they on the same level of The Lord of the Rings? Of course not. Do they stand well in their own right as a very faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s original book? Of course they do.

Mortal Engines (2018)

I wrote about Peter Jackson’s most recent film, Mortal Engines, a few days ago, so I won’t go into it in too much depth here, but again, we have a young adult novel adapted to film, and spectacularly so. From the tiniest details of the steampunk machinery to the epic landscapes of a ruined earth, this is truly a magnificent film, and the plot is classic YA, involving teenage characters battling against obvious evil to save the world.

The thing I’m getting at, I suppose, is that I think Peter Jackson is deeply misunderstood. To me, it’s abundantly clear that he adores reading, books, and literature in general, and the only thing he’s ever wanted to do is bring those beautiful, imaginative books to life. How many of us have read a book and wondered what it would look like on the big screen? How many times have you finished a final page and thought, this would make a good movie? All Peter Jackson has tried to do is exactly that: make the movies that we wanted all along. His films are works of a dedicated and loyal fan, tributes to the great storytellers of our times.

And this, I think, is what Hollywood doesn’t get. Peter Jackson doesn’t make movies for the box office. He doesn’t make movies to please the critics, or to win Academy Awards. When that happens, it’s nice, but his true love and dedication – the reason he makes his movies – is simply because he wants to bring to life what he always imagined when reading the books.

And for this reason, I think Peter Jackson is criminally underrated. If everyone in Hollywood took a leaf from his book, they might realize that you don’t make great films to make money; you make them for the fans. You make them for the people who love the stories, and want to see them visualized.

Peter Jackson makes movies for us, but first and foremost he makes them for himself. And I deeply, deeply respect him for this.

How Should Death Be Treated in Fiction?

As someone who suffers from bipolar depression and has often been suicidal, I think about death possibly more frequently than most. And when I say think about it, I mean really ponder it – what it must feel like to breathe a last breath, to beat a last heartbeat, and then the moments of fading consciousness as the body fights its hardest to prevent a total shutdown on a cellular level. After all, dying is a process – it isn’t instant.

To quote Depeche Mode, death is everywhere; we see it daily on the news, and in real life with the crushed squirrels and battered deer on the side of the road. We cause it – deliberately and inadvertently – when we swat at a mosquito, or a wasp. But we only ever experience it once, which is why it remains such a mystery; no one can really tell what it’s like to die, because – to quote The Crow – there ain’t no coming back.

And as art is a reflection of life, and death is a part of life, death finds its way into the stories we tell with an almost inescapable certainty. Whether the story is The Lion King or Pulp Fiction, there is hardly a tale in the world that doesn’t deal with death in some way – whether explicitly, implicitly, or at least by threatening characters with death as a kind of ultimate stake.

In most stories where death is a central plot point, the deaths in question are typically premature – the result of violence or illness. These deaths, of course, carry the heaviest emotional weight – at least, when the character is some form of protagonist. These deaths are usually treated with a measure of respect, dignity and gravitas.

When the character is a villain, however, things become different. Low-level goons are often offed with a kind of casual indifference, whilst end-bosses are treated to a typically spectacular death, glorifying their demise as something to be celebrated in all its gore. The 2012 film Dredd is a picture-perfect epitome of this: throughout the movie quite literally hundreds of people are killed in a variety of inventive and bloody ways, but nothing tops the two-minute slow-motion swan-dive from a 200-story window that demolishes – in exceptionally graphic detail – the movie’s head honcho, Ma-Ma.

Evidently, there are a lot of ways to treat a character’s death, from understated and emotional to disbelievingly violent and visually spectacular, and some of this depends on the nature of the character and the nature of the story. But what defines the appropriateness of the realism, so to speak, of a character’s demise? And how is realism defined, when – as noted above – no one really knows what it’s like to die in the first place?

To this end, I think the intended audience is an important consideration in the description, detail and realism of the death in question. If you’re writing for six-year-olds, it’s entirely appropriate to deal with the topic, but perhaps in a softer way than if you’re writing for sixteen-year-olds.

But even for an older audience, it’s important to understand the living experiences that the majority of them have gone through. Very few six-year-olds will have experienced death first-hand. Sixteen-year-olds, on the other hand, may well of witnessed the passing of a grandparent, or a beloved family pet. And a sixty-year-old will have likely experienced numerous deaths in their lifetime. And the method of describing a fictional death depends on the sensibility and general understanding of the target audience.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I knew there were going to be deaths of important characters. Being that the story is intended as a kind of suitable-for-all-ages tale, I wanted to treat these deaths as truly meaningful, impactful and important, without glorifying the detail of the characters’ passing. The first major death, a teenage girl, is described in passing as an arrow piercing her heart. The second, an invented fantasy being, is described in more detail with gashes to her throat and sliver blood spattered about. But in both of these cases, the focus was not on the detail of the death, but the emotional impact on the remaining characters.

In my alter-ego’s young adult novel, 22 Scars, there are only two character deaths; a young girl who dies from leukemia, described from afar through the journal entries of her friend, and a teenager who dies in a car crash – only the aftermath of which is shown. There are a number of other ‘violent’ instances – self-harm, rape and abuse – but the detail of these scenes was again written with a young adult audience in mind: I don’t shy away, but nor do I try to glorify either the abuse or the suffering. My goal was simply to describe the reality of these terrible ordeals; I wouldn’t anticipate a ten-year-old reading it.

It’s a fine line to toe; passing death off as both easy to deal and easy to experience is in some ways an injustice to the reality of dying. To see waves of bad guys mown down with machine guns makes it seem like death is a quick pop and then you fall down and go to sleep. To watch a teenage girl slit her wrists and bleed out in a bathtub (reference: Thirteen Reasons Why) is gory and off-putting, but also belies the difficulty of such a scenario – it is not easy to cut that deep, nor does it typically result in a quick and quiet death.

The advent of cellphones and live-streaming has made it unfortunately easy to watch a real person die, and anyone whose stood by and watched will tell you: death is not easy. The body will fight to the last cell to remain alive, even as shock sets in and the victim loses consciousness. People don’t just fall down when shot; they remain alive for minutes afterward. They move around. They try desperately to stay alive.

To what extent should the realities of death be described in fiction? Is there a line between realistic sensitivity and glorification? Death will always be around, but how should it be treated in fiction?

There may be no easy answer – but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. How do you think death should be treated in fiction?

What’s Next for The Redemption of Erâth?

So now that the third book in the Redemption of Erâth series is finished, edited and published, it’s time to start thinking about where to take the series from here. (Well, not really – it’s been planned out for a long time; I just need to write the rest of it.)

You see, way back in 2011 I originally outlined a series of seven novels, without thinking too hard about where I was going to go with them all. I had a rough idea of the main characters, and a pencil-thin sketch of the ending, but really it was the frame of an outline; just the bare bones with which to get started. I don’t think I even really considered whether I would even reach the end of the series, or finish telling the tale.

Well, now I’m three books and 400,000 words into it, and things are – more or less – going strong. The great thing about writing is that even when things are planned, there are still surprises. I didn’t know Sonora was going to die in the first book until about a chapter before it actually happened. I didn’t know that Brandyé was going to join the army of Erârün in Exile. And I had absolutely no idea that Elven would (spoiler for book three!) become a king.

So what’s in store for book four? I took some time the other day to begin mapping out the path of Brandyé and Elven in the fourth installment, tentatively called The Fall of Thaeìn. I start by splitting the book into five sections of five chapters each (as has become the standard layout for Redemption of Erâth books), and then giving each part and chapter a name. These names act as as placeholders to remind me of what I intend to happen in each chapter and section of the book.

Then, based on a rough determination of how long each chapter should be (around 4,000 words per chapter for book four), I split the chapters into rough scenes – usually about 1,000 words per scene. I might do this for one or two chapters at once, but not for the whole book – because, of course, things may change as I write. The overall direction usually stays the same, but the details – even important ones, such as who lives and dies – could vary from moment to moment as I fill in the plot with actual written, flowing sentences.

This is what I have so far:

Part I: The Threads of War

Chapter 1: The Southern Villages
Chapter 2: The Battle of Südsby
Chapter 3: The Forms of Death
Chapter 4: A Séance
Chapter 5: The Return to the Cosari

Part II: Alliances

Chapter 6: Khana’s Tale
Chapter 7: The Challenge for Cosar
Chapter 8: From Sea to Mountain
Chapter 9: The Defense of the Hochträe
Chapter 10: The Sky Fleets

Part III: The Siege of Vira Weitor

Chapter 11: A City Beset
Chapter 12: The Siege Begins
Chapter 13: The Waning Year
Chapter 14: The Appearance of Danâr
Chapter 15: Flight from the Black City

Part IV: Betrayal

Chapter 16: The Illuèn’s Last Stronghold
Chapter 17: The Ashes of Defeat
Chapter 18: Decisions
Chapter 19: The Meeting Under the Wall
Chapter 20: A Broken Friendship

Part V: Retreat to the North

Chapter 21: The Lonely Road
Chapter 22: The Armies of the North
Chapter 23: Passing the Bridge of Aélûr
Chapter 24: The Fortress of Hindarìn
Chapter 25: The Last Trace of Peace

I’ve written (so far) about 1,000 words of the first chapter. I have to say, it’s refreshing to be back at the creative wheel, to be spinning yarns and telling tales and putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I have no doubt that this new story will take me places I can’t yet imagine, but I’m looking forward to the journey: and I’ll be sure to share it with you as we go!