Pouring Trauma Into Art

My wife watches a lot of TV. Not bad TV – proper shows like The Sinner, and Prodigal Son (a lot of crime dramas, actually). I don’t; and not because I don’t like TV. I watch a lot of bad TV – mostly reruns of Family Guy and South Park. But it’s just a huge commitment for me to start watching a show that asks me to get invested in the characters. I was also burned badly by Lost and Heroes, so I tend to just avoid TV altogether unless it’s something I can mindlessly zone out to.

But my wife loves getting invested in shows and characters, and particularly loves British TV dramas; I think they tend to be more realistic and showcase the human nature side of things more than most US television. One show she’s been particularly into recently is No Offence, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek police procedural set in Manchester. At one point whilst Googling the show during its playback (I was in the room and partially paying attention), I mentioned that the show’s creator and screenwriter had also worked on another renowned British show, Cracker, known for its realistic and often dark portrayal of police work and criminal psychology, and for its deeply flawed and broken characters.

What struck me, though, was that in researching this writer, Paul Abbott, I discovered that he himself suffered from an abusive and broken past. Amongst other things his mother and father both left them, leaving his pregnant seventeen-year-old sister to raise the family; he was raped when he was thirteen, ended up trying to kill himself, and was ultimately admitted to a mental hospital.

They say write what you know, and in Abbott’s case this certainly seems to hold true. Not necessarily the police part, although I’m sure he had plenty of exposure to the legal system growing up, but the repeated traumas of his youth.

I think many authors look for ways to express their pain through their work, and the same holds true of artists, and generally creators of all kinds. It can be a kind of catharsis, a way of exorcising demons that would otherwise take hold and control our lives. When I listen to Korn’s Jonathan Davis’ solo album Black Labyrinth, I’m struck by how personal the album is; whether he’s hinting at things or outright stating “I deal with things inside that would make anyone else go insane”, it’s an album full of pain.

All of us are molded and defined by the events of our lives, but often there are one or two key aspects that carry forward throughout our days. For me, it’s depression; even though I don’t always feel depressed these days, and my bipolar is largely kept at bay with medication, depression will always be a defining characteristic for me – something deeply integrated into my psyche and personality, and something that defines who I am.

When it comes to my creativity, this naturally comes out. In The Redemption of Erâth, the entire story is largely an analogy for depression, from the darkness of the world to the inescapability of fate that brings people together only to tear them apart again. It remains to be seen if depression can be conquered, or if it will win over the world of Erâth.

There are so many different traumas that we suffer through, and of course different people will react to the same type of trauma differently; what inconveniences some can destroy others, and where some will blank it from their minds to cope and survive, others can never escape the pain. Creativity – art – can be for those people a powerful way of dealing with that pain, a way of externalizing it so that it hurts – hopefully – just a little bit less.

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.

Movie Night: Mortal Engines

Year: 2008
Genre: Fantasy
Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving

In a post-apocalyptic world where cities ride on wheels and consume each other to survive, two people meet in London and try to stop a conspiracy.

As odd as it might seem, I’ve never really fully embraced steampunk. I mean, I appreciate the aesthetic, the blend of the modern and the antique, and the way in which it borrows from fantasy to allow things to work without true explanation, or scientific backing. And yet somehow I’ve never read a steampunk novel, or watched a steampunk movie. Until now.

I will admit that I have a soft spot for anything by Peter Jackson, and the way in which he brought Philip Reeve’s classic to life is a visual feast. From the conglomerate blend of London, reimagined as an enormous tank (hundreds of feet high) with all the classic landmarks of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the London Underground (and was that a piece of the Gherkin I saw fronting the whole thing?), to the airships that combine hot air balloons with jet engines, this is, to the eyes at least, a steampunk dream come true.

But of course, stunning visuals is only to be expected with anything involving Peter Jackson (see The Lord of the Rings), but of late it seems he’s struggled to tell a compelling story. Many of his more recent films have been critically panned, including the unfortunate Hobbit movies, and even The Lovely Bones, all of which were based on long-beloved books. In fact, Peter Jackson seems only capable of creating remakes and adaptations, but I don’t fault him for that, because to me, I think he does a bang-up job (that’s a good job, in case you were wondering).

You see, I think a lot of people misunderstand what Peter Jackson is trying to do. He doesn’t create films for the box office, nor does he pander to the lowest common denominator. I’ve read scathing reviews of Mortal Engines by supposed critics who clearly didn’t take the time to research the original source material, or appreciate in any way that Peter Jackson is making the films that us, the readers, have always wanted.

And therein lies the beauty of this film. It doesn’t explain; it doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. Mortal Engines is a faithful adaptation, true to the aesthetic and true to the plot. If you really want to understand the depth and complexities, you really need to read the book. Many of the events, character motivations and indeed scenarios don’t make 100% sense without context, even though Jackson does manage to cram a lot of world-building and exposition into a (for him) rather modest 2-hour runtime. And if the plot seems kitsch or predictable, it’s because it’s an adaptation of a 20-year-old book whose plot is essentially the same.

I wish I’d seen Mortal Engines when it was released; Peter Jackson, and director Christian Rivers, deserve considerably more credit than they were given for this film, and to see it on the big-screen, I imagine, would have been spectacular. That being said, it’s still a delight in HD or 4K, and I’m glad I finally got around to watching it, because it’s now taken a special place for me in my film collection.

Of course, it’s never going to get a sequel, which is a shame as there are three more books to adapt, but Hollywood is run by the box office, and when a film actually loses money, you can’t expect much more to come from it. Here’s to hoping it becomes a cult classic over time, because it deserves it.

9/10 would watch again.