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.

Reading about dystopias is all fun and games, until you realize you’re living in one.

dys • to • pi • a
/dis’tōpēǝ/

noun

an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.

Definition from Oxford Languages

The Bible might arguably be the first apocalypse novel out there, but throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, dystopian stories have thrived, encouraged by the trauma inflicted on the human race through events as far back as the French Revolution, the Crimean War, and of course, World Wars One and Two. Every time our existence is threatened we tell stories of it, imaginations of what it could have been like if the ‘bad guys’ had won.

But a common thread through all the stories, from Brave New World (1932) to Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Fahrenheit 451 (1953), is the perspective that this post-apocalyptic, totalitarian regime is nonetheless undesirable, that it should be railed against, fought tooth and nail to the last of our dying breaths, because it represents the total lack of all freedoms we have come to enjoy and expect in our civilization.

We enjoy these sorts of novels – and later, of course, films – because they present a thrilling view into a terrible society from a safe place. At worst, they offer a few hours of escapism from our otherwise mundane lives; at best, they offer insight into why we believe in freedom and justice, and why we should continue to prevail against what we perceive to be evil.

Did George Orwell not predict omnipresent CCTV?

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

The realms of the disaster novel, the dystopian future, and the post-apocalypse, are of course more then idle entertainment. The very best of those authors carefully analyze visible trends in today’s existing society and extrapolate where they might lead if left unchecked. And in many of those cases, the spirit of the prediction, if not the letter, has come eerily true. Everything from CCTV and media propaganda to a distaste for all things intellectual and scientific was at some point predicted by some of the best science fiction authors the world has ever put forth.

And yet, for decades, we’ve relegated these stories to the file of ‘interesting, but couldn’t really happen’, simply because we like to believe that the real world is more grounded, that society’s checks and balances would kick in to prevent such a disastrous outcome. We like to feel that our privileged lives can’t be touched by the ugly realities that we’ve been warned about for over a century now. And we forget; we forget the true injustices of great wars and holocausts and genocides, because they didn’t happen to us.

So what happens when one day you wake up, and realize that the world you thought you believed in, the one in which you were safe from persecution, is gone? Worse yet, what happens when you come to the realization that for many, it never existed at all?

An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice.

Let’s focus on this first part of the definition of the word ‘dystopia’. We don’t need to imagine such a state; our society, here in the United States, exhibits tremendous suffering and injustice. It has for centuries, was founded on the blood of indigenous people who were savagely conquered, and then built by the slaves who were ripped from their home and severed from all nationality, culture and family they ever knew. And despite movements to give these people equal rights dating back as far as the American Civil War, we continue to live in a world that judges men and women all the harsher for the color of their skin.

How blind is justice, really?

Photo by JJ Jordan on Pexels.com

The worst type of society is not one in which discrimination is legal and supported; it’s one in which it’s professed to be abolished, and yet allowed to persist. It’s not one in which black people must sit at the back of the bus; it’s one in which they’re silently judged if they don’t. It’s not one in which a black person knows they’ll be treated worse by police; it’s one in which they fear it.

There is great suffering and injustice in this country, and the world over. The society we live in – the one I grew up in – is run by white men standing on the shoulders of black workers. The worst of it is that when President Obama was elected, people began to feel hope that a change was coming; people began to wonder – could a black person really make a difference to the world? And when his terms were over, the white supremacists retaliated, hard. They made damn sure to elect someone who could undo all the progress made in eight years, to find someone who would speak their language: the language of oppression.

And this brings me to the second part of the definition of a dystopia:

Typically [a society] that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.

For those of you who decry, “but we live in a democracy!”, I challenge you to look around you at your government’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that are sweeping the nation. Let’s define totalitarian for a moment:

To • tal • i • tar • i • an
/tōˌtaləˈterēən/

adjective

relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.

Definition from Oxford Languages

Let’s break this down. The United States government is heavily centralized, to the end that Washington is the be-all and end-all of the government itself. Representatives are elected from their states, of course, but all paths eventually lead to DC. It is exceptionally difficult to get a law passed in one state that is considered unlawful in others (look at the effort to legalize marijuana as an example), and federal law triumphs over all local and state laws.

And if you think the United States isn’t an elected dictatorship … a dictatorship is really nothing more than a form of government “characterized by a single leader or group of leaders with little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media”. Let’s think about the United States for a moment in this context: we have a single leader who has definitively demonstrated his lack of tolerance for any kind of political pluralism and independent media. From phrases such as “fake news” to the glorious “Fox isn’t working for us anymore!“, the president of the United States has never appeared more dictatorial.

And he requires – demands – complete subservience. Look at the violence instigated by the George Floyd protests, in which unarmed protestors have been viciously attacked by heavily militarized police, beaten, bruised and bloodied and left in the streets. Ask yourself, is a government in which police brutality is not only tolerated but outright taught not a totalitarian regime?

And finally, we are undoubtedly post-apocalyptic. From entire continents burning to deadly viruses and violence in the streets, one could be forgiven for thinking the end of the world is definitely upon us. And whilst practically speaking, of course, the world will keep on spinning with or without the human race, perhaps the end of the world is closer than we think – in a different sort of way.

And this is the only place that I feel I can draw any sort of hope. Perhaps the end of the world isn’t the end of all humanity, but rather the end of inhumanity. Perhaps … just perhaps the slew of apocalyptical events that have decimated 2020 can lead to a change, something that could bring people together, allow space for listening, allow for justice, a space where people stop rejecting science and embracing ignorance.

It’s hard to see, especially when you’re in the midst of it. But the very worst thing that could happen to the world, and to this country right now, is for us to simply pretend it isn’t happening, and that our lives can continue unaffected. For some, that may well be true – the wealthy and privileged, naturally, are the exempt in any good dystopian story – but for the rest of us, we need resist the status quo with every ounce of our strength.

Otherwise, to quote an otherwise questionable movie: “So this is how liberty dies … with thunderous applause.”