Monday, January 21, 2019

REVIEW: Anything You Can Imagine... (and Reassessing the Hobbit Films)

I discovered and first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit in the mid-1970s, when I was in junior high school, which of course immediately led me to tackling the Lord of the Rings (LoTR). The books had already been discovered by a new generation of readers in the 1960s, particularly hippies and the college crowd, according to popular lore. Around this time, the book really hit the mainstream, with displays in bookstores devoted to the series, launching fantasy as a full blown genre. (The  role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons debuted in 1974 and the Sword of Shannara series of novels by Terry Brooks in 1977.) The famous Hildebrandt Brothers LoTR calendars, launched in 1975, defined the look of Middle Earth in many people’s minds at the time. (Since then, I’ve read the entire trilogy numerous times; it’s not unheard of for some people to read it annually!)

The Hildebrandt Brothers defined the look of Middle Earth in the 1970s
This was followed in 1979 by the ambitious but ill-fated Ralph Bakshi animated adaptation. (The Hollywood Reporter recently interviewed Bakshi about the film.) Much if not all of the film was filmed live action then rotoscoped (essentially traced/xeroxed onto animation cells)—among the actors providing live action body references or voices were John Hurt (Aragorn), Star Wars’ C3PO’s Anthony Daniels (Legolas) and Billy Barty (Sam Gamgee). Planned as two films, halfway through production and already underfunded, Bakshi was informed there would be no second film.*

While the film is inconsistent, I have a soft spot for it—I saw it in a theater in San Francisco on its release and still think the mood, tone and production and character designs hold up well. Somewhere I have a paperback photo-comic adaptation of the movie; I also thought the soundtrack and theme scores were particularly memorable, though I must admit they haven’t dated well. (As many people have noted, the first movie of the LoTR film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson contains several sequences that clearly echo Bakshi's film; indeed, Jackson has acknowledged this influence, noting that Bakshi's adaptation was his first exposure to the trilogy.)

As a lifelong Tolkien fan of both the books and the films, then, I was thrilled to receive as a holiday gift, the book, Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-earth, by Ian Nathan, which briefly covers Jackson’s biography and background, focuses on the complex journey it took through Hollywood to get a green light, details its pre-production and production, looks back on its legacy, and briefly covers the making of the subsequent Hobbit trilogy. (The book is so timely that it even includes a postscript about the planned Amazon LoTR series that was announced shortly before the book went to press.)

What follows is my review of the book, as well as an opportunity to revisit my love for the books and LoTR films and reassess the Hobbit film trilogy.

It does feel like kismet the films ever got made. The project was first picked up by Miramax—then run by the now disgraced Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob Weinstein—but it quickly became clear the brothers didn’t have the resources to fund two films, partly because they now answered to their new parent company, Walt Disney, which had recently purchased Miramax. Indeed, the brothers then tried to get Jackson to whittle the story down to one film. Balking, Jackson and his team procured from the Weinsteins 10 days to find another studio—any deal would reimburse the Weinsteins for the seed money they already had spent, as well as retain their financial interest in the films' grosses. There weren’t many takers who even agreed to meet with Jackson, but on the last day they met with New Line and its head, Bob Shaye. As the story famously goes, after Shaye saw the sample reel Jackson and his production team had developed to demonstrate their vision and special effects capability, after some silence, the inscrutable Shaye said something along the lines of, “Why are you making two films? Isn’t it a trilogy?” (The book notes that this wasn’t simply largesse or common sense wisdom on Shaye’s part—New Line was in search of a new franchise, having exhausted the shelf life of series like Austin Powers and Nightmare on Elm Street.)

At first glance, Jackson didn’t seem to be an obvious choice for such an ambitious undertaking. Armed with little more than New Zealand/Kiwi can-do spirit, he had made a splash and attracted attention with early DIY/shoestring productions like Brain Dead and Meet the Feebles; caught the attention of more people in Hollywood with the more mature and nuanced drama Heavenly Creatures; and showed his capability for bigger special-effects projects with the Frighteners (produced by Robert Zemeckis). He also had a friend and supporter in Mark Ordesky at New Line who got him the meeting with Shaye (Ordesky would eventually serve as executive producer on the production). As the book shows, though Jackson was an “outsider” from New Zealand, he was hardly naive; with the help of his agent, he otherwise proved plenty smart and savvy in playing the Hollywood game that is necessarily part of the process given the hundreds of millions of dollars and egos at stake.

Anything You Can Imagine covers the full history of the making of the films behind the scenes, including the creation of Jackson’s Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, under the leadership of longtime friend/partner in crime Richard Taylor. Of course, the films would not have been possible without advances in digital special effects (which included the innovative Massive software for generating crowds where individual “agents” could “think” and make movements for themselves) and the talents of the perfectly cast film, which included Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Viggo Mortenson as Strider/Aragorn. (Mortenson joined the production a few days after principal photography began after original cast member Stuart Townsend was let go—at the time, “creative differences” were cited, but of course, there’s more to the story, with Townsend seemingly a bit overwhelmed by the movie's demands which gave Jackson second thoughts given the rigors of production and his need to work with actors who were drama-fee.)

A whole chapter is also devoted to Andy Serkis, whose performance and interpretation of the pivotal character of Gollum completely re-shaped the film. Planned as an entirely CGI/animated character, Serkis’s fully invested and very physical performance of his lines convinced Jackson (and his co-screenwriters/brain trust, wife Fran Walsh and Tolkien fan and fellow writer Philippa Boyens) to bring Serkis on set to act opposite the other actors. His performance soon would be motion captured as reference for the animators, highlighting the on-the-fly/flexible way Jackson approached the films, much to the benefit of the final production.

Numerous behind-the-scenes stories are told, including the New Line’s smart marketing gamble to show an exclusive 30-minute “sizzle” reel at Cannes, which created positive buzz for the film and reassured not only the fan community but especially investors and distributors, who had begun to feel skittish about the project. (According to the book, these foreign distribution deals covered the full production costs of the film by the time the shoot began, but in moments of panic, Shaye took pains to remind Jackson that many of these companies would go under if the first film faltered at the box office.)

The book inspired me to watch the original trilogy again—I own the full extended edition of each film and, while I have seen them numerous times, as well as all the outstanding behind-the-scenes full-documentary extras, it had been many years.

The original LoTR film trilogy still stand up as modern classics—while, of course, they have the benefit of Tolkien’s original story, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens deserve full credit in unlocking the film’s complex storyline, themes, characters and drama, and making them accessible to modern day audiences, both to fans and non-fans alike. The changes they made to the original text for cinematic reasons or to deepen the characterizations in many cases improves or builds on the original text. The production design and special effects in the films by Weta Workshop remain incredibly impressive and created a credible world, but never overshadow the film, the story or the characters. One only needs to view the extras, or listen to the commentaries on the DVDs, to see how deeply and seriously the filmmakers thought about the story, character motivations, and world and culture building on Middle Earth.

The book also motivated me to re-watch the Hobbit film trilogy. While I originally saw this second “prequel” trilogy in the theaters at their release, I had never binge-watched them as I had the LoTR films numerous times; indeed, since their release, I've usually only "half-watched" them when they showed up on TV—in fact, until I decided to watch the full film trilogy, I discovered I didn't even own all three films. I did have the first two films either on DVD or on streaming, but never bought the third film. When I finished the first two, I went out and purchased the extended version of the third film on Bluray. (You can find my reviews of the theatrical film releases of film one here, two here, and three here.)

When I first saw them in the theater, I did not feel as invested or enthralled by them like the first trilogy. In fact, in my initial review in 2015, I even said the last film left me a little cold.  Like many, I felt the action, special effects and spectacle seemed to overwhelm what was the thinnest book of the series, turning what was a light children's adventure romp into a somewhat dark epic that seemed even bigger than LoTR. No doubt it was a challenge to find the right tone for a story based on a lighthearted children's adventure that needed to segue and have the same feel as the original LoTR films. The story, of course, is a true prequel to the trilogy, concerning the finding of the “One Ring”—which the filmmakers bolstered by adding material mentioned only in passing (if at all) in the Hobbit but were still part of Tolkien’s canon of back story in the appendices of his original trilogy, unpublished pieces, and his other Middle Earth work like the Simarillion. (Adding Legolas also connected the two film trilogies.)

With Weta concept artist Daniel Falconer at the 2014
San Diego Comic-Con
On fresh viewing, however, I was more forgiving and found the Hobbit films more enjoyable and engaging. Jackson clearly tried to preserve some of the original kid-friendly tone of the book through the over-the-top action set-pieces and some of the humor. The dwarves’ escape from imprisonment in the elf kingdom of Rivendell comes to mind. In the sequence, Legolas and a companion she-elf, Tauriel—played by Evangeline Lilly and created for the film—first try to recapture them, but when orcs attack, they end up allying with the dwarves in battling a common enemy. The levity and breeziness of the action, however, is often undercut by Jackson’s glee in finding innovative and funny ways to graphically kill and behead orcs, indulging Jackson's sensibilities as seen in his earlier films. These kinds of inconsistencies exist throughout the Hobbit films, as Jackson tried to honor the heavy tone of the epic Middle Earth mythology while keeping it accessible and fun in keeping with the tone of the original Hobbit book. It’s important to note that humor played an important role in countering the gravitas of the original LoTR trilogy as well, but in those films the humor is generally more nuanced, character based and less broad; in the Hobbit movies, I felt they sometimes took you out of the film.

That said, the Hobbit trilogy ultimately is still quite a feat of bravura filmmaking that is true to the original book as a product of the Middle Earth mythology, if not necessarily the tone of the original story by Tolkien. Obviously, Jackson felt the films had to feel consistent. While it would have been impossible to make each of the 13 dwarves in the film fully developed characters, they have distinct personalities and some have their own memorable moments; the realization of Smaug the dragon as a character is impressive (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, paralleling a similar journey Serkis took when he was cast as Gollum); and the final climactic sequence, the “Battle of Five Armies,” as the third film is named, is an incredible achievement of battle and storytelling logistics. Yes, it’s long and there are some moments that feel drawn out, but it’s thrilling nonetheless, especially with fans familiar with the book, with moments like the elves allying with the dwarves (and humans) to fight the orcs, and Legolas’ final battle with Bolg being especially satisfying.

Anyway, for any serious fan of the LoTR films, Nathan’s book should be a great read and an opportunity to revisit both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books and film trilogies.

My dog-eared editions of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy, dating to the 1970s

My extended DVD collection of the LoTR film trilogy

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