I have lent my considerable (!) talent to a small number of amateur productions, notably projects I was fortunate enough to be a part of during my time at university. For those who have been in an amateur film crew you will know what an arduous joy it is. You will know, by the end of production, how to rig and operate a camera, how to set up lights to disastrous effect, how to record sound at a basic, useless level, how to command (and surrender to) actors, how to source for props and costumes, how to storyboard, edit, promote and create. You might also have your hand in composing some music.
Now, to understand the impossibility of Peter Jackson’s triumph with his Lord Of The Rings movies is to take all those experiences from amateur filmmaking, turn them into popcorn kernels and watch them explode frantically in a gigantic microwave. I find myself utterly mystified by what Jackson has accomplished with these three films that at one point, not very long ago, were shoved into the back of a cabinet for being un-filmable (It was widely thought that Tolkien’s fragile, far-reaching stories could only exist as animations. Not so misguided were these notions; imagine if all the trolls and giant elephants and majestic eagles lumbered about with the grace and elegance of Gamera.)
Consider that your average feature length film takes about a month to shoot. Just principal photography. And that’s on a liberal budget. Saw (2004), on a dime, was shot in 18 days in a warehouse. I learn from the DVD extras of Jackson’s extended versions that his cameras were rolling for 15 months, sometimes three at a time, three units at a time. At one point, a New Zealand backlot was crammed with three enormous sets, one from each film, each with a scene unravelling before it.
This means new footage fresh from the cameras were flooding into the visual effects offices of WETA Digital before the older, completed shots could leave. That’s turnover not even McDonalds could handle.
The conveyor belt didn’t stop there. The finalised visual effects shots had to be delivered to the editing room to be slotted into position before moving over to the sound studios for post-mixing and further editing. All this was happening while cameras were rolling in front of sets and on location, streaming an endless supply of shots to WETA for facelifts and makeovers. That Jackson managed to release anything at all is a testament not only to his faith in the stamina of his colleagues but to his savvy as an athlete (If he could not be found in one spot it was because he was cycling tirelessly from Studio A to office to editing room to location to Studio B, like a paperboy reliving a day in hell).
In Tolkien’s stories Jackson finds two admirable heroes. One, a Hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who is the spiritual vessel and is driven to overcome the nature of his diminutive size by defeating all evil. Two, a man named Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who is the physical arm of the stories and executes feats of incredible bravery and preposterous swordsmanship.
The two meet early on in the first film, The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001), later part, and are then driven by the purity of their hearts to see their appointed task through to the end. The task of course is to destroy the One Ring, forged with malice, by throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom, that lonesome edifice of lava and fire towering over the barren ash deserts of Mordor.
So The Lord Of The Rings is essentially a story about good versus evil, which has been the blueprint for stories everywhere since time immemorial. The Great Train Robbery (1903), in its simplest guise, was about good civilians and bad cowboys. The Star Wars movies tested the will of good by opposing it with the Dark Side of the Force. Every single James Bond movie has been about the good, dashing hero overthrowing the bad villain. And now, with the advent of the superhero movies, Good Versus Evil has never been a more popular literary device.
But Jackson’s movies also work on the level of pure fantasy entertainment, combining mythical elements with state-of-the-art computer graphics. I was 13 when Fellowship premiered, 15 when Return Of The King ended. I had not been alive long enough to see many epics come and go, but I remember feeling an exhilaration of a certain uniqueness at the Battle Of The Pelennor Fields. It was the first time I had seen a battle on such a vast canvas, with such an array of man and beast, many real, many computerised, clashing into and stampeding over one another. It was a great cinematic moment, specifically because it was just that: A cinematic moment. The battle has become a watershed in big-scale war scenes, with imitators capitalising on Jackson’s bravado as early as Troy (2004) and The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (2005). I have seen Troy and Chronicles many times and have always been fully aware that I was only looking at computer images running across a battlefield. Jackson also uses computer images to run across his battlefields, but it is somewhat extraordinary that every time I see Return Of The King, with its skirmish on the Pelennor, I feel a surge of adrenaline. We become so deeply involved in the characters and their destinies that we care with a genuine spirit what happens to them. We are not looking at disposable pawns swinging swords and stabbing; we are observing with an empathetic eye our heroes in the midst of gruesome peril. If film is not provoking your deepest ideas or leading you to question the reality of things, it is challenging you to let go of all that is grave and to focus on feeling and spectacle, two virtues Jackson endorses with tremendous aplomb.
The Lord Of The Rings, after all, holds no resounding truths or thought-provoking insights. Its main message is twofold, one uttered by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as he soothes a troubled Frodo, the other by the great Elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), also to Frodo: 1) All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us, 2) Even the smallest person can change the course of the future. These lines are impactful when they are said, but by the end of the trilogy we remember more the valiant characters and awesome action set pieces. This isn’t criticism, but proof of Jackson’s incomparable skill with valiant characters and awesome action set pieces.
Do you have to be a Tolkien student to fully appreciate these movies? Yes and no, and maybe. “Yes”, because I know a great many people, some close to me, who cannot for the life of them sit through these nine hours without wishing instead that they were watching Harry Potter. “Maybe”, because I know a few who read Tolkien’s books religiously and understand every fibre of his lore and mythology. And “no”, because there are casual viewers like me, who have read the novels once, maybe twice, were pulled in to Middle-Earth by Tolkien’s poetic mastery and have since fallen into a deep love with Jackson’s adaptations. These are the movies that take you away and allow you to focus on feeling and spectacle, and to realise quite plainly that they, like their resolute heroes, exist in another world entirely.