So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

Viggo Mortensen’s recent suggestion in the British Telegraph that filming on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was chaotic got me thinking about how a book of that scope can be adapted to the screen, anyway.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...
People at the 2012 Hobbit craft market in Wellington, New Zealand. Click to enlarge.

Some years ago I had a chance to hear Phillipa Boyens, the script-writer, explain how they’d done Fellowship, the only movie out at that time. Tolkien’s novel couldn’t be translated direct to a movie. The pacings were wrong for film. That’s true, of course, of any book.

Boyens didn’t discuss The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it seems to me that adapting them couldn’t have been straight forward. They were structurally different from The Fellowship of the Ring – the story broke into two linear threads. If that had been made directly into a movie, it would have been peculiar – effectively, two movies jammed together. So it had to be reorganised. I got the impression that was quite a task, and one for which there was no obvious answer. The original cinema cut of The Two Towers was radically different from the DVD version – I saw both editions, and they were very different movies.

The Return of the King, it’s worth noting, was also inconsistent with the other two stylistically – Tolkien, quite deliberately, shifted to more epic tones during the climactic sequences. Another challenge for film-making.

A point to discuss. And I’d be inclined to agree with Mortensen’s reported observation that Jackson’s series of Middle Earth movies have been progressively captured by special effects. The Hobbit bears only a passing resemblance to the book, and the second one – particularly – was virtually all CGI. Nice eye candy, but I missed Tolkien’s original story.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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13 thoughts on “So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

  1. Tolien’s writing, over the course of time and the inevitable change in the public’s taste, is becoming progressively more ‘high-brow’ and appeals less and less to the average reader. If he were writing today, in my opinion he would never get published. The long passages of exposition, all the backstory… no publisher these days would touch his books. The movies could never have been a faithful adaptation from the books, and been successful in the modern sense.

    1. Tolkien was almost unpublishable back in the day – Rayner Unwin was dubious about The Lord Of The Rings, which is why it came out in three books. Sales figures were mediocre until the mid-1960s when the book took off, via a pirate edition, in the US – it keyed into the evolving ‘hippie’ culture. One of the biggest problems, from what Boyens told me, was that Tolkien lacked female characters – but, of course, they’re essential to any story. I think what Tolkien was doing wasn’t telling a story in the modern sense; he was creating a mythology and the epic literature to go with it. Not strictly commercial.

    1. I found the transformation of The Hobbit away from a kids’ bedtime story rendition of the Hero Journey into a giant SFX epic rather irksome, in particular. The book had a gentle charm that has been absolutely lost in the movies & really, this style of film-making is better suited for some of the stories from The Silmarillion – but, of course, Jackson didn’t have the rights to those.

  2. We were just watching the Fellowship of the Ring the other day and saying how much better it was than The Hobbit movies – much tighter scripting and no wasted scenes. Peter Jackson can be brilliant but has a tendency to get carried away with throwing in more and more special effects and chase/fight scenes until half the audience has lost the will to live. King Kong should have been half the length, and I fear The Hobbit is going the same way. Enough running and fighting on endless precarious bridges and ledges for God’s sake! We don’t need the director’s cut – for some of these films we need the audience’s cut!

    1. Indeed! I had thought that maybe the original Hobbit story might be excavated from the SFX melange into which Jackson fell, but lost all hope with the second movie. I am put in mind of the 1910s-20s fad for epic cinema – ‘Intolerance’ particularly – many of which techniques Jackson seems to repeat. But it didn’t last.

  3. I think The Two Towers and The Return of the King still hold true to the books enough to clearly be from the same source. I haven’t seen the second Hobbit because I could barely watch all of the first one. There, I think Jackson has gotten too caught up in all the shiny scenery that the simple story has been lost. If done with the tightness of Fellowship, with only one film, maybe too, the Hobbit could have been great.

    1. Yes absolutely. The LOTR adaptation as a whole was a pretty good translation to screen. Whereas The Hobbit was not. I do wonder how much of that is due to the current trend for super spectacle. That wasn’t so 15 years ago when Jackson was adapting LOTR.

  4. What I’ve noticed is that, for the most part, when The Hobbit focuses on Bilbo the spirit of the books returns. I’m betting that if the three movies were edited down to one with Bilbo onscreen every moment we’d essentially have the book.

    1. I’d hope so. The Gollum sequence in the first movie was fantastic – spot on the spirit of Tolkien’s original. I was rather disappointed by the way the second movie played out, side-lining the Mirkwood sequences in favour of a wholly new adventure sub-plot involving characters Tolkien never imagined. It’s possible, knowing how Jackson works, that there would be enough out-takes to reconstruct the original story. I can’t help thinking that if he’d wanted “total epic action” he should have gone to one of the tales out of the Silmarillion – but of course he didn’t have the rights to that.

      1. This is no “adaptation for the screen,” this is an entirely new story given that the original work only accounts for about a third of the three films. It’s suddenly occurring to me to wonder if he has plans beyond these films, to make movies or *gasp* a television program “based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth.” I’m not sure about the legal aspects, though.

  5. I felt that Jackson’s ‘The Two Towers’ got the mix right – some epic battle scenes but not quite the same over the top CGI sequences that in my opinion spoiled the last of the three films. Same goes for King Kong.

    It might just come down to personal opinion though as the overuse of CGI never sits well with me, I prefer films that use it in more subtle ways. It is best when you don’t notice it.

    1. I agree on all points. Also, CGI hasn’t got to the point, yet, where it fools us 100%, and there’s always a certain ‘cheese’ factor about some of the CGI shots, even as subtle as accelerations and movements. I’ve always thought it curious, too, how starkly different the cinema release and DVD versions of The Two Towers actually were – structurally and even in terms of storyline and footage used. You’d think they were quite different movies. I have heard that Jackson relentlessly re-thinks these things in the cutting room, and this would seem to be a case of it.

      I have a funny feeling that they re-thought Gollum between Fellowship and the Two Towers, too – the Gollum who pops up in the Moria sequence is actually a quite different figure from the later one.

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