Wookiee Hut Movie Reviews presents:
The Lord of the Rings
Extended DVDs / Director's Cut Editions
Review by GilArda

Director: Peter Jackson

Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson

Creator: J.R.R. Tolkien

Starring: Ian McKellan, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davis, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Ian Holm, Bernard Hill, David Wenham, Miranda Otto, Carl Urban, John Noble, Brad Dourif, et al.

Rating: Death Star!

I am a Lord of the Rings fan from WAY back; though not old enough to have read the original copies smuggled in from England, the books have been part of my life for nearly three-quarters of it. I first read them when I was 12-years-old and have re-read them many times since. From the first, I loved the story and found new things in it with each reading. I was such a voracious fan that I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated version when it came out in theaters. While it was a visual telling and advanced animation in its day, I do remember that it was just not satisfying in that those efforts didn't match what I saw in my mind's eye when I read the books. I'm sure that like many other fans, I wished that there could be a really good live-action film version of the story and I played the imaginary casting game: Who would be a good Frodo or Gandalf or Aragorn? But wishing would never make it so; there was no way that anyone, at any time, could do justice to Tolkien's classic works.

Or could they?

Fast forward to 1977, when a little film called Star Wars became the biggest box office success in film history. Suddenly, a film showed spaceships that didn't wobble on bits of string, and men in costumes didn't necessarily look like men in costumes. Imaginative scenery could be spliced with live action instead of cartoon renderings. My mind glimmered with hope for an improvement over the rotoscoped and cartoon efforts I'd seen for LOTR ...

Skip forward some more ... A few years back, I heard that someone was actually going to make a live action version of Lord of the Rings. I — undoubtedly along with legions of diehard fans — was of two minds about this news. On the one hand, I was very excited about actually seeing this epic story on the screen. But on the other hand, could it really be done? Would the adaptation to the screen be true to the much-beloved fantasy masterpiece? Or would it fall flat, simply because nothing could attain the richness of the written words? (That was the conventional way to think; then again, the Harry Potter books had been very well adapted to film ... see how hopeful I was?)

I did briefly play the imaginary casting game in my head once again, but honestly, I can't remember who I thought would be adequate to play the various characters. Maybe there were some Little People for the hobbits, some supermodels for the elves? It would make sense for the director to choose relative unknowns, especially as I do remember hearing something vague about all three films being made at once over a period of many years, and hoping that whoever the director was would be able to pull it off. Then I forgot all about it till the teasers for Fellowship of the Ring started being shown in theaters.

Wow! Just the teaser had me hooked, I can't even remember what movie I'd been seeing at the time ... I couldn't wait for Fellowship to open. From that scrap of film, it seemed the casting was good, the visual effects would be stunning — this could be good! Good or bad, the anticipation was thrilling — the chance that Lord of the Rings would come to theaters in my lifetime!

Finally, it was December 2001 and there was the long-anticipated vision of Middle Earth, up on the big screen! Hobbiton and the Shire were lush and green, just as Tolkien had described. Gandalf looked as if he had stepped right out of a Tolkien calendar picture by Alan Lee. The denizens of Middle Earth could not have been portrayed more perfectly. Hobbits looked hobbity; the elves were regal and tall. No one but Christopher Lee could have played Saruman. The evil of the One Ring was palpable. The landscape of Middle Earth (played by the geography of New Zealand) itself brought us inside the story and made the audience BELIEVE.

J.R.R. Tolkien spent a huge part of his life creating the whole of Middle Earth and the creatures which inhabited it. And now Peter Jackson has accomplished what had been considered impossible by us diehards: he adapted the master's work to the silver screen, and he did it without destroying one of the most beloved works of fantasy ever written. In fact, it can be surmised by this ardent fan of Tolkien that Jackson might have been born with Tolkien's eyes.

The theatrical releases of Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King were each approximately three hours long apiece, but there is so much story to tell that nearly 10 hours for the whole saga was not enough for the true fans, who really wanted to SEE everything. I felt like a petulant kid; I'd been given my heart's desire, but I wanted more!

The theatrical release of Fellowship set up the story brilliantly with the prologue showing the Last Alliance of Elves and Men defeating Sauron at the end of the Second Age and then the missing history of the Ring. The simple hobbits who would become the central figures in this epic tale were introduced here. The evil nature of the Ring and Frodo's flight to Rivendell pursued by the Black Riders ramped up the tension. All the peoples of Middle Earth were represented at the fractious Council of Elrond in Rivendell. Frodo took upon himself the burden of carrying the Ring to the Cracks of Doom to destroy it and the Fellowship was formed to help him. The passage through Moria cost the Fellowship greatly, although they were succored on Lothlorien, but the evil of the Ring broke Boromir. He redeemed himself by defending the younger hobbits, Pippin and Merry, but Saruman's Uruk Hai overwhelmed him. And Frodo, hoping to draw the evil away from his friends left the Fellowship to continue on his journey to Mordor alone — except for Sam of course.

With all of that, what else could Peter Jackson have added to the Extended Edition? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Six new scenes and eighteen extended scenes appeared in the DVD release of Fellowship adding up to over 30 minutes not seen in theaters. These scenes like The Passing of the Elves, The Midgewater Marshes, Gilraen's Memorial, and Farewell to Lorien not only provided additional details, but showed additional character development. And it made us want more!

The screenwriters needed to create something that was filmable from the copious source material and they had a big task. They knew they had to do more than mere pruning; in some cases, the tale had to be recrafted. The story needed to move along at a good clip because it was such a big story and there are the realities of what an audience will tolerate, so certain decisions needed to be made about what could be cut out without doing extreme damage. After all, there were legions of fans waiting to pounce on every omission and change!

Still, it did distress some of us that scenes like the Tom Bombadil episode — which, in the book, was very entertaining and meaningful and did connect to later parts of the story — were (justifiably) chopped. I mean, wouldn't you have liked to know that the swords he gives the hobbits from the Barrow are of Numenorean origin, and that is part of what helps Merry and Eowyn defeat the Witch King? But yes, even I admit that Tom Bombadil, the Old Forest, and the Barrow Downs are just not critical to moving the main story forward. So, what the writers did throughout the films was to assign certain lines spoken by the cut-out characters (like Tom Bombadil) to others, so the context, at least, would remain in the storytelling. An example:
Pippin: A shortcut.
Sam: A shortcut to what?
Pippin: Mushrooms.

Hobbits are notoriously fond of mushrooms and a whole chapter in the book is devoted to this, but those simple lines give the chapter a nod without spending time on unnecessary but charming backstory. Similarly, Frodo and Sam watching as the Elves pass through the woods of the Shire on their way to the Gray Havens gave a nod to another chapter. Even so, this scene was cut entirely from the theatrical release because it was not essential to moving the story forward. It was put back into the Extended Edition to please the fans, some of whom howled at the omission in the in-theater versions.

This describes only the first film. The other two were just as richly detailed and contained nods to missing aspects of the book-tale, as well as more major changes from the books. Some of these changes were made for the sake of telling a more dramatic story, some to move the story along, and some just because the writer and director did not care for the scenes in the book as written. I'm not happy about that last category of changes, but it's Jackson's film (but only up to a point!). I understand that they can do as they wish to the story, but if you take on a property with this much passionate baggage, you'd best be careful ...

Overall, I think Jackson did an incredible job of translating Tolkien's masterwork to a completely different medium. True, I have reservations about some of the changes, but he did bring Middle Earth and its denizens to the life many fans had imagined for it, and now it will be next to impossible to picture them with any other faces than those of the actors who portrayed them. What's more, the films have created more fans, and Tolkien's books are being read as never before. This is the mark of a successful storytelling!

Compared to the previous efforts of animators Ralph Bakshi and of Rankin & Bass, this set of movies is stellar for more than just technical effects, but the effects do deserve to be noted. In the 1970s, computers were not used for much at all in any of the arts; George Lucas and his fledgling ILM were still begging for funding from the big studios. Bakshi (a huge fan of LOTR, by the way) used rotoscoping — live actors are filmed and the individual frames are traced, akin to "motion capture" animation today, where details are drawn in after the principal acting is done — as a way to animate effects that couldn't be integrated into live action. To his credit, he did manage to create drama and a degree of realism in animation that hadn't really existed before. He used tinted black and white film for the battle and crowd scenes — too complex to draw and very expensive. A single movie which collapsed The Fellowship and Two Towers was made before funding was withdrawn, even though Tokien's daughter was said to have approved of Bakshi's work. Years later, Rankin & Bass of Christmas specials fame (Rudolf, Frosty, etc.) produced The Hobbit and Return of the King to complete the arc, but they were major disappointments — the casting was quizzical at best (Orson Bean was both Bilbo and Frodo ... Roddy McDowell was Sam ... Casey Kasem was Merry!) — and the animation looked like a Saturday morning cartoon, at best. What's worse, the cartoon version had the Orcs singing a sort of work song that was not in keeping with what they were ... One of us remembers Frodo rolling around on the ground almost playfully after his finger was bitten off, assuring Sam that he was fine. Ugh! (A bit of trivia — the voice of Legolas in Bakshi's film was performed by Anthony Daniels!)

Okay, enough of that awfulness ... Jackson's crew did Bakshi's several magnitudes better simply because the technology has improved. By taking the lessons of ILM and applying them to this fantasy tale, there was no need for compromises. He knew people wanted realism, but they also desperately wanted the fantasy to match what their imaginations conjured up when they read Tolkien's rich tales. Jackson had the means in terms of funding (though his, like Bakshi's, was pulled after two movies!) and in technology, but more importantly, he is a deep and crazy fan of Tolkien's work. He believed, and that's where he succeeded in touching the imaginations of the legions of fans who gladly shelled out money for two versions of each movie when the DVDs came out (theatrical and extended versions).

But that said, remember that it's the story that carries the film, no matter how it's done. Tolkien's tales will never be overshadowed by the films. Each stands on its own merits and will be enjoyed for generations to come, even if there will now be a generation that believes the movie versions are the "true" ones.

Moving on ... I don't know about you, but I love the behind-the-scenes stuff about movie-making. It's fun to see the characters dressed in their costumes and wearing their makeup, but talking as themselves about whatever, or playing practical jokes on each other. The documentary material on the two bonus discs of each Extended Edition contained this sort of thing and much more.

The first disc was called From Book to Vision. It covers the history of both the story and Peter Jackson's journey from acquiring the rights to the story to the end of filming, including things like writing the script, story boards, and pre-viz animatics. This first disc also included documentaries on other aspects of the production: costume design, designing Middle Earth, an atlas of Middle Earth, and New Zealand as Middle Earth. The landscape was breath-taking and was as much a star of the film as the actors. Jackson knew what he was doing when he chose to film in his home country. It had exactly the vistas he needed and was largely undeveloped and wild-looking. In addition, the discs contain many, many still galleries showing the design development of characters, costumes, sets, you name it, it's here!

The second disc, called From Vision to Reality, contains other documentaries like The Fellowship of the Cast and A Day in the Life of a Hobbit as well as the technical crew talking about things like digital grading, miniatures (which were often so large, they were nicknamed "big-atures"), scale (which was a major issue with characters who were all portrayed by human beings, but who were supposed to be vastly different heights interacting), sound, and music.

Both discs contained hours of fascinating information as well as a look behind the camera to see just how this gigantic project came together. It was incredible to watch, and just as I could not wait for the next DVD release to see the new scenes and extended scenes in the movie, I could not wait to see what else they had up their sleeves. I bought each subsequent release as much for the movies as for the "extra" materials. Now that I've seen all three sets of bonus discs as well, I think I've been spoiled. Peter Jackson thoroughly documented everything about his films. Not every film does this, or even if they do, it isn't to this extent. I know I will find myself saying, "But why isn't there more documentary stuff?" for every DVD I buy from now on.

To be fair, Jackson knew that a large part of the income for Lord of the Rings would come from DVD sales, and he made sure he could deliver enough content and "extras" to satisfy buyers and give them a great deal.

See what you've done to me Peter???

Watch the movies. Watch the bonus discs. You will not be disappointed.

Then go read the books. Then watch the movies again!

Posters from www.allposters.com
Screenstills from www.imdb.com
Stamp images from www.nzstamps.co.nz

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