Tuesday, December 23, 2014

There & Back Again: A Fantasy Fan's Tale.

 So, here we are. The End of All Things.

 It's hard to believe that the film adaptations of LORD OF THE RINGS are now over a decade old. It seems like only yesterday my brother Ryan and I were settling into our seats at the cinema in Red Deer, Alberta to watch the theatrical cut of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in 2001. At the time, I had reasonable, if relatively low expectations for the film. Traditionally to that point Fantasy as a movie genre had experienced only middling success over the past few decades: there were the odd diamonds in the rough (your DRAGONHEART, your WILLOW, your BEASTMASTER), but none of them had really had any definitive staying power and after CONAN THE DESTROYER's rather disappointing follow up to CONAN (the film that had sparked the brief Fantasy revival in movies), the genre was treated much like the Western is now; they can be done, but usually as low-rent, direct to VHS or low-rent cable fare. At the time I had no idea who Jackson was beyond the fact that he'd directed THE FRIGHTENERS(I was blissfully unaware of MEET THE FEEBLES. I will never be that innocent again). I remembered liking the flick, so I thought we'd get something akin to that, with the usual low-rent effects and swiss-chesse narrative of the Bakshi attempt at the Lord of the Rings from years prior. And then the credits rolled, the New Line Cinemas logo appeared. . .and everything changed.

 A moment of painful honesty here: While Tolkien's work as a visionary and a fantasist is beyond dispute, his actual prose tends to leave me a little cold. As an idea man he is without equal. Much like Isaac Asimov, the man created concepts, whole culutres and worlds from the fabric of his imagination. He created the Elvish language in his idle time teaching at Oxford. . .and then created the whole of Middle-Earth to support the linguisitic equivalent of doodling. That is amazing beyond all the telling of it. But his prose has always been a bit problematic to me. I think it suffers from an unfortunate case of bad timing, really: by the time I got my hands on the 1992 Centenary Editions of LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT, I'd already been to Krynn, the Hyborian Age, Melnibone, Lankhmar, Florin, and Camelot. The works of Tolkien were good, make no mistake, but in the wake of those more contemporary authors I was left wondering what the big deal was all about. I was seventeen, people. Grade on a curve is all I'm saying.

 What Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Phillipa Goyens, and Steve Sinclair managed with the adaptations of each of the three texts to film I liken to William Goldman's grandfather in THE PRINCESS BRIDE: they provided "The Good Parts" version of the original work. Of course, it could also be argued that they took more than a few liberties with the series (THE HOBBIT becoming the basis of an entirely new trilogy of films stands testament to that) but I like to think where they erred, they did so on the side of telling an entertaining story, not out of malice or in any effort to upstage Tolkien himself. The novels will always stand as touchstones of epic fantasy, and the films themselves do their best to honor that.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is by no means a perfect film: the romance sub-plot is eye-rolling at best and irritating at worst(seriously, Tauriel is seventeen shades of badass but the minute Kili comes into view she gets distracted and beat down? C'mon now), and it was getting to be a bit much to see Legolas constantly playing in God mode(though the impossible happened and he actually ran out of arrows, which was something at least), serving at the Ace Rimmer of Jackson's Tolkienverse. But Richard Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield is easily one of my favorite characters in fantasy film, thanks to the actor's wonderful performance. Whereas Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn wanted no part of his lineage, Thorin is desperate to reclaim it, to see Erebor restored and his people brought back from the misery they endured at Smaug's talons. In the hands of a lesser actor he could have easily gone moustache-twirling, hammy evil when suffering from the Dragon Sickness of the treasure and his need for the Arkenstone, but Armitage makes it clear that there is a very real war going on in the soul of this noble dwarf, to the point I almost expected a Superman III-style fight between King Thorin and Thorin Oakenshield atop the lake of gold.

 Martin Freeman's Bilbo isn't given as much to do here as he did in the previous films, but he is the heart of the films and it shows. His concern for Thorin's sanity, his compassion at the plight of his friend going more and more obessessed with the Arkenstone contrasts neatly with Bilbo's own growing fascination with an object that is equally. . .precious. . .to him.The scene where he takes his leave of Erebor and the dwarves. . .when he says goodbye to Balin and when he returns home. . .if your eyes don't get a little dusty, you're a stronger person than I.

And while yes, the scene with Gandalf's rescue is pure fanservice, I cannot in good conscience state I was at all put out by the arrival of the White Council in the nick of time, to say nothing of the epic smackdown given to the Nine and Sauron. Unnecesary? Maybe. Fun? Ohhhhh hells yes.

All the actors are doing solid, credible work here, but c'mon. We all know Billy Connolly walked off with the movie as Dain Ironfoot. Peter, Fran, Phillipa. . .when do I get my Dain Ironfoot movie? Whose palm do I place the money in? Tell me when to stop.

It's strange to think that the last of these films (THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES) has been released, and with it the entire saga of Tolkien on film has come to its conclusion. As a society raised in part by syndicated television and movie sequels the concept of the third act and the conclusion has always been a problematic one. Stephen King argues in his magnificent ON WRITING that the reason we have so many Fantasy novels stems from that primal desire to continue walking that road that leads ever on, for we cannot fully accept in our minds that the story has come to a close. As a superhero fan, I'm keenly aware of this willful resistance: supehero stories consist entirely of first and second acts. There will never be a final Superman story or final Batman story (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW & THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS are mere shadows, 'what-ifs' or 'imaginary stories' that take place outside of canon). Those characters will continue to be written and rewritten, due to a near primal desire to have the familiar reinterpreted for a new generation. But even the best stories end eventually. Arthur faces Mordred at the battle of Camlann, Robin Hood fires his last arrow to mark his gravestone, Beowulf slays the dragon and is in turn slain himself. The best stories end because the destination is as important as the journey itself. Like Bilbo, we come home from the best stories a little older, a little wiser, and with the understanding that it is who we are when standing among good company or playing riddles in the dark that ultimately matters. Be it on the big screen or in the pages of a novel, the journey itself is what's important, and while one story may end we can take comfort in the knowledge that there will be new roads to travel, with new people to meet and new lessons to learn. And that is an encouraging thought.


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