With the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies in theatres this week, some of my MythCon friends and I decided to participate in A Battle of 5 Blogs. We will all be posting about the movie, which concludes Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Although I have heard rumours of Jackson’s plans to make The Silmarillion, for the time being, it looks like this is the end of the epic journey that began at the turn of the century with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
You can find links to the other blogs below.
Jim Moffet’s A Tolkienist’s Perspective @TolkienistView
Sorina Higgins’s The Oddest Inkling @Oddest_Inkling
Crystal Hurd CrystalHurd.com @Doctorhurd
Kat Sas of Raving Sanity @Katherine_Sas
And Brenton Dickieson’s A Pilgrim in Narnia @BrentonDana
When I think of the beauty of The Lord of the Rings films, one thing strikes me above all else. The landscape.
After more than a decade of the films, the panoramic shots of the Misty Mountains and the River Anduin still leave me with an impression of the sublime. While the soundtrack rushes by with the familiarity of an old song, the landscape still leaves me with an impression of the great, epic tenor of Tolkien’s trilogy. When Howard Shore’s musical scores echo that majesty, they become one with the landscape itself. I get goosebumps at just thinking of seeing that world from an Eagle’s-eye view, and I become reminded of the glories of my adolescent years–yes, there was some glory to them–bringing me right back to the trip I made in 2008 to New Zealand (and Australia) for World Youth Day.
Middle-Earth, a secondary-world surrogate for Europe and England, was filmed mostly in that absolutely beautiful country. During its colonial history, it was imagined as the England of the Antipodes, since the rolling green hills of the Waikato Valley so resemble the cozy English landscape. It’s no wonder, then, that Jackson would chose New Zealand–a more sublime England–to film the narrative through which Tolkien intended to build a mythic past for his country.
When I was there in 2008, I didn’t see any of the great mountains, but I did step gingerly across a sheep dung-strewn lawn in the rain to see a couple of hills with white boards cut out to look like Hobbit holes–what remained of Hobbiton after the camera crews had gone. Still, you couldn’t mistake the bizarre and oddly disorienting feeling that you were standing where the village had once been, now once again serving its purpose as a shepherd’s farm. How the powers of Movie Magic must have transformed it! It was like being in two places at once.
Throw in that this land is home to the Maori, and you begin looking for the tip of a wharenui (a village meeting house) to suddenly appear on the Anduin’s west bank. Of course you never see one, but the truth that the Maori had their own tales of elves, fairies, and dragons in their oral traditions lends a certain aura to the landscape of Aotearoa (“land of the long white cloud”; what the Maori call New Zealand, or ‘Middle-Earth’). Whatever way you slice it, New Zealand is an enchanted land.
So, you might ask me if I’d return to New Zealand if I got dropped with a $100 million check to film a remake. Despite my immense enthusiasm for New Zealand, I would politely answer, “No.”
New Zealand worked for Peter Jackson. But to craft my retelling of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I would likely film in the Northern Hemisphere. Not that I would object to doing a little filming on the North or South Island, if it was necessary, but the trademark of my new film franchise would be to underscore the harshness of Middle-Earth. The ideal place to achieve this effect would be to film in Iceland and the Nordic countries (along with–just maybe–Northern Canada).
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were both greatly influenced by the poetry of Old Norse and Celtic mythology, which mixed together like yin and yang in Tolkien’s work. While the sections inspired by Norse myth–The Battle of the Black Gate, Moria, Helm’s Deep–can be characterized as part of a more ‘masculine’ worldview of doom and glory, the parts drawn from Celtic myth–Lothlorien is the chief example–draw on ‘feminine’ nature- and art-centered systems of meaning. Both strands of influence blend together to create a mix of the apocalyptic and the joyful, of the inescapably sad and the sacrificially heroic. No happy ending arrives without cost to the hero.
Tolkien blends the tradition of götterdämerung–‘the Death of the Gods’–from Norse mythology, with the Celtic sense of fay magic being in continual decline. He Christianizes it using the Apocalyptic imagery of the Book of Revelation. His intention to create a myth for England ties the worlds invoked in The Lord of the Rings firmly to the weather-beaten, hard Northern tribes and nations of the late classical and medieval periods. These included the Celts of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as the Vikings of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.
Following this historical logic, I would film a remake of The Lord of the Rings in the countries from which Tolkien’s source material came. I would film the Hobbiton scenes in Merry Olde England, since The Shire is so obviously English. But as soon as Frodo and Same draw closer to Mordor, the landscape would become increasingly treacherous and Nordic. Witness the number of volcanoes in Iceland, and you’ll see what I mean. Although Iceland does not have the lush forests of New Zealand, it would lend a stark, weather-beaten atmosphere to the film that would contrast with Peter Jackson’s luscious cinematography.
The bare rock faces in Northern Scotland and Iceland would lend a bare-bones feel to the movie and might upset audience expectations with its minimalism, but it could do so in a good way. In emphasizing the Norse character of Tolkien’s trilogy, the landscape could add a certain Game of Thrones Winter-Is-Coming vibe, in addition to leaving the camera to focus more intimately on the characters and their speeches. One aspect moviegoers miss out on, when they haven’t read The Lord of the Rings–or if they have forgotten it largely because they’d read it so long ago, like me–is how much of the novel is people giving speeches.
Who could forget Aragorn’s dialogue with the Uruk-hai at Helm’s Deep? Nearly everyone, actually. Including Peter Jackson, who left out the dialogue for obvious reasons. It would have been weird. Aragorn just entering a lyrical dialogue with the Uruk-hai, even in an antagonistic way, would have made about as much sense as including the Tom Bombadil scenes. However, these quirky bits–some but not all of which appear in the Warner Brothers’ animated films–are inseparable from the experience of reading Tolkien. I had to do a lot of slogging as a 13-year-old to get through all that, but I did manage to get through it. Not all of Tolkien’s poetry is great but his prose dialogue is certainly worth taking a second look at.
My production–if I am to have full control of it–would not be encumbered by the expectations of a popular audience. In one sense, this makes it an impossible project, since a box office hit is usually the only way to convince Hollywood to give you the $100 million budget you need. Yet, in this utopian world, I would not only chose to film in the North, but emphasize Tolkien’s Shakespearean language and his sense of comedy and tragedy.
I would link Tolkien to the great English tradition of literature that stretches back to the Bard, Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton. I’d make Gollum into a Caliban, Saruman into a Faustus, and Sauron into a Satan. The minimalism of the Icelandic landscape would act as the minimalism of the Globe Theatre’s stage. It would be a grand performance indeed. Throw in the fact that so many of the actors in The Lord of the Rings have training as Shakespearean actors, and you would have a more artistic version of The Lord of the Rings than Jackson could have ever risked producing.
Yet the stark landscape would not all be bare rock, volcanoes, and ice. If you have ever been North in the summertime, or have seen pictures of it, as I have, then you will know that there is, actually, a colour palette up there. Red moss coats the valleys of Ellesmere Island, and Northern Quebec is full of endless pine forests that could serve for an interesting interpretation of Mirkwood. There would still be room for the Misty Mountains in Iceland. And the Scottish Highlands are just begging to be filmed. These locations would make no sacrifice of cinematographic excellence. There would simply be a stronger sense of authenticity to the setting and to Tolkien’s voice as an author.
I’m not the first–and nor will I be the last–blogger to offer my opinion on how I would have filmed The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit differently. I’m also not the only one who feels that the Dungeons-and-Dragons/Twilight feel–a contrasting mix!–of the recent Hobbit movies were an insincere treatment of Tolkien’s children’s story. However, I do not blame Peter Jackson for this. He had to meet the expectations of his mass audience. He has succeeded as an entertainer, and I appreciate that Hollywood is a difficult place from which to work as an artist. Yet, without being so tethered–in some kind of moviemaking utopia where I could make a multi-million dollar indie fantasy film–I would have filmed The Lord of the Rings while drawing out the rhythms and cadences of the North.
When I hear Howard Shore’s soundtrack in Jackson’s film, when I seen the landscapes of New Zealand, I am submerged into a world that has the same degree of literary dignity as the most significant works of English, like Hamlet, or–perhaps especially–Beowulf. Goethe’s Faust and Dante’s Divine Comedy might also make this list. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, even though it largely maintained an epic tenor, still seems too small a narrative to fill that vast world entirely. Perhaps this is as due to over-familiarity with the movies as anything. To recover our sense of Tolkien’s language and landscape, my film would attempt to achieve a deeper, dramatic resonance that would encounter those mountains, lakes, and forests.