Tag Archives: peter jackson

The television equivalent of the novel

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Art is the aftershock of technological plates shifting. Sometimes the aftershock is slow in arriving. It took the novel about three hundred years to evolve into its modern form after the invention of the printing press. The television equivalent of the novel—the complex serialized drama of The Wire or Breaking Bad—took as long as seventy years to develop, depending on where you date its origins.

I’ve often thought about today’s serialized, bingeable, Golden Age of Television as the visual equivalent of the novel. Rich worlds. Deep investment in characters. Time to marinate with relationships and stakes.

Before the Golden Age of Television, I was captivated by trilogies — hell, I still am — namely Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (Extended Editions!) I hadn’t read the books, but I felt an attachment to the characters. Its cohesive production, year-over-year release schedule, and follow-through of Tolkien’s parallel stories and stakes built a world I was able to immerse myself in.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings runs 9 hours in total, the extended editions running 11 hours — not dissimilar from a Golden Age television series.

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Thank you, Peter Jackson

I used to stare at my step-father’s collection of The Lord of the Rings as an impassable mountain. Novels intimidate me. So when word let out that The Lord of the Rings was being adapted for film, I was thrilled. My perspective of the volumes on that bookshelf and the trouble I had with their language painted a picture of the gargantuan undertaking the adaptation would be. Not to mention the prospect of a story so legendary being brought to life in my lifetime was exhilarating. I had always been jealous of those who saw Star Wars in the theater; a piece of science-fiction/fantasy so groundbreaking it would have a lasting impact not only on cinema, but on the culture-at-large. I was convinced that The Lord of the Rings would be my equivalent. Bonus: (I thought) I could get away without reading the books.

I set any skepticism I had aside and I went into The Fellowship of the Ring all-in; convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, it would be the greatest thing I had ever seen. I was ripe for disappointment. Alas, Peter Jackson’s vision turned me into as big of a Lord of the Rings fan as anyone could be. It wasn’t the story or the characters. They were mesmerizing and with my lack of knowledge, their tweaks went unnoticed. It was the production value and scale of this work that floored me. I had never witnessed anything of its magnitude. The special effects were like none other and the pacing, tone, and art were calculated and vivid. But the thing that put the films over the top was the baffling accomplishment of its principle photography:

Principal photography for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was conducted concurrently in New Zealand for 274 days from October 11, 1999 through to December 22, 2000. Pick-up shoots were conducted annually from 2001 to 2004. The trilogy was shot at over 150 different locations,[1] with seven different units shooting, as well as soundstages around Wellington and QueenstownPeter Jackson directed the whole production, while other unit directors included Alun Bollinger, John Mahaffie, Geoff Murphy, Fran Walsh, Barrie Osbourne, and Rick Porras. Jackson monitored these units with live satellite feeds, and with the added pressure of constant script re-writes and the multiple units handling his vision, he only got around 4 hours of sleep a night.[2]

I would later receive the extended edition of The Two Towers as a Christmas gift and pour over it and its bonus features many a high school night. Deep in the burrow of my poster laden teenage room, I would sit with headphones, transfixed by what I was watching. (I also absorbed a self-depricating message on the methodical pacing of the story through the image of the Ents.) To this day, the work behind these films amazes and inspires me. For as much as I love Star Wars, I felt I was right about The Lord of the Rings being my generational equivalent. It was a risky undertaking at a scale never before seen. Influential breakthroughs in cinema, technology, and logistics are rooted its production. I will forever dream to be part of something on its scale.

I needed more Middle-earth. I wanted every licensed video game, continued to pour over special features, and discussed the films at length with friends. I recall the instant I finished watching The Return of the King for the first time, I yearned for an adaption of The Hobbit. While I was sure it would eventually happen, I grew increasingly unconvinced that Jackson would be a part of it. On several occasions he emphasized that he was finished with Middle-earth and productions of its scale:

Nobody’s ever shot three huge movies before and I think the most interesting thing I’ve discovered over the last 14 months is exactly why nobody’s ever done that. Now I know. And therefore, I won’t be doing it again.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed when I learned that Jackson would be taking the helm on The Hobbit. And while many scoffed at the announcement that the children’s novel would be split into two films, I was bursting with excitement. One film was not nearly enough Middle-earth to tide me over. In the back of my mind, there was a small part of me that wished for three. There is something so satisfying with a trilogy, be it the beginning, middle, and end or a pseudo three-act structure. But based on the page count, I understood two films was likely already stretching it. That was until I read the book. I came away from the novel shocked at how dense it was. I wondered how it wouldn’t end up being three films. And to my surprise and delight, a third film was announced.

I agree with Ben Kuchera in saying “we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain” when it comes to more from our favorite franchises. If The Hobbit films were bloated, so what. If one is unhappy with the end product, they still have the book. As mentioned, I had only read The Hobbit months before the first film was released, and I was shocked that they would have attempted to squeeze it into two films, let alone one.

The announcements of return characters, story tweaks, and additions always gave me the feeling that The Hobbit films were more a celebration than a production to stand on its own. Sure, there is moral and epic material there, but it feels like I was watching a party thrown for the cast and crew of such an incredible feat. Do I think An Unexpected Journey and The Desolationof Smaug are in-line with the masterpieces that are The Lord of the Rings films? No. On par with the Star Wars prequels? Far above. The inescapable CGI on both the settings and characters (namely the orcs) are an eyesore, and the dwarves’ makeup doesn’t feel quite as realized as Gimili’s, but the films allow me to bask in the majesty of Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth again. And that’s more than I could ever ask for.

Many my say “Jackson will be back for The Silmarillion.” I’m not counting on it. Not after reading Alexa Ray Corriea’s history of The Lord of the Rings in video games:

The Tolkien Estate still firmly holds the score of books and snippets that fill out the world of Arda beyond The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit — called Tolkien’s legendarium — close to its chest. Christopher Tolkien upholds his position as keeper of the keys to Middle-earth; the IP remains split; and The Silmarillion is still locked away, out of reach from those who might adapt Tolkien’s deeper mythology.

If The Silmarillion does come around, my bet is that Jackson won’t be more than an Executive Producer.

I’ve never finished reading The Lord of the Rings. Two-thirds at best. And I only read The Hobbit months before the first film’s release. Yet, because of these six films, I have a profound fondness for franchise as a whole. Two patient, pre-meditated, serialized trilogies (albeit based on existing fiction) as efforts that have gone unmatched are triumphs to behold. When it comes up in conversation, when I see snippets on TV or a passages from the book, or when I hear one of Howard Shore’s iconic pieces, my mind goes to another place for hours at a time. Jackson’s perseverance through the filmmaking and scope of Middle-earth encourages me to dream. It inspires me to undertake something bigger than myself.  Thankfully I live in a world where in an instant I can tune into something that ignites that fire inside. For that, I am forever grateful. Thank you, Peter Jackson, for braving this project. I’m so glad to have experienced it in its entirety over these past thirteen years.

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