If J.R.R. Tolkien hankered after a lost childhood, then Peter Jackson is the guy who never left it. Jackson's Lord of the Rings is the book as envisaged by a geek in short pants, by a fourteen-year-old boy whose mind has been blasted by too many computer games. It's an appalling, crass piece of cinema, wildly overrated by a lot of people who should know better. It's not even a good action film, even by the standards of action films of twenty years ago. Kids being brought up on this fare are being fed very thin gruel indeed.
The most dispiriting thing about Jackson's Lord of the Rings is the sheer lack of imagination evident at every moment. Jackson has no independent artistic vision; his visual vocabulary comes directly from D&D manuals, Warhammer miniatures, video games, fantasy illustrations. But unlike, say, George Lucas in the original Star Wars, he doesn't interpret his influences, he doesn't perform any artistic synthesis on them; instead, he merely reproduces them on-screen. His CGI serves up a dead facsimile of existing fantasy tropes. His orcs, elves, castles and wizards are stale images, predictable, all too familiar. We are not shown a strange and wonderful world, or a fresh retelling of a well-known myth (as in John Boorman's Excalibur); instead, we are offered the comfort of the familiar. People have told me that Jackson's movies "looked exactly like I had imagined the events in the novel." If that's true, then it's not a compliment.
As a director, Jackson's only visual signature, horror-movie cliches excepted, is the gratuitous helicopter shot. Throughout the nine hours of screen time, we are subjected to countless spinning aerial views of our heroes as they hike over the rugged scenery of New Zealand. It's scenes like these that remind me that Jackson's principal talent is as a businessman; few other directors would have the acumen to squeeze in so much blatant product placement in their medieval fantasy movie. At times, the sky tours of New Zealand become reminiscent of Njorl's Saga, the Monty Python sketch about an epic Icelandic drama sponsored by the North Malden Chamber of Commerce, with Nordic warriors bearing banners proclaiming "Invest in Malden". At its worst, which is quite frequently, Jackson's movie degenerates into a piece of provincial boosterism.
Like a lot of action movies these days, LOTR is short on basic storytelling competence. The first movie in particular is nearly incomprehensible without the book, a series of highlights presented in perfunctory, disorienting snippets, with little care for whether they make a coherent narrative. Watching it is rather like finding oneself on a whistle-stop coach tour for Alzheimer's patients, accompanied by the most condescending tour guide imaginable. For remarkably, the movie achieves its incoherence while at the same time explaining everything with painstaking, unbearable obviousness.
Time and again we are subjected to slo-mo scenes of hugging tearful hobbits, drenched in Howard Shore's aural syrup, to signal yet another moment when we are supposed to feel sorrowful, or elated, or both. I've seen fans of the movie criticise these scenes as if they were the exception to the general high standard of filmmaking on show, but in truth the entire movie series is exactly that crass. Nothing about it is subtle. All emotions, motives and plot points are telegraphed hours in advance and arrive a mile wide. Characters can't be tempted by the Ring without having some demonic CGI overtake their faces; and all characters are powerless before the Ring. Tolkien's book had a humane streak: some people -- notably Faramir -- were able to resist the Ring, or at least knew enough about themselves not to want to be exposed to it. Some are able to act with noble restraint in the face of such temptation. Jackson and his screenwriters, on the other hand, have a much more lazily cynical and less subtle view, which comes at least partly from following Screenwriting 101 to the letter. If there is a consistent theme to their alterations from the original, it's to make everyone weaker, more venal, more stupid.
Then there is Jackson's sickeningly twee depiction of the Shire, a merrie little England with greener-than-thou grass and the colour saturation turned up to 11. This is another missed subtlety. Tolkien's Shire may have been an idealised middle-England, but it was not simply an idealised middle-England. It was rife with class distinctions -- Merry and Pippin were of a higher social class than the parvenu Frodo, and his ambitious relatives the Sackville-Bagginses, and his lowly servant Sam. It was a somewhat stifling place, flat and insular, from which the more educated members yearned to escape. Upon their homecoming, Frodo and Sam, who performed the small matter of saving the world, were less celebrated than Merry and Pippin, who performed the smaller matter of saving the Shire. It's not like I'm demanding high art here: an action director with talent -- a John Carpenter, a Paul Verhoeven, a George Miller -- could communicate all this in a few short scenes. But Jackson is too busy with his fanboy's idea of the world, and sticks to the twee and easy.
In adapting a book for the screen, a filmmaker almost necessarily brings a certain concreteness to the original writer's vision. The filmmaker must bring a physical presence to the writer's world, fill in a lot of background detail that the writer left vague or undescribed. So it's a minor miracle that Jackson's Middle Earth seems a less substantial place than Tolkien's, vaguer and more wispy, full of little inconsistencies and absurdities. Jackson's Minas Tirith is a large city in the middle of a dry, cracked plain, with no other habitation nearby. Where do the population get their food? Is it Phoenix, Arizona? When Minas Tirith sends a message to its distant ally Rohan, it does so by lighting beacons on a series of hilltops. But some of Jackson's beacons are at the tops of Alpine peaks, above the clouds. How can anyone see them? And do his medieval beacon-lighters maintain a permanent base camp at 10,000 feet? Of course, few sci-fi and fantasy films depict plausible worlds, but it's the skill of the director to smooth over the implausible, to divert our attention with exciting acts of misdirection. Jackson instead dwells at length on his CGI creations, wheeling his imaginary camera around them, making their implausibility all too obvious.
Another important skill of the director is the casting, and here, apart from the senior hands (Ians McKellen and Holm, Christopher Lee), Jackson again comes up short. Sam is a fairly thankless role, and Sean Astin's unimaginative performance is bad enough without having to listen to his accent wobble between West Country and Country and Western. Mortensen is miscast as Aragorn; an underwear model with designer stubble, he lacks everything of the toughness, nobility, bearing and presence that the exiled king should have. As Viggo strikes one chin-stroking pose after another, one starts to believe that his true calling was not to wield Aragorn's sword, but Wilkinson's. I say miscast, but it's probable that he was exactly what Jackson the businessman had in mind; there to capture the older end of the pin-up market, while the unforgivable Orlando Bloom captures the younger. There's not much there for the guys to pin up, however; the androgynous Liv Tyler barely registers in her barely-beefed-up role as Arwen, and her climactic tongue-job with Viggo might even pip Attack of the Clones for the title of least romantic love scene ever filmed.
It's possible that in future decades Jackson's LOTR may well become most notable for its non-stop depiction of war. Has there ever been a series of movies that depicted war so extensively, so lavishly, so approvingly? For this, Tolkien is not entirely to blame: as well as the fighting, his book contains many extended moments of repose, of attempts at beauty; in chapters like The House of Healing, or the journey through Mordor, he tried to show the misery of war as much as the romance. But Jackson dwells on the scenes of battle and skims over everything else. He serves up what is unquestionably a pro-war film, depicting the righteous and desperate struggle of pure good over pure evil, the forces of civilization defending themselves against a mass horde that wants to destroy it at all costs. Why make such a movie? Why, in particular, make it at this time in history? Like it or not, artists don't exist in a vacuum. Their work inevitable reflects something of the culture and the times in which it is made. Jackson, perhaps unwittingly, has produced a work that plays into the hands of the neoconservative paranoiacs in the White House. He would probably protest against such an accusation, but then he would be walking around with his eyes down. It's about time he and other fanboys looked up and took a bit of responsibility for their cultural contributions.
Jackson's movie version of Lord of the Rings clearly struck a chord with many people. But how much of this is due to the movie itself, to the actual work of art on the screen? I admit to being moved by The Fellowship of the Ring on my first viewing, but that's because I was watching the book, not the movie. Jackson's film, unlike Bakshi's earlier travesty, preserved enough of Tolkien's book, employed so many familiar images, that it actually seemed that my memories were being realised on the screen. I was moved by my memories, by seeing a beloved childhood book being realised, by reliving a treasured experience with other people. I was moved, to be blunt, by an exercise in mass nostalgia. But that is a rather poor foundation for a work of art.