Over at the Boston Globe, film critic Peter Keough is in the process of soliticing entries for next Sunday's "Cinemania" column: all-time best fantasy adventures. Here's the letter I wrote him.
As a World Fantasy Award nominee (essentially for critical work) and a cinephile, I feel it’s my holy duty to chime in here. My choices are easy: the complete Extended Edition of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings; The Wizard of Oz; and, if you regard them as adventures (and why not?), Spirited Away and La belle et la bête.
But I have more on my mind than simply voting. I want to heap outlandish praise on a film that, at first glance, doesn’t seem to need it, and to champion one that doesn’t technically qualify and to which you gave a lukewarm review.
The last time I checked, the various installments of The Lord of the Rings had the highest user ratings of any films at Netflix. They were rapturously reviewed by contemporary critics, and buried in Oscars. And yet they combined for just a single vote in the last Sight & Sound poll of critics and directors, which is to say one less than Borat. Is it possible that a film so universally regarded as exquisite entertainment has no deep value as art?
Of course not. In fact, it’s my opinion that the 11 hours of The Lord of the Rings constitute the single greatest achievement in the history of cinema. Now, that’s an opinion you might expect to hear from a fanboy who hasn’t seen much else, but the film that LOTR edges out of the top spot in my heart is the five-hour original cut of Fanny and Alexander. My list of all-time favorites (besides the usual suspects like Vertigo and 2001) continues with the likes of A Separation, O Lucky Man!, The Rules of the Game, and The Passion of Joan of Arc, and if you put a gun to my head I might choose Ugetsu over Seven Samurai as my favorite Japanese film. So, yes, I’ve seen all of the contenders. I’ll still take the Jackson, thank you.
The reason why LOTR has garnered no deep critical respect, I think, is simple: it’s too long. If its brilliance could be boiled down to three hours so that critics could watch it one night and Seven Samurai the next, there’s no question in my mind that it would have comparable stature. But to grasp just how great the film is, you have to watch all three Extended Editions (and I’m sure that many critics haven’t seen them at all), and preferably in one day. And then you have to do that at least a few more times to discover that the film indeed gets better and deeper with each screening (I’m up to 11 times, including five day-long marathons). Who has that time when every new week brings a Hangover Part III and R.I.P.D. to review?
I do think the film will eventually acquire the reputation it deserves. Sharp critics who revisit the film while open to the idea that it is high art and not just a wonderful diversion will begin to sense how deep the characters are and how radical the narrative is, and acquire the desire to explore further. How many films of this scope change the protagonist in the middle of the third act? I rather doubt that the last two reels of the last Hunger Games installment will be from the point of view of Katniss’s gardener. (This is of course inherent in the source material, but Jackson does an extraordinary job of underlining it.)* How many films of heroism and triumph end with essentially all of the characters suffering some degree of heartbreak?
In its novel form, this is the most popular story of all time, and there’s a wealth of critical literature justifying that response. Jackson’s adaptation is by no means flawless, but as often as not it improves on the source material (e.g., the character of Boromir). Of course it’s a masterpiece.
And the film that needs to be mentioned in this discussion, even though it’s not a fantasy per se, is Tarsem Singh’s The Fall. As you may remember, this is a film about someone telling a fantasy story. It is not, like The Princess Bride, a fantasy story with an extrinsic frame (I believe you made this error of interpretation, as did many other critics). The story told by Lee Pace’s crippled stuntman character is not just secondary to the surrounding narrative, it is not very well told, which is to say the incoherence that bothered many critics is intentional (in a way that’s always pointed and often comic). What’s more, it is sometimes misunderstood by its audience, for whom English is a second language! And yet, once you grasp the complex relationship between the teller, the listener, and the tale, their combination is astonishingly moving, despite these handicaps. I know of no better narrative exploration (in film or in literature) of the power and methodology of story in general, and of fantastic story specifically. It’s one of my fifteen favorite films of all time. You should really give it another chance; you may find it a revelation.
* In the novel, Frodo says to Sam “I am glad that you are here with me” as they await their death at Mt. Doom; Jackson gives this line to Frodo at the end of the first film and has Frodo say “I’m glad I’m here with you, Samwise Gamgee” at the end. And once you understand that the POV has shifted, the notorious “multiple endings” make sense. There’s really only one false ending, and it’s as essential as Vertigo’s: they get back to the Shire, but instead of the expected fairy tale ending, Frodo is not happy.
Peter replied graciously:
Well argued, though I don't agree 100%. I still think the books are much better, simply because it allows me to imagine a lot of it, instead of having it all shown. True of all films, perhaps, but more so in this.
Your other choices are also intriguing.
Too bad I don't have room to reprint this.
I’ve read the novel 17 or 18 times; along with John Crowley's Engine Summer, it's my favorite book in the world. I find that every time I see the film, I let go of the novel’s brilliance more, and can better appreciate the film as an equally great alternative. And that ends up solving the problem you mention; what I imagine when I read the novel has its own life (e.g., Legolas is more “elfin” yet somehow not nearly as pretty).
The Antepenultimate Truth
- Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, Film Criticism, and Tarsem Singh's The Fall