Movie Review – Tolkien – Biography of the Master of Middle Earth

Movie Review - TolkienI don’t normally watch biographies. We don’t usually get Peetimes for them either, but this was TOLKIEN. The author of my favorite novel, movie, and world: The Lord of the Rings. So it wasn’t just any biopic to me, and Tolkien wasn’t just any author. Lord of the Rings (or LOTR) is a magnificent 1000+ page work of high fantasy, penned by JRR Tolkien as a sequel to the shorter, more youth-oriented The Hobbit.

With The Hobbit published and successful in 1937 (which the movie gets around to in a fantastic end moment that made me literally weep with joy), Tolkien was tasked with creating a ‘hobbit sequel’. This is a case where the sequel outshines its original by a great magnitude, and is literally Tolkien’s life’s work. (Let’s not discuss The Silmarillion here.) [/CanOfWorms] 😉

A new form of world-building fantasy

According to the Wikipedia, LOTR was “written in stages between 1937 and 1949, and is one of the best selling novels ever written, with over 150 million copies sold.”

LOTR also established the groundwork for nearly every novel, series, and film franchise in the fantasy genre to follow, introducing readers to a form of world-building never accomplished before. Tolkien invented entire languages and thousands of years of backstories, timelines and genealogical histories for his handful of mythological races, which he called the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth.

Before Tolkien, we had ancient ballads, plays, and operas to give us fantasy worlds, yet works like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Beowulf, Shakespeare’s plays, The Iliad and the Odyssey, and the collected stories in Greek/Norse Mythology are very grandiose and quite a bit remote.

LOTR gave readers a story about fallible, often funny individuals who weren’t princes or warriors. In fact, the two main heroes of LOTR are a bookish young man and a gardener. The warriors, kings, and even wizards and dragons appear, of course (it’s still a high fantasy saga), but mostly as supporting characters. You didn’t need a professor to explain the plot to you. You could relate to the heroes. No one had seen anything like this before.

Legacy of the Lord of the Rings

There wouldn’t be any Harry Potter without The Hobbit and LOTR. The Star Wars Saga, Game of Thrones, modern Disney, Pixar and even the 23+ movie spanning Marvel Cinematic Universe owe a huge debt to Tolkien. Name any memorable work of fantasy or space opera, and you’ll find roots buried deep in Middle Earth.

Tolkien – the LOTR author’s biographical movie

Okay. So, I just went off on a long, rambling tangent, not unlike the super long novel in question, and the great films of Peter Jackson that finally paid justice to the source. But was Tolkien, by itself, a good movie?

Yes, very much yes. You have to be a Middle-Earth fan to appreciate it, but I loved seeing JRR — Ronald to his friends — in his early life, full of experiences that informed his creations. Tolkien has said he “cordially despises allegory in all forms”, but it’s hard not to see Mordor and the works of Sauron in the No Man’s Land of World War 1. Ronald is a sort of proto-Frodo, with a young Sam, in the trench scenes. Flames, ash, and great black clouds recall the fumes of Mount Doom.

I don’t think I’ve ever really understood the horror of The War to End All Wars before. It must have felt like the end of an Age. And in many ways, it was. (Compare: World War 2 offered a modern battle tableau, although it wasn’t long after WW1.)

One movie scene in particular, where Ronald lies unconscious in a hole full of the dead by a pool of noisome toxicity, recalls almost precisely Frodo’s fretful sleep before the Black Gates of Mordor.

Other ways The Lord of the Rings is hinted at in Tolkien

What else? Edith has an otherworldly personality and intellect — clearly the basis of Arwen Evenstar. The ‘Cellar Door’ courting scene is exquisite, and Ronald waited as long for Edith as poor Aragorn did for Arwen.

The pastoral countryside of England is very like The Shire, and Ronald’s passionate literary friends had obvious nods to The Fellowship  of The Ring (as explicitly noted in the trailers).

One of Ronald’s buddies had an immortal line where the audience barked in laughter: “It shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring.”

He was talking about Wagner, but Tolkien must have took that as a personal challenge. I’d love to know if his friend actually said that. (In another note, I did attend a showing of Wagner’s Ring Cycle Opera in Vienna once, and it IS incredibly long. Too long. Especially if you don’t speak German.)

A trip to Oxford, and The Inklings

The Oxford scenes had especial meaning to me, as I lived and worked at Oxford University in a post-college internship, and personally wandered through many on-location settings in the film. It was a vast treat to return there cinematically, making me long for an extended visit these many decades later. I even frequented The Eagle and the Child, a pub where Tolkien and The Inklings — who are fated to only appear after the movie ends — sat and shared literary chapters as they wrote them. It thrilled me to quaff a pint at the same table where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis discussed Lord of the Rings and the Narnia stories, working out the kinks of their epics.

Summarizing Tolkien as a movie experience

So, I’m a total geek with an encyclopedic working knowledge of Tolkien…but I think this biography is accessible to anyone who’s ever read the books or seen Peter Jackson’s movies. I was engaged, moved and thrilled, and though no Hobbits nor Rings of Power appear, Tolkien the film is still a very good time. I’m glad I expanded my horizons enough to look at the author as a real man, and not just a random shadowy figure recording the journeys of Frodo, Gandalf, Strider, Gollum, and Samwise Gamgee.

Grade: A

About The Peetimes: This was a hard movie to find Peetimes for. The movie cuts back and forth between war action, “Fellowship” character building, and important scenes at Oxford University. Both Peetimes center on the romance in Tolkien’s life: while they are nice, they are the least crucial bits building up to Tolkien’s masterpiece. The 2nd Peetime is recommended. Note: There are no Peetimes in the second hour, so plan accordingly.

There are no extra scenes during, or after, the end credits of Tolkien. (What we mean by Anything Extra.)

Rated (PG-13) for some sequences of war violence
Genres: Biography, Drama, War

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Can Dune be done? Should Dune be done? Bringing Long Books to the Screen

herbert sandworm dune
If you walk without rhythm, you won’t attract the worm.

Until the last generation, when Peter Jackson proved The Lord of the Rings could not only be made into a successful film — but be so off-the-charts good that it took home 11 Oscar Awards — it was unheard of to succeed at translating most of the great sci-fi and fantasy epics of literature to the big screen.

That’s not for lack of trying. Larry McMurtry’s  Lonesome Dove book-to-film effort was a grand feat, but it’s the mini-series scale that made it work. The book is too big and involved to be made into one cinema-length film. Nowadays it would be at least a film trilogy, but I don’t think it needs a reboot — the 1989 miniseries is already a flawless snapshot of the last gasps of the Western Expansion. So they could make a new movie with these characters, yes, but I’d say it’s time to move on and  tackle other works of genre literature. (Also, who’s going to try improve on Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval?)

Watership Down is another epic tale in a brick-sized book, but it’s a hard sell, being entirely from the point of view of rabbits. And it’s absolutely not for children: the themes are mature and often mesmerizingly frightening. (The rabbits even have their own word for being stuck in a “mesmerizingly frightened” state — called Tharn –). The 1978 animated feature has its fans, but most people who’ve loved the book pretend the “movie” doesn’t exist. (Seriously, it’s like a long scary drug trip.) Hazel’s troop of rabbits could now be done with puppets, animatronics, or CGI — instead of animation —  but the question here is “Why?” [pullquote]We’ve seen entire CGI movies like Avatar, and they can be lush and sweeping films, but it still remains that Watership Down must be seen at rabbit-height and from rabbit-eyes. [/pullquote]It would take a very special studio or director to take that on. This is probably why nobody is chasing this particular story at the moment.

Here’s a full length video of Watership Down, if you’re curious:

In  the Post-LOTR and Harry Potter world,  the densest, longest, and most involving books can come alive on film…with inspired directing, gobs of studio money (and little studio interference), the right acting ensemble, and legions of dedicated crew members. Not to mention a crack PR team dropping hints and teaser trailers to excite the fans. (See: anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

The key to adapting epic novels to the big screen, it seems, is respecting the source story. Behind the sets, Sir Ian McKellen (as Gandalf) would pace around Peter Jackson with this LOTR novels, saying, essentially, “Peter!That’s not how Tolkien wrote it!” This is probably one of the many interconnected reasons why Lord of the Rings, previously considered unfilmable, worked so well.

[pullquote position=”right”]It’s not that a script can’t deviate from a source, but the result should clearly be recognizable from it. Book fans will be waiting for certain beats, beloved details, fantastic settings worthy of a grand story, and most of all: a faithfulness of essence to its literary origins.[/pullquote]

There’s a line between slavishly book-faithful recreations (as in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), and movies that recalls its novel by name only (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, AKA Blade Runner, or Lynch’s Dune).

So, yes, finally. We get to Dune. It’s been tackled several times, although none were recent enough to benefit from the current seamless FX at our disposal. (Which doesn’t excuse anything at all. Look back on the practical effects of Star Wars: A New Hope, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and tell me those films failed — they don’t.)

david lynch dune
Lynch’s Dune – looks good, tastes bad.

Lynch’s 1984 Dune remains a problem, and its not from poor effects. It’s mainly that Lynch took Herbert’s book, tore a few pages he liked from it, and threw away the rest. It’s only “Dune” because the characters have the same names, there are Fremen and there are Sandworms, and Arrakis, the desert planet, is still called Dune. Otherwise, it’s a sprawling, sometimes grotesque mess, bearing little likeness to the story they aim to tell. I admit they got to the story’s conclusion just fine, but the path to get there was completely unorthodox. I know Lynch’s Dune has its fans, so I’ll let it lie.

scy fy dune
SyFy gives Dune a try. Definitely more Herbert, but definitely still wrong.

When SyFy made Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) into a television miniseries, you can see there were many attempts made to be faithful to the book…but Sy Fy also took liberties in the telling. The main arguments I’ve heard seem to coalesce around the casting, that the actors didn’t look like the part, or didn’t act like the part. I’d say in both versions they got Jessica right, and Chani, and Irulan, for that matter, but the men’s roles are hit or miss. I think they got a lot more right than wrong, and crafted a personable, sensible, enjoyable tale without a whisper of heart plugs.

In my grading system, I’d give Lynch’s Dune a D+. (While I thought it was overall atrocious, he got a few things right, and that’s where the + comes in.) I’d give SyFy’s Dune a nice fair B score. It crumples a little as time marches on, but at least it’s recognizably Dune. SyFy even went on to combine Dune Messiah and Children of Dune as a second mini-series, which was ambitious, welcome, and mostly effective.  That one gets a B as well; maybe a   B+ — I’d have to see it again.

jodorowksy dune
Jodorosky’s Dune. Third time’s a charm?

A lot of people mention Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), which isn’t actually a movie. It’s more like an appetizer for a film, or a promise of Dune. You can watch the movie-length documentary for $3 on Amazon, or check out the free trailers on IMDb. However, if you watch the video, you can’t help but notice that it’s even stranger than Lynch’s version. There’s a lot of people who want to see this one picked up by the studios, but I’m not one of them. I want to see the story the way Herbert saw it in his mind’s eye.

The time is right to try Dune again, using a well-funded production studio, a director who is comfortable with an epic scale,  and detailed sets in grand desert locations. I want to see world-building. Toss in some smart humor, dynamic ensemble casting, and of course, magnificent sandworms: make me long to be a rider. [pullquote position=”left”]The movie should be a visual delight, engulfing the audience so much you’ll think you can smell the sietches, taste the spice, and feel the grit of sand, sand, sand.[/pullquote]

So, it’s exciting news that director Denis Villeneuve plans to try his hand at a multi-film Dune. He says he hopes to make Dune into the Star Wars movie he never saw. “Most of the main ideas of Star Wars are coming from Dune, so it’s going to be a challenge to [tackle] this,” Villeneuve said. “In a way, it’s Star Wars for adults. We’ll see.” (Read the Dune News page on IMDb.)

It ‘s a promising start. We’ll record the news for this Dune project as it comes along.

While you wait for the right version of Dune to thrill you, entertain yourself with Fatboy Slim’s song Weapon of Choice. The lyrics are definitely Dune-inspired, even if the setting isn’t. But watching Christopher Walken putzing  around an empty hotel is a whole lot of awesome by itself…

Which version of Dune is your favorite? Do you think it will be done right by Villeneuve?