The Lord of the Rings in Film History

Yes, of course, I went to the first showing of Return of the King in my area, which was a 10:50am showing Wednesday morning. Theoretically I could have driven to the other side of Dayton and caught it at 12:01am, but I guess I’m not a true fan, since convenience really is a dividing line for me. Nevertheless, I’ve seen it, and this weekend I’ll probably see it again, this time with Krissy. I’ll avoid posting a review, as I’ve nothing particularly new to add to the general swelling of approval, other than to note it’s largely correct. However, I would like to talk about some of the commentary surrounding the release of King.

Critics are falling over themselves trying to express their desire to crown the Lord of the Rings films with some “greatest of all time” accolade (with the notable exception of Roger Ebert, who for some unfathomable reason has never warmed to these films beyond praise for their technical accomplishments). So far, I’ve read “Greatest Film Trilogy Ever,” “Greatest American Film Trilogy Ever” (ironic considering the total New Zealand-ness of the production in every sense but the cash), “Greatest Hollywood Trilogy Ever” (more accurate), “Greatest Film Event of the Century and/or Millennium,” (pointless — it’s 2003, people), “Greatest Filmed Work of Fantasy,” “Greatest Fantasy Trilogy,” and, from some particularly frothy quarters, “Best. Film. Ever.” — although whether this refers to King or the whole Rings cycle as a whole is unclear.

Well. Even taking the trilogy as a whole, it’s not the best film ever, so let’s be clear on that right out. Anyone who makes that argument is going to get beat over the head with everything from Citizen Kane to The Godfather to Battleship Potemkin to The Bicycle Thief. Speaking as someone with now more than a dozen years of pro film critiquing experience, I’d suggest we all recognize that the quest for the “Greatest Film Ever” is a futile one — after a century of film, there’s too much of it to pretend that one beats the rest.

If you put a gun to my head, I’ll suggest to you that Citizen Kane is probably the most significant film in film history — it stands at a pivot point in film history where it successfully recapitulates most of the highlights of film theory to that point, while laying the groundwork for a lot of technical innovation, and is a curious marriage of the fabled studio system and an indie ethos (25-year-old director with total creative control, don’t you know). But that’s not the same as “The Best.” So let’s throw that out.

Is it (“it” being the entire Rings series) the best fantasy film? Again, it’s not especially clear: If you don’t narrowly define “fantasy” as “them films what got dragons,” I bet you film historians would toss a few worthy contenders your way, starting with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and then continuing on through King Kong (A remake of which Peter Jackson will attempt next) Snow White, The Wizard of Oz, 2001, and of course Star Wars and ET both.

If again we dispense with “best” and go with “significant,” it’s hard to argue against Star Wars in favor of Rings. Indeed, there is direct cinematic lineage from the former to the latter; had someone gone back in time and hit George Lucas with a truck in 1975, it’s deeply questionable whether special effects technology — the critical technical component in realizing the Rings films affordably — would be at a point today where these films could have been made. Without Star Wars, we might have seen Fellowship of the Ring in 2010, if at all (True, if someone killed Lucas in 1975, we wouldn’t have been confronted with The Phantom Menace. But let’s not think about that now).

Best trilogy? Film geeks will argue Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy is better, and how are you going to argue? You spend much time watching Indian films from the 1950s? More recently in the time stream, fans of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski will offer you his “Three Colors” trilogy of films. We finally get on safe ground with “best Hollywood trilogy,” but let’s concede it’s faint praise, because there are no other Hollywood trilogies of comparable quality — none even in the same ballpark. Film buffs tout the Godfather films, but let’s be clear about the Godfather films: They’re not a trilogy. There are two Godfather films which are of a piece, and which between them constitute the high-water mark of late 20th Century American Film, and then there’s the tacked-on-16-years-later-because-Coppola’s-short-on-cash addendum of Godfather, Part III. Everyone knows this, so let’s not all pretend the Godfathers come into the discussion here. Honestly. We’ll all feel better for letting the lie perish here.

Tossing aside Godfather, we’re on pretty thin ground for fabulous Hollywood trilogies. This is entirely to be expected. Hollywood doesn’t make trilogies because stories need to be carried over three films. Hollywood makes trilogies because film number one hit big and the studio wants to crank up the money machine. Hollywood Film Trilogies, almost by definition, are not creatively necessary, merely financially desirable. In the history of film, Rings is very nearly unique because it was conceived as a trilogy — it was understood going into the production that the arc of the story would take three films. Comparing this intentional trilogy to other, basically unintentional film trilogies is comparing apples to oranges.

To make a fair comparison, you have to consider other film trilogies conceived as film trilogies, and off the top of my head, the only other Hollywood film trilogy where I know that was a consideration from the start is Lucas’ current Star Wars trilogy. No one in his or her right mind considers these films the equal of the Rings films, aside from the visual production qualities, and it’s is not complete in any event (Going back to Krzysztof Kieslowski, his “Three Colors” trilogy was envisioned as a trilogy, but it’s not a Hollywood production, and the film stories themselves are not linked aside from a general theme). Until 2005, at least, Rings is literally sui generis.

Indeed, even thinking of Rings as a trilogy is fraught with danger. The Lord of the Rings was famously chopped up into three books by publishers, not by Tolkien himself; likewise, the film Rings is one story and ultimately one film — filmed in one go save for pick-ups and effects shots — which had to be released in three installments almost entirely for logistical and commercial purposes. In theory, had New Line and Peter Jackson been insane enough to do so, Rings could have been released in one gaspingly huge 14-hour lump. Those of us who do not actually believe we are Arwen or Aragorn thank them both for their more measured release schedule, but nevertheless the fact remains: Ring is of a single piece.

And thus we come to it at last, what Rings inarguably represents: The single greatest sustained effort in the history of commercial cinema. There have been other long-form films, of course, and even great ones — Abel Gance’s Napoleon comes to find immediately, as does Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah – but none of them come close to the scale of the Rings, either onscreen or offscreen, and none of them show the attention to detail in the machinery of filmmaking, from script and story to production design and direction, that Rings provides. Likewise, there have been films which have incubated over a period of time as long as these films have (seven years and counting, since there’s still an Extended Edition of King to be slapped onto DVD, which requires more effects shots, editing and scoring), but never ones so active, so consistent and over so long, turning out a finished film of such high quality.

On these terms, Rings is as good as it’s ever been, and quite honestly it’s difficult to see how anyone could do it as well. It’s not to say that people won’t try. They’re trying even now: You’ve got the new Star Wars films (which, to be fair to Lucas, were begun prior to the start of Ring), and in the last year we saw the back-to-back single story effort that was Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions (a film which, taken singly and doubly, I think is somewhat unjustly maligned, primarily because people wanted them to provide an ontological platform for their lives, but the Wachowski brothers just wanted to make a live-action anime flick. Their reputation will improve over time). You can also argue that the Harry Potter films are basically one non-stop production. Then there’s Kill Bill, which really was a single film that was chopped (heh) into two.

I think you’ll see more of this thing in the future, first because Rings showed it could be done, and second for the purely practical reason that if you’re a studio and you intend to make a franchise out of something, it may simply be cheaper to make two or more films at the same time (pooling the cost of the below-the-line production costs) than to make one film now and one film later. To go back to the Matrix sequels, Revolutions has done less than half the business of Reloaded, but as the films were budgeted as a single shoot — and that cost was recouped with Reloaded’s box office take — the box office of Revolutions is basically pure gravy.

Also, now that movie studios know that audiences will stick with a multipart story over the space of several years, they may be more willing to risk doing two or three-part films, released in (relatively) rapid sequence. For example, I’d be willing to bet some (small) amount of money that when Warner Bros. gets to filming the fourth or fifth Harry Potter films, it may opt to make two films out of one or both, simply because the novels upon which they’re based are so damn long. If they do — and the gamble works — then all bets are off and we’ll see a lot more multi-part films. The miniseries, which died on TV, may make a comeback on the movie screen.

But again, it’s difficult to see how any of these efforts could top Rings, which represented a perfect storm of talent, source material, real-world timing and (let’s not discount this) novelty. It’s a landmark.

I was going to chat a little about my thoughts on Tolkien’s books as source material and how they relate to making a really excellent movie, but I’ve already gone waaaaaay long, so I’ll save that for a future post. But I’ll tantalize you with this much. It’s my belief that the Rings movies are better as movies than the Rings books are as books.

Ha! A cliffhanger for y’all!

Update: See the exciting conclusion here.