Of Thrones and Rings and Seeing the Vision

June 22, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

Midnight on December 19, 2001. Having missed the press screening due to a clerical error on the part of New Line Cinema, I was waiting impatiently for the movie to start while lounging in a seat near the back of my then-local theater. The seats weren't the most comfortable but it was THX-approved, or so the plaque near the entrance claimed. That meant a lot more in 2001, when movies were still shown on celluloid rather than projected digitally, than it does in today's digital era.

The film was, of course, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, arguably the most anticipated big-screen fantasy offering of all-time. J.R.R. Tolkien's three-tome series had become the template for all epic fantasy tales to come and the underlying backbone for D&D (and other fantasy RPGs). This represented the perfect opportunity to allow fantasy to escape the ignominy of being science fiction's ugly little brother, although it wasn't the first time The Lord of the Rings had been adapted. The BBC had developed a remarkable audio version and, between them, Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass had covered a majority of the three books' territory in animated form. Most fans would prefer to forget about the Bakshi film, which encapsulated The Fellowship of the Ring and part of The Two Towers before running out of money. The Rankin-Bass version of The Return of the King, patterned after the more successful The Hobbit, was an unmitigated disaster. It escaped the attention of the producers that The Lord of the Rings was more serious than The Hobbit and should not be filled with cheesy cartoon characters and silly songs. (All together now: "The end of the ring...the return of the king!")

On that late night of December 18/19, I was not aquiver with anticipation, although the guy in the Gandalf costume sitting across the aisle was. But I was more excited than I typically am for a movie. It was more the feeling I had for Star Trek VI than Star Trek II. I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1978 at the age of 11. It was not my introduction to fantasy (I had already sampled Robert E. Howard's Conan stories and read some lighter tales, including Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain) but it was my first immersive experience in something long and primarily adult. It opened the door for me to read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, which I started after a hearty recommendation from my seventh grade English teacher.

If not for the New Line snafu, I would have seen The Fellowship of the Ring a week earlier in the middle of the day. No harm, no foul, however - although I will admit that staying alert until 5 a.m. was a challenge. (The movie finished around 3:00; I got home at 3:30; the review took about 90 minutes to write, edit, and post.) As soon as The Fellowship of the Ring was over, I wanted to see The Two Towers. Waiting a year seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. The sense of impatience and anticipation repeated itself twice more: in December 2002 and December 2003. When it was all over, I felt satisfied. Peter Jackson had satiated the hunger for genuine, adult, live-action, big-screen fantasy. Not to dismiss Harry Potter, which I enjoy on its own merits, but that seemed a minor league alternative to The Lord of the Rings.

At the time The Fellowship of the Ring was reaching theaters, I was reading the first volume of what was (at the time) a three novel fantasy epic called A Song of Ice and Fire. I was unfamiliar with the author, George R.R. Martin, but the richness and complexity of the story, captured my attention. When I reached the end of A Storm of Swords (whose length played in the War and Peace range), I was mildly disappointed, having believed that A Song of Ice and Fire was a trilogy. Then I read somewhere that Martin was angling for a seven-book series. Visions of Robert Jordan swam in my head. Ten years later, Martin has released only two more books (including the one due out next month). One hopes that, unlike Jordan, he'll manage to finish his saga before departing this world.

In 2001, it seemed inconceivable that a movie version of Game of Thrones (the title of the first book) would ever be produced. It was far too complicated for even a three-hour treatment and fantasy was generally viewed as box office poison. The Lord of the Rings changed the second part of the equation and HBO's thirst for compelling genre properties altered the first part. Game of Thrones arrived not in movie form but as a mini-series. With about ten hours to play with, the screenwriters were able to incorporate nearly all of the contortions of the novel into the adaptation, which is faithful almost to the point of slavishness (Martin scripted only one of the ten episodes, but he might as well have written all of them).

I loved Game of Thrones (the book). I merely liked Game of Thrones (the mini-series). I have no insightful or probing criticism to offer: the production values are excellent, the acting is top-notch, the pacing is superb, the plot is deliciously complex. Yet I wasn't blown away. I didn't eagerly anticipate the arrival of each new episode (in fact, on several occasions, I was days late watching). Why? What was the problem? I have given a lot of thought to the question, trying to figure out why this series didn't grab me by the throat, and why I can wait twelve months for A Clash of Kings in relative comfort.

The easy answer is that I knew the story. There were no surprises. Watching Game of Thrones was an exercise in seeing how the filmmakers' interpretation differed from the images I built in my mind while reading the novel. With deviations few and far between, there was nothing "new." But there's a problem with that explanation, because I read The Lord of the Rings several times before 2001 and that in no way diminished my enjoyment of the movies. The truth must lie at a deeper level.

For me, it comes down to vision and presentation. When adapting The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson and his collaborators approached the subject matter from the perspective of a fan, but not with undue reverence. They did not view Tolkien's words as gospel. They used the novels as a framework around which to build three movies. They remained faithful to the spirit and the thrust of the storyline but changed the particulars to create something that (in their opinion) was more cinematic. One of my strongest complaints about the first two Harry Potter movies was that they followed the books too closely, giving little consideration to the differences that exist between the written medium and the visual one. The most vocal group of Jackson's detractors lambasted The Lord of the Rings because it was not sufficiently faithful. To me, however, this was a near-perfect translation of the story I loved as a child, re-invigorated and given new life on a big screen. It didn't matter that I knew how it was all going to end because, in the Middle Earth created by Jackson, those things didn't happen until they were shown on screen. I waited with ill-concealed excitement for the release of The Return of the King not because I wanted to know how it all ended but because I wanted to experience it.

In a recent ReelThoughts, I made disparaging comments about the ongoing value of movie theaters, but it's hard to deny that seeing The Lord of the Rings in a large, well-maintained theater with an energized audience was an experience no home viewing could match. I enjoy The Lord of the Rings on DVD, but the intimacy of watching the trilogy on a 55" HDTV doesn't match the majesty of having the images leap off a 70-foot screen. The spectacle aspect of The Lord of the Rings cries out for theatrical viewing. The movies work on the small screen because they are blessed with a terrific, involving story, but they are at their best in a venue that boasts great sound and a top-of-the-line projection system.

Game of Thrones offers a radically different experience. Like Harry Potter, it takes few liberties with its source material. As such, it lacks a life of its own. Some viewers prefer that; I would have appreciated more spark. The creative team behind Game of Thrones, while doing an excellent job bringing Martin's seven kingdoms to life, lack Jackson's vision. Knowing what came next, while never an impediment to my enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, dampened my enthusiasm for Game of Thrones. I suspect that, had I not read the books, I would have been hooked. It's an excellent narrative well-told by consummate storytellers, but it offers far less to the true fan than Jackson provided in his interpretation of Tolkien.

I worry about The Hobbit - that this is more a case of a movie getting made to fill an obvious gap and a way to uncover a dragon's treasure at the box office. The most worrisome thing about this is the roundabout method that landed Jackson in the director's chair. Will he bring the same passion and vision to The Hobbit that he brought to the original or, like George Lucas, is this something he approaches more as a job than a labor of love? I have no similar concerns about A Clash of Kings, which I believe will equal or exceed Game of Thrones in what it brings to the viewing audience. (The only major question about A Song of Ice and Fire comes down the road. Can Martin stoke the flagging fires of his creativity enough to produce the final two novels in a time period that allows the series to conclude without long interruptions? Fans remember that the fifth book was originally scheduled for 2006 - it's only five years late. Book Six will be needed by 2015 for a 2016 air date and Book Seven by 2016.)

Lest I come across as sounding negative about Game of Thrones, let me conclude by saying that this is a fantasy landmark. Not only does it represent the first time a major network has committed resources of this sort to a fantasy series, but it proves that the genre isn't just for teenage boys. What The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy in movie theaters, Game of Thrones has accomplished on television. It's a proven money-maker and ratings-grabber. And that, more than anything else that happens with these two specific properties, augurs well for the future of the genre across the entire media spectrum.