Origins of Mordor: Tolkien

Tolk2Films are not the place to look for facts or cold hard Truth. Films prefer to smooth things out, preferably with a happy ending, or certainly something life affirming. Always take a biography on film with a pinch of salt. But there is always something enticing about the ideal pictures that films paint, something seductive.

On paper, a biography of JRR Tolkien seems the unlikeliest of subjects for a film. Tolkien was, as far as I know, a very traditional Englishman a world apart from those we consider ourselves to be today, a wholly different generation that possibly ended with the Great War. Fascinated by language, mythology and history, an Oxford scholar quite averse to celebrity or wealth – and likely quite ignorant of the Hollywood machine that turned his most popular works into something else entirely, making billions of dollars and earning Oscars and fabulous wealth for those involved. One has to wonder what he would have thought of the hugely successful LOTR trilogy; he may have been ruefully chagrined by the whole spectacle, and as someone who read the books in the 1970’s, I can sympathise with those that feel the films woefully inappropriate. A LOTR trilogy close to Tolkien’s original vision might be the biggest and most elaborate arthouse movies ever made, far removed from the popular-culture films Peter Jackson produced. Something more Boorman (Excalibur) than Jackson, I think.

Tolk1The narrative of Tolkien is rather mundane, if understandably so- its a dramatisation of Tolkien’s early life, from his orphaned childhood to later years at college, and the narrative is how his experiences and friendships over those years, and his experiences on the battlefield of the Somme during WWI, informed his later creations of Middle Earth and the saga of the Ring, images of which are scattered throughout the film.

I suspect some liberties may have been taken. The film has the feel of… well, I’ve raised this before regards films based on true events or life stories: in making a dramatic work, you can’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Tolkien’s biography does have elements of the remarkable to it, and there is no doubt that his harrowing experiences of the Great War and the loss of his friends had a huge effect on what he later wrote in his stories. It is perhaps inevitable that the wholesome, Sunday-afternoon matinee movie feel of the film is perpetuates through the war sequences which are suggestive rather than as graphic as they might have been, the whole film perpetuating a very mild matinee sheen. I’m thinking, Downton Abbey. Maybe that’s inevitable, it seems that’s how the outside world thinks we lived in the past, our own equivalent of the Hollywood Wild West.

The film is heartfelt and well-intentioned, but lacks the darkness that I think really infected Tolkien’s actual work. In the tradition of Downton Abbey, everyone seems handsome or gorgeous or noble or good or combinations thereof, almost as if we are seeing an inspirational ideal rather than the possible reality that Tolkien lived, something that unfortunately reduces Edith to an underwritten love-interest. Its all harmless and entertaining but lacks any genuine surprises and any drama feels idealised, or distant. Its a harmless film, really.

Of Hungry Games and Un-Tolkien Hobbits

catchingfireWatched Catching Fire the other day, the second of the Hunger Games series of films (of which there will be four, I believe). Good film, mind, but I have to say I’m getting increasingly irritated by all these movie series. Its as if a series box-set mania has settled over Hollywood of late. I guess it was inevitable, considering the ‘safety-net’ of sequels and how they almost sell themselves.

We decided to watch the first film, The Hunger Games, the night before, to refresh our memory having not seen it for, what, a year or two? Just as well, because it improved being able to follow events/characters in the second film no end. I have no idea of what the original books are like, or what happens in them. The films seem to be quite good and I assume fairly faithful to the books. Seems the third book is being split into two films though, which is rather irritating- we get the third film November 2014 and the third November 2015? So those of us who avoid the cinema like the plague will have to wait for disc releases each following Spring. Does the third book warrant this two-part treatment, or is it a financial decision to maximise box-office and disc sales? Ignorant of the texts, I really don’t know. Harry Potter did it. The Hobbit is notorious for it, going for three.

Serials/mini-series on television have a key advantage over movies in that they can spread a story/book over several hours, and have more in-depth characterisation and narrative/plot than can be condensed into an ordinary two-hour movie. Of course, you also usually only have to wait a week for succeeding chapters/parts, whereas transferring the positives of the serial format into the movie-arena proves somewhat problematic with annual or bi-annual breaks between parts. Re-watching Catching Fire the other night with the in-laws was a telling experience, with my mother-in-law sighing “oh, no…!” when she realised that yes, the film after two-plus hours was indeed ending on this almighty cliffhanger with a year-long wait to see what happens next. Its frustrating (the cliffhanger highly reminiscent of that of Matrix Reloaded, but at least being shot back-to-back the Matrix 2 & 3 only had a six-month break between them).

I’m sure The Hunger Games Quartet box-set (or whatever its called when its released in 2016) will be a great watch for those new to the Hunger Games series- it would be nice to watch each film over successive nights/weeks and get the whole story to its conclusion in good time. Indeed I’ve recommended a friend at work to perhaps simply wait for the boxset and watch them then. But for those of us watching them right now its very irritating. I remember when you sat down to watch a film knowing it would have a definitive end, it seems a long time ago. All the super-hero films being inter-connected have the feeling of being teasers for further instalments.

smaug1Of course some films feel like they might never end, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, ostensibly based on  a rather short and simple book, transferred to film seems to be a bloated middle section of an epic without end. Complaints that the first film took a long time to get started seem to have been heeded by the film-makers, but this turns out, oddly enough, to be at the detriment of the second film, as it now just seems to race from one set-piece to another. The character-building of the first film seems to have been ditched entirely (perhaps rectified when the extended edition arrives in the Autumn?), instead new characters are thrown in proving more an irritating distraction from the guys we should be rooting for. And the troop of dwarves here are very inferior to the fellowship of the Rings films- whether this is the casting or the script I don’t know, but I think the blame chiefly lies with the skimpy source. The depth frankly isn’t there compared to the characters of the Rings trilogy- indeed  The Hobbit series seems to be proving woefully weak compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, clearly without the substance of source to carry a huge trilogy of films.  The Hobbit book itself was never an epic; it was an intimate, charming children’s fantasy book and re-fashioning it into this huge sprawling complex narrative is doing it a disservice. And the ending of this film is even worse than that of Catching Fire. My brother saw this at the cinema and told me there was a collective groan of disbelief/frustration/weariness amongst the cinema goers at the films denouement. It doesn’t get any better when watching it at home.

Of course no doubt many are lapping this Hobbit stuff  up- I have seen several reviews declaring DOS  better than the first film. Well, the first film was flawed but anyone stating this film is superior is patently wrong; its simply an OTT effects showcase (and oddly those are somewhat dodgy effects in places), lurching from set-piece to set-piece with interminably long action sequences that are rather clumsily staged. The really sad bit comes when these action sequences are compared to those of the original LOTR films. Compare the barrel escape and subsequent chase/fight down the river in DOS to the fight sequence with Boromir and co. at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring- its like they are staged and shot by different film-makers. There’s simply far too much don’t-I-look-cool posing and over-thought doesn’t-it-look-cool fight choreography. Rather than just keep it simple and fairly realistic we are (just as with the chase in the Goblin King’s Halls in the first film) thrown into something reminiscent of a video-game. There is a substance lacking here, its just cgi bells and whistles to impress. Yet, many do indeed lap this stuff up. Me, I’m waiting for it to stop, but when it does, I’m then being bored/irritated by some ill-thought romance between a frustrated Wood-Elf and a Dwarf- hardly the stuff of Tolkien is it? Just how much of the actual Hobbit book is in this film anyway?

One of the things I loved about the Rings films was the incidental detail- fallen idols, ancient ruins, hints of a rich and largely unmentioned past that lent the setting a verisimilitude that gave the whole thing a gravity and drama. The Hobbit films don’t seem to have that. Yes, it looks gorgeous but it seems to lack any of the the depth of the Rings films. Perhaps it is something the extended versions will comparatively excel at.

I’m rather of the opinion that The Hunger Games films are superior films/book adaptations to The Hobbit films. I wouldn’t have expected that, to be honest, after enjoying the LOTR films so much. Its a pity, and I really think that the root cause is not being faithful to the material. The Hobbit could have been one movie, maybe two films at most. This trilogy nonsense seems more about making money than anything else- perhaps the third film will come good and prove me wrong, justifying this trilogy approach after all. Time will tell.


One last thing- a nod to my work colleague Steve who, having realised he’d somehow ordered two copies of this film on Blu-ray in error, simply gave his extra copy to me. I’d intended to wait for the extended version this Autumn but his generosity enabled me to see the film much earlier than intended. Cheers Steve! 

The Hildebrandt Tolkien

BHCVRSMALLI think it must have been back in 1980 when I bought this artbook of the paintings of The Brothers Hildebrandt. I knew of them from the glorious Star Wars painting that they did a few years before- Luke and Leia may not have really looked in the movie anything like how they looked in that painting (I recall something about Carrie Fisher mocking it or being embarrassed about it at the time), but goodness it was a gorgeous painting. I had a print of it up on my bedroom wall, and years later when in sixth form,  when I was given an art project to do a self-portrait, I painted the Hildebrandt Star Wars poster with me in Luke Skywalker’s place. One day if ever I find that painting (its around here somewhere) I’ll take a photo of it to give you all something to laugh at. But yeah, I loved that poster of theirs, such an iconic work of art. It kind of captured my childhood image of Star Wars, something the films could never really live up to, but only art could (or the wonderful soundtrack score, which I had on cassette for my 12th birthday).  It’s very 1970s, very colourful, bright, very Disco. It’s gorgeous.  Its the definitive Star Wars image as seen through the lens of my Childs Eye of the time. I don’t know how true it is, but it was said that they painted that Star Wars poster in just 36 hours. Good grief.

If I remember UNI8100B.tifcorrectly, I bought the ‘Art of The Brothers Hildebrandt’ around the same time I bought one of the Ballantine artbooks that collected Frank Frazetta paintings. Such collections were quite popular at the time and were feasts for my eyes. The Hildebrandt book was really mouth-watering, as it featured a wide variety of their paintings but most importantly several of the paintings for their Tolkien calendars. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was their three Tolkien calendars that ‘put them on the map’ so to speak, made them hugely famous (and rich, possibly, but that I don’t really know), and led to that iconic Star Wars poster that I so loved.

The Brothers Hildebrandt – Greg and Tim Hildebrandt- were twins; it was said back then that their work was so alike that you could not tell where ones brush stokes ended and the others’ began. This was just publicity nonsense, as it turned out, but it was taken as fact for many years. The fact that the two bearded twins -they always looked like wild hippies to me in pictures-could create such remarkable artwork so seamlessly together was something that fascinated me. Usually artists styles were so very different -at school the drawings and paintings my mates and I did looked so very different to each others, it would be impossible for any of us to work together on a painting. I could not imagine how two people could work on a painting like the Brothers Hildebrandt did. They were twins, they were great artists, they worked together- it seemed the stuff of magic. I notice I write in the past tense; one of the brothers, Tim, died in 2006. Greg still paints, far as I know (he must be in his early or mid-seventies now) but the Brothers Hildebrandt are no more.

BHLOTRCVRRecently I came across this amazing  book, ‘The Tolkien Years of the Brothers Hildebrandt’  which as its title suggests collects all of the paintings from those three calendars with lots of preliminary artwork, sketches and photos the artists took for reference. It’s a wonderful book.  As I never had any of the actual Tolkien calendars, the only paintings from those calendars I had were in that original artbook published in 1979, so there are many paintings in this book that are new to me. It is especially interesting to see these paintings in light of the Peter Jackson films that came out several years ago (indeed, I believe this new edition of this book was issued to tie-in with the release of The Hobbit movie). The paintings by the Hildebrandt brothers show a very, well, 1970s vision of LOTR, a richly-coloured, fairy-tale vision quite at odds with the toned-down, rather realistic approach that the movies took. It would be erroneous of me to suggest that they are closer to the true ‘vision’ of Tolkien, but I do feel that they capture a magical, bold, colourful LOTR that the films failed to. These are more Classical, almost medieval images, more akin to the Golden Age of Disney Animation than the films that Peter Jackson made. There is much of the original Disney Snow White movie, and Pinnochio and the  Fantasia film, in these paintings. Much of this was intentional, as that was the style they were aiming for.  To be honest, when I looked at those paintings back in 1980, it was a time that the LOTR books were still unfilmable- the images could only possibly exist in painted form, as the technology simply was not there to make a ‘proper’ LOTR film. Even those wizards of ILM would be unable to bring it to life in any way like the Hildebrandt paintings did.


The painting above, of Eowyn fighting the Nazgul,  was always one of my favourites of the Tolkien paintings the Hildebrandt brothers did. Something about it was utterly arresting. Somehow it always seemed to capture the fantastic nature of the Tolkien books, the way the artists captured the play of the light, how it symbolised the goodness and purity of Eowyn against the depravity of the agent of Mordor. I used to look at that painting and imagine it coming to life, like a movie in my head. The actual movies wouldn’t come until a quarter-century later, and even then they could never quite capture the magic of the Hildebrandt paintings.

BHLOTR6 There is a wonderful timelessness and sense of Classical Reality to the best of the Hildebrandt Tolkien art. Larger than life, utterly fantastic. Golden shafts of light, Godlike- almost Bibilical indeed. The figures were realistic (the brothers worked from photos they took of family and friends posing to match preliminary sketches) but the magical play of light, and the rich golden colours, the deep, velvety blues, all worked to create a playful, almost hypnotic fairy-tale aspect to the paintings. A fantastic reality perhaps. Or Disney for grown-ups.  I don’t know; it just seemed that no-one could quite capture that golden, fantastic light like the Hildebrandts did. It was totally at odds with the grim, brutal art that Frank Frazetta had created for the REH covers.  Not better, necessarily – certainly I doubt for all their ability the twins could have matched Frazetta’s REH stuff but likewise I doubt that Frazetta could have pictured Tolkien as well as they. One was fantasy, the other Sword & Sorcery. bhlotr5I rather think that Peter Jackson’s movies made a deliberate decision to meld the two approaches, funnily enough. I would love to have seen LOTR movies that looked as fantastic and colourful as the Hildebrant paintings. Maybe they would have looked camp and silly and have been laughed at by Joe Public, but goodness what amazing movies they might have been.

The Tolkien Years of the Brothers Hildebrandt’ is a fantastic book. With commentary by Gregory Hildebrandt Jr, who was five back when the first paintings were created in 1975 and was the reference for the Hobbits featured in them, the book is full of nice anecdotes and wonderful sketches and photographs. The sketches in particular are so detailed and wonderfully drawn, some of them are better than the paintings. Its all a fine insight into the creative process of those works of art.  The book can be easily purchased on Amazon, and is worth every penny.  I do find it interesting, albeit likely totally coincidental, that the recent first film of The Hobbit trilogy seemed to have a bit of that certain fairy-tale, golden light in its cinematography, which reminded me of the Hildebrandt touch when I saw it at the cinema.






The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

hobbit1When I first heard that Peter Jackson was turning The Hobbit into two movies, knowing how ‘complete’ the extended LOTR films were, I figured maybe it made some sense somehow. But the news that it had since been decided to mutate it into a trilogy of films made me fear the worst. Having now seen The Hobbit, I have to say my fears have been realised. Because this film is not The Hobbit. You could tell The Hobbit in a three-hour movie easily enough, and God knows this long movie is already just shy of three hours, but Jackson isn’t telling us The Hobbit‘s story here.  It’s The Hobbit with lots of LOTR prequel stuff thrown in that is simply unnecessary; so many times during this movie I kept on thinking, ‘hang on, what’s this doing here?’. I know many Tolkien die-hards despise the LOTR films, and can only imagine how much those guys must hate what has been done with The Hobbit. Over the course of three films when watched on disc in four years time as a box set, this may make some sense but Jackson is fooling no-one here if he’s trying to convince us this is an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Liberties are being taken here. Whether its about giving us more Tolkien or fleecing us for more ticket sales/blu-ray disc releases we’ll just have to wait and see.

There is much to admire in the film. I loved the colour palette, deep reds and golds that reminded me of those wonderful Tolkien calenders the brothers Hildebrandt created in the 1970s. In that respect the film has a ‘look’ perhaps more faithful to the original Tolkien than the LOTR films did with their own muted palette. Martin Freeman is a very fine Bilbo, lending a surprising gravatas to the part. Gollum is always a marvel. You get the feeling McKellen could do Gandalf in his sleep, he’s so perfect as the wizard.

But its a long, long film, and much of the film is simply a collection of the very worst excesses of the LOTR films. The worst CGI tomfoolery of Fellowship‘s Moria is exaggerated during the escape from the goblin kings lair into a videogame platform-game sequence, more Nintendo Super Mario than Tolkien.  When said Goblin King turns up on the bridge to block the escape in a weird reversal of Fellowship‘s  Balrog moment, well, a feeling that I was watching a LOTR compendium surfaced and not for the first time.

Related to the wildly OTT CGI, impossible virtual-camera moves racing down vast canyons and spinning around characters and set-pieces in long single shots just irritate me and take me out of the film. Even in a fantasy move there has to be some grounding of reality? Characters plunge down abyssal falls and rise without hardly a bruise or scratch. Its all very reminiscent of the worse excesses of Jacksons King Kong remake where you could sense he didn’t know when to hold back. Which raises the question- flawed as they may have been, were the LOTR films a lucky accident, in the sense that, like the original Star Wars trilogy, fx limitations actually made them better movies?

(And forgive me for being mildly pedantic, but internal logic begins to stretch credibility- excuse a mild spoiler here by skipping to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film yet, but….  at the close of the film our heroes have been rescued, in yet another verbatim reprise of a LOTR moment, by giant eagles who promptly drop our heroes off on a high hill overlooking the remaining long and dangerous trek ahead of them. The question is therefore raised but not answered- why not simply ask the eagles to fly them the rest of the way and get us to the third film already? I mean, there’s still two more films to go. )

I realise I sound very critical of the film. I did quite enjoy it; I certainly enjoyed retuning to Middle Earth, seeing familiar faces, hearing Shore’s familiar score. But it does seem very… well, self-indulgent, as if editing has become a lost art, replaced by wild excess. You can imagine the execs, still flush with the success of the LOTR films, being unable to say no to Jackson’s every whim.

Walking out of the cinema I remarked to my wife; “well, at nearly three hours already, at least there shouldn’t be any extended version this time.”  Wrong, of course. Warners have since announced an intent to release the theatrical cut on disc in May with an extended cut next Autumn prior to the second film.  Well I guess that’s my question answered at the start of all this regards getting fleeced or not.