Amazon Prime’s upcoming The Lord Of The Rings prequel series is thoroughly fascinating and occasionally bewildering: just the other day we discussed the intriguing case of the uncovered audition tapes for the series, which revealed what seemed to be the four leads of the eagerly-anticipated show. Now, a completely new character has popped up out of nowhere! I tell you, it’s been an exhilarating process covering the constant stream of news about this project – and we’re still only in the pre-production stage!
Anyway, we’ve got a new casting announcement, and it’s already been getting a fair bit of attention: Joseph Mawle, an English actor best known for portraying Benjen Stark in just 6 (count ’em, 6) episodes of Game Of Thrones. Benjen was a minor character at best, and never did anything particularly memorable until rescuing Jon Snow from beyond the Wall in the seventh season. And yet this news is, as I said, stirring up the Tolkien community, with even platforms as well respected as The One Ring.net complaining about how the Amazon Prime series is already beginning to turn Lord Of The Rings into a carbon copy of Game Of Thrones, ignoring the wishes of Tolkien purists, etc, etc. I honestly don’t understand how that logic is even supposed to make sense – in my opinion, it would be like saying that Peter Jackson’s trilogy was turning into a carbon copy of Back To The Future Part II when they cast Elijah Wood, simply because Wood happened to have an insignificant role in the latter film (bet you didn’t know that).
Whether or not Amazon Prime is channeling Thrones for this project, let’s consider what we know about Mawle’s casting before jumping to conclusions. According to the trades, Mawle is taking on the role of “Oren”, one of the series’ main villains. Now, let’s face it: Oren, while it’s almost certainly another codename, sounds a good deal like Sauron, and there’s a strong possibility that Mawle will in fact be Amazon Prime’s Dark Lord (I feel like we’ve had this conversation many times already). He is the oldest cast-member to join the show so far, but still has distinctly Elven features, very much in line with men like Hugo Weaving or Lee Pace, who convincingly and brilliantly portrayed Elves in the previous Middle-earth films (and that Elvenesse is something Mawle will need, if he is to play Sauron, who should spend much of his time onscreen disguised as an Elf. Mawle is also a very good actor, which, you know, is also a bonus.
If you want my honest opinion (you probably do, if you’re reading this), I see Mawle as a better choice for the Witch-King of Angmar, whom we should expect to see in the series: with his long, gaunt features and thin frame, the actor seems like he could do a great job portraying the sorcerer in all his ancient, incorruptible glory, before his inevitable downfall into ruin. I mean that as a compliment, by the way.
So what do you think? Is this our Sauron? Or our Witch-King? Or somebody entirely different? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
We’ve all been waiting hungrily for something, anything, to give us a deeper insight into Amazon Prime’s upcoming prequel to The Lord Of The Rings. So, when a bit of news drops that’s actually surprisingly revealing and at the very least full of stuff to talk about, the fact that it gets barely any coverage is…well, disappointing. But don’t fear – I am here, to tell you everything you need to know about the new characters we now know will populate Amazon Prime’s Middle-earth.
We’ve understood for a rather long while that there are four major characters in the series who are going by the codenames Tyra, Eldien, Beldor and Aric. They’re generic fantasy names, and there’s no precedent for any of them in Tolkien’s own writings, so it’s possible (even likely) that they are just codenames, nothing more than that. But for a while, that was all we knew about any of these four leads: basic names that could have come out of any Fantasy Name Generator online. We were able to attach a gender to the name of Tyra, because Australian actress Markella Kavenagh was supposedly in talks to play that character. But now, we have new information about all four, due to some newly uncovered audition tapes for the series.
Before we break them down, remember that these scenes, like the Mirror of Galadriel, could be very unreliable guides. The dialogue being used in these actors’ auditions is complex enough that it could in fact be edited together from an actual version of the show’s script, but don’t count on it: while it might be an indication of the sort of material to expect from the series, it’s highly probable that we never see any of these scenes (or anything even remotely resembling these scenes) in the show – this sort of scene and dialogue is usually expressly written to give the auditioning actor a sense of the character they might be portraying, from personality to manner of speech. For instance, you’ll note that the character of Eldien and Beldor both have the same scene, but with very different dialogue. With all that said, you will join me, with bated breath, as we begin our first deep dive into Amazon Prime’s Middle-earth. The time is sometime in the Second Age, thousands of years before the events of either of Peter Jackson’s trilogies. The setting…well, we’ll discuss that as we go along.
All four audition tapes have been deleted, presumably by Amazon Prime’s bidding, but the wonderful folks over at Redanian Intelligence who uncovered the videos were able to transcribe them before their disappearance (and I was able to watch two of them as well).
The first two videos focused on the character of Tyra: the dialogue indicates that Tyra is an elf, with a compassionate nature, who also seems to be deeply insightful and/or gifted with some powers of foresight. She and another woman are riding in a wagon when they hit a man, who would appear to have been knocked unconscious by the blow: Tyra demands that they stop and help him, while her companion argues that, if they take him back to their home, “anything bad that happens as a result of it will be our fault”. Tyra, however, appears to have won the argument by the time the scene ends. There is one possible clue about the setting of this scene: references to wild bears and snow, which would presumably suggest that Tyra and her friend live somewhere in the forested north of Middle-earth, most likely in the kingdom of Lindon, where Gil-galad ruled the largest contingency of Elven-folk. And that raises an interesting point – who is this man that Tyra and her friend encounter, and what would happen if they brought him back to their home, or village? We know from Tolkien’s own writings that the Dark Lord Sauron entered Lindon in disguise sometime early in the Second Age: could he be this strange man? It seems unusual that he wouldn’t take the form of an Elf, however, when trying to infiltrate an Elven kingdom.
What we gather from this scene is that Tyra and her people are very rural Elves – they drive wagons, they live in a wild, dangerous part of Middle-earth, and, aside from Tyra herself, they appear to be wary and distrustful of strangers.
The second audition tape, also deleted, features Tyra in a different scene: here, she and a girl who is most likely her younger sister, find themselves lost in a dangerous place after an attempt to forage for berries in the woods leads to the girl losing her doll and straying away from Tyra’s care. It’s a sweet little scene, and it shows Tyra taking the lead in a difficult situation.
Again, the scene suggests a rural, woodsy setting. If I had to guess, I’d say Tyra is almost certainly a Silvan Elf, more akin to the Wood Elves of Mirkwood than the High Elves of the West. None of the characters in these two scenes use very archaic dialogue, as opposed to the third scene, which focuses on the character of Eldien.
Eldien is possibly the most interesting and complex of the four, based on the little we know of her personality. I was fortunate enough to see the video of Chloe Bremner’s audition for the role prior to its being taken down, and I thought Bremner did an okay job with the material. Eldien is in every way the opposite of Tyra: she is most likely a High Elf, and her vocabulary and philosophies are far more extensive than those of her rural co-star. In the scene, Eldien is approached by her longtime friend Beldor, perhaps at a banquet or after some kind of memorial ceremony for the Elves who died in the wars of the First Age. Eldien herself is a veteran of those wars, and bears with her an everlasting pain, much like Frodo’s at the end of The Lord Of The Rings. But while Frodo was granted the opportunity to pass into the West and find healing, Eldien is an Elf who rejected the West and is now being forced to pay the price, living out her life in the utter loneliness of Middle-earth. Beldor offers her a potent drink, but Eldien rejects it, saying that no wine can cure her sorrows. She speaks about “the nameless dark” (i.e. Morgoth, the great enemy of the First Age), and mentions having killed dragons in her time – note the plural: Eldien didn’t just get lucky and happen to kill a dragon once, she’s literally one of the greatest warriors in all of Middle-earth. But despite being so aware of evil, Eldien seems like she could be the perfect target for Sauron when he inevitably rises to power: in her desire to find healing and joy in Middle-earth, Eldien might be easily tricked into joining Sauron when he promises to rebuild the world, greater and more beautiful even than the Western lands of the gods. Like Sauron, she has ambition and seems driven by purpose. Unlike Sauron, though, she is a mother, something that is revealed at the end of the scene when Beldor tells her to go home: “if not for yourself…do it for your son”. Eldien grows angry and threatens to end their friendship if ever he uses her family against her again. Clearly, there’s tension between them, though it doesn’t seem to be romantic, which is a relief. Beldor, in fact, appears to be much younger than Eldien. He doesn’t recall the great wars against Morgoth, and Eldien tells him that he is blessed because, for him, evil is merely “pictures set in a glass of the cathedral windows” -an interesting comment, considering that cathedrals aren’t typically seen in Middle-earth: again, remember that all of this dialogue is probably fabricated – it’s just there to give a sense of the character.
And the sense that I get from the character of Eldien is that she’s a great, even legendary heroine, possibly on the level of Galadriel: or is it possible that she is, in fact, Galadriel? I know, I know, she references a son, and we all know Galadriel never had one: or did she? Tolkien himself revised and rewrote Galadriel’s backstory multiple times toward the end of his life, and in one version Galadriel was in fact the mother of Amroth, the prince of Lórien who would one day be immortalized in Legolas’ tragic ballad of Amroth and Nimrodel. I’m not saying this is the case here, but it is something worth noting.
Beldor’s version of the scene, acted rather less convincingly by Conor Fogarty, is confusing: Beldor approaches Eldien and tries to convince her to go into the West, as in the previous scene, but here his intentions seem sinister – he mentions that it is the will of “our chieftain” that Eldien must depart, and the pronouns he uses reveal that the chieftain is a woman, which is interesting. But neither he nor the chieftain have Eldien’s best interests at heart, it seems, since Beldor appears to be trying to get Eldien drunk – he tells her that he carelessly poured “fire ale” into her goblet, and as the scene ends Eldien asks him what he put into the drink: to which Beldor replies “Is it working?”. Suspicious! Is this a kidnapping that we’re witnessing in this scene? At first I suspected that Beldor could be the codename for Elrond, who fits the bill of being a High Elf warrior young enough not to have fought in the wars of the First Age but old enough to have a place of some importance in the early Second Age: but somehow I can’t imagine someone as wise as Elrond ever intentionally doing this to someone he considered a friend. The reference to a female chieftain is interesting, since it would appear to be Galadriel at first glance, meaning Eldien might not be a codename for the Lady of Lórien after all. Or is this chieftain a new, wholly original character created for the show?
Finally, we have Aric: a roguish, selfish trickster who is perfectly prepared to sacrifice anybody, even his own friends, to get himself out of a predicament. In his first sample scene, performed by Nick Hardcastle, Aric takes refuge with an unnamed woman who seems to have interacted with him before: the two are not on good terms, but could develop a friendship as time goes on, depending on how callous Aric really is – he certainly has no problems with deserting his own people to the whims of an unidentified but clearly unfriendly power. The woman tells him that he’s “monstrous”, and Aric simply replies that “there’s no room for mercy if one wants to survive”. He then turns the tables on her, asking her what her own choice will be: if she will cast him out or protect his secret in exchange for his own help. We don’t hear her answer, but it’s clear from the setting of the next scene that she agrees to help him.
We’ve gathered a lot of information about Aric already: he is the only one in the group of four who might be a human, and his storyline appears to take place during a time of warfare in Middle-earth: the people whom he betrays are refugees, “injured…a thousand miles from safety”. He speaks of soldiers, and hounds trained to hunt men. His demeanor suggests an antihero or ruffian: and everybody loves one of those.
Let’s take a look at the final scene. In this one, Aric and the same woman are traveling, and have just escaped a run-in with soldiers – but when Aric asks where the soldiers came from, his companion responds oddly: “There are many places in this world stranger than you can imagine, older than you ever visited”. Does this suggest that Aric and the woman might have run into non-human foes: orcs, perhaps, returning from the mountains to wreak havoc on Middle-earth? And how does his companion even know about them – unless she herself is not a human, but an Elf? Honestly, I can’t shake the feeling that her speech pattern strongly resembles that of Eldien, whom we already know might be forced to leave the safety of her Elven homelands: Aric himself is clearly wary of the woman, and asks her why she was “voluntarily separated from her squadron”. He also references the strength of her will and her pride, two things we can already establish that Eldien has in plenty; and he reprimands her for speaking in flowery language and not saying what she means – something that Elves are always being accused of in Tolkien’s works. Regardless of who she is, Aric’s own identity comes to light, at least a little, in this scene. He and the woman get to talking about “farlanders”, a strange term that might possibly refer to the Men of Númenor on their far-distant island in the Western Sea. These farlanders might not be great people, Aric seems to concede, but they aren’t the ones responsible for throwing him out of his home, leaving him with nothing. But he is resigned to his fate as an outcast, and he notes, as the scene ends, that he can’t do much about it without an army, anyway.
From this scene, we gain one or two details: firstly, Aric and his companion are on their way to a castle, though no reason for that destination is given. Aric notes that, even if they do reach the castle, his safety is not guaranteed, suggesting that he has a reputation as a troublemaker throughout Middle-earth. Who could he be? Is he, perhaps, Sauron in one of his many disguises, and is his companion then bringing him to one of the Elven refuges where Sauron fears he may be found out? Why, then, wouldn’t he simply try to kill this woman or turn her away from her determined course? If he is Sauron, then his tragic backstory is in fact a lie, though one with a grain of truth: he was thrown out of his home and left with nothing, by the decree of the gods. And it would be ironic if this were him paying no heed to the “farlanders” on their distant island, when Sauron would one day be responsible for bringing about the destruction of the island of Númenor and almost all its people.
In conclusion, we have four very interesting and unique characters here: Tyra, a lovable Silvan Elf who wants nothing more than to save lives and help people; Eldien, a High Elven warrior with poison in her heart, looking for peace in her time; Beldor, a loyal servant of his chieftain obliviously following orders, even if it means hurting a friend; and Aric, a rogue of unclear origins, moving through Middle-earth and leaving a trail of destruction wherever he walks.
I’m very interested to hear all your own theories about these four characters, and what you think of the dialogue and scenes. Share your thoughts in the comments below and keep your fingers crossed that Amazon Prime release some official news soon!
Happy Hobbit Day to all of my readers! Today, we celebrate the shared birthdays of hobbit heroes Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, chief protagonists of the fictional world of Middle-earth (you know, unless you’re counting the heroes of TheSilmarillion, like Beren, Tuor, Húrin and Túrin, Lúthien Tinúviel, Eärendil, and so on). And because this is a movie blog, and not a book blog, I will be discussing The Lord Of The Rings movies rather than The Lord of the Rings novels in this post. Typically, I would only consider writing an extensively long post about a movie I disliked, but I have so much to say about these films, and so much of it is good (actually, almost all of it is good).
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, the first film in the classic trilogy, is the only one of the trilogy not to find a temporary home on Netflix this month, so you’ll have to purchase or rent it elsewhere if you want to watch it: here’s my review. I’m not going to be doing my usual hardcore fan-frenzy, where everything I write about the trilogy is unintelligible screaming, sobbing and wailing. Instead, I am going to write about the movie in a clear, concise way – with only a minimal amount of sobbing.
To understand The Fellowship Of The Ring, and its place of pride in modern film history, you need to understand what it was at the time it first released in theaters on December 19th, 2001. Nothing like it had ever been done before – and to this day it is still regarded as a monumental achievement. When New Zealand native Peter Jackson, best known for low-budget horror films (and putting Kate Winslet on the map with Heavenly Creatures), was put in command of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, outside viewers were almost unanimous in their condemnation of the undertaking. It seemed impossible that someone with such an uneven and unpredictable track record of small-scale hits and misses could possibly succeed in adapting English author J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive fantasy novel to the big screen: Jackson wasn’t merely being asked to direct a film; he was being asked to helm a trilogy of massive three-hour long movies, which had to be shot simultaneously in his thoroughly unprepared home country, with a combined budget of $281 million dollars: a trilogy that was already a huge gamble for New Line Cinemas, after a tiresome war with Miramax for the film rights.
But instead of bowing to the insane pressure, Jackson and his crew rose to the challenge, turning the sleepy city of Wellington into a movie-making capital; transforming a rag-tag ensemble cast into award-winning celebrities; developing groundbreaking technology that had only been dreamed of previously, in order to perfectly realize the fantasy world of Middle-earth onscreen. From 1997 to 2004, Jackson’s team struggled against unimaginable obstacles, such as studio interference, harsh weather conditions, miscasting, injuries, and even burning birthday-cakes, to bring the series to the screen: with a vast fanbase of Tolkien loyalists watching their every move, sometimes literally spying on their filming locations, Jackson’s team were expected to deliver a final product that was faithful enough to the source material, while also making the film accessible to general audiences. The payoff was beyond rewarding: when Fellowship Of The Ring premiered, it was an instant box-office, critical and pop culture sensation, becoming the fifth grossing film of all time for a while, garnering a 91% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and universal acclaim from critics, and being recognized as one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. It also significantly impacted the economy of New Zealand and made the country a flourishing tourist destination, so it can put that on its resume as well. And, looking at the bigger picture, it reshaped the entire fantasy genre, whether on the screen or on the page, for years to come: all of the dozens of fantasy adaptations coming out in the next few years owe something to Peter Jackson – largely because of his unprecedented decision to make Middle-earth feel like historical fiction, fantasy is no longer synonymous with the cheesy, exaggerated sword-and-sorcery movies of the 80’s and 90’s, but is instead one of the most revered genres of art in Hollywood today, and one that continues to rake in mountains of cash: so much so that Amazon Prime Video is making their own prequel to the series, which will be a similarly-daunting, if rather more organized, task – with a budget nearing $1 billion dollars, that series is expected to be the most expensive show ever produced: another win for the Middle-earth franchise that all began with Fellowship.
So why did Fellowship strike a chord with viewers, soften the harsh hearts of critics, and unite almost all book purists and revisionists in a shared love for Jackson’s vision? Because it’s a great movie, that’s why.
Fellowship is based on a novel, one of the best ever written (in my very biased opinion), and hews closer to the source material than either of its sequels, or the Hobbit movies which followed later. In Fellowship, we can see Jackson, still hesitant about making major changes to book canon, using what he has and expanding upon it with truly incredible results: there are few of the wholly new characters and subplots that emerged later – rather, there are small additions to the lore, minor alterations, and some significant divergences that feel entirely at home in Tolkien’s world, nonetheless. There are missteps, and I’ll discuss them, but for the most part Fellowship doesn’t just resemble the classic 1954 novel, but its story structure is strongly evocative of a novel’s pacing, and layout. Let us examine: Fellowship, the movie, is essentially split into three parts, each roughly an hour long.
The first hour of the film is slow, laced with a brooding suspense: it builds up a mystery of epic proportions, but makes it feel small-scale and intimate at first, allowing us just enough time to get to know our team of furry-footed hobbit protagonists in the warm, hazy environs of Hobbiton – before upping the ante and slowly weaving more and more high-stakes danger into the mix: the One Ring, just a glimpse of gold; the namedrop of Sauron; hints of the miserable creature Gollum (Andy Serkis); all of this while we’re supposedly just enjoying a birthday-party with Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his large family of nosy busybodies, rosy-cheeked gardeners and Proudfeet. But the mystery is constantly boiling up in the background: it grows in size, soon ensnaring Bilbo’s nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). Suddenly, cheerful Hobbiton is no longer bright and sunny: the lighting shifts, becoming moody and atmospheric, almost reminiscent of film noir; or maybe that’s just the giant smoke-ring clouds drifting lazily through the air. Half an hour in, and Frodo is on the move, after learning that he possesses the weapon of the Enemy. The music shivers quietly with anticipation, foreshadowing grander themes to come. We meet Frodo’s friends, Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippin (Billy Boyd). The Black Rider appears in the Shire, and nearly catches Frodo as he feels the temptation of the Ring for the first time. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is captured by his nemesis, Saruman (Christopher Lee), and imprisoned in a vast darkness speckled with the fires of burning trees and the glow of underground forges. Frodo and company arrive in the town of Bree, hoping to find Gandalf waiting: but all they find are strange, watchful men and tidings of the Black Riders that have arrived before them. This first hour concludes with two major events: Frodo putting on the Ring for the first time and seeing the Eye of Sauron, his enemy, wreathed in fire, piercing through mind and flesh – and his meeting, immediately after, with the hooded ranger Strider (Viggo Mortensen), who offers to help him: and then, ever so gracefully, eases into the next hour with Saruman’s monologue about creating an army worthy of Mordor, an army of orcs and gnashing steel; while, imprisoned on the tower above him, Gandalf seeks a way of escape. That first hour could be an entire movie in itself, it’s so well crafted: building the mystery, heightening the tension, constantly keeping our protagonists on their toes, uncertain and doubtful of their choices, is a brilliant move.
In the second hour, the mystery moves to the back-burner: the Ring, having done what it needed to do, is largely hidden away now, ever present but concealed, a lurking threat – delaying the inevitable, Frodo keeps it out of sight, but in those rare moments where it is revealed, the results are disastrous: the Witch-King is made aware of it, and stabs Frodo, nearly killing him; Bilbo sees it in Rivendell for only a moment, and nearly attacks Frodo in a blind rage at seeing it worn by another; Boromir (Sean Bean) sees it twice, and handles it once, and that is enough to drive him into torment and madness; it nearly destroys the Council of Elrond. But while it is not less of a threat, it is less obvious than those presented by physical enemies: the second hour opens with the battle on Weathertop, and moves on through an epic fight at the fords of Bruinen to the high and lofty citadel of the Elven folk: nothing is simple anymore, and the hobbits are out of their element, surrounded by characters who are almost archetypes – Strider’s real name is revealed to be Aragorn, and he sheds his well-worn gear for more noble attire: we learn of his lineage, and his chivalrous romance with Arwen (Liv Tyler), the Evenstar of her people. Gandalf escapes from Saruman’s clutches, riding a literal eagle, and soars across panoramic mountains. The mood and atmosphere change again, and the world seems bathed in light – the music swells and exchanges the domestic for the grandiose. We move through landscapes straight out of a nature documentary, and into the vast caverns of the Dwarves, realized in vivid CGI. But in this huge world, it is Gandalf who brings us back down to earth as the second hour closes, in his whispered conversations with Frodo in the Mines of Moria, and his heroic self-sacrifice to save the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo himself is nearly killed by a cave troll, an innocent and pitiful creature deluded by the Ring into attacking Frodo. This foreshadows events in the third hour rather perfectly.
The third hour blends the suspense of the first with the epic action of the second, and delivers raw, emotional, character-driven drama: helpless after Gandalf’s fall, the Fellowship seeks refuge with the sorceress Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), but begin to split from within, as Boromir wishes to head back to his home country of Gondor – and it is now that the Ring suddenly reappears after its absence, haunting Frodo’s waking days and driving his friends mad with bewilderment: finally, when the Fellowship arrives at Amon Hen, it becomes too much for Boromir, who succumbs to the Ring’s allure and tries to take it from Frodo by force. Fleeing, Frodo stumbles in a blind panic, witnessing the devastating power he carries on a chain around his neck; he will destroy everything he loves, and everyone he cares about, if he does not act. Aragorn is almost tempted, and fights with his instincts for a few dreadful moments before letting Frodo go, and rejecting the Ring outright. At which point, I start crying, because this is when Boromir dies defending Merry and Pippin from Saruman’s orcs – the Chekhov’s gun that goes off with a fateful bang in the closing action sequence – and Frodo and Sam leave the Fellowship to continue the quest on their own. Hard choices have been made all around, the Fellowship is broken, hope is a faint glimmer on the edge of despair; and the movie is over.
There are minuscule flaws in those three hours of pure goodness, and they’re all nitpicks about diversions from book canon. For instance, something that constantly bothers me is the way that Barliman Butterbur looks over his shoulder at Aragorn when Frodo asks him about the strange man in the corner, instead of…(gets out battered copy of The Lord Of The Rings, flips to page 156)…“cocking an eye without turning his head.” Tolkien goes out of his way to mention that Butterbur doesn’t turn around, because Butterbur, the innkeeper, is already well aware of everybody in the place, who they are, and where they’re sitting, because he has to be. That’s the kind of thing that drives me insane in the movie. Nobody who hasn’t studied every page of the book would even notice this, but I have, so I do.
Anyway, the way that Jackson ratchets up the dramatic tension in this movie is insane, and the climax is rewarding and satisfying – and leaves you wanting more (thankfully, The Two Towers is just as, if not more, perfect in every imaginable way, shape or form). The choices he makes, centering the story around Frodo and his relationship with the Ring, giving both characters more agency in the story (for the Ring is a character), are brilliant. Even in that second hour, when Middle-earth suddenly expands from Hobbiton by the Water to a sprawling country of forests, mountains and scenic views, we are watching it almost always from Frodo’s point of view (the only real exceptions being Gandalf and Aragorn). And in Peter Jackson’s opinion, any scene in which the Ring is not the driving focus or at the very least an undercurrent is wasting time: which is why the hobbits’ whimsical escapades with Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, a beloved part of the novel, was cut entirely from the films.
However, Jackson’s choice necessitated other changes to the source material, including one particularly controversial one: the characterization of Aragorn, one of the book’s noblest heroes. In Jackson’s films, in an effort to make Tolkien’s archetypal protagonist more sympathetic to mainstream audiences, and also to make the Ring even more powerful, Aragorn’s character is softened somewhat, and given a full character-arc – raised by the Elves under the care of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Aragorn feels more at home with them than with his own people; weak, easily corruptible Men. In his veins runs the blood of Isildur, the man who fell victim to the Ring’s temptation thousands of years before and bound his descendants to the Ring’s fate – Aragorn’s distrust of himself, and his doubting of his own strength, is a key element of his character in the films, and it is what drives many of his actions: from his dangerous romance with Arwen, to his decision, at the end of the film, to resist the Ring and in so doing save both Frodo’s life and his own.
Viggo Mortensen, thankfully, is a phenomenal method actor, and does a great job portraying the Ranger’s conflict. It is rather unfortunate that the screenwriters felt, going forward, that his character needed to be constantly elevated to the detriment of others, and, in The Hobbit, tried to copy-and-paste him over the character of Bard the Bowman. But it is understandable, when watching Fellowship, why they became so obsessed with him. I would even go so far as to say that Mortensen is the film’s MVP, bringing roguish charm, grace, dignity and his unique accent to every scene he’s in – he plays Aragorn’s internal conflict subtly, using small facial movements (and his wildly expressive eyes) to display unease.
Similar praise can be lavished on Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen, but not, unfortunately, Sean Astin: his portrayal of Samwise Gamgee is consistently one of my least-favorite things about the trilogy, unpopular opinion though that may be. Some of it may be attributable to Jackson’s directing, but Astin’s tendency to shout lines that don’t need to be shouted, or become exaggeratedly happy or sad, begins to make him look like a parody of the over-the-top animated Samwise in Ralph Bakshi’s 1970’s The Lord Of The Rings. He rescues himself in his final scenes with Frodo, but just barely.
For the most part, the ensemble cast is very good: Sean Bean’s Boromir is sympathetic and pitiful; Holm, Weaving and Blanchett are endearing glorified cameos; Orlando Bloom as Legolas is decent, if a bit wooden; the only truly miscast character, in my opinion, is the Dwarf, Gimli. It’s not that John Rhys-Davies does a bad job in the role (how could he?), but the role itself should never have been tailored for an actor like him: in the novels, Gimli is proud, noble and mysterious until he begins to warm up to his traveling companions, and even afterwards he is still distinctly unusual to them, a bit of an underdog. In the movies, he’s brash, reckless and foolhardy, talks far too much, and is constantly the subject of unfriendly jokes (including the notorious “Nobody tosses a Dwarf!” punchline that continues to infuriate book purists to this day). If The Lord Of The Rings had been made after the Dwarf-centric The Hobbit, I think Jackson and his team would have been aware of this and would have cast someone more like Richard Armitage, their Thorin Oakenshield, in the role: but it was not, they did not, and we got Rhys-Davies.
The talent behind the camera deserves a special shout out. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens put together an incredible, multi-faceted script that is true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work (despite the fact that neither Jackson nor Walsh had been fans of the book before starting the project) and makes for an excellent movie even viewed on its own. The film’s cinematography is absolutely brilliant – and Academy Award winning. Ngila Dickson’s costume department outfitted the Fellowship and their supporting cast perfectly (another special shout-out goes to Viggo, who insisted on wearing his Aragorn costume while hiking in the wilderness, sleeping in it, and even mending it to give it a more weathered look: did I mention he’s a method actor?). Weta Workshop designed countless weapons, prosthetics, miniatures, and props under the direction of Richard Taylor, and the now legendary craftsman Jens Hansen was commissioned to create the One Ring itself. Art directors John Howe and Alan Lee brought unique visions to the world-building of Middle-earth. Howard Shore composed a brilliant and emotional score for the film that is widely considered one of the greatest ever, while New-Age singer Enya lent her powerful vocals to the film’s iconic Elvish ballad, “May It Be”. The New Zealand government (both local and national) and army helped Jackson to build sets and gain access to filming locations, provided hundreds of extras, and later promoted the films with every available resource. The thought and care that went into every inch of film, fabric, concept art, set design, stunt-work, music and CGI is incredible.
And, while I’m busy writing this lengthy Oscar-acceptance speech for Peter Jackson, I may as well take a moment to honor the lasting legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, whose story lives on through his novels, and through the succession of films, radio dramatizations, streaming shows and biopics that have followed. Say what you will about Peter Jackson’s decision to cut out Tom Bombadil, or give the Balrog wings, or the “dumbing down” of the author’s philosophical and pseudo-religious views, the truth is that his movie has taken Tolkien’s original message and spread it to an even wider audience. Sales of the novel skyrocketed in the wake of Fellowship‘s release. Tolkien became a household name for people who had never even considered reading one of his books.
Granted, there are still the poor, naive souls who think that Tolkien is “that guy who ripped off J.K. Rowling”, but it’s best to just ignore them.
Tolkien’s message in Fellowship is essentially the same from page to screen: he tells us that our lives are built around choices, especially hard and uncertain ones; choosing between right and wrong, between an easy way and a hard way, or worse, two difficult paths that lead to an unclear future. They are the choices we all make – the choice to adapt a 1,000 page novel into a three-part movie series, the choice to simply walk into Mordor with your gardener and a weapon of mass destruction, and….wait, you’re telling me you’ve never had to make those choices? Anyway, Fellowship is not a happy story, and it does not end happily for any of its heroes: sometimes, the choices we make have real, lasting consequences, and they’re not always good. But it is not an unhappy story either. It is about free will, and about the human privilege of being able to make decisions for ourselves: what a gift that is, that we take for granted! When Gandalf told Frodo, in the long dark of Moria, that “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us,” he spoke truly – we are granted a brief time on this earth to do something great, and to leave a legacy behind us. But choosing to do that is up to us.
And as for Peter Jackson? Well, he’s already done it.
This news means little, as of right now, with no name attached to Poulter’s character, but I’m going to freak out about it regardless, because it’s casting news, and we haven’t had any in a while, and I’m dying for more. We have so little solid information about this series as of right now, and with other Amazon Prime shows like The Wheel of Time already on their way, with major casting announced, filming locations locked down, and scripts ready to go, it feels like Lord of the Rings (by far superior to Wheel of Time in all regards, sorry) isn’t getting the respect it deserves, and isn’t even being prioritized. How is that fair?
We don’t yet know whether Poulter’s role is a recurring one, though he is specifically described as one of the show’s leads in Variety‘s press release: with the little information we have so far, I’m going to take a wild guess and speculate that Poulter will be portraying a younger version of the immortal half-elf Elrond: his facial features, especially his eyebrows, match up closely with those of Hugo Weaving, who portrayed Elrond in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – and we already know that this series will combine elements of Jackson’s trilogy with material from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels and unpublished writings.
How do you feel about the news? Share your thoughts in the comments below – I’ll be over here, hyperventilating with excitement.
Right up front, I’m going to express my disappointment that my review of Netflix’s new original series is not quite as glowing as certain others are. Not only do I disagree with Rotten Tomatoes’ 89% Fresh rating, but I don’t understand it. I do notice, though, that the series is not rated Certified Fresh, which is some relief to me, writing this ballad of a sadly underwhelmed audience-member. Audiences across the world seem to be greatly enjoying The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance, but it’s rather hard to figure out whether that excitement comes from hardcore Dark Crystal fans or mainstream Netflix-watchers. I’m going to guess the former, because this show seemed, at least to me, to have very little mainstream appeal. Let’s discuss.
Firstly, puppets. Puppets can be wonderful fun, and, if done right, with charm and humor, they can even be fun to watch onscreen: countless Muppet movies (great Muppet movies, at that) and the huge success of Sesame Street prove that. But unfortunately, charm and humor are two noticeable absences in the Dark Crystal franchise, which is both grim and serious, and incredibly macabre – even nightmarish, but we’ll get to that. Where Jim Henson’s other movies had fun and dance, musical numbers, cameos from human actors and a general atmosphere of carefree recklessness, his original Dark Crystal was an attempt to pivot away from that image. It deserves praise for the fact that it was one of the first big fantasy epics, and its creation was a huge undertaking. However, when it released in 1982, it was not the massive success that Henson had hoped for, receiving a mixed response from both critics and audiences. Those who did fall in love with it, however, never fell out of love, and so the new Netflix prequel has a small, but loyal niche fanbase that it wants to attract. As for me, I have never loved the original movie: I hated it, in fact. The puppets, with their strange, glassy eyes and grotesque rogues gallery of bird-like Skeksis, all living on what was supposed to be a barren alien planet – not my thing.
That’s probably at least partly why this new series just wasn’t for me. The puppets haven’t changed in the decades since the original movie was released. I am not an expert on puppet technology, but as far as I can tell, an effort has been made to use the same sort of techniques as Jim Henson did all those years ago: over-zealous loyalty to a project is not unheard of, and can be understandable, if said project doesn’t really require major changes for modern audiences to enjoy it. Dark Crystal, however, is outdated, and makes no effort to change that: the story is still a huge, intricate mess of mythology, religion, philosophy and fantasy cliches; the puppets are still obviously puppets, and their glassy-eyed stares remain their signature feature.
I intend no disrespect to the series’ puppeteers, who do an excellent job: their work is incredible, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be. I also have huge respect for the amazing voice cast: many of the actors are quite good in their roles, though there are more than a few who only show up once or twice and have barely any dialogue: Alicia Vikander, Natalie Dormer, Hannah John-Kamen and Mark Strong are some of the latter – of the former, we have Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Donna Kimball and Lena Headey to thank, for making this show ever so slightly more entertaining than it would otherwise have been. I’ll spare some praise for Sigourney Weaver, who gets to narrate the opening of the first episode.
As for the characters these hugely-talented actors and actresses are voicing, well…watching their individual stories isn’t always quite as interesting as playing Who’s Who with the voice cast, but there are a few I can think of: Mother Aughra (Donna Kimball), the benevolent but cranky guardian of Thra, is especially fun to watch, and the puppeteers gave her enough quirky little traits, from facial movements to her distinctive style of dancing, that make her seem like an actual character, rather than some of the thin, underdeveloped cardboard cutouts that pass for protagonists in this series. Tavra, Seladon and Brea, the three sundered daughters of the All-Maudra (Helena Bonham-Carter), are also especially interesting, and the way that their stories diverge and reunite is imaginative. But of these, only Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a main character: for the most part, we’re stuck watching Rian (Taron Egerton) either walking from place to place, or stopping to share his memories with literally everybody he meets (after the third or fourth of these long, redundant, dream-sharing encounters, I was ready to turn off the show). Deet the Grotten (Nathalie Emmanuel) is somewhat more interesting, but her story takes a bizarre and unexplained twist in the last few episodes. As for Maudra Fara, she’s actually quite likable, which is somewhat conflicting, considering that she speaks with the villainous voice of Lena Headey, who portrayed the evil Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones.
Talking of villains, it’s time to discuss those which dwell in Thra, and present the main threat to our Gelfling heroes. The Skeksis, repugnant vulture-people from another world, who have subjugated the Gelfling people and enslaved the Crystal of Truth to their will. I want to take a moment to point out that, somehow, the Gelflings, who are shown to have vaguely-human aesthetics and personalities, are completely oblivious to the fact that gigantic, hulking anthropomorphic vultures living in a claw-shaped Gothic castle might be evil. The Skeksis are absolutely revolting and repulsive, with zero redeemable qualities, and no actual personalities to speak of – so why, then, do we spend about fifty percent of the show’s screentime watching them squabble pointlessly, in a boring parody of Game of Thrones‘ layered dynastic rivalry and wars for the throne. There are so many pointless scenes of Skeksis eating, I thought I might lose my mind: if not my appetite. This is a personal preference, but I cannot stand two types of villain: (a) the CGI-construct with no personality who yells “Kill them all!” and dumb stuff like that (Azog from The Hobbit fits the bill), and (b) pompous, swaggering, disgusting buffoons (such as the Master of Lake-town from The Hobbit). The Skeksis combine the worst elements of both of these villain cliches, and take them to the next level. Only The Hunter even came close to being an intimidating antagonist, but his supporting character-status was undeserved and infuriating.
All this is truly saddening, because the Skeksis could have been excellent. If I had been the showrunner, I would have probably changed their appearance, first of all: wouldn’t resplendent peacock-feathers or gaudy, glorious plumage have done the trick of showing Skeksi greed and avarice just as well as bald, wrinkly faces and harsh, raspy evil laughter? This is a prequel, for Thra’s sake – they could have done anything with the Skeksis! The possibilities were endless. There were themes and shades of some of the great fantasy villains at work here, but none ever reached full potential: the Skeksi fear of death and their desperate attempts to evade it, for example, resembled the actions of Tolkien’s Numenoreans, clinging to life at all costs, warring on the earth and the gods in the faint hope of winning immortality.
It’s not the only Tolkien theme glimpsed in Age of Resistance: in the very first episode, while a Skeksi narrates about the inevitability of evil and how the strong will always conquer the weak, we watch a montage which proves otherwise, showing various Gelfling heroes starting out on their individual quests for justice and truth, in a reverse of Sam Gamgee’s “stories that really matter” speech at the end of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers (which is also on Netflix, now, by the way). The series has very Tolkienesque ecological messaging, and the Gelflings, bound up with the fate of Thra, are nothing if not a hybrid between Tolkien’s hobbits and elves. But sadly, these themes get buried under so many fantasy plot points (magic sword! prophecies! mystic arts!) that it’s hard to find them at first.
All in all, the series is far too long. I flew through the first three episodes, even if they were rather weak, and the fourth through sixth episodes were actually quite good: seven through ten, however, drag the story out far too long. The eventual finale lands with a resounding thud: a more disappointing climax, I could not envision. That might be because the series tries too hard to make you want to go watch Dark Crystal after it’s finished, which is something I do not want to do, and don’t ever want to do again. So many things are left unanswered, and the final showdown between Gelflings and Skeksis is so underwhelming – was it because full-out puppet war is rather hard to manage? Did the budget not allow for it? I don’t know: all I can say for certain is that I was hugely disappointed.
It’s unfortunate. I really wanted to like it. The trailers showed off stunning visual beauty, Gelfling heroics, and epic warfare: unfortunately, in the actual series, these things are few and far between. If you’re a puppet nerd, a hardcore sword-and-sorcery fan, or a Henson completionist, I urge you to watch this series, since you might enjoy it far more than I did. But all that I’m left with is the feeling that I wasted time on this series, when I could have been…oh, I don’t know, watching The Two Towers instead. It’s all the same stuff, but it doesn’t have creepy vulture-puppets.