01 December 2012

TOLKIEN ON FILM: TO ME IT FEELS MORE LIKE FALLING ASLEEP AGAIN

Did I not say just recently of the Rankin/Bass animated TV special The Hobbit, that it is "the most emotionally and tonally accurate adaptation of [J.R.R. Tolkien's] work that has yet been released"? Well then, it is with no small amount of amused irony that I take us to the same studio's 1980 television adaptation of The Return of the King, which I'm just as confident in declaring the worst emotional and tonal butchering of Tolkien that has ever been made, not least because it was made by almost the exact same people (Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass directing a Romeo Muller script with music by Maury Laws and animation by Japanese anime outfit Topcraft), in exactly the same way; and despite that fact that they both came from the same man's head and were built into the same continuity, the book versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King are really in no ways alike at all: the earlier book is a bubbly kid's fantasy, the later book is what happened after the darkening that happened throughout the entirety of the three-part Lord of the Rings had boiled all the whimsy out of Tolkien's Middle Earth. The language is different, the narrative progression is different, and the shared characters are recognisable more for their names than for how they act.

Yet Rankin/Bass went right on along, making The Return of the King like it was the most natural sequel to The Hobbit that you could ever want to make, and the results are unspeakable - as an adaptation, anyway. Viewed strictly as a disposable kids' movie that premiered on TV in 1980, there's nothing wrong with The Return of the King that isn't already covered by "disposable kids' movie". It is, anyway, not as good as The Hobbit, though as much as anything, that's because it doesn't have the privilege of telling an actual story, but just a story fragment. The film came out a mere two years after Ralph Bakshi's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings - that is to say, of course, Bakshi's adaptation of one-half of The Lord of the Rings, all of The Fellowship of the Ring and a goodly amount of The Two Towers. But as it became apparent that no Lord of the Rings, Part 2 was coming, the film's producer, Saul Zaentz, made no effort to acquire the filming rights to the last volume of Tolkien's massive trilogy. Rankin/Bass, looking to make a Hobbit follow-up, were thus able to get the rights to The Return of the King, and nothing else. Which not only meant that they were obliged to jump right into a story that was well underway, they couldn't even allude to events in the first two books, and thus had to find a way to stitch together enough exposition for their new film to make sense using only The Hobbit itself as background.

Honestly, I don't know if I can even imagine this task succeeding, but at any rate, it very definitively failed in this case: aside from any other issues the film has as an adaptation of Tolkien, or a children's animated TV special, or anything else under the sun, The Return of the King is a car-wreck of narrativity. It is not one of those movies where you can only really follow along if you've already read the book it's based on; it is a movie where, even having the book more or less committed to memory, there are still points where it only makes a kind of implicit sense, in that "if the music tells me this is good, it must be" way.

In a desperate attempt to catch us up quickly before turning the job of converting a dense epic fantasy into a 97-minute cartoon, Muller resorts to pulling in Gandalf (John Huston) to do some portentous narrating. Because, hey, Gandalf! We remember him from the first movie, right? And Gandalf does certainly try to lay things out quickly, but gets there so vaguely that we need another bit of exposition to get even further up to speed: the movie opens in Rivendell, where Bilbo Baggins (Orson Bean), the adventurous hobbit, is celebrating his 129th birthday. Because, hey, Bilbo! We remember him &c.

As Bilbo dozes off like old people do, he happens to notice that his nephew Frodo (Bean as well) is missing the ring finger of his right hand. Aghast, Bilbo demands to know what happened, when - in the kind of angrily desperate gesture that a screenwriter reaches late at night, when the vodka has run out and the job is due in the morning - Frodo turns to the minstrel he brought with him, who happens to have written a ballad explaining exactly what happened: he wrote a song about it, called "Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom" (a title derived unchanged from Tolkien, though I hope and pray with all my might that he didn't have quite such a feeble folk tune in mind as we get here). And thus we get the first of the songs performed by Glen Yarbrough, all of them so much worse than the songs in The Hobbit and out-of-place besides; in The Hobbit, all Laws was doing was setting Tolkien's own lyrics to warbly tunes, but in The Return of the King, which for the most part does not have any songs to speak of, being the concluding part of an increasingly sober and bleak anti-war epic, the songs here have all-new lyrics by Bass, and they are dreadful:
Frodo of the Nine Fingers,
And the Ring of Doom.
Why does he have nine fingers?
Where is the Ring of Doom?
"EƤrendil was a mariner / That tarried in Arvernien; / He built a boat of timber felled / In Nimbrethil to journey in", it's not. But that's an extreme example. Mostly the lyrics are just kind of flopsy twaddle, as in
Where there's a whip, there's a way.
Where there's a whip, there's a way.
We don't wanna go to war today,
But the lord of the lash says nay, nay, nay!
which is, I want to point out, sung by an army of orcs ("Bilbo called them goblins" pipes in a helpful bit of exposition designed to help the kids out there with an extreme sensitivity to series continuity gaffes), not a species that you'd necessarily expect to sing any song, not even one where "nay, nay, nay" has to be used as filler to get a line up to the right meter. But if I had to pick a favorite song, that's probably the one I'd go with, because it is fucking absurd, and also one of the only ones that's not a banal, 15-years out-of-date folk tune.

Anyway, "Frodo of the Nine Fingers" doesn't even tell us much - it spends as much time recapping The Hobbit as getting us up to speed with the new characters and new situations, and so all we really know is that Frodo and his dear friend Sam (Roddy McDowall) are going to Mordor to destroy an evil ring, and also there is a war going on someplace else, where Frodo's hobbit friend Pippin (Sonny Melendrez) is helping Gandalf. "He's going loony!" says Pippin of the demented Steward of Gondor, Denethor (William Conrad), one of the lines that makes it clear early on that this project won't be bogged down by fussy Tolkien quotes.

Very nearly all of the film's 97 minutes are concerned with Frodo and Sam in Mordor - a place that is not defined ever in the movie, but clearly must be evil if it's going around with a name like that - and the matter of the War of the Ring (which it is not referred to here) is mostly a B-plot with characters getting introduced solely to perform tasks absolutely required by the story; the returning king of the title, Aragorn (Theodore Bikel), doesn't speak his first word until the 77-minute mark, for example. And this makes it next to impossible to care about anything or anyone in the B-plot, since the characters literally have no inherent meaning or attachment for us: we don't know them from anybody, so when e.g. Eowyn of Rohan (Nellie Bellflower) rises up to avenge her dead uncle King Theoden (Don Messick), it's not stirring, because until this very second, we've never seen her before.

The answer, perhaps, is that we're already familiar with some of this from the book (or, more cynically, Bakshi's film), but if that's the game Rankin/Bass wants to play, it would have been smarter of them to include fewer folk songs and more recognisable content.

At any rate, the script is a disaster. For example: in trying to cleverly tie the two halves of the film together, Muller attempts to indicate how actions in the Frodo plot connect to the War of the Ring plot, except the source material is too carefully structured on a completely different timeline, and so in order to have events on the battlefield take place at a certain point in Frodo's story, while events after a multi-day forced march need to take place just three paragraphs down on the same page, the script needs to put literally days into the space in which it takes Sam to fall down and get up again; bad enough if you notice it accidentally, but that's what editing is for - until Gandalf helpfully chimes in that, in fact, days have gone by while Sam has been lost in a cave the size of a bedroom.

If there were anything to compensate for it... but no, it would always be a miserable story. Certainly, the drop in animation quality since The Hobbit doesn't help matters at all, nor the simplification of the craggy character design of that film, nor the poor voice acting - Bean's attempts to make Frodo different from Bilbo leave the new protagonist sounding insincere and dumb, and McDowall pounces on his lines with the roaring enthusiasm of a lion attacking a lame gazelle, more like he's playing Lear than a humble hobbit gardener - nor anything else that might have made it a pleasurable experience. Brother Theodore's harsh, guttural Gollum is pretty good, I guess, better even than in The Hobbit. But everything else feels tired, rushed, and hectic, playing more like the sketch of a plot than the actual expression of that plot, the songs aren't fun to listen to, and the disjunction between the light, playful touch and the the gloomy, blood-soaked plot leaves the film with no clue as to its own personality. It's a joyless failure which has only the latent strength of Tolkien's fantastic imaginings to give it any merit whatsoever.

5 comments:

Trish said...

This is by far one of my favorite "Not just terrible, but terrible in really bizarre ways" movies of all time. Mother of God, the songs! I have yet to get through a chorus of "The Bearer of the Ring / The WEARER of the Ring!" without cracking up.

Tim said...

Yeah, I could have spent the entire review just dissecting lyrics, and feel like I'd done a good job of expressing how profoundly dysfunctional this thing is. You've picked another personal "favorite".

T. Hartwell said...

Yeah, as much as I adore Rankin-Bass, this is pretty fair.

I mean, I'm never one to complain when the adaptation decides to ditch the source- I went into this expecting it to be ROTK done in the style of The Hobbit, and was actually kind of interested to see such a dark story filtered through the light playfulness of their previous entry.

The trouble is, one it's own it's just nothing. So much of it just feels like a watered-down version of Hobbit, right down to the tunes- I love the music of Hobbit, and I'll admit to having a soft spot for "Frodo of the Nine Fingers", but good god, beyond that and "Where there's a Whip" the music is just bland and forgettable (every time I watch it there's always a moment of "Oh I had forgotten there was a song here...").

And you're right about the condensation meaning that nothing has any emotional value- I think the Gandalf scenes work well enough, but we rarely have context for Frodo and Sam and so much of it just feels empty. I think it's the result of the film being explicitly structured as a climax the entire way through- I can't help but think the whole thing would've worked better had it been a "Part 2" to an adaptation of Fellowship.

There are good things here- the animation's worse than Hobbit but still pretty good, and a lot of the backgrounds are just gorgeous. And the Eowyn scene is really nice...once you get past the fact the Witch King sounds like the bizarre offspring of a Dalek and Skeletor.

On the whole disappointing, though. Especially from a studio like Rankin-Bass.

zimnomel said...

This isn't strictly about film or visual media, but I must ask: have you heard any of the various radio adaptations? If yes, what do you think of them (especially the 1981 BBC version)?

Tim said...

I've haven't encountered a single one of them, sad to say. An ex of mine was madly in love with it; I'm hard-pressed to say if that makes it more or less likely that I'd seek it out.