When Harry Met Sauron
'Another point on this, the question that dominates my email: the adaptation of masterpieces from one medium to another is as old as literature. Most of Shakespeare's plays are re-workings of stories, poems or written history. When I moved Richard III from stage to screen, I was determined to make a good film in honour of a great play. Had I left every scene and line of the text intact in the movie, it would not have been a good one. Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, my favourite version of the Macbeth saga, distorts Shakespeare to spectacular effect. The play which inspired it remains intact.'
- Sir Ian McKellen
For a critic, even a pretend one like me, there is only ever one ambition: to write about the subject accurately, entertainingly and persuasively enough to have some impact on the way the reader views it - maybe even enough to influence whether or not they decide to see it all. Sometimes success is, perhaps, achieveable. And sometimes... well, this week I'm looking at Chris Columbus' Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and faced with such a couple of cinematic colossii, whose metaphorical ankles I stand no higher than, it quickly becomes obvious that I'm staring defeat in the face.
Both these films are based on the opening volumes of well-loved fantasy series1. Both have been eagerly awaited. Both feature powerful casts and striking effects-work. Both look very certain to muscle their way up the all-time box office takings chart. Obviously, they are - superficially, at least - very similar.
And consider the storylines: the story of an ordinary, unassuming young orphan, living with relatives. After he discovers the remarkable significance of his inheritance he is forced into a journey of discovery. His ultimate opponent is a dark lord whose power is resurgent - his greatest ally a venerable wizard of formidable power, though there are friends both large and small to be found along the way. At the end the Death Star blows up. So, yes, both stories derive from the same tradition of heroic fantasy. But the way in which the stories are told for the screen couldn't be more different.
Lord of the Rings has a large cast, containing many well-known faces: Ian McKellen - who's fast becoming one of my favourite performers - as the wizard Gandalf, a magisterial Christopher Lee as his counterpart Saruman, Liv Tyler as the Elf maiden Arwen, Ian Holm as the legendary Bilbo2, and Sean Bean as the mercurial warrior Boromir. But all seem to have been cast solely on merit, just as with the lesser-known actors in other key roles - Elijah Wood as Frodo, the ringbearer, Viggo Mortenson as the stoic ranger Strider, and Sean Astin as the faithful Sam Gamgee, to name but three. (There are also a couple of well-known names rendered unrecognisable by their prosthetic make-up, particularly John Rhys-Davies as Gimli the dwarf.) The performances are uniformly excellent, at the very least: Wood is moving as Frodo, and as the wizard, McKellen is a towering presence.
With Harry Potter, though, it was ever-so-slightly like watching people in free-fall fighting over an insufficient number of parachutes. Every few minutes, it seemed, someone like Julie Walters or John Hurt would roll up, do a show-stopping cameo and then clear off. Now most of these people were also very good, but the overall effect was a bit distracting - a combination of 'I wonder who's on next?' and 'is that all they're actually doing?' Robbie Coltrane emerged from the scrum with most success, with Alan Rickman and Richard Harris not far behind. The troika of child stars were rather variable, I thought, and under-used (dialogue seemed to consist wholly of exclamations of 'Whoa!' for long stretches of the film). Rupert Brint was good as Ron, but as Harry, Daniel Radcliffe was a bit too passive (and looked like a strange hybrid of Walter the Softy and Liam Gallagher).
I think Lord of the Rings scores over Harry Potter in the visual department, too: admitted it has the bonus of New Zealand standing in for Middle Earth, to awesome effect, but even so I found my jaw continually dropping open at the sheer beauty and power of the images on the screen - a brief but impressive glimpse of Sauron's fastness, Barad-Dur, the manic activity in the pits below Isengard, or the infernal might of the Balrog (a stunning creation). It's the most fully-realised fantasy world in many years. Harry Potter, of course, is set in a version of our own world, but even so the special effects, while respectable, are not as convincing as one might have hoped for (the Quidditch match is particularly disappointing).
It should be obvious by now that I rate Lord of the Rings a good deal higher than Harry Potter. And the main reason for this has nothing to do with the concerns outlined above. Harry Potter was made in consultation with the author of the books, JK Rowling, who apparently had the power of veto over all aspects of the production. Probably due to this, and also from a desire to appeal to the widest possible audience, director Chris Columbus has made a visually rather bland film that sticks very, very close to the book - too close, in fact. The result is a film that frequently seems unfocussed and a little self-indulgent and is certainly at least thirty minutes too long - Lord of the Rings is a longer film, but doesn't feel overlong the way Harry Potter does. It's not a bad film, by any means, but by staying too close to the original text it does Rowling's remarkable prose no justice.
By contrast, Peter Jackson takes liberties with Tolkien that will make any purist blanch. There are many substantial changes - sections of the book have been removed and new material inserted in their place. But all the changes serve to make the story work for the screen, as a film in its own right. The memorable-but-superfluous visit to Tom Bombadil is gone completely. Glorfindel's role is carried out by Arwen, to provide a suitable introduction for her. The pursuit of the hobbits by the Black Riders is suitably chilling and relentless. Frodo's encounter with Galadriel (an ethereal Cate Blanchett) is truly startling. Most significantly, Saruman's role has been substantially beefed up, and he and his hench-thing Lurtz provide a physical personification of evil lacking from the text. And throughout the whole enterprise, the key themes of Tolkien's work - the corrupting influence of absolute power, the conflict between mechanisation and the natural world, and the power of true friendships such as the one between Sam and Frodo - are emphasised and explored.
It's by no means perfect, though. Longeurs threaten in Rivendell and again in Lothlorien. The romance between Aragorn and Arwen doesn't really justify its inclusion. There's no real sense of the topography of Middle Earth, but short of handing out maps in the foyer I can't think of a solution to this. The Professor himself would be appalled by the Celticisation of much of his creation. And the end is, perhaps inevitably, a little anticlimactic. But it's still a magnificent achievement.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a superior, though overlong, children's adventure. It's also a film with a mountain to climb. The Lord of the Rings is that mountain, and The Fellowship of the Ring is an epic in every sense of the word - and, if there's any justice in this world, the recipient of next years' Academy Award for Best Picture.