Friday, 12 December 2014

Peter Jackson's Extended Editions of the Entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03)

Yes, it's a long title for a blog post, but not half as bloody long as I spent watching these films.

A couple of weeks ago, my two-doors-down-and-across-the-corridor neighbour James cracked out the dusty boxset of the Lord of the Rings movies that had been sitting on his desk since the start of university in September, and brought them through to my room. James, amongst other things (rugby and novelty pyjama bottom enthusiast included), is a big fan of Tolkien's seminal fantasy trilogy, having been weaned on the films since they arrived in cinemas in the early noughties. He's been metaphorically gnawing away at the books since arriving in Stirling but has barely made it out of Hobbiton, so to speak. In a compromise my end-of-the-corridor neighbour Chris and I were only too happy to oblige with, he suggested we watch all the movies within a short space of time and appreciate the story while bonding like the exemplary corridor mates we are.

And so it was to be that, on that day in late October, I sat my laptop on top of my printer and stuck the disc in. This was, I should point out, only the first disc. Yes, the extended editions, despite this, are so long that one cannot simply contain them on a single DVD. Halfway through, the film cuts off and a message flashes up on the screen telling you to switch the DVDs. This is the first time I've ever experienced such a thing. Oddest thing is, it didn't completely take me out of the moment like I expected it to. We all had a nice little break, stretched our legs, and then sat down and continued the movie feeling a wee bit more refreshed. Smashing.

Anyhoo, after a bit of a kerfuffle sparked when Chris really insisted I open the Pringles I'd been saving, we started with The Fellowship of the Ring. This was the first film of the three to be released, and the first to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It lost to a film about Russell Crowe writing equations on a big blackboard, but it set an incredibly lucrative and blockbusting ball rolling. We began, to the sound of Howard Shore's unparalleled score (punctuated by Pringles crunching and me sulking), with Bilbo Baggins getting ready to celebrate his eleventy-first birthday. Admittedly, if I was to read that famous opening line for the first time in a library, I'd think it sounded like a load of pish and stick it back on the shelf. What it does do, however, is introduce the reader, and, in this case, the viewer, to an immensely complicated world with quite a relatable and pleasant idea: a birthday party. Tolkien's stories demonstrate to us the true extent of the human imagination. Look at it all! He's created entire political systems, families whose stories stretch back centuries, multiple cultural histories that overlap and conflict with each other! The scale and detail of it is bewildering, but, at the same time, pretty easy to follow. That's the wonder of The Lord of the Rings.

As much as Tolkien is to credit for creating this world, it was no mean feat for Peter Jackson to put it on the big screen. The total manuscripts for the original books ran to 9,250 pages, and even the slimmer editions run to about 500 pages per volume. A lot of scenes from the book were filmed, but had to be cut out so the cinema audiences didn't contract rickets during their time spent in the auditorium. No such problems with the folk sat at home, though, so Jackson edited his own cut of the movies, which are monstrous in length but much better in terms of detail and depth. Every so often, while we watched the trilogy, James would chime in with a, 'this scene was deleted', or a 'I can't believe they didn't leave this scene in the original version'. Admittedly, some very charming and dramatic sequences were cut for the sake of brevity, and it does seem a shame.

Even without the deleted scenes, the scale of the production is remarkable. There are points in The Two Towers and The Return of the King where you realise there are about five plots going on at once, but you and everyone around you understands what is going on so unfalteringly it's as if it is as complicated as The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It helps that the characters and stories are so iconic. It's difficult not to smirk when Boromir mutters, 'One does not simply walk into Mordor.' Or when Gandalf roars 'You shall not pass!' Or when Legolas sings, 'They're taking the hobbits to Isengard-gard-gard-gard-gard.' It was not unusual to look around and find most of the people in the room mouthing the words to a particular scene, or singing along to one of the songs.

By the time we got to The Return of the King, Lewis and Rori had joined us, and we were watching it on Rori's lovely big 'snooker telly' rather than my crappy wee laptop (out of interest, both Rori and Lewis have great blogs you should have a look at; Rori's is a charming wee thing largely about university life, while Lewis' has just one post at the moment but has the potential to be - and I'm not going to mince my words here - the greatest piece of literature ever written in the English language). One particularly lovely moment came when the three LotR fans in the room - James, Rori and Lewis - sang along to Pippin's song before the Battle of Minas Tirith, and all three were bringing up random bits of trivia as they became relevant. There's something about Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth in general, and it's the same with things like Star Wars and Doctor Who, that just cries out for people to know as much as possible about them. It must be the level of detail and the amount of mythology surrounding these stories. They present themselves as a challenge to viewers and readers, who delight in being able to name the particular battle in which a particular minor character died or the planet where a particular item was collected.

There's definitely an aspect of admiration in it, and although I'm not a Lord of the Rings obsessive, I completely understand it. By the time The Return of the King absolutely swept the board at the Oscars, the films had cemented a place in popular culture to rival the original book trilogy. Fans flocked to the cinemas and made it only the second film in history to make over $1 billion at the box office. It remains a phenomenon - the success of the not-really-as-good Hobbit films demonstrates that - and has lasting popularity that most other franchises wouldn't consider in their most ridiculous LSD-fuelled dreams over a decade on. To many people, it was one of those movie 'events' we hear over-enthusiastic trailer producers talking about, and one that, remarkably, still feels fresh every time the experience is revisited.

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