Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reviewing Movies From 10 Years Ago is Risky

Ed Power in Slate has an interesting article today critiquing New Zealand as the filming location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, basically arguing that Middle-Earth is described in the books as much older and darker than New Zealand's geography allows for. I'm fairly agnostic regarding the importance of fidelity to source material in film adaptations (there's much to be said for stylistic differentiation and uniqueness of vision), but he makes a good case--almost.

Setting aside the obvious fact that Peter Jackson's representation of Middle-Earth was driven by many more factors than simply filming location, I think Power falls into a fallacy that's common in reviews for movies released a long time ago: he evaluates decisions made 15 years ago using the film standards of today. While the passage of time occasionally allows positive and negative truths to emerge by filtering out noise (judging presidents, for example), in this case it warps his analysis by setting up an unfair standard.

Critiquing the Lord of the Rings trilogy as insufficiently dark and gritty ignores the effect the films themselves had in establishing that very expectation. The films were major global hits that shifted the trajectory of fantasy moviemaking towards gritty epicness, setting the stage for the current state of gloomier, quieter fantasy. Lord of the Rings was plenty dark when it came out, and it's unfair to claim it didn't go far enough.

Note: Although the Hobbit movies are being released now, fundamental decisions like filming locations and cinematographic style are essentially locked-in from the previous trilogy.

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