Has success ruined Peter Jackson?

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Tom Huddleston asks whether 'Lord of the Rings' director Peter Jackson has allowed his success to spoil his film 'The Lovely Bones'

He started out as a DIY filmmaker guaranteed to get big bangs for small bucks: in ‘Bad Taste’, ‘Meet the Feebles’ and the amazing ‘Brain Dead’, Peter Jackson turned thriftiness into an art form, squeezing bloody, deviant brilliance from every last cent. Even his 300 million dollar ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy was, at the time, considered relatively frugal: three massive, blockbusting films, packed with visual detail and epic splendour, for less than the cost of Cameron’s ‘Titanic’.

And then came ‘King Kong’, and it was clear the corner-cutting, budget-conscious Jackson had left the building. A 90-minute narrative expanded to more than three hours, the film opened with a five-minute musical montage which had no bearing on the story, and featured action sequences so lengthy and involved they threatened to test the patience. But at least ‘King Kong’ remained fun: Jackson’s new film, ‘The Lovely Bones’, applies the same anything-goes principle to the tale of a young girl’s sudden death and melancholy afterlife, in the process transforming an intimate, emotional tearjerker into a sprawling, garishly overdesigned, utterly unmoving melodrama.

So where did it all go wrong? The turning point between the old, frugal Jackson and the new indulgent Jackson is easy to pinpoint. When ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ recouped the entire ‘Rings’ trilogy’s production budget single-handedly, the director found himself in a uniquely strong position: the majority of the trilogy was in the can and the studio, flush with cash, was perfectly happy to use some of that windfall to make the next two even better, even bigger. With a full year of post production for each film, Jackson found himself given carte blanche to indulge his every excess: flashbacks, new and grander action beats, added visual effects. It’s noticeable in ‘The Two Towers’, particularly that interminable wolf attack. But it gets ridiculous in ‘The Return of the King’: despite being bound by the parameters of Tolkein’s narrative, Jackson throws in entirely superfluous elephant fights, underground cities, avalanches of human skulls and the daftest glowing green ghosts this side of ‘Scooby Doo’.

But ‘The Return of the King’ is a chamber piece next to ‘King Kong’, a film which rivals Cecil B DeMille and James Cameron for sheer directorial indulgence. To be fair, the monkey movie was Jackson’s long-treasured pet project. He’d been dreaming about making it for most of his life, and the man deserved a reward for spending a decade of his life slaving over the ‘Rings’ movies. But the sheer, unwieldy bulk of the finished product still beggars belief: those dinosaurs! Those bugs! That Jack Black!

All would have been forgiven if ‘The Lovely Bones’ had been a masterpiece. It was intended to be the director’s return to relatively low-key filmmaking: a small-town setting, a limited cast of non-supernatural characters, a plot that loosely revisits some of the themes found in his early masterpiece ‘Heavenly Creatures’. Alice Sebold’s source novel was a slushy, airport sort of affair, rendering its challenging subject matter entirely bloodless, but this could still have been a story for Jackson and his longtime writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to really sink their teeth into, getting to the dark heart of the story, underpinning the drippy pseudo-mysticism of Sebold’s narrative with a stark and emotional tale of grief and its consequences.

It wasn’t to be. If anything, Jackson’s movie version of ‘The Lovely Bones’ is even wetter and more winsome than the book, seldom getting close to the grief of the dead girl’s family, or her own impotent frustration at a life cut so cruelly short. But its far more serious criticism is – surprise, surprise – visual excess. Creating dizzying, expansive CGI backdrops to tell the tale of a giant killer ape is one thing; applying the same technique to the story of a little girl’s murder is an entirely different proposition.

The Lovely Bones’ gives off the sense not just of a filmmaker cut loose from all sense of responsibility to economics or audience, but succumbing to indecision: is he making a horror movie, a family saga, a spiritual parable, a period drama, a black comedy, a serial-killer movie, a tale of adolescent self-discovery? How about all seven, all in the same scene? This is moviemaking without restrictions, fuelled by pure self belief and massive bundles of cash.

Peter Jackson impressed many with his physical weight loss: now it’s time to apply the same principles to his moviemaking. Trim the fat, cut out the rich stuff and get back to hearty, nourishing meat-and-potatoes storytelling.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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