In which I continue to guide and correct filmmaker Peter Jackson
The other night, we were watching nothing on television. I left the room to get a snack, and when I returned, Cartoon Network was showing The Wizard of Oz. We settled in, despite the fact that it would have painful commercials and we own the 75th anniversary DVD. But the DVD was downstairs, and we were not so energetic as to retrieve it and then watch it from the very beginning.
Dorothy and company had reached Oz’s great hall and were making their requests, and then we were off to the West. As I admired the craftsmanship of the moviemaking, I felt curmudgeonly enough to comment that it had all been done without a stroke of CGI. Matte painting, of course, but there was nothing that was not present in our physical world in that movie.
The scene which prompted this get-off-my-lawn remark was the climb up the crag by the Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow, following Toto back to the Witch’s castle. Like Sam, Frodo, and Gollum’s climb to Cirith Ungol, the set is a simple plaster mountain, backed by fake landscapes. However, it occurred to me that we didn’t get swooping camera shots showing us the vertiginous peril our heroes found themselves in (despite the fact that director Victor Fleming was addicted to boom-shots: remember the Confederate wounded at the depot in Gone With the Wind?); nor did we have to deal with someone falling and having to be rescued; nor did we have to suffer the Lion abandoning the quest only to return at the last minute on top of the castle.
You see where I’m going with this.
No, it was all very business-like: our heroes are risking their necks to climb that crag—we’re not even shown a scene where they have to decide to climb instead of using the road—there’s the “I hope your tail holds out” gag, and ta-da! We’re hiding out somewhere over the entrance to the castle.
It didn’t take much for me to imagine what the sequence would have looked like in the hands of Peter Jackson. Besides the aforementioned swooping, fake rescuing, and cowardly betrayal, we would also have had to endure an extended fight sequence with the Winkie guards when they jumped the Tin Man and Scarecrow. There probably would have been hundreds of guards in the marching sequence, not to mention interminable CGI shots of the castle. The charming detail of the Lion’s tail swishing through his guard’s coat would be gone, of course, since he would have fled way back on the crag.
Then, with a shudder, I thought of the other scenes that would be completely bloated and overblown: the flying monkeys attacking the heroes in the forest; the entrance to the forest—who knows what other perils they would have had to fight their way through before being attacked by flying monkeys?; the actual rescue of Dorothy from the room; and sweet Cthulhu! the chase around the parapets. And that’s just in the second movie, Oz: The Desolation of the West.
And for what? The story would not have been advanced one bit by any of this. We would end up exactly where we were to begin with. The mood would not be enhanced: hello, “flying monkeys” is already universal code for creepy/scary/terrifying. (Sorry, Once Upon a Time, making their bites infectious doesn’t up the ante.)
So, Peter Jackson, go back and watch The Wizard of Oz. Make your notes, give rein to your wildest impulses, flesh that sucker out. Now go to a nice, quiet place and study why The Wizard of Oz is a great movie. Look at your impulses and compare them to truly great movie-making. Then figure out how to make part three of The Hobbit ninety minutes long. You’ll be doing the world a favor.
For those who think I’m being too tough on poor Peter, here’s a thought experiment. Suppose it were announced tomorrow that Peter Jackson was doing a remake of The Wizard of Oz. (You may make casting suggestions in the comments.) Can you doubt that it would be in two parts, and that all these concise scenes would now be action sequences lasting at least 15 minutes each (25 for the climactic chase around the castle)?
Would you want to see that movie?
(I do however want to see your suggestions for Peter Jackson’s version of The Wizard of Oz in comments.)