Book Review: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth

Journalist Ian Nathan presents Peter Jackson’s trials in bringing Tolkien’s books to film as if he was writing a spy thriller.

Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth by Ian Nathan. HarperCollins, 576 pages. $29.99.

By Karen Schlosberg

Full disclosure: I am a Lord of the Rings movieoholic (and I love the books, too). I can’t count how many times I’ve seen this trilogy –that’s the extended version. And the extras. From the tragic 2016 election well into 2017, that was the only thing I watched, for hours and hours and days and weeks.

The epic scope of the fight against evil was hypnotic and comforting. I think of the conversation between Frodo and Gandalf almost daily:

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

And of Theoden King’s plaintive cry, “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

So I was predisposed to want to love Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth. And, indeed, there is much to like in British film journalist Ian Nathan’s tome, largely taken from his own experience covering the making of the three Lord of the Rings films and the three Hobbit films. Chronicling the decades-long efforts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy to film right through to today (with news that Amazon Prime Video is planning a television show “based on” LOTR), the book focuses largely on the making of the LOTR trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King), with some attention paid to The Hobbit trilogy (An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies).

Nathan’s biographical background of Jackson and his movie-making style provides context for the director’s ability to bring such a massive project as LOTR to the screen. From warped horror comedies like Bad Taste and Braindead (aka Dead/Alive in the States) to the drama fantasy Heavenly Creatures and spookfest The Frighteners, Jackson not only honed his craft but made working alliances with talent, mostly in his native New Zealand. These connections helped him build his special-effects studio, Weta Workshop, without which LOTR would never have been made. The cost effectiveness of New Zealand, its native beauty (and distance from Hollywood), and in-home talent created a harmonious synchronicity that could never, ever, ever have happened in the United States.

Peter Jackson directing a scene in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Nathan presents Jackson’s trials in bringing the books to film like a spy thriller, full of false leads, breathtaking amounts of work against seemingly impossible deadlines, studio intrigue, and, mostly, luck. The complex web of events could have been impossible to understand, but Nathan moves the events along with nail-biting urgency.

Once the book goes into the making of LOTR, however, it become difficult to follow. The narrative loses some of its crispness, employing shifting tenses, awkward segues, inconsistent chapter sections, and strange jumps back and forth in time.There are also typos that basic spellcheck would have caught, and the inexplicable calling of the actor who played Bard “Lee” Evans, when all of his acting credits name him “Luke”; leading me to wonder if perhaps he meant the actor Lee Pace (Thranduil) instead.

But the geek in me loved the anecdotes about the films, not found in the DVD extras, such as the time when Orlando Bloom (Legolas) and Sean Bean (Boromir) were forced to seek shelter in an old woman’s cottage for four days when their car was caught in a flood while they were driving between locations. However, the same geek wished for more pictures of the cast and crew and not so many of the author.

Ultimately Nathan is able to evoke the wonder that accompanied the making of the movies — wonder at the ingeniousness of the production and design crew, the ability of Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to reduce the essence of Tolkien’s epic into three films, and the fact that these got made at all.

Karen Schlosberg is a veteran journalist and editor. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Rolling Stone, Musician, Creem, and Trouser Press. She can be reached here or on Twitter @karen1055.

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