Epic Books, Epic Films

I’ve had a bit of time on my hands lately…

Time enough indeed to watch all eleven Star Wars films in order, the six Hobbit/Lord of the Rings Extended Editions, eight Harry Potters back to back and finally the four Hunger Games movies.

Each is a variation on the Hero’s Journey, where a young protagonist fights ruthless evil and impossible odds, aided by wise mentors and a selection of colourful allies. There is revelation and betrayal, there are battles and last-minute rescues. Each is a rollercoaster ride of triumph and tears,  reckless bravery and bravura speeches.

The films invert the classical movie tradition where established stars take the leading roles, backed up by stalwart character actors and bit players from central casting. The young leads began as relative unknowns, albeit with some stand-out early roles. In the wise mentor role came established Brit actors Sir Alec Guinness, Richard Harris and Sir Ian McKellen plus Woody Harrelson adding grit for the more American Hunger Games. Recruited as the hissable baddies came the heavyweights Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland so we know they are serious opposition. The middle order includes familiar faces from British and antipodean television, but as the series’ grew they become a veritable who’s who of acting talent. Harry Potter seems to contain just about every British actor of note from the noughties; Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman and Helena Bonham Carter to name just a few who have headlined other movies. There are some 77 speaking parts in the original LoTR trilogy and Star Wars attracted more talent as its reputation and its budget grew.

Two of our heroes (Harry and Luke) have a hidden destiny, whilst Frodo, Bilbo and Katniss have greatness thrust upon them. Luke is the only one who is not a reluctant hero, even if the others are unsettled and itching to escape the confines of their lives. He’s the only one who plunges into the fray with gusto, in line with the Saturday morning serial origins of Star Wars.

The evil that they oppose is absolute in the case of Voldemort, the Sith, and Sauron but a more calculating fascist dictatorship in the shape of President Snow. As Hunger Games is set in a futuristic dystopia with none of the magic of the other series, Snow can be overthrown by straightforward revolution. Ancient artefacts and arcane powers must be mastered to bring down the others. None of these villains have any hesitation in ordering mass executions, the destruction of a city, a district or indeed a whole planet. Hubris is their weakpoint; over-confidence in absolute power with little understanding of the values our heroes and their allies hold dear; friendship, love, decency and a sense of justice. If the bad guys are uber-Nazis the good guys have cosily old-fashioned values.

World-building is at the core of the novels and the films that follow (or vice-versa in the case of Star Wars). Tolkien’s Middle Earth is ancient and complex, and the details fall from the page and can be seen in the margins of the films from fallen statues and documents written in runes that scatter the tables. George Lucas’ galaxy feels well-used, the spaceships are battered, the futuristic technology is tacked on to traditional settlements that could have been around for thousands of years. The huge resource of spin-off fiction and television in the Star Wars universe creates extra depth which allows throw-away facts to be introduced at will; much as a film set in 1940 could draw on any of Earth’s history, culture or technology that existed at that time. Hogwarts’ history fades back into the mists of time with its medieval legends and spells, and it all feels ancient. Harry, Hermione and the rest are continuing ancient tradtions. Panem in contrast lacks either breadth or depth. Is us/here/future, a closed world where no-one strays beyond its borders and the past has been erased beyond the memory of a cataclysmic war 75 years earlier and an annual recycling of the shame of defeat.

Children devoured the brick-sized Harry Potter books, which are so packed with detail that transferring them to film makes them flabby and wandering apart from the excellent third outing and the finale. It is teenager-led throughout, and an intriguing aspect of watching them back to back is seeing the cast age, and indeed their acting skills improve. Initially they are the least violent, although the body count among the supporting cast ratchets up as the series progresses. Star Wars was of course conceived one movie at a time so leaps from one set piece to another, story arcs gradually emerging when it was clear more films would be greenlit. Much of the violence is guilt-free in the manner of old-fashioned westerns and our heroes whoop as Imperial spaceships explode and stormtroopers fall down like skittles. Hunger Games was written for Young Adults and is again teenager-led (though the actors were older), truly dark and unforgiving in places with the steely-eyed Katniss far from the flawless ‘Mary Sue’ character she could have been. Like Frodo and Bilbo (in the books at least) she is a reluctant killer. Lord of the Rings was written chiefly by Tolkien for Tolkien. It remains the most poetic of the bunch, even if the films put more emphasis on action and adventure than the author would have liked. Bernard Hill reciting part of ‘The Horse and the Rider’ makes me shiver every time.

Whilst the original Star Wars trilogy showed what film makers could be achieved without CGI, the remaining series would have been poorer without it. LoTR had proved impossible, and film makers before Peter Jackson had given up earlier attempts. The magic of Harry Potter on screen comes from the background detail; the spells, the moving portraits, the shifting architecture and the fantastic beasts. The Hunger Games are in themselves hi-tech computer controlled ‘entertainment’ and would have lost the impact if reduced to early Dr Who quality effects.

None of the villains survive; their fall is absolute, and the status quo ante-evil is re-established. The King of Gondor returns, Hogwarts is repaired, Panem regains democracy, the Jedi survive and the Republic is restored. Luke, Rey, Kylo Ren and even Darth Vader resist the siren call of the Dark Side ‘to bring order to the galaxy’. Galadriel refuses the One Ring, Harry breaks the Elder Wand and Katniss spoils Maoist revolutionary Julianne Moore’s plan to snatch the peace. For our heroes the victory is bittersweet. Katniss retreats to the countryside with Peeta and tries to put aside her nightmares. Frodo crosses the sea to find rest; the world has been saved, but not for him. In the sequels at least, Luke becomes a recluse afraid of what he’d become. I’m reminded of the way the western gunfighter Shane rides off into the sunset. Only Harry Potter can push the reset button and return to a ‘new normal’, settling down with Ginny to raise a middle-class wizarding family.

So, after 29 films and over 70 hours on the couch, I’m wondering what next.

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