Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What Is It That Peter Jackson Really Does?

Peter Jackson, director of, most notably, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, can’t tell a story. Sound odd? Let’s take a look.

Peter Jackson can’t tell a story

Remember the scene in King Kong in which Naomi Watts (Kong’s blonde love-interest) gets kidnapped by a bunch of aborigines who try to sacrifice her? Supposedly, she’s going to die any minute. Jack Black is on her heels and an ominous threat in the jungle (Kong) appears to be getting closer.

The mark of an interesting story is that it keeps the audience glued to their seats or that it keeps the reading audience turning one more page and one more page after that. That thing which glues us to the page/screen/chair is brought on by tension, a small fear in the audience of what might happen next. In the sacrifice scene there was absolutely no tension whatsoever.

On the one hand, the scene looked exactly as a sacrifice scene should appear, all those crazy angles, tens of shots cutting quickly into each other, plenty of shadows, tense music, etc. And yet the potential sacrifice in mid-movie of the movie’s heroine provoked yawns in the theater that I had attended.

That’s... unbelievable.

How bad do you have to be at telling a story if threatening to kill your heroine doesn’t evoke the least bit of tension?

It’s not that Jackson is bad at telling a story – I don’t think he even tried – it’s that he’s not interested in telling a story.

Peter Jackson doesn’t want to tell a story

Peter Jackson doesn’t want to tell a story. What he’s really interested in, if we look at his last four movies, is taking an imaginary world he must have had as a child and making it real. He took the fantastic and hugely-encompassing world of Lord of the Rings and made it real in front of our eyes. He basically said, “Look! It’s real! I knew it could be real!”

In King Kong he took New York of the 30’s and made it real in front of our eyes. He took the unrealistic monsters and worlds shown in old Godzilla and King Kong movies and made them seem real in front of our eyes. And in that – that thing which he sought to do – he did a fantastic job.

Jackson doesn’t want to tell us a story. He could care less about the plot. In fact, the plot is an onerous chore he has to go through to get to the part he’s really interested in.

The faults of a new world

When George Lucas wrote and directed the first Star Wars movie way back before the technology for it existed, he realized that reality is dirty. To make his spaceships real, he always made sure that they would be dirty or broken or messed up in some way. The audience understands that on a subconscious level. And therefore if something is too clean, it doesn’t ‘feel’ real to us; it feels man-made. But if it’s messed up in some way, it ‘feels’ real. That’s just how our mind works.

Jackson should take that to heart in the next world he creates. Not every sunset is amazingly, unbelievably beautiful; not every vista is magnificent; not every detail is perfect. Imperfection adds to reality, and the feeling that a view exists in reality makes a beautiful vista more beautiful.

In the same way, real symmetry is rare in life and frequent in Jackson’s movies. The realistic New York cabs in King Kong drive in both directions with flawless symmetry. Nowhere is there a bump or a cab stopping for no reason causing a momentary, imperfectly-spaced jam with the cars behind it. The fleeing dinosaurs in the same movie run symmetrically just before they get trampled. Reality isn’t symmetrical and lack of symmetry adds to a feeling of reality.

Seeing as Peter Jackson is wildly popular, and that the opinions of most of you must differ greatly from mine, I’d love to hear what you think.


Paul said...

Isn't it a bit hard to create tension when everyone in the Western world knows that Anne Darrow will survive at least until Kong takes her up the Empire State Building?

John M. said...

Well, you really ought to look at some of his earlier movies. Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners, etc. There were truly moments in those movies where you ask yourself "What the hell is going to happen next?!?!"

Regarding LOTR, the story in the books is so convoluted and has so much backstory that it's hard to pack into 12 hours. The big special effects were just necessary to even TRY to accomplish it. Then when LOTR was such a smash, maybe he thought he could just do Kong the same way. Big apes, lots of noise, cash your check, etc....

Guy Hasson said...

Paul, you said there's no tension because we know what's going to happen. But think back to other movies. My guess is that you're like me when you watch Indiana Jones: I know everything that's going to happen, but I can't stop watching. The first Superman movie doesn't put the characters in danger for most of the movie and yet any time I've seen people watching it on TV, they and I have not been able to stop watching it. It has to do with an ability to tell a story not with the fact that the audience knows what's going to happen.

John, I've tried watching Heavenly Creatures two or three times before I knew who directed it and wasn't able to watch more than five minutes. Maybe the lack of story is the reason. I can't really say. So I can't talk about those two movies. And sure, the background story and the plot of LOTR is so huge and big that, until he did it, it was thought of as impossible to do successfully in cinema. And kudos for that. But once you've seen that it could be done, all you need to do now is tell it in a compelling way. That's the easy bit not the hard bit.

It seems to me that both you and Paul are saying: "There's a good reason why his stories are boring." No, if he was a good storyteller, he would direct (meaning 'tell') good stories. It's clear-cut.

kjb said...

Terrific blog entry, which is another way of saying, "I agree." That was a problem for me in the LOTR movies. I enjoyed the movies because I love the material that inspired them. But the movies became tedious at times because storytelling wasn't foremost in his mind.

There is a place for spectacle, though. The audience I watched King Kong with was gasping during some of the action sequences -- the stampeding dinosaur accident was amazing. I LOVED the scene with Kong and Fay on the ice in Central Park.

Jackson does a lot right with his movies, but storytelling ain't one of them.

Alon said...

Great Blog, Guy.
I think that many of your observations could find their way to schools and books of writing.

As for myself, I find LOTR basicly boring, I mean the written story.

yonatan said...


now i understand why i don't really like his movies. the only thing he does is making frames that look good. nothing more.