Is Peter Jackson Insane?

In considering the above question, let’s take as evidence Jackson’s statements concerning the theatrical and DVD cuts of The Lord of the Rings. If you’ve heard his commentary tracks on the extended DVDs, or read one of several interviews with him through the years, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but for reference here’s an excerpt from a recent press roundtable, sent to me by alert reader Michael Thomas:

The DVD versions . . . it’s so interesting, because it’s all so new, this DVD thinking, a new way of thinking about filmmaking. It’s just kind of fun. (Pause.) I mean, the films that we’ve cut and released theatrically I regard as being the best versions of the movies that we should have in theaters. The motivation for the DVDs is to give the fans the stuff that we couldn�t include in the films. And it has only grown out of the fact that we have so much footage. We didn’t ever think we were doing extended cuts when we were shooting the movie, but when we started to cut the films, and we realized there were all of the scenes that weren’t going to be in the movie, we just thought, “Well, these are good scenes, they’re legitimate parts of the book, they’re scenes that people would be wanting . . . or expecting to see.” So, we put them in this alternative version of the fans. At the time, I felt that I was sacrificing pacing and momentum in order for these scenes to go in, but I figured that the theatrical version exists, so this is like a version for the real aficionados who want to see this extra material. Clearly, the dynamics of DVD is different: you can get up and have a cup of tea anytime you like, you can pause it, you can watch it over two nights. Now, I read reviews where people say that the extended cuts are much better than the theatrical cuts. That’s the response that some people are happening. The unknown factor that you can never really know is would the extended cuts have gone down so well if they were the theatrical releases, and you had people sitting in the cinema for three hours forty minutes instead of three hours. Who knows? I don’t really regard them as the definitive versions of the movies, but I’m happy . . . every time I see a review where someone says, “Oh, this is better than the theatrical version.” I’m happy because they like the DVD version. That’s a nice thing to read. But I’m too close to it. I don’t really know.

The notion that the DVD release is “an alternative version for the fans” stands in direct opposition to what I’ve argued which is that the extended cuts represent the “complete aesthetic product as it was intended”—not just a better version, but the version that Jackson himself would consider the “real” one. So it naturally irks me to see Jackson saying things to the contrary. I’m perfectly capable of separating out the fanboy in me from the steely-eyed critic; the extended cuts aren’t only superior because they include more memorable moments from Tolkien, but because they include crucial information for understanding the plot, and in many cases, far from “sacrificing pacing,” actually fix pacing that’s broken. I’m hardly alone in thinking this, or in being somewhat baffled by comments like those above.

So what’s going on here? We have a couple of possibilities:

1. Peter Jackson has other things he’d rather say in an interview, but can’t. Privately, he rolls his eyes at the fact that some pinhead at New Line got confused between Osgiliath and Helm’s Deep and made him insert a dumb scene where Faramir painstakingly points out the difference on a map—and to keep that scene when he had to cut other, much better ones. He knows perfectly well that the extended cuts are better—and maybe should have been even longer—but to say so makes public some of the tensions between him and the studio, which is something he doesn’t want to do.

The same principle applies for all that documentary material on the DVDs. It’s very easy to be lulled into a false sense of intimacy through the commentary tracks, because it feels like it’s just you and the filmmakers in a room, like they’re talking just to you. But they’re not, and Jackson has to watch what he says in there even more than he would in an interview.

Maybe Jackson will eventually speak on his real feelings about the cuts he was forced to make, once enough time has passed, or if something happens to spoil his relationship with New Line anyway. Until then we’ll have to work from rumors we get from our friend who knew that one guy who was at a party with Orlando Bloom.

2. Peter Jackson is insane. He firmly believes that the theatrical cut is every bit as good as the extended one, just like he says. Like Quentin Tarantino, he’s a brilliant filmmaker who fails to appreciate just what it is about his movies that makes them works of genius. Jackson’s lack of sanity might give us cause for concern about whether his future film projects will be as well-crafted as The Lord of the Rings, but we can be thankful that he decided to do the extended cuts at all, regardless of what he thinks of them.

There is, of course, a modified version of possibility #2 that’s more likely to be true: as is often the case in creative projects of any sort, Jackson is too close—mentally and chronologically—to his work to see it clearly. He believes what he says now, but in a few years, looking back, he’ll slap himself on the forehead and realize that when he was slicing things down to fit into three hours per film he was actually doing some damage.

And there’s another, scarier possibility, which is that I am wrong. The strongest evidence for this is that everyone I know who feels strongly about the superiority of the extended cuts is to some extent a Tolkien aficianado, and most of the people I know who haven’t read Tolkien don’t think the difference is as big of a deal. This indirectly supports Jackson’s case, but I hasten to note that the films are an adaptation, and so our critique of them must account for how well they adapt. Therefore it is to the aficianados we must turn for the clearest appreciation of Jackson’s failure or success.

UPDATE: There’s much commenty goodness in this entry, so don’t miss out.