Judge Erick Harper gives faint praise to this documentary on the man, the myth, the creator of legends.
Discover the hidden secrets of Middle-Earth on a unique journey into the heart of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
Peter Jackson's acclaimed film versions of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy have spurred an interest in all things Tolkien. As moviegoers the world over have fallen in love with his creations, a fair number have turned to the source to get the full story.
Striking while the iron is hot, a group of Tolkien devotees in the UK has produced the four-part Secrets of Middle-Earth: Inside Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Each disc in this set focuses on one book, laying out the complete story of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in a series of documentaries stitched together out of archive footage, interviews with Tolkien's family and acquaintances, talking head appearances by Tolkien experts, and generous helpings of plot summary and explanation.
Facts of the Case
This set is composed of four discs, one focusing on The Hobbit and one for each volume of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Each disc contains one main documentary dealing with its respective book, as well as a number of small featurettes.
The documentaries on each disc are fairly uniform and quite informative. Each one is narrated by Graham McTavish, who spends most of his time condensing the essentials of the plot into an easily understandable summary that does not miss any of the major points. His narration is punctuated by various talking heads, Tolkien experts who provide some very useful insight into the books and their underlying themes. This information is further supported by archival interview footage and some rather spiffy CGI three-dimensional maps that help the viewer keep track of the story's progress.
The exception to this is the first disc, Inside Tolkien's The Hobbit. This is narrated by Tolkien expert Bob Carruthers, and spends fairly little time on the actual plot of the book. Instead, it focuses more on how Tolkien came to write his fiction. This documentary is also the strongest as far as incorporating footage of Tolkien, his children, and acquaintances.
The great strength of this collection is the archival footage of Professor Tolkien himself relating stories about how his creations came to be. To the delight of Tolkien aficionados, there are even a few tantalizing clips of the professor reading from his works, passages from The Hobbit and the Ent portions of The Two Towers. There are also interviews with publisher Rayner Unwin, whose father originally signed Tolkien. Two of Tolkien's children, John (now Father John) and Priscilla, also appear on camera to recount their recollections of their father's bedtime stories that eventually became The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The contemporary parts of the documentaries are quite useful as well. I found the plot summaries a useful refresher as I considered Peter Jackson's films. As a teacher of English, I also appreciated their focus on the literary heritage and themes of the novels. There were certainly aspects of the novels that I had not considered or understood as completely as I might, and I found this DVD collection to be very useful in that respect. In particular, Tolkien's fascination with Beowulf and his desire to create an Anglo-Saxon mythology stand out when one analyzes the works he created.
Of course, a few of the experts in the archival footage are a little full of themselves. In particular, Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter is remarkably arrogant for a man who looks and acts so much like a Michael Palin impression of himself. Perhaps that is a bit uncharitable; after all, no one looks particularly good in archival footage from the 1970s. Carpenter does make one very important observation, however, as he relates that Tolkien never really wrote for publication or with an audience in mind; for him it was "a hobby much more like model railways than writing."
One of the additional features on each disc is a continuing series of interviews with noted artists and illustrators Tim and Greg Hildebrandt. These two talented artists have done a lot of Tolkien-related work, including a series of Tolkien calendars going back as far as 1977 as well as illustrations for children's versions of The Hobbit. (Sharp-eyed fans will also recognize their work in the original poster for Star Wars; you know, the one where Leia shows a lot of leg and Luke has a massively chiseled chest.) These interviews could have been interesting, and the Brothers Hildebrandt seem like very nice guys. However, their meandering reminiscences about the artwork they have done caused me to reminisce about the Bartles and Jaymes commercials from the 1980s. Compounding matters is the repetition of material from disc to disc; since some of their comments and artwork apply equally well to events from more than one book of The Lord of the Rings, the producers of the DVDs economized on their footage and reused a lot. In any case, the brothers' art speaks for them much better than their interviews, so I would encourage you to check out their gallery by following the link provided with this review. There you can get a wide sampling of their talents, including a gallery of stunning 1940s-style pinups done by Greg Hildebrandt.
Another recurring special feature across the four discs of this collection is the music of Mostly Autumn. This band, based in the UK, describes their sound as "powerful atmospheric rock with a Celtic edge, influenced by Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Genesis, and reminiscent of '70s Fleetwood Mac and Fairport Convention." They have produced a CD of music inspired by The Lord of the Rings, different selections of which appear on each disc in the collection, as well as providing background soundtrack to the documentaries themselves. The music, some of which is set to live concert footage of the band, is fairly standard new age/rock/quasi-folk with some interesting Celtic touches and much repetition of the same musical phrases over and over again. I was underwhelmed, but if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you like. For more information on Mostly Autumn, please visit their official site using the link provided with this review.
Speaking of recurring special features, there is a nicely done five-minute biography of J.R.R. Tolkien included with this set. It gives a good thumbnail sketch of his life, starting with his childhood, his service in the horror of the Great War's trenches, and his comfortable life as a professor of literature. It's such a good biography, in fact, that the producers have seen fit to include the exact same featurette on every disc in the series. It's nice, but I'm not sure if it's worth watching four times.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is some good information here, but the audiovisual quality varies between marginally acceptable and downright awful. At times, the edge enhancement is so bad that narrator McTavish's bald head looks like a chart of phases of the moon. At other times the picture is filled with various digital flickers and sparkles and all sorts of mosquito noise. The worst spots are not that frequent, but the edge enhancement and aliasing are bad enough by themselves to spoil things. Fine details are very soft and often completely lost.
According to my DVD player and audio receiver, the audio tracks on these discs are Dolby 5.1 surround, although the package and Amazon both say that they are only Dolby 2.0. In any case, forcing voices, et cetera into this sort of overdone surround mix may not have been the best idea. The sound is just fine if you only use your TV's speakers, but if you run it through a sound system, it becomes hollow and fakey.
Secrets of Middle-Earth: Inside Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a low-budget affair, but it is clearly a labor of love and makes a nice companion piece to the novels. The special features are a little dodgy, but one need to look at the bigger picture: this whole collection is really a supplement, a special feature that complements Tolkien's novels and Jackson's films equally well.
We stand adjourned.
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