The Case Against Peter Jackson

This month, as publications unveil their ‘Best of the Decade’ lists, we’re reminded of what was the singular greatest cinematic achievement of the last ten years: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not only did it win a combined total of 17 Academy Awards and gross almost three billion dollars worldwide, but it also marked the emergence of a new “event director” in Peter Jackson. An event director is a filmmaker who, because of past successes and fierce dedication to auteurship, is more powerful than the studio he makes movies for. And right now there are only three—Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson.

Conventional wisdom has it that these titans can do no wrong. Even when we doubt them, they come out on top (see James Cameron’s Avatar— or, see it again, after this weekend). But with the lukewarm reception of Jackson’s latest effort The Lovely Bones, and the underwhelming box-office performance of King Kong a few years back, does Jackson deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with the other two? The answer, as it turns out, is no.

Usually, when a director sets out to make a pet project or a personal film, it’s at odds with studio desires in terms of marketability, because it’s likely to appeal to a smaller audiences—think Martin Scorsese and the spars he endured with Harvey Weinstein while filming the long-in-gestation Gangs of New York. But when the event directors have pet projects, they not only enjoy boundless control, but also the full resources of the studio—again, think James Cameron and his $230 million, fifteen-years-in-the-making Avatar. Jackson’s pet project was King Kong. Ever since the 1933 original captivated him as a tiny Kiwi, he longed to remake it. After the success of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson was considered the latest director with a Midas Touch. Anything he made (or even attached himself to) would transform into box office gold. His version wasn’t just King Kong—it was Peter Jackson’s King Kong. The movie opened to a middling $50 million over its first weekend, a disappointment considering it had a budget upwards of $200 million. It eventually recouped its budget and then some, but only after a slow-crawl four month theatrical release.

Then there’s the case of The Lovely Bones. Jackson shocked his fans when he announced his next film would be a drama based on the chick-lit bestseller. But for him, it was perfect. He could revisit the dramatic heights of his early masterpiece Heavenly Creatures, and prove he doesn’t rely Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit to make a significant film. With his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, he adapted the film as if he was trying to give the folks over at Weta—the visual effects company he owns—some work. The scenes in the afterlife were almost entirely made up, not by Alice Sebold, the book’s writer, but by Jackson and his effects team—and it’s the film’s greatest flaw.

Most critics agree that it nearly destroys the film. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon writes that “With his garish, pointless and downright inept rendering of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson has hit a new low in the annals of movie adaptations.” The new-agey visuals have been compared to a seventies rock album cover. Ouch.

The Lovely Bones was supposed to be Jackson’s return to the podium, but as yesterday’s announcement of the Golden Golden nominations showed, he miscalculated. Event directors possess such ownership of their medium to the point that it’s impossible for them to make a bad film, or worse, a mediocre one. Peter Jackson made The Frighteners.

Jackson’s talents lie not in solely in directing (although he is an extremely talented director), but in producing. Until Fox pulled the plug, he was going to produce a film based on the video game sensation Halo, with Neil Blomkamp directing. Instead, they made District 9, one of the year’s biggest hits and best films. Jackson will also return to Middle Earth, but as a producer, when production on The Hobbit begins next year (Guillermo Del Toro directs). And he’ll be back another surefire hit, when the motion-capture adventure The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is released in 2011. That one will be directed by, you guessed it, Steven Spielberg.

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