One Score 2014
WEST SIDE STORY AND LORD OF THE RINGS WERE BOTH ENHANCED BY FILM ADAPTATION
By Lucia Mauro
Ravinia's upcoming projections of two Oscar-winning films, West Side Story (1961) and The Lord of the Rings-The Return of the King (2003), featuring the live musical accompaniment of their scores performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, have inspired a look at the transition from one artistic medium to another. While J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings moved directly from the voluminous page to an equally epic screen, West Side Story included an extra step: it's a modern retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (in turn recast from an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello and, even earlier, from Ovid's Metamorphoses) that began as a stage musical in 1957 before being transformed into a faux-realistic film a few years later.
In general, both works address issues of warring factions and a quest for peace and harmony. But so do most classics. With Ravinia audiences set to experience a simultaneous live-music and visual program, this is the perfect time to explore how filmmakers have adapted these epic stories for the screen while trying to find a happy medium between conveying the essence of the story and applying new technology.
The behind-the-scenes trials and travails of the film version of the Tony-winning Broadway musical West Side Story-by Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), Jerome Robbins (concept and choreography) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)-are legendary. They include the notoriously demanding Robbins getting fired mid-production for going overschedule and overbudget (but still retaining co-directing credit with Robert Wise). Most of the principal actors' singing voices were fully or partially dubbed, and critics-while praising Rita Moreno's Anita and George Chakiris's Bernardo-generally felt that Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer lacked chemistry as the "star-cross'd" lovers Maria and Tony.
The groundbreaking opening scene/prologue of West Side Story was filmed in Manhattan around the tenements about to be demolished to make way for Lincoln Center. Subsequent scenes were shot mainly on sound stages. For a musical about two young lovers caught between rival West Side gangs (the European- American, melting-pot Jets and more newly arrived Puerto Rican Sharks), the producers allegedly had to hire real gang members to protect the actors from being assaulted during on-location filming.
But mixed reviews and making-of trivia aside, West Side Story is undeniably trailblazing in how it transformed New York City's urban blights into breathtaking, almost operatic, stylized grittiness. A boxed-in, claustrophobic energy-gangways, fenced- in basketball courts, underpasses, a tight parking garage-engulfs the atmosphere from the film's first cigarette to its final rumble.
Luis Perez, associate professor of theater and head of musical theater at Chicago's Roosevelt University, starred as Bernardo in the 1986 national tour of West Side Story and served as dance captain for Jerome Robbins' Broadway in the early 1990s. He worked directly with the late Robbins and called the choreographer "very cinematic," even on stage. So, despite the expected differences between the stage and screen versions, Perez found some of the movie's experimental freeze frames, slow motion, blurring, blood-red lighting and prison bar-like shadows of fire escapes to simply be more pronounced theatrical ideas applied to film. "A lot of those techniques, or film tricks, were in the stage musical," said Perez. "They were just done with theatrical lighting, and instead of the film's special effects, on stage, for example, streamers [as in 'Dance at the Gym'] were used to mark transitions."
In the movie, when Tony and Maria lock eyes at the dance, everyone surrounding them goes out of focus. A stage parallel would be the ensemble freezing or receding in slow motion. The lighting in the film mirrors theatrical capabilities. For instance, when Tony sings "Maria," the gothic window in the gym has a spiritual feel. It then morphs-similar to a theatrical projection- into the earthier windows of tightly packed apartment buildings. The angelic window image recurs during Tony and Maria's imaginary wedding in the bridal shop before shifting sharply to a bright moon and garish splashes of red light on graffiti-marred brick walls.
Perez pointed out a key distinction in the film: the real and dingy cityscape that opens West Side Story "very clearly and brilliantly shows how those neighborhoods were pushing against each other," a perspective impossible to convey on stage. The aerial shots also continued the visual motif of the square-shaped compartmentalization of New York City, its boroughs, skyscrapers, highways, playgrounds, and even Shea Stadium. Most notably Robbins set up the conflict exclusively through seamless balletic/stage-combat- like movement, which referenced the brawl at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet and emphasized the simmering rage of the Jets and Sharks-the catalyst being the beating of the Jets' Baby John. Chain-link fences were a steady metaphor for caged-in animosity, and the actors scaled that structure with combined grace and danger. The clustered, vernacular choreography was paired with an equally confining, roughed-up urban landscape.
Interestingly, before they collaborated on West Side Story, Robbins and Bernstein were the forces behind the 1944 sailor- themed musical On the Town. Though Robbins was not involved with the 1949 MGM film version directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, the movie begins with three ebullient sailors traipsing through Manhattan's iconic monuments. But where the movie On the Town romanticized the Big Apple, West Side Story showed a more menacing New York City-a sinister tangle of tenements, "L" tracks and exceptionally narrow alleys.
While Perez lamented the film's truncation of Robbins's tender ballet that travels through the young, adolescent and adult stages of love, he ranked the screen rendition of "Cool" as one of the movie's most inventive highlights. After the murders of Bernardo and Jet leader Riff, the Jets regrouped in a low-ceilinged parking garage to temper their anxiety. The contained structure forced the dancers to literally crouch and restrict their contorted emotional outbursts, leading up to shot-out-of-a-cannon-style moves that illustrated the ticking time bombs of inner-city poverty, discrimination and disenfranchised youth.
It can be argued that film does not transmit the electric and communal energy of live theater. Even Perez-whose viewing at age 7 of West Side Story inspired him to pursue a career in music theater-acknowledged that film flattens out the three-dimensionality of the performers. In terms of Robbins's ability to move convincingly from theater to cinema, Perez said that the director- choreographer "did not ask the actors to project outward, [but] instead was more interested in bringing the audience into the world of the story he was telling."
Over the decades, West Side Story has attained mythic status as an epic love story that's also in- tensely intimate and relatable. A similar immersion into a grandiose story with moments of gentle, heartbreaking emotional connection is director Peter Jackson's film trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastic tome, The Lord of the Rings (divided into The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King).
When the three-and-a-half-hour The Lord of the Rings-The Return of the King was released in 2003, it utilized the expanding field of computer- generated imagery (CGI), monumental special effects, and transformative makeup. Together with numerous greenscreens and inventive camera angles, Jackson fashioned the sprawling City of Kings, a giant spider that moved with agility more believable than anything created by special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, and a massive army of the undead that fought alongside living warriors. [The latter scene was a point of controversy, since Pirates of the Caribbean-The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) included a similar brawl between real and decomposed, sword-wielding buccaneers.]
To call the adaptation of Tolkien's 1,000-plus- page literary high fantasy to the big screen a Herculean feat is a gross understatement. But a look at the "extras" on the DVDs of the films shows a genuine labor of love, with Jackson and his crew filling rooms with charts and diagrams as complex as a DNA double helix. The screenwriters vigorously plunged themselves into stacks of revised drafts, cuts, and the re-positioning of scenes and characters to make for a more visually logical cinematic experience.
The Lord of the Rings (published in three volumes between 1954 and 1955) began as a sequel to English linguist-writer Tolkien's 1937 children's fantasy novel, The Hobbit. The title refers to the main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who had created the One Ring to subvert the other Rings of Power in his campaign to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth. From tranquil beginnings in the Shire, the story journeys across much of Middle-earth, following the War of the Ring through the eyes of the hobbits and their allies.
Just as West Side Story may have been faux realism, The Lord of the Rings can be called faux medievalism-a super-sized Excalibur dropped into Dante's Inferno. When Ian McKellen's wizard Gandalf announced, "The board is set. The pieces are moving," from a visually symbolic perspective, he could have been positioned on a chess board along the banks of the River Styx.
Since Tolkien was a linguist intent on crafting an original Anglo-Saxon high fantasy genre, a Middle Ages setting reminiscent of Arthurian legend is not so far-fetched. Tolkien was greatly inspired by Germanic, especially Old English, literature, poetry and mythology. At the University of Leeds, he produced with E.V. Gordon the definitive edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and, later, translated and delivered lectures on Beowulf. In various analyses of the film, it has been noted that Tolkien mentioned chainmail, not full-blown armor. Director Jackson's choice of armor certainly packed a bigger cinematic punch.
Diehard Tolkien fans take accuracy very seriously. So it's not surprising that periodicals and blogs (including the comprehensive The One Ring by David Mullich) abound providing intricate details on how sections of the book differ from the film trilogy. Criticism ranges from the loss of the popular hobbit-guide character Tom Bombadil to the repositioning of certain scenes, such as the one in which the giant spider Shelob (Sauron's servant) attacks Frodo and is wounded by Sam: it occurred in The Two Towers but fit better into the film trilogy's progression during The Return of the King.
Local Tolkien aficionado and software engineer Brett Flynn leans more toward the forgiving side of the book-to-movie spectrum. He's devoured all of Tolkien's books, including The Hobbit and the nearly impenetrable The Silmarillion. In The Return of the King he "didn't think the characters got swallowed up by the elaborate visuals."
Though The Return of the King is personally his least favorite of the Lord of the Rings volumes, he thought it struck a "pretty good balance between the impressive acting, props, costumes and overall imaginative design." His main criticism was centered on the lengthy and repetitive scenes between Frodo (who holds the Ring) and his loyal friend Sam as they scaled the steep cliffs outside the City of the Dead, with the treacherous Gollum leading them to destruction. He also found that the elf prince Legolas and dwarf warrior Gimli lost some of their dimensions in the film because they were presented as comic relief, especially when Legolas slid down the elephant's (or, rather, the oliphaunt's) trunk.
A particularly memorable, diabolical character is Gollum, the ghoulish figure that represents the degradation of Smeagol after he obtained the Ring through murderous means. Gollum was realized in the film as a CGI character, whose movements were derived from a motion-capture suit worn by actor Andy Serkis, and from footage of Serkis interacting with the other actors, then being digitally replaced. The story of his transformation was held over from The Two Towers because the director felt opening The Return of the King with it would have a greater emotional impact.
One of the most striking visual elements of Jackson's The Return of the King is its gleaming City of Kings (a.k.a. the White City, Minas Tirith). It was modeled after the real medieval hill town of Siena, Italy, and appears as a simultaneously compressed and stretched-out version of it, represented by sets and long shots of a large, detailed model often populated by CGI characters. The turrets, towers, domes and archways capped with wide pappardelle-like stripes are all there, even the very high and narrow Panorama accessed from the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (actually an unfinished side aisle of the nearby Baptistery) that offers its own aerial view of the city. Siena's Panorama is also repeated as a treacherous walkway above Sauron's fiery cauldron.
In the film, through CGI, Jackson has clustered together Siena's marble-and-travertine stone architecture and wrapped it inside sweeping natural canyons- oddly reminiscent of the tightly packed tenements of West Side Story's concrete canyons. This brings up one of the great ironies of the cinematic Lord of the Rings: the universes it creates seem sprawling, but, on closer examination, they are distinct little scenic dioramas-the shimmering white City of Kings, the murky black City of the Dead, the hyper-green of the hobbits' village-each presented against an exaggerated elemental backdrop of mountains, fire, sky and water.
Despite any detractors who might have imagined Middle-earth quite differently from Jackson's vision, Flynn noted that because Tolkien's works are so abstract, theoretically they don't lend themselves to film: "I mean, you've got two major elements of villainy," he said, "Sauron, which is a giant eye, and the Ring. If someone pitched a screenplay like that, without it being based on a book, I can't imagine it ever getting made."
Fortunately, the film producers found Tolkien's massive fan base to be a built-in audience-a savvy marketing approach paired with ingenious, and big-budget, visual storytelling. The filmmakers also maintained a consistency across all three Ring films because each was written simultaneously and shot close together. So The Lord of the Rings is really like three parts of a single epic film.
The literary blockbuster, no matter how fantastical, maintains its immediacy. "Tolkien addresses themes that still resonate today," said Flynn, "like losing one's humanity by looking only to artificial and material things, and moving away from nature. Many people today are confined to cities, and our online communicating can be artificial and isolating."
The Lord of the Rings , like West Side Story, is timeless-a quality that makes both masterpieces relevant and effective in just about any medium.
Lucia Mauro, a longtime Chicago theater/dance critic and arts writer, has herself made a transition into filmmaking. Her short film, In My Brother's Shoes, goes into production in May; and her independent feature, Anita, on the life of 19th-century Brazilian revolutionary Anita Garibaldi, is set to shoot in 2015.