Frodo lives -- on the big screen

Can the quest to turn "The Lord of the Rings" into a movie trilogy satisfy Tolkien's legions of dedicated fans and still produce a blockbuster?


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Andrew O'Hehir
August 16, 2000 11:26PM (UTC)

Do you know what became of the city called Minas Ithil, and what caused the spread of giant spiders and black squirrels in Mirkwood?

Can you discuss why ordinary people should not use a palantir, or offer an opinion about whether the Balrog has wings?

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If you answered yes to any of the above, you don't need me to tell you that heaven is just 485 days away. If, on the other hand, you have no idea what I'm talking about and studiously avoided those kids who hung around the computer lab after school, I can only advise you to brace yourself.

On or about Dec. 14, 2001 (that's right, 16 months from now), the world will experience what the evidence suggests may be the most anticipated motion-picture opening in history. That's when "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first installment in the first full film-feature adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, is scheduled to reach theaters. If it were possible to line up for tickets now, some people would be doing it.

Insofar as it can be boiled into one sentence, "The Lord of the Rings," beloved by college-town coffeehouse habituis and hacky-sack players everywhere, is the tale of a hobbit named Frodo Baggins and his quest -- aided by many friends and impeded by many enemies -- to destroy the One Ring of Power and defeat Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, who forged it and wants it back.

The three books, and a minor companion piece, "The Hobbit," were the major life's work of Tolkien, an eminent linguist and philologist who taught at Oxford University from 1925 to 1959. In scholarly circles, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was perhaps better known for his critical edition of the early English epic poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," but from an early age he had composed his own stories and poems, some in languages he invented himself. By the time he died in 1973, he was world famous. Since he first published "The Lord of the Rings" in the mid-1950s, the trilogy has reportedly sold more than 50 million copies in 25 languages, and manages to engage generation after generation of fantasy-minded converts. In a recent survey conducted by Amazon.com, the trilogy was named the best book of the millennium, edging out such worthy competitors as "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "The Stand" and "Ulysses."

The production is being overseen by New Zealand director Peter Jackson. It's a massive undertaking. All three episodes are being shot simultaneously in New Zealand, at a reported cost of $150 million or so. "The Fellowship of the Ring," it is hoped, will dominate the holiday season next year; the plan is to release the sequels on succeeding Christmases: "The Two Towers" in 2002 and "The Return of the King" in 2003.

The Tolkien books, perhaps because of their density, have been largely left alone by Hollywood. The only film of "The Hobbit" is a modest animated version made for television by Rankin-Bass in 1978. (Two years later, they added a truncated version of "Return Of The King," the last volume of Tolkien's trilogy.) Also in 1978, "Fritz the Cat" animator Ralph Bakshi, backed by iconoclastic independent producer Saul Zaentz, made a stab at the trilogy and managed to get half the story of the three books into one two-hour-plus film, "The Lord of the Rings." But neither his animation technique nor his storytelling abilities thrilled audiences or critics. Years ago, John Boorman reportedly planned to shoot a "Lord of the Rings" film and wound up making "Excalibur" instead. Throughout the '80s and '90s, rumors about plans to bring Tolkien's epic to the screen focused on big-name fantasy directors such as Ridley Scott, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.

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At first glance, Jackson seems an unlikely choice for such a high-profile and expensive undertaking. His only Hollywood movie, "The Frighteners," a horror comedy starring Michael J. Fox, was an unsuccessful mingling of tones that ended up pleasing few. But his calling card is "Heavenly Creatures," a remarkable 1994 film based on a legendary New Zealand murder case involving two 1960s schoolgirls. In depicting the supercharged fantasy world created by the girls, alongside the real world that increasingly oppresses them, Jackson suggested the kind of alchemical powers and visionary technique that will be necessary to make compelling cinema out of Tolkien's long-winded storytelling.

It's said that Jackson and his team of writers, given the need to trim more than 1,100 pages of prose down to seven hours or so of screen time, are sticking closely to Tolkien's story. The assembled cast includes Ian McKellen as Gandalf the wizard and Cate Blanchett as the elf queen Galadriel, along with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin as hobbit heroes Frodo and Sam. The film is being produced by New Line, Ted Turner's studio. (Zaentz, who controlled the film rights, is given an executive producer credit.)

Fans are hoping that the technical wizardry at Jackson's command is finally making Tolkien's picaresque fantasies possible in a live-action film. The diminutive hobbits and dwarfs, for example, are being played by normal-size actors and then shrunk with a computer effect known as forced perspective.

"In terms of sheer scope, I think this trilogy is going to be vast, one of the biggest things we've ever seen," says Steve Hockensmith, editor of Cinescape, a magazine aimed at fans of fantasy and science fiction films. "But in terms of commercial success, in terms of grosses -- well, goodness gracious, I really don't know. That's the $25,000 question, isn't it?"

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The $150 million question, to be more precise. Advance hysteria for "The Lord of the Rings" has reached pandemic proportions among Tolkien readers and the Internet's Ain't It Cool News movie fan-boy set. (There is considerable crossover between those two groups.) Hockensmith is not the only industry observer to wonder how this risky, densely plotted trilogy from a relatively unknown director will be remembered -- a fantasy classic along the lines of "Star Wars" and "The Wizard of Oz"? Or a fey flop closer to Scott's "Legend," but three times longer? Then there are the big-budget costume epics that vanish without a trace: Did any of you actually see "First Knight," the dreary 1995 retelling of the Arthurian legends with Sean Connery as King Arthur and a gruesomely miscast Richard Gere as Lancelot? Didn't think so.

Miramax was sufficiently worried about Jackson's ambitious plan to shoot all three "Lord of the Rings" installments at once that it put the entire project in turnaround, allowing New Line to assume the risk and reap the potential rewards. Having two sequels in the can before the first film even opens is "a tremendous crapshoot," Hockensmith observes. (In the past, studios have given the go-ahead to the filming of simultaneous sequels only after the first was a major hit, as with "Back to the Future" and, currently, "The Matrix.") "Let's say the first one stiffs, or is just mediocre," Hockensmith says. "The whole thing could be quite a humiliation by the time the third one comes out. New Line are really sticking their necks out for something that is not a sure thing."

Hockensmith's caution is not shared by many Tolkien fans. "I will bet my hat that the 'Lord of the Rings' franchise will outperform anything George Lucas could ever dream of," says Cliff Broadway (his real name!), a Los Angeles playwright and actor. To readers of TheOneRing.net, the most prominent of the numerous Web sites tracking the making of Jackson's films, Broadway is known for the columns of detailed Tolkien analysis he writes under the alias Quickbeam. (The name, he tells me, is that of a young ent who appears in Tolkien's classic, and if you need further explanation you'll have to find it for yourself.)

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There is at least some evidence to support the Quickbeam perspective. When New Line's official "Lord of the Rings" Web site posted the first Internet trailer from Jackson's film on April 7, it was downloaded by 1.7 million people. That blew away the previous record for an Internet film trailer, the million-plus downloads for "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" in its first day.

Barely a minute and a half long, the trailer includes only a few snippets of footage that will presumably be seen in the films. We get brief glimpses of McKellen as the gray-bearded Gandalf and Liv Tyler as Arwen, along with shots of the warlike Orcs, Sauron's foot soldiers, in their elaborate makeup and a few spectacular seconds of an antlike army streaming across the plains of Mordor, with Mount Doom, where Sauron forged the Ring, smoldering in the distance. There are also a few behind-the-scenes shots of the production's artisans creating the makeup effects and working on computer graphics, and short comments from Jackson and Wood. Perhaps most encouraging, from a Tolkien fan's perspective, is that the Middle Earth Jackson seems to be creating looks dark and a little raw around the edges; these will clearly not be movies for children. The Ring itself, the powerful and evil talisman at the center of Tolkien's universe, also makes an appearance and looks just as simple and terrible as it should, virtually burning with energy as it rests in someone's palm.

So Jackson's film will find a ready-made audience known for its fanatical devotion and scholarly intensity, one that transcends ordinary demographic boundaries of age, class and nationality. Fans of the "Star Wars" universe waited 16 years for Lucas to answer their prayers with his disappointingly feeble "Phantom Menace." Most Tolkien fans have been waiting their entire lives.

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While Harry Potter fans moan and wail in anticipation of what Hollywood hack Chris Columbus may do to their hero in the movie version, Tolkien enthusiasts are by and large jazzed about Jackson. Of course there is a subset of purists who are already castigating the filmmakers for their heresies: The half-elven princess Arwen Undsmiel, for example, played by Tyler, has reportedly been elevated from a beautiful onlooker to a central character.

But most fans I spoke with seem delighted with the dazzling effects and faux-medieval beauty displayed in Jackson's trailer and can barely contain their excitement. "I have absolutely no doubts," says John Miller, a recycling-plant manager in rural Washington (and "Gamgee" on TheOneRing.net). "It's going to be mind-blowing."

In addition to TheOneRing.net and several other professional-looking sites driven largely by interest in the films -- these include Imladris, Planet Tolkien and Company of the Ring -- there are literally hundreds of Tolkien fan sites on the Net. Some focus on the Oxford don's complex use of myth and language, parsing the elements of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Norse legends and dialects to be found in Tolkien's Middle Earth.

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I found sites in Spanish ("El Seqor de los Anillos"), French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, Polish, Czech and a language I couldn't figure out: Finnish? Estonian?

Others offer homemade art based on the stories or "fanfics" (that is, fan fictions emulating or augmenting the Tolkien tales) that range from surprisingly able imitations to embarrassing "thou art Bumble son of Bomble" dialogue to improbable elven sex scenes. Whoever wrote "The Lay of Galadriel and Gimli" is not only besmirching the reputation of one of Tolkien's most revered characters but also parodying Old English verse forms with admirable dexterity:

... In a pale ship of palm and beech in bitching purple,
did Celeborn cross the Sea
to greet again his gracious wife
Galadriel who gave so freely
to weary walkers worn and tired.
And giving freely to Gimli the Dwarf,
she bounced their bed while berthed below
her husband's boat. "Honey, I'm home,"
he called at once, Celeborn,
while walking through the willowed grounds.
So deep their passions (and so darned loud),
they never heard his nervous tread
on tiled courts until he came
to the chamber's door. How chaste she looked
as Celeborn kissed his babe.

But despite all the online fervor -- which no one in the film world has seen outside of things Lucas -- there are valid reasons industry watchers like Hockensmith remain agnostic about the trilogy's commercial prospects. First of all, while Tolkien's worldwide following is clearly helpful, and the online interest promising, it's also true that hardcore sci-fi geeks of precisely the kind likely to be psyched about these movies are hugely overrepresented on the Net. For the franchise to click on the mass scale New Line is clearly aiming for, millions of mainstream filmgoers who've never heard of Tolkien will have to be convinced that "The Lord of the Rings" is something more than a tedious fairyland fantasy for the Dungeons & Dragons set.

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"Look, if every person who's ever looked at Ain't It Cool News goes out and sees the first 'Lord of the Rings' movie twice on opening day, it's still not a hit," says Hockensmith. "It's still a long way from being a hit. I mean, you get that and whatta ya got? Ten million dollars, maybe. Don't get me wrong, the fan base is great for the film. But does it guarantee anything? Absolutely not. I mean, come on, the words 'Star' and 'Wars' mean an awful lot of money when you put them together. When you put the words 'Lord,' 'Rings,' 'the' and 'of' together, do they mean as much?"

Jackson, Hockensmith observes, faces a challenge specific to adaptations of cult classics, especially sci-fi and fantasy. "You have to be faithful to the material," he says, "while retaining the edge that modern audiences expect from action films, which is how this movie has got to be presented and received in the marketplace." "X-Men," one of this summer's biggest hits, offers an example of a movie that apparently succeeds on both counts. A filmmaker who fails, however, can wind up with something like David Lynch's notorious "Dune." To general audiences it was an incomprehensible muddle full of windy exposition; to fans of Frank Herbert's series of novels about the mysterious desert planet it was a bastardized distortion.

The Tolkien fans I spoke with seem reconciled to the idea that the trilogy's involved plotlines will inevitably be truncated and smoothed out for the silver screen. But there is bound to be trauma when their private mythopoetic realm, for so many years the unchallenged province of dreamy girls in granny skirts and bearded grad students, is forcibly dragged under the halogen lights of mass culture.

I haven't read Tolkien since I was in high school, but I still had an awful sinking feeling in my chest when I first saw the new action figure representing the Lord of the Nazg{l -- leader of the nine fearsome Ringwraiths who pursue Frodo and his friends -- now selling for $19.95 at online toy stores. ("Without the need of batteries, the eyes of the Lord of the Nazg{l will light up! Order now before it returns to Sauron!")

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To someone who has never been under the spell of Tolkien's books, it's impossible to explain why a harmless toy should seem so disheartening, even sacrilegious. I suppose that for Tolkien enthusiasts his world and its characters have a profoundly mythic seriousness that can only be grossly devalued by translating it into the world of children's playthings. The Nazg{l scared the crap out of me as a child. They are meant to be emissaries of soul-destroying terror; they're not tricked-out vaudeville villains out of Lucas' plastic universe or the World Wrestling Federation.

What's next? Action figures of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu, which drive you mad if you look at them? Satan from "Paradise Lost"? Judas Iscariot, with his little plastic pieces of silver?

Cindy McNew, who explores the running themes of Tolkien's fiction in her columns as "Anwyn" on TheOneRing.net, sighs heavily when I bring up the "M" words -- marketing and merchandising. McNew, who is 25 and just took a job teaching choir in a St. Louis public school, says she's "cautiously optimistic" about the Jackson trilogy, although she's troubled by the reports about Tyler's role. "Knowing that it's going to become a mass-marketing phenomenon is, well, a different thing," she says. "I'm going to feel the worst when I find out what fast-food chain has the 'Fellowship of the Ring' tie-in. When I see Galadriel on the side of a plastic soda cup."

As Broadway adds, "No one within American pop culture, the world of Britney Spears and Pokimon, has really ever been exposed to 'Lord of the Rings.' Well, that's about to change, isn't it?" Despite mixed feelings about the prospect, he's trying to stay focused on the upside: Many more people will now read Tolkien's books.

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"It's about time that millions and millions of people should be exposed to the source, to this brilliant man and what he created," he says. "It's about time that we had more than pockets of fans on college campuses." Then his tone becomes a bit more rueful. "Part of me thinks this is going to be fun and silly and great," he continues. "Then there's this other voice inside my head asking, What kind of disaster is this going to be, turning something that is so epic and so deeply revered into another piece of American pop junk?"

Whether Jackson's version of "The Lord of the Rings" is a smash or a flop -- and even the skeptical Hockensmith is rooting for it, saying, "I hope it makes 'Star Wars' look like 'Battlefield Earth'" -- it's worth remembering that over the long haul Tolkien's work will endure regardless. Dave Smith, a 45-year-old Chicago-area librarian who writes for TheOneRing.net as "Turgon," reminds me of the case of "The Wizard of Oz." The classic movie musical with Judy Garland is quite different from L. Frank Baum's original novel, but the film's popularity hasn't stopped generations of kids (and their parents) from reading and rereading the book. And perhaps, Smith suggests, I have forgotten the 1903 theatrical version of "The Wizard of Oz," written by Baum himself. Toto was left out entirely and Dorothy traveled from Kansas to Oz with her pet cow, Imogene. It was a big hit.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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