'Rings' is golden triumph of good filmmaking over bad
By Eric Harrison
In recent weeks, dear reader, your faithful reviewer has felt like one lonely Hobbit, the last being on earth who hasn't read J.R.R. Tolkien's massive Lord of the Rings saga. I've been surrounded by staunch enthusiasts, all eagerly awaiting the film adaptation, the first installment of which opens today.
Movies rarely match the splendor of the great books that inspire them; how can a film, even a very good one, capture the breadth and texture of every reader's imagination?
It is possible, then, that some Tolkien fans won't be quite as awed by The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring as I was. It's doubtful, though, that anyone can come away unimpressed by its beauty, spectacle, scale, power and warmth.
In case there is another soul out there who hasn't read the books, I suppose it is necessary to briefly describe the story. But anyone who has seen the Star Wars films or read the Harry Potter books or seen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone or experienced any of the untold other works that were influenced by Tolkien already will know something of the broad outline.
It is the magical story of a quest, and a monumental battle between good and evil, filled with sorcerers, elves, trolls, goblins and all manner of strange creatures.
The hero is Frodo Baggins of the diminutive, big-footed race called Hobbits. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and a small group including the good sorcerer Gandalf (Ian McKellen) -- the fellowship of the title -- embark on a journey to the land of Mordor to do battle with Sauron, the Dark Lord and personification of evil.
Frodo possesses a magic ring that the powerful Sauron and his minions must have. If Sauron gets it, he will be invincible. Only by penetrating deep into the evil country and plunging the ring into fires that burn there can Frodo destroy it and vanquish Sauron.
Other members of the cast include Ian Holm as Frodo's uncle Bilbo, from whom he has inherited the ring; Viggo Mortensen as the heroic human warrior Aragorn; Liv Tyler as Arwen, the elf who loves him; and Cate Blanchett as the elf queen Galadriel.
The Ring saga was published in three installments between 1954 and 1956 and was a landmark in fantasy literature. A scholar of languages and a friend and contemporary of writers such as C.S. Lewis, Tolkien invented a complex world with a detailed history and an array of races and languages. He drew upon old Anglo-Saxon legends to forge a new myth.
The best fantasy literature is as much about the times in which it is written as it is about the imaginary worlds it depicts. The same is true of fantasy movies.
Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings partly in response to the horror he experienced as a British soldier during World War I and what he saw as the deleterious effects of industrialism on his native England.
When it was published, Rings spoke powerfully to readers who had experienced the ravages and dislocations of the second World War, and witnessed the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, it was taken up by a new generation, who saw in it an endorsement of environmentalism and the anti-war movement; its popularity endures.
It is difficult not to see parallels between the story and the present day, especially with the film opening at a time when the United States and its allies are at war against enemies that President Bush keeps describing as "evildoers." Further evoking today's headlines, the fellowship must go underground through dangerous tunnels, much as forces now hunt Osama bin Laden in a network of caves, in order to achieve its goal.
The movie comes on the heels of the Tolkien-inspired Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Though Tolkien detractors deride his work (and all fantasy writing) as children's literature, the difference between Harry Potter and this first Ring movie is clear.
Potter is a children's tale that many grown-ups also enjoy. What Tolkien has wrought, and what writer-director Peter Jackson brings us in this film translation, is something else entirely.
Yes, it is a wondrous and fantasy-filled adventure story that older children should love. But this depiction of world-defining warfare and study of the nature and power of evil is aimed at a more adult sensibility than either the Potter stories or Star Wars. It may be too intense and, at nearly three hours, too long for young children.
Jackson, a New Zealander who previously made Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, would hardly seem a likely choice to helm such a huge and complex project. He worked on the movie for several years with backing from Miramax. His idea then was to tell Tolkien's story in two movies. But then Miramax decided to trim it back to one three-hour epic, which Jackson did not want to do.
It looked as if the project was dead until New Line Cinema decided to take a risk, agreeing to finance a three-part saga at a cost of nearly $300 million. Even at that huge figure, the production saved money by shooting all three films at once (in New Zealand) rather than reassembling cast and crew to film each part separately.
The second film will be released next December and the third the following year.
Though New Line hopes it will be a spectacularly lucrative franchise, as Star Wars has been for its distributor, 20th Century Fox, Rings so far has escaped the overpowering commercialism that not only surrounds the marketing of Star Wars but also has infiltrated the creative process. (How else to explain the existence of toy store-friendly abominations such as Jar Jar Binks and the cuddly Ewoks?)
The arrival of each new Star Wars installment -- along with endless re-issues and even a traveling museum exhibit with a shamefully obvious commercial motive -- hardly seems like more than an excuse to sell new merchandise.
Jackson's film feels like an honest attempt to use the power of cinema to engage the imagination and senses in deep-ranging and seriously engaged myth. It's the real thing. It makes all the other derivative works look like what they are -- pale imitations.
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