LOTR Review - Newsday

From Page to Screen, 'Lord' Rules
First installment in Tolkien epic has 'Ring' of truth and grandeur
By John Anderson

December 19, 2001

ONLY BY a public mind befogged by movies and box office would "Harry Potter" be uttered in the same breath as "The Lord of the Rings." But that's the way it's been this season. Both prefigured huge sales, both are the literary adaptations of the year and both were/are waited by rapacious hordes eager to part with their hard-earned-or-otherwise dollars. But in terms of literature, scope and rabid devotion, one is a wizard and the other is a dwarf.

Harry, bless his heart, is the object of a cult dominated by 11- to 14-year-olds. Conversely, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the one-time Oxford professor of Anglo- Saxon, who created whole worlds ripe with ornate languages, cryptic ritual and barely revealed histories, has inspired generations - at least as many as have passed this way since his three novels of Middle-earth ("The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers," "The Return of the King") were packaged in a single volume and made an essential part of the '60s counterculture, and costuming.

So the stakes are that much higher in bringing "The Lord of the Rings" to the screen. Tolkien acolytes will likely have their teeth bared, waiting for a slip, a trim, a gesture of irreverence in adapting their beloved books for a medium that's inherently iconoclastic. But there's the rub: "Harry," faithful to a fault, turned out to be a fairly mediocre movie. "The Fellowship of the Ring," which takes huge liberties, makes extensive cuts in content and exterminates a certain number of characters, is an invigorating epic, a film whose grandeur does the closest justice imaginable to Tolkien's whole- earthly vision.

Not a Tolkienite myself by any stretch, I watched the film in the company of two self-acknowledged authorities, and even they admitted that "The Fellowship of the Ring" - which begins among the Hobbits of the Shire and follows Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) on his quest to get the seductively powerful ring back to Mordor and around the malevolent Sauron - was the movie they wanted to see. Yes, they had quibbles (which sound like Shire creatures themselves): Since little attention is paid to the backstory of Boromir (Sean Bean) - how his allegiance with Frodo, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the rest was specifically linked to the Two Towers - they wanted to know how it all would be explained next year, when the second part of the trilogy is released. And since almost nothing was made of the royal lineage of Aragorn, aka Strider, how would "The Return of the King" manage to explain itself, two years from now?

Let's let New Line Pictures worry about that. What we have in "The Lord of the Rings" so far is an adventure of swashbuckling "Star Wars" intensity, crossed with an intricate tapestry of courage, cravenness and faux-medieval sorcery. Once Frodo, our reluctant hairy-footed Hobbit hero, receives the ring from the departing Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and is enlisted by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to safeguard it and protect Middle-earth from total domination, we're off on a saga of rousing manhood (or Hobbithood) and the Ring's peculiar talent for tempting even the most righteous hearts with its promise of ultimate power.

Australia's Peter Jackson, whose work has included the Muppets-and-mayhem comedy of "Meet the Feebles" and the daylit gothic of "Heavenly Creatures," has created a Tolkien-inspired world of slightly antiqued character and, frequently, awe- inspiring scale. The look often might be described as large-pored, like a 16-mm blowup to 32 mm, making the movie seem less immediate but more remote and therefore charmed. The real visual treats, however, come via the movie's inspired re-creations of such Tolkien locales as the Mines of Moria, slithering with orcs and an ominous balrog, and where Frodo and company battle the hideous Black Uruks of Mordor and a massive mountain troll before fleeing to head downriver, past the twin colossus of Argonath - one of the movie's more impressive effects - and on to their destiny in Gondor.

Whew. Whether "The Fellowship of the Ring" becomes a timeless classic will have to wait for - what else? - time. It's certainly the most rousing and ambitious adventure film of many years and bodes well for the future of the Tolkien fan: Ask any "Ring" nut, and he'll tell you the first book is the slowest, the most explanatory, maybe even the least engaging. But "Fellowship" starts off with a bang. And it still seems there's nowhere to go but up. 

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