Tolkien's ideals come shining through
The Lord of the Rings is the most ambitious and eagerly awaited project in film history - and now it's here. Tolkien fan Christopher Howse reviews yesterday's screening, and Tim Robey meets its director Peter Jackson
BUT will it be all right? That was what worried me. I didn't mind if it wasn't a great film, just that it shouldn't be such a mockery and abomination that it would fatally wound the memory of the book.
"Every rivet-head is detailed in some way," was the boast before the screening began by the man from the production company that made the props for the peoples of Middle Earth. He meant the rivets in the armour, but the real rivet-heads are the orc-gricers, the anoraks of Angmar, the emailers of Eriador, the kids who learn off the genealogies of The Silmarillion as if they were Churchill's speeches. There is no pleasing them.
For ordinary mortals, though, it is all right, thank heavens: it is one long, exciting chase; the hobbit, dwarf, wizardly, elvish and human heroes flee terrifying monsters and even more frightening unseen enemies, through astonishing landscapes.
There are mistakes. Merry and Pippin cook tomatoes, and Tolkien had taken care when revising The Hobbit in 1966 to remove mention of tomatoes - an alien, New World fruit. And I did wonder why the elves were represented as keen on polyurethane, garden-centre statuary, but no matter.
Tolkien himself was sent a film-treatment in 1958, and one of his comments, was: "Strider does not 'Whip out his sword' in the book. Naturally not: his sword was broken." Yet the makers of this film apparently make the same error for the sake of a good sword-fight.
Anyway there are three hours of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first third of the tale. The person next to me found the film slow and dull, but she had not read the book. The screen version makes the dark riders and their screaming horses with burning-coal eyes frightening enough for me. Think twice before taking an imaginative eight-year-old.
Think thrice before seeing the film without having read the book - and there is reading and reading. Tolkien suffers from his fans. Marc Bolan and Steve "Peregrine" Took in the old Tyrannosaurus Rex were OK. The Dungeons and Dragons crowd were worse. The people who think the Ring is the Bomb are worst.
The Lord of the Rings is not even about power. It is about death. Tolkien said so, and I believe him. It is about death and ways of "escaping" it: by longevity or by hoarding memories. Does the film convey this? There is plenty of evidence for those who pick it up. Boromir is shot full of arrows, like anyone in a Western, yet the theme of death is more than that. On screen the elves say they are doomed to dwindle, but will the viewer catch this? Gandalf falls into a chasm; Frodo weeps. He weeps again at his hard fate as Ring-bearer. "The road goes ever on" - to death.
There is room for romantic love in Middle Earth. The love interest, as it should be, is between Aragorn and Arwen (Viggo Mortensen and Liv Tyler). They follow the model of Beren and Luthien, and Tolkien arranged for "Beren and Luthien" to be carved on the tomb he shared with his wife.
The Lord of the Rings, film-goers must realise, is not meant to be like Middlemarch. It does, though, deal with big themes - world war and defending the right. There are parallels: at the end of the First World War only one of Tolkien's friends was left alive; and who knows what will happen to us in our own "war against terrorism"?
Tolkien's story embodies the heroic ideal. The heroic ideal is to fight harder for a good cause when it appears that you are all going to fail and die. Only doing that provides any chance that things will work out better. That idea is clear in the film. I am glad that, over the popcorn, our children are ingesting this strange idealism.
How fantasy became reality
The pitch meeting is already the stuff of Hollywood legend. On one side of the table: Peter Jackson, a talented New Zealand film-maker best known for oddball shlock horror movies and one highly acclaimed curio (Heavenly Creatures), but with no major box-office hit to his name. On the other side: Bob Shaye, chairman of New Line Cinema.
Jackson had brought with him a pair of screenplays - the fruit of 18 months' labour - for a proposed two-film version of JRR Tolkien's epic fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Shaye was so impressed that by the end of the meeting he had persuaded Jackson to make three films, not two - a result beyond the director's wildest hopes - and so they embarked on what could be the single most ambitious production gamble in the history of cinema.
"It was a dream come true," recalls Jackson. "What is truly remarkable about what New Line have done is the fact that they've financed three films to be shot at the same time before releasing the first one, which is a huge risk." (The Fellowship of the Ring opens next week; principal photography is already complete on The Two Towers and The Return of the King, which will be released this time next year and the year after respectively.)
"It's a sort of courage you just do not see in film-making," he adds. "Sort of like the entrepreneurial showmanship of the old days."
For all the chutzpah of the studio, it's really Jackson to whom Tolkien fans young and old, casual or obsessive, should be doffing their pointy hats - not just for finally getting a proper version of the books up on our screens, but for managing to make it this good. Watching the first instalment, it's hard to imagine how The Lord of the Rings could have been filmed in a way that is more stirring in its fidelity to the spirit of Tolkien and yet invigorates it so electrifyingly for a 21st-century audience.
As Jackson explains, barefoot and typically relaxed in interview, the most demanding of all the fans he had to satisfy was himself. "What I've done on every film that I've made, and The Lord of the Rings has been absolutely no exception, is I've made the film that I'd like to see myself.
"It becomes about my own instincts, and not even instincts as a film-maker, but as a film-goer."
It helped that he was surrounded, on the gargantuan 15-month shoot, by a cast and crew who enthusiastically immersed themselves in the world of the books and forged a close fellowship of their own. Ian McKellen, already a committed Tolkien buff and perfectly cast as Gandalf, quoted chapter and verse at Jackson whenever minor details were in danger of being fudged, and Viggo Mortensen, who plays the ranger Aragorn, stayed so determinedly in character that he took to wearing his mud- and blood-encrusted costume round the clock.
When filming wrapped, there was a poignant sense of comedown as everyone went their separate ways. Jackson says that he is looking forward to doing some additional bits of shooting for the next two films, so that they can have a brief chance to reunite.
The process of cutting the 500-odd pages of the first book down to a manageable three-hour length on film did mean sacrificing large chunks of material, both at the script and the editing stage.
"It was a case of really being disciplined," says Jackson, who spent three years working on the screenplays with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh (his long-time partner and co-writer). "You have to identify your central storyline, what is the film about, what do you want everything to hinge on. Obviously, with The Lord of the Rings, it's Frodo's journey carrying the ring, and it's what the ring does to him, it's what the ring does to other people, and it's how he responds to that. It's him and the ring.
"It ultimately means simplifying the book, throwing out a lot of the detail and a lot of the secondary characters."
Though some fans may rue the loss of such Tolkien creations as Tom Bombadil and the barrow-wights, the film spectacularly expands on many of his set-pieces.
"The trick is to take the essence of events that Tolkien wrote," says Jackson, "and sometimes to amplify small mentions in the book to something a bit bigger, to take moments in the book that he rushed over and pause and develop those moments in a much more cinematic way."
The one factor that has above all made it possible to film the books now is the emergence of computer technology sophisticated enough to make Tolkien's Middle Earth, his monsters and magic, look real - aided by costumes and make-up, set design, and a New Zealand landscape that serves very convincingly for the world he describes.
Jackson never allowed the effects to become the central attraction. "I wanted to give the film spectacle," he says, "and I wanted to give it intimacy as well. The most important shots of the film are the shots where you see emotion in the eyes of the actors. That to me is the most potent weapon you have as a film-maker."
The impression his film gives is one of total belief in its fantasy: the kind of belief that has been missing in almost all other attempts to tackle the genre. For Jackson, believing in the story himself was the only way to make it credible for anyone else.
"The Lord of the Rings immediately becomes more interesting if you just say to yourself this is true - this is actually historical fact. Gandalf existed, Frodo existed, this was six or seven thousand years ago, the records have been lost, but Tolkien somehow found some hidden scrolls that he merely transcribed for us, and it's all based on real events.
"We sort of mentally went in that direction with our movie, and I think we gave it that degree of weight and gravity, and that authenticity makes it feel Tolkien-esque. Also I think it's a more interesting approach than just saying it's fantasy, it's fairytale, let's just be over the top and make a film for kids. We weren't interested in doing that."
What he has given us is easily the most impressive fantasy film ever made - at least until next Christmas.
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