"Gandalf" Takes On The Tough Questions - Ian McKellen's LotR E-Post

"As has been said: 'The world is divided between those who have read Lord of the Rings and those who intend to". If you are sure you will see the first film, my guess is that you will be so caught up in the adventure that you won't be able to wait for the second and third films which complete the story. Then might be your best time to start on the novels. Whenever, you won't regret it."

In his October 3 LotR E-Post, actor Ian McKellen (Gandalf) answers fan questions on such incindiary topics as storyline departures, XenArwen, Tolkien's place in English mythology, and religous metaphors. However, like Mithrandir, McKellen's answers are sometimes cryptic.

Here are some excerpts:

Q: The LOTR website fans are overwhelmingly anxious about the present (presumed) mistreatment of the novel, obviously a much-beloved classic, and I have to wonder if, in your memory, a book of these dimensions has ever made the transition to film relatively intact? The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace...Dune...all unrecognizable. Why film a great story with great characters...by changing the story and removing the characters?

A: Lord of the Rings is perhaps the most faithful screenplay ever adapted from a long novel. This is not just because our writing quartet is devoted to the original and would share other fans' resentment if it were "mistreated". Tolkien has an advantage over Dickens, Tolstoy and other epic writers. His storylines have a clear sweep and are less concerned with the byways and subplots which characterise 19th century novels. Consequently the major milestones of the Fellowship's journey are intact. Inevitably, even in a three-film version, there will be some omissions of characters and elisions of events but as the story unfolds onscreen and as the landscapes are seen for the first time, little will be missed.

The enthusiasts who have read the novels over and over may notice every change but in doing so they will miss the point. Peter Jackson's movie does not challenge the novel's supremacy any more than the distinguished book illustrations by Howe, Lee et al were meant to replace Tolkien's descriptive words. Paintings, drawings, animations and at last the feature films all augment our appreciation of Lord of the Rings. And just watch the book sales rise as New Line's publicity for the film gears up.

Another point on this, the question that dominates my email: the adaptation of masterpieces from one medium to another is as old as literature. Most of Shakespeare's plays are re-workings of stories, poems or written history. When I moved Richard III from stage to screen, I was determined to make a good film in honour of a great play. Had I left every scene and line of the text intact in the movie, it would not have been a good one. Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, my favourite version of the Macbeth saga, distorts Shakespeare to spectacular effect. The play which inspired it remains intact.

Q: Whilst re-reading the trilogy, I found myself wondering how the Council of Elrond in 'Fellowship' is going to be handled in the movie. There's an awful lot of talking that could drive movie-goers mad (it's okay in the books).

A: Your comments are a nice rejoinder to concerns about the authenticity of the film adaptation. Much of the Council is taken up with discursive news, e.g. Gandalf's report on Saruman's activities. The film covers this part of the story more cinematically than by a long monologue. The Council scene, set in a perfect reconstruction of Rivendell, will feature in The Grey Book.

Q: Tolkien had in mind to create England's own mythology. Do you feel that this shows to some level in the films, along with the religious aspect of it?

A: If Tolkien ever hoped to establish an English mythology, he didn't succeed. The Lord of the Rings and its attendant books are renowned as literature and supreme examples of epic storytelling. But Frodo and Gandalf are yet to join Robin Hood and King Arthur in popular imagination. This may well change with the release of the Jackson movies, written and filmed (ironically) about as far away from England as it is possible to be.

Q: I was glad that you were able to debunk the rumors of Arwen joining the Fellowship. However, I wasn't sure whether this covers just the rumor of her being at Moria or not. I am hoping you can also dispel the rumors of Arwen being placed in battle scenes.

A: I can.

Q: It has always been interesting to note that thousands of the trilogy's readers view Frodo and Aragorn as Jesus stereotypes and Gandalf as a portrayal of "God". Tolkien (even as a Catholic) vehemently disagreed with these comparisons (as do I), but I was wondering whether Mr. Jackson intends to make the "Christian theme" of these stories apparent?

A: In a mythology as potent and detailed as Tolkien's, interpretation is inevitable. His myth, however, is more dense than a metaphor. Hence, perhaps, its originator's disclaimer. If readers want to rediscover their religion in the Fellowship's characters, all well and good. Filmgoers may well do the same although I see no signs that Peter Jackson is catering to them. Like his predecessors who illustrated Lord of the Rings on the page, his moving pictures are drawn closely from Tolkien's descriptions and word-painting.

Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.

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