NewsWire: One Ring To Keep Them Out - The Irish Times

The Irish Times writes an extensive article about the tight security on the set of Lord of the Rings.

One ring to keep them out

Edward Power

Wellington is in the grip of Hobbit-mania. And it's not a pretty sight. Innocuous early tremors - local bookshops reported a tenfold increase in sales of Lord of the Rings, amateur dramatic productions of Tolkien's chubby, pre-Harry Potter novels proliferated - swiftly ceding ground to scenes of hysteria rarely encountered this side of a Star Trek convention.

The geeks, fat on Internet innuendo, rolled into town, drawn by rumours of billowing film sets swarming with furry-toed runts mushrooming in the verdant New Zealand countryside. And man, were they serious.

It was simply a matter of time before the hard-core nuts - obese, corn-fed Tolkien zealots who wear medieval garb at weekends and boast about watching the Star Wars: Phantom Menace trailer 16 times - turned mean. They'd long-hauled all the way from Kansas to trade nerd talk with New Zealand director Peter Jackson and his coterie of special effects wizards.

Instead, a ring-fence of dour security guards - who'd probably never played a single game of Dungeons and Dragons in their lives - fixed them a look and said: "Scram!".

The first break-in occurred days into preliminary shooting. Three reporters from an online horror magazine turned up chest-deep in proverbial Hobbit guano at Jackson's digital workshop on the outskirts of Wellington. Perimeter patrols doubled in a bid to discourage interlopers. Some chance. A 36-year-old American was recently apprehended for allegedly stealing pre-production video clips and attempting to post them on the Internet.

Tinseltown's Tolkien flirtation spans four decades - from the era when mushroom-chomping counter-culturists hailed LOTR as an anti-capitalist treatise ranking alongside Sgt Pepper and the musing of Timothy Leary.

But this has never been a "go" project. Too big, too risky, too expensive. John Boorman briefly talked up his plans for an adaptation but blanched and made Arthurian paen Excalibur instead. Avant-garde animator Ralph Bakshi - emboldened by the success of George Lucas's fantasy/ science fiction cross-over, Star Wars - spewed out a murky, hit-and-miss cartoon adaptation that jerked abruptly to conclusion mid-narrative. By the early 1980s pretty, vacant follies such as Krull and Dragonslayer were killing off the mini-boom in fantasy flicks. Everybody forgot about Hobbits storming multiplexes.

Now, backed by the clout of Los Angeles's New Line Cinema studio, former splatter-punk standard bearer Jackson is at the helm of the New Zealand production; three movies filmed end-to-end pencilled-in for world-wide release Christmas 2001 to 2003. Chiefly notable for ushering a fresh-faced Kate Winslett into the public eye in 1995's lesbian-murder fandango Heavenly Creatures, the rambunctuous North Islander is a controversial choice. Jackson's early canon - indie productions Bad Taste, Brain Dead and Meet the Feebles - spews baby-in-a-blender gags and sub-Gremlins juvenility. Sick. Very sick. If you can sit through Meet the Feebles without feeling compelled to retch, I'll buy you breakfast.

But in interviews Jackson steers a steady course; doffing his cap to aficionadoes startled by the casting of matinée mannequin Liv Tyler as elven princess Arwen, a minor figure whose role is significantly expanded to inject a modicum of "lurve" interest - Tolkien was a fusty Oxford don, his female characters were gilded wallflowers, more concerned with eliciting appreciative coos and simpers from his central protagonists than actually doing or saying much of substance - while insisting the $130-million trilogy will primarily be pitched at those who haven't read the books.

There's an Irish angle too: it is heavily rumoured that LOTR's world-weary elven race - a synergy of Nordic folk spirits and Celtic immortals - will trot out their weighty pronouncements on the futility of existence (they are a glum lot) in soupy Irish brogue. This would jar with the source text where Welsh, rather than Irish, mythology is a discernable influence, but scarcely comes as a surprise given Hollywood's belittling affection for everything green.

The cast, with one minor exception - young Scot Dominic Monaghan plays fiesty Hobbit fighter, Merry Brandybuck - is notably Celt-free. Speculation that Sean Connery would assume the mantle of crotchety-mage-turned-Christ figure, Gandalf proved ill-founded (the part went to Shakespearean scowler Ian McKellen). Dubliner Stuart Townsend, star of loyalist ultra-violent romp Resurrection Man, secured the role of Aragorn - the nearest you'll get to a conventional hero in Tolkien - but was replaced within days of arriving on set. Word has it that Jackson didn't realise Townsend was only in his mid-20s (Aragorn is described as a morbid forty-something).

Replacing him is Latino B-movie stalwart Viggo Mortensen (straight-to-video fans may recall his show-stealing turn as Satan in the lumbering Christopher Walken mid-1990s biblical snooze-fest Prophecy). Oh, well. At least parts of New Zealand resemble Killarney on a clear morn'.

Purists have sniffed at Jackson's labours. Oxford's furrow-browed Tolkien Society haughtily decried the casting of Hollywood big-leaguers such as Tyler and maturing child-star Elijah Wood, who steps into the hairy feet of hobbit saviour Frodo Baggins.

Tolkien's son, Christopher, pointedly shied away from endorsing the project. But keeping academics and diehards on-side - while producing a hunk of swords-and-sorcery sufficiently non-cerebral to sate the popcorn-munching masses - is set against the task of bucking public disaffection with bloated, preachy blockbusters.

A bleary Internet preview - smatterings of roughly-hewn clips interspersed with footage of special effects engineers toying with rubber goblin miniatures - drew six million first-day hits last spring. But, then, Phantom Menace pulled in a comparable figure and that film's subsequent failure to fire moviegoers' imaginations suggests a deepening weariness with clunky good-versus-evil morality tales. Jackson, however, might point to a rather more pressing headache - how to repel the seething ranks of fanatics swelling at his gates?

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