by Stephen Schaefer
It’s July 15. Do you know how many days until The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring finally premieres?
If you have to ask, “What’s The Lord of the Rings?” obviously you were not among the 1.7 million fans who swamped New Line Cinema‘s Web site (www.lordoftherings.net) in April when a preview of its expensive and expansive film version of the venerable J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy premiered.
That kind of enthusiasm – and fanaticism – has followed The Lord of the Rings since it was first published in England almost a half-century ago. It doubtless was instrumental in New Line’s willingness to gamble $375 million to make three feature-length films simultaneously over 14 months, the first time this feat has ever been done.
The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, opens Dec. 19 – that’s 157 days from today – and will be followed next year by The Two Towers and then conclude in 2003 with The Return of the King.
Thanks to a 26-minute preview at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the buzz is that director Peter Jackson, who has specialized in the fantastic with movies such as Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, is the perfect visionary to realize Tolkien’s wondrous world.
“Both the joy and the curse of the project is its beloved status,” Jackson said. “I just felt the most responsible thing I could do as a fan of the books was to make my vision of it.”
To the inevitable question – Can this Rings trilogy really rival Star Wars as the most popular film series in history? – the answer could very much be a big yes.
That’s partly because it’s summer, and from here, hope grows as high as Iowa corn. It’s also because the story’s elemental good vs. evil is both compelling and complex. Tolkien’s enduring fantasy of a mythological Middle-earth where a titanic battle between the forces of good and evil is waged by hobbits, elves, evil warrior Orcs, assorted wizards and humans has been embraced worldwide in 25 languages. A favorite of the drug-enhanced ’60s, Rings spawned an animated feature in 1978 that truncated its story.
Even if the first film is, as rumored, more than three hours, this Rings will have to condense and adapt. “Everybody who reads it is going to have a different vision of the characters, and I’m lucky to be the person who gets their vision onto film, which is all I’ve really done,” Jackson said. “If it’s not what other people imagine, hopefully it will be what people want to look at.”
Jackson’s enormous cast includes Britain’s two Sir Ians: Holm as hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who finds the magical ring before the story begins; and McKellen as the towering wizard Gandalf the Grey. Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett are elf royalty, thousands of years old. Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean are the noble human warriors Aragorn and Boromir. Elijah Wood plays Frodo Baggins, the hobbit whose quest is to return the ring to the one place where its evil can be destroyed. Joining him in this fellowship to save humanity from the evil of Christopher Lee‘s Dark Lord Sauron are three other hobbits, including Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee. [Actually, Christopher Lee plays Saruman — David]
It all began with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who was born in South Africa in 1892 and raised in England. Oxford-educated and later an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien’s fascination with languages prompted him to form a writers group at the university in the ’30s. There he first presented his tale of The Hobbit, a furry, short creature who goes on a quest with dwarves, meets a creature named Gollum and finds himself with a magical but dangerous ring.
Published in 1937, The Hobbit was successful enough to prompt a sequel. But Tolkien waited until 1954 to publish The Fellowship of the Ring, which is set 75 years after The Hobbit and the first of three installments in a “real” world he’d been creating during those years. Middle-earth has maps, a history and languages such as Elvish and Dwarvish.
“Tolkien loved the mythology of Greece and Scandinavia and mourned that England didn’t have one,” the filmmaker said. “He spent his entire life creating a myth, and we treated it as a historical film, much less as a fantasy. You come to believe in it so much it feels real. That was the tone of the movie. Not a fantasy movie, but like a piece of prehistory when giants and trolls and elves used to exist.”
Jackson is proud readers will hear for the first time the languages Tolkien created. “To hear Liv speak Elvish is remarkable. We put subtitles under it,” he said.
As if to bear this out, Tyler, who plays the 3,000-year-old elf Arwen, sweetly recited a line in Elvish, which, truth be told, sounds a lot like Gaelic.
“We’re not releasing a film but taking you on an odyssey,” says New Line executive producer Mark Ordesky with the understatement typical of his profession. “Dec. 19, people will be taking a journey with us. At the end of the first film it says, `The journey begins.’ This is a return to serial cinema.”
This is one journey fans are eager to join.