Xposé #62 Cover.
Writer and broadcaster Brian Sibley brings a unique perspective to his role as the author of The Official Lord of the Rings Movie Guide, and two further volumes on the production of the saga which will follow as the remaining films are released. On top of being a Tolkien expert and the author of a number of maps of Middle-earth, he was also the co-writer of the BBC’s acclaimed 1981 radio adaptation of the tale. So it’s hardly surprising that he found himself comparing notes with the script writers responsible for this latest version when he visited the set.
“I had long fascinating conversations with Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, about `How you do this, and that’, because we’d been through the same experience, though they’re having to contract it even more… Director Peter Jackson said to me, `Yeah, but you had 13 hours to do it!’, which is considerably more than they’re going to have for the entire story, and yet we still had to make contractions, such as dropping the character of Tom Bombadil. So in many ways I think they’ve been more courageous than I’d been in some of the things they’ve done. I was reading the response of people in the Tolkien society magazine to some of the things that are coming out, about the role of Arwen for instance in the film, and realizing that there is going to be a huge amount of criticism from the purists, which is a pity in a way.”
Arwen is of course, the distant Elven beauty who the Ranger Strider plans to marry once he’s reclaimed his true name and position – as Aragorn, the rightful king of Gondor. “The issue with Arwen,” explains Sibley, “is that in the books, Arwen does not speak until the end of volume three. So what do you do with this character? Do you have her as some vague beautiful Elven woman who is seen in a mist at Rivendell? You have to believe that she’s prepared eventually to give up her immortality and marry Aragorn, and you have to believe that this is part of Aragorn’s concerns, his love for Arwen. So fleshing her out as a character, I think that’s perfectly valid. You have to believe in her and you can’t wait until film three in two years time to find out who the hell she is. You have to know now.” However, Tolkien’s work has such a dedicated following that others are sure to disagree.
“I understand why people will carp and complain, it’s inevitable, but what I felt very strongly on the set in New Zealand was that the one thing that Peter and his cast and crew have captured is the real spirit of the book. There’s absolutely no chance that they’ve lost or sacrificed the central theme of the quest, and not just the quest but the significance of the quest: the cost to Frodo, the cost to everybody who’s involved in it. To have captured and held that is one hell of an achievement to my mind. They could just have gone for the adventure, for sweeping vistas of marching armies, and those are going to be there in the film, but I believe Peter Jackson has really captured the core of the story, its heart and emotions. But there’s going to be a lot of criticism by purists, because people find it very hard to accept that in moving to a new medium, you have to do it differently.”
Sir Ian Holm is another direct link between the radio and film versions. Having played the Ring Bearer Frodo Baggins in the 1981 production, he returns to Hobbiton as Frodo’s uncle Bilbo in Peter Jackson’s production. “It’s not accidental,” explains Sibley, “that he’s playing the part of Bilbo in the film series as Peter Jackson knew of the radio version. One of the most moving things for me was to travel to New Zealand and find that everybody there knew about the radio series. Indeed when I went to the Weta workshop, where they built all the magic for the film, and are now largely employed in making the originals of sculptures for Sideshow Toys (in many cases the people working on the toys are the people who designed the prosthetic makeup worn by the actors in the film), in the background I could hear Stephen Oliver’s music from the radio series.
It turned out that these young artists working there had this battered old cassette recorder and the box of tapes and were playing them. When they got to the end they’d have a couple of weeks off, and then they’d play it again! So there I was, sitting there in an office reading the script for the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, while outside still in earshot I could hear Ian Holm, Bill Nighy, and Peter Woodthorpe, as my version of Frodo, Sam and Gollum, crossing the dead marshes… That was really, really spooky.
“So Peter knew of the series. In fact it became a kind of emergency crash course for people who joined the film – if an actor came onto the film like Sean Bean who didn’t know the book they would give them the boxed set and say `Don’t worry about the book, but listen to this on the aircraft coming over to New Zealand’…”
Get the full Elijah Wood and Brian Sibley interviews, plus director Peter Jackson in conversation and our guide to the world of The Lord of the Rings – all in one 16-page pull-out section when you buy Xposé #62