Images from the Movie
Aug. 16, 2000 | Do you know what became of the city called Minas Ithil, and what caused the spread of giant spiders and black squirrels in Mirkwood?
Can you discuss why ordinary people should not use a palantir, or offer an opinion about whether the Balrog has wings?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you don’t need me to tell you that heaven is just 485 days away. If, on the other hand, you have no idea what I’m talking about and studiously avoided those kids who hung around the computer lab after school, I can only advise you to brace yourself.
On or about Dec. 14, 2001 (that’s right, 16 months from now), the world will experience what the evidence suggests may be the most anticipated motion-picture opening in history. That’s when “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first installment in the first full film-feature adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, is scheduled to reach theaters. If it were possible to line up for tickets now, some people would be doing it.
Insofar as it can be boiled into one sentence, “The Lord of the Rings,” beloved by college-town coffeehouse habitués and hacky-sack players everywhere, is the tale of a hobbit named Frodo Baggins and his quest — aided by many friends and impeded by many enemies — to destroy the One Ring of Power and defeat Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, who forged it and wants it back.
The three books, and a minor companion piece, “The Hobbit,” were the major life’s work of Tolkien, an eminent linguist and philologist who taught at Oxford University from 1925 to 1959. In scholarly circles, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was perhaps better known for his critical edition of the early English epic poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” but from an early age he had composed his own stories and poems, some in languages he invented himself. By the time he died in 1973, he was world famous. Since he first published “The Lord of the Rings” in the mid-1950s, the trilogy has reportedly sold more than 50 million copies in 25 languages, and manages to engage generation after generation of fantasy-minded converts. In a recent survey conducted by Amazon.com, the trilogy was named the best book of the millennium, edging out such worthy competitors as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Stand” and “Ulysses.”
The production is being overseen by New Zealand director Peter Jackson. It’s a massive undertaking. All three episodes are being shot simultaneously in New Zealand, at a reported cost of $150 million or so. “The Fellowship of the Ring,” it is hoped, will dominate the holiday season next year; the plan is to release the sequels on succeeding Christmases: “The Two Towers” in 2002 and “The Return of the King” in 2003.
The Tolkien books, perhaps because of their density, have been largely left alone by Hollywood. The only film of “The Hobbit” is a modest animated version made for television by Rankin-Bass in 1978. (Two years later, they added a truncated version of “Return Of The King,” the last volume of Tolkien’s trilogy.) Also in 1978, “Fritz the Cat” animator Ralph Bakshi, backed by iconoclastic independent producer Saul Zaentz, made a stab at the trilogy and managed to get half the story of the three books into one two-hour-plus film, “The Lord of the Rings.” But neither his animation technique nor his storytelling abilities thrilled audiences or critics. Years ago, John Boorman reportedly planned to shoot a “Lord of the Rings” film and wound up making “Excalibur” instead. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, rumors about plans to bring Tolkien’s epic to the screen focused on big-name fantasy directors such as Ridley Scott, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.
At first glance, Jackson seems an unlikely choice for such a high-profile and expensive undertaking. His only Hollywood movie, “The Frighteners,” a horror comedy starring Michael J. Fox, was an unsuccessful mingling of tones that ended up pleasing few. But his calling card is “Heavenly Creatures,” a remarkable 1994 film based on a legendary New Zealand murder case involving two 1960s schoolgirls. In depicting the supercharged fantasy world created by the girls, alongside the real world that increasingly oppresses them, Jackson suggested the kind of alchemical powers and visionary technique that will be necessary to make compelling cinema out of Tolkien’s long-winded storytelling.
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