by By Polly Shulman
New York Times
Of all the literary and cinematic genres, fantasy ought to come closest to plumbing the depths of the human mind. Its rules are the rules of dreams, its monsters the stuff of nightmares. But with rare exceptions — the 1933 “King Kong” comes to mind — few live-action fantasy films have taken full advantage of the genre’s possibilities. The release of two eagerly anticipated fantasy films, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” may change all that, making this the winter of the wizard.
For readers, actually, it’s been wizard time for three years or five decades, depending on when you start counting — from the publication of the first of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, in 1998, or from the early 1950’s, when their ancestor J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” appeared. Both cycles set an epic struggle between good and evil among magicians and mythological creatures. They share not only a genre and a central theme but the fanatical devotion of hordes of readers whose fervent attention to every detail of the fictional world hovers between longing and faith. The film versions of the two sagas promise to challenge and expand those obsessions.
“The Fellowship of the Ring,” which opens on Dec. 19, is only the first serving of the director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the epic, with two more films to follow. With the producers Barrie M. Osborne and Tim Sanders, Mr. Jackson and his wife and co-writer, Fran Walsh, set in motion a project of extraordinary scope. All three films were shot simultaneously in Mr. Jackson’s native New Zealand. That meant actors like Elijah Wood, who plays the hobbit Frodo Baggins, the story’s diminutive, furry-footed hero; Ian McKellen, who plays the wizard Gandalf; and assorted elves (Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler), dwarves (John Rhys-Davies) and human warriors (Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean) lived for up to a year in Mr. Jackson’s antipodean Middle Earth.
Sir Ian says he was originally “somewhat apprehensive about spending an entire year away from home, but it ended up being the most fulfilling and enjoyable job that I’ve had in 40 years of professional acting.” Filming all three movies at once offered the filmmakers consistency and economies of scale, but at a reported $270 million ($90 million per installment), it was a huge commitment on the part of the studio, New Line Cinema.
Eventually, the Harry Potter saga will be even longer than “The Lord of the Rings.” Ms. Rowling has planned seven books set at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, although only four are written so far. Since her main characters begin the series as 11-year-olds and age one year per book, making several books into films simultaneously would not be practical, says the director of the first one, Chris Columbus. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the opening segment, is scheduled for release on Nov. 16; Warner Brothers also has plans to film the next book, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”
Warner Brothers chose Mr. Columbus, the director of “Home Alone,” for the first Harry Potter film after negotiations with Steven Spielberg fell through. Part of Mr. Columbus’s appeal was his skill and experience working with child actors, says the producer, David Heyman. Finding the right Harry was harder. “We began looking in November of 1999,” Mr. Heyman says. “By July of 2000 we still hadn’t found our Harry.” Mr. Columbus had seen the young British actor Daniel Radcliffe in a BBC adaptation of “David Copperfield,” but he was said to be unavailable. Then Mr. Heyman, who is British, went to the theater in London with Steve Kloves, the screenwriter, and spotted a potential Harry in the audience.
“I saw this boy who combined a wonderful sense of curiosity, openness and generosity with a warmth that wasn’t sentimental or too cute,” Mr. Heyman says. “He seemed accessible — an Everyboy. While I was staring at him, I heard my name, and next to him was a man I knew, Alan Radcliffe. He introduced me to his wife, Marcia, and his son, Daniel. The play was a blur — I kept looking behind me at Daniel. I called the next day and said, `Alan, your son! Would you allow him to audition?’ ” Mr. Heyman persuaded the parents to let Daniel become Harry Potter.
Most of the other child actors were newcomers to film, Mr. Columbus says. “We were looking at a real sense of freshness.”
Adults include Fiona Shaw as Harry’s horrid Aunt Petunia; Maggie Smith as the stern but fair deputy headmistress, Minerva McGonagall; and Alan Rickman as the sinister potions professor, Severus Snape.
Bringing freshness to “The Fellowship of the Ring” is a much harder task, given the 50 years of influence it has exerted on the genre.
When J. R .R. Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings” in the years after the Second World War, he meant to create a pre-medieval mythology for the English people, believing that their linguistic and narrative heritage had been ravaged by the Norman Conquest nine centuries earlier. An outspoken enemy of technology, Tolkien longed for an England before the invention of engines, especially engines of war. Still, the smoldering incantatory fire that his story lighted in readers’ imaginations had by the 1970’s exploded, scattering dwarves, elves and — most of all — wizards across story lines and media that would surely have made the tradition-minded scholar cringe. Blame Tolkien for resin figurines of bearded elders carrying crystal-headed staffs and for armies of elven horsemen charging across a computer screen at the flick of a joystick.
Blame him, too, for Harry Potter. Of course, the orphaned boy who develops his magical powers at Hogwarts has many ancestors. Ms. Rowling writes in a tradition of British children’s fiction that embraces school stories like Geoffrey Willans’s satirical Molesworth books, set at a school called St. Custards; and fantasy like the Narnia chronicles, by Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis, which sent ordinary children through magical portals to fight evil in a world of witches and talking beasts. Nevertheless, “The Lord of the Rings” casts such a shadow over the genre it created that Harry Potter could hardly exist without it.