by Patrick Rizzo
NEW YORK – Most filmmakers only have to contend with professional critics. Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, will face millions of long-time readers ready to second-guess his every move in his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic.
The criticism, carping and kvetching could make the few sour grapes voiced about Harry Potter seem like child’s play. Or, Jackson could be hailed as a new hero of “Middle-earth” for The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in his hotly anticipated cinematic trilogy based on Tolkien’s novel.
Just how anticipated is The Fellowship of the Ring, which premiered in London on Monday and will open worldwide on Dec. 19? Hordes of devoted followers have watched each stage of the movie’s production via Web sites in scores of different languages over the past two years.
“I’ve spent the last seven years of my life on this project so far, pouring my heart into every single aspect of it,” Jackson said “But I think that’s the least we owe to Tolkien and the legions of fans around the globe.”
The criticism leveled at Harry Potter, which has pulled in over $240 million since its release on Nov. 16, was that director Chris Columbus stuck too close to the book by author J.K. Rowling.
But Tolkien fans have an opposite concern — that Jackson will have strayed too far from the “bible.”
“I’ve tried to capture the feeling of Tolkien for those who have read the book,” said Jackson, an avowed Tolkien fan.
“I didn’t want to be a totally slavish Tolkien interpreter,” either, he said in a series of interviews to journalists.
“It has been equally important to us that the films amaze, surprise and delight people who have never read the books.”
BOX OFFICE WIZARDRY
Movie studio New Line Cinema, which along with Harry Potter producer Warner Bros. is owned by AOL-Time Warner, is hoping that Jackson’s high-wire act translates into the kind of real box office sorcery that Harry Potter has conjured.
The Lord of the Rings has received raves in early reviews from British critics. “Forget Harry Potter, this has the true ring of greatness,” the Daily Mail newspaper’s film critic, Christopher Tookey, declared.
“Critics who gave five-star ratings to Chris Columbus’ competent but uninspired Harry Potter movie are going to have to find 10 if they are to do justice to Fellowship of the Ring,” he said.
Jackson and his team of more than 2,400 actors, designers and special effects people spent two years, and nearly $300 million, making all three films at once in New Zealand. It has been billed as the first time a director has made a film and two sequels at the same time.
The sequels are to be released one at a time at Christmas 2002 and in 2003. The success of the venture may well depend on how fans receive The Fellowship.
Elijah Wood , who plays Frodo Baggins, the hobbit tasked with destroying the dark lord Sauron’s ring of power and saving Middle-earth, said fans would forgive the little plot tweaks and omissions required to make a three-hour film out of a 1,077 page book.
“Most of them will understand why,” he said.
Since its publication over 50 years ago, Tolkien’s story of wizards, hobbits, elves, dwarfs and men caught up in a struggle with evil for the future of Middle-earth has sold more than 100 million copies.
The epic has so enchanted many of its readers, the most fanatic of whom call themselves “true believers,” that if a portal were to open between this world and Middle-earth, it appears they would blithely step through it.
“The impulse is being called reactionary now, but lovers of Middle-earth want to go there. I would, like a shot,” wrote The Last Unicorn author Peter S. Beagle in his 1973 foreword to The Lord of the Rings.
With that level of devotion to Tolkien’s work, Jackson and his cast knew what they were up against in trying to bring the epic to the screen. Tolkien fans have been disappointed before. Sequels to the 1978 animated version by Ralph Bakshi were abandoned after a lukewarm reception.
Veteran British actor Ian McKellen, who plays the magisterial wizard Gandalf, said the aim this time was to make a film that convinces audiences Middle-earth was real. “This is neither history nor fiction,” he said. “You just believe it.”
But will the “true believers?”
To ensure that they do, Jackson hired respected Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe to design the films. He also brought in language coaches to teach the actors to speak Elvish and hired Tolkien scholars as advisors.
Combine all that with New Zealand’s stupendous scenery — the film at times is like a picture postcard of the island nation — and audiences should get the feeling that they are someplace otherworldly.
His expertise in horror flicks came through strongly in the lavish battle scenes, which are worthy of films like “Braveheart” or “Gladiator,” though they are a bit too violent for young children. The scene where Boromir (Sean Bean) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) battle the orc and goblin forces of the turncoat wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) is especially gory.
But the bottom line is that Jackson has stayed true to Tolkien’s major themes — courage, the power of friendship and the forces of nature overcoming those of industry — while keeping a sense of fun.
“I just made the kind of film I would have wanted to see as a 10-year-old,” Jackson said. “What I hope is that people will see the film and experience what I felt.”