In this Manhattan movie house, at 10:30 a.m., you can tell who isn’t here to watch Kevin Costner handle the Cuban missile crisis in “Thirteen Days.” You, sir, with the tattoos and the FRODO LIVES! T shirt? Bet you came to see the trailer for “The Lord of the Rings”? Knew it.
WORD GOT OUT three years ago that New Line Cinema planned to film “The Lord of the Rings,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s sword-and-sorcery trilogy involving furry-footed hobbits, immortal elves, doughty dwarves, foul orcs, the dark Land of Mordor and a Ring so evil and powerful that it gives us the willies just to type the word. (“One Ring to rule them all… and in the darkness bind them.”) Since then Tolkien obsessives have been in a spiritual state equivalent to revving an engine in neutral. As one character in the trilogy says, “The reason of my waking mind tells me a great evil has befallen… But… a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny.” And that’s why our man here, Eric Negron, 30, who works at a downtown tattoo parlor, slept in the theater lobby last night; the kindly manager let him crash on the carpet by the concession stand.
New Line’s “Lord of the Rings” isn’t the first attempt to film the trilogy. Tolkien (who died in 1973) turned down a treatment for an animated version that committed such barbarisms as referring to lembas, the elves’ preternaturally nutritious waybread, as “food concentrate.” Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 film combined animation with “rotoscoping,” in which footage of live actors was copied onto animation paper; in the words of another Tolkien character, “the memory is very evil.” Not even the most skeptical fan believes that Peter Jackson, director of New Line’s live-action film, could do worse. And no one thinks last week’s ousting of New Line president Michael De Luca will affect the movie one way or the other.
Thanks to rumors, spies in New Zealand (Jackson’s home and the film’s location) and, most of all, New Line’s kitchy-coo dance with Tolkien obsessives on the Internet, fans are getting hints of what Jackson, who directed the well-received “Heavenly Creatures,” is doing with, or to, their beloved epic. (In less than a week the official Web site, lordoftherings.net, had 62 million hits.) One thing they know he got right was to do the three volumes as three films. (For how much? The producers will say only that the original $260 million budget has been “enhanced.”) Part one won’t be out until next Christmas, and the others not until ’02 and ’03-quite a strain if you don’t know that everything finally turns out OK. As of last week, when the trailer gave a peek at characters and costumes, many fans were still reserving judgment. “I hope you’re not cooking up some story about how Tolkien geeks hate the movie and want to crucify Peter Jackson,” one “Mr. Underhill” told us in an e-mail. (Mr. Underhill is the alias used by hero Frodo Baggins, played by Elijah Wood.) “Lots of us can’t wait for the movies to come out-I’m betting at least as many as have already decided they’ll be crap.” True, we can’t guarantee Mr. Underhill isn’t Peter Jackson.
Contrary to what you may hear, “The Lord of the Rings” won’t be “competing” with Christmas 2001’s other British fantasy novel turned film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: a zillion people will go to both-most of them the same people. But J. K. Rowling’s magical universe is jokier, more contemporary and less primal than Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which melds the stern landscapes of Finnish and Norse sagas with the greenswards of Arthurian romance and the comfy villages of preindustrial England. Tolkien’s characters have depths that Rowling’s kindly or malignant cartoons never try for; his sub-Shakespearean grandiosity is irresistible if you check your sense of irony at the door.
Tolkien wrote the trilogy between 1937 and 1949, but only in the mid-’60s did the book, praised by the likes of W. H. Auden, become a best seller. Part of the appeal lay in its reverence for the natural and organic-the baddies live to cut trees and pollute the planet with what William Blake (one of whose mythic characters is “Orc”) called “dark Satanic mills.” But mostly, people love it-sales have doubled in each of the past three years-for its shameless heroism and utter believability. Middle Earth actually dates back to 1915, when the student Tolkien-later an Oxford medievalist-amused himself by inventing a language based on Finnish. Then came other languages, histories to explain their origins, people to enact the histories and obsessively mapped landscapes for them to inhabit.
Some aspects of the trilogy haven’t aged well: servants of the Enemy tend to be “swarthy,” and the purity of “blood” and “lineage” too often determines the content of character. Tolkien’s been faulted for leaving women out of his world, but he does better than you might expect: the gentle but steely-willed elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) holds one of the good Rings of Power, and the Lady Eowyn of Rohan (Miranda Otto) actually gets to dress as a man and do a crucial bit of sword-wielding. In the movie, Arwen Evenstar (Liv Tyler)-who does almost nothing in the book but wait for King Aragorn to marry her-will (again, reportedly) go sword-to-sword with the scary Ringwraiths.
If Tolkienites are upset about a politically corrected Arwen, it’s unseemly to say so. And though they hate hearing that Jackson cut the mysterious, oppressively jolly forest-dweller Tom Bombadil, they recognize that Tom’s a detour in the plot. The bad wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee! Yess! ) may die in a different way, and fans are baffled by a photo floating around the Web apparently showing the good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) impaled on a spiked wheel (they call it “the wizard-kabob picture”). No such thing happens in the book. So far New Line’s strategy of leaking to its po-tential core audience-as opposed to Lucasfilm’s almost paranoid secrecy about the “Star Wars” series-seems to be containing discontent. But Tolkien fanatics-the old don himself called them “my deplorable cultus”-can be serious people. Tolkien’s son Christopher keeps a wild boar in his garden in France to ward them off; when he comes to England, he travels under an assumed name. Presumably not Mr. Underhill.
Which brings us back to our man Eric, who gets up and walks out of the theater after the minute and 46 seconds that cost him $9.50 and a night on popcorn-scented carpeting. A couple of other guys, who identify themselves as “freelance filmmakers and independent entertainment consultants,” say they like what they saw of the actors. (“I was worried about Elijah, but even he looks real good.”) Still, they complain about the trailer’s narration (“It took me out of the awe”), and they think the “Phantom Menace” trailer was better. Eric, though, is still in Middle Earth. “Dude, those orcs,” he says, “were awesome .”