An epic film has been unveiled in Cannes, writes Richard Brooks, finally pitting technology against the wizardry of Middle-earth.
Hobbits go to Hollywood
The Sunday Times
The secrecy surrounding Hollywood’s version of Lord of the Rings has finally been lifted. The first footage of what will be a trilogy of films telling JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy was shown to a select audience at the Cannes film festival last week: it revealed a Middle Earth scarier and stranger than many expected.
In what must be the longest-ever trailer for a movie, three clips running to about 20 minutes were screened for the cast of the film and a few others, including a Sunday Times writer.
The scenes opened at the beginning of Tolkien’s tale of the battle between good and evil; the hobbit Bilbo Baggins is at home in his house built into a hillside. There is a knock on the door and Bilbo, played by Sir Ian Holm, answers it to find Gandalf, the wizard.
Sir Ian McKellan, who plays Gandalf, is an imposing figure with a gruff voice who, thanks to clever camera angles and double-filming of scenes, appears to tower over Bilbo. “Although I was in each scene, I could not believe what I was seeing on the screen,” said McKellan, who saw the results of his efforts only at the screening.
In the books, Tolkien brilliantly weaves together dangerous adventure with quirky humour, and on the evidence of the clips the film achieves the same. Though the film has been made deliberately to appeal to people who have never read Tolkien, the characterisations seem to sit well with the original. Holm displays a quaint charm fitting for Bilbo, while McKellan is majestic as Gandalf.
What will surprise many audiences is how frightening some of the scenes are. After Bilbo departs, his cousin and adopted heir, Frodo, played by 20-year-old Elijah Wood, takes over as the central hobbit character.
Depicted as a small figure, with squinty eyes and bizarre fingernails, Frodo is entrusted with the Ruling Ring – the only power that can prevent the total dominion of the wizard Saruman the White, played by Christopher Lee.
Frodo sets off with a group of friends on a perilous journey to the Crack of Doom to destroy the ring forever. Trolls, orcs, dwarves and other fantastic characters crowd the story. The first clip shown last week ends with a battle against medieval warriors and other weird figures as the hobbits travel through Middle Earth. Heads are severed in the fight with swords, and blood flows freely.
Desperate adventures continued in the second clip, which showed Frodo and his group travelling through the labyrinthine Mines of Moria. There they encounter a grotesque, octopus-like colossus called The Watcher, which has one eye. There are attacks by orcs, which look as if they have been dragged from graves, and a scene in which a rock staircase collapses above a terrifying fall of hundreds of feet.
The group also has to flee Balrog, a 40ft-high winged demon whose skin crackles with fire and smoke.
In the book, Gandalf saves the hobbits but is dragged into the abyss by Balrog. The makers of the film are keeping most of their secrets for now: though it is known that Gandalf dies in the film, it was not revealed how last week. Instead, the hobbits were shown emerging from the terror of the mines at an elves’ city, where they are attended by Lady Galadriel, played by Cate Blanchett.
The sets are spectacular, and the technical effects are so skilful it is hard to tell where the real actors end and the computerised images begin. To press home that no expense has been spared in making the trilogy, the filmmaker, New Line Cinema, hired a chateau at Cannes and turned it into a scene from Middle Earth.
It is engaged in a battle almost as epic as those in the story. The first of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, will be released in December, a month after the first film adaptation of the Harry Potter books reaches cinemas. The other two parts are expected to be released at one-year intervals.
Some Tolkien purists are concerned that there is more love interest in the film than in the book. “The book is essentially a Boy’s Own story,” said Humphrey Carpenter, the biographer of Tolkien. “There’s minimal love interest. Yet I don’t object to the book’s filming.”
The Tolkien family, however, is concerned at the effect the films will have. “When we were growing up these were just stories we were told,” said John Tolkien, the eldest son. “When you’ve grown up with something you don’t want someone else putting their finger on it.”
Though Tolkien sold the rights to the book before his death, he appears to have doubted whether such a complex, fantastical story could be filmed.
“Tolkien himself never thought a film could be made of the books,” said Richard Crawshaw, of the Tolkien Society. “We feel that no movie could ever capture the full depth and flavour of the book.”
Peter Jackson, the director of the three films – which have been made as one long story – believes that cinema has now reached a stage where it can cope with Middle Earth.
“It has taken all the years since Tolkien wrote his book for film-making technology to catch up with his imagination,” said Jackson, whose best-known film previously was Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet.
Judged by the clips released last week, he may be right. If the rest of the films live up to the studio’s promise, audiences will be left eager for more. As ever with the Lord of the Rings, hidden dangers remain. If the Hollywood marketing machine weaves too clever a spell and the films fail to live up to the hype, it will take the wizardry of Gandalf for New Line Cinema to recover. The trilogy is costing at least £200m.