Worlds of Wonder 

The Lord of the Rings and Monster's Ball; plus, The Majestic

Wednesday, Dec 19 2001
© 2001 New Line Productions

Cherished by fantasy fans and the now-graying habitués of head shops everywhere, J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novel The Lord of the Rings has long existed in a pipe-weed haze of geek love. It was first published in the 1950s, becoming a cult first for bookworms, then — famously during the 1960s — freaks (what the British Tolkien Society politely calls “the Alternative Society”). Movie companies usually cherish built-in constituencies, but not all fan passions are equal, which explains why the film is being strategically pitched as adventure epic, not fantasy. Too bad! For the initial installment in this great slab of entertainment (the other two films are already finished) is honest-to-goodness fantasy — a nerve-jangling, pictorially beautiful, mostly engrossing phantasmagoria of ghouls and warriors, oozing ambitions and towering dark castles, waylaid only by an occasional dip into the bog of exposition. As directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson, by all accounts a genial madman, the film transports us into a world that once upon a time could be conjured only in the wilds of our imagination, or inside an animation studio. Never before have digital effects seemed so justified. That makes The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring some sort of modest technological wonder, but what makes it more than the sum of its pixels is the sincerity of its storytelling and sense of wonder — it’s 100 percent irony-free.

The film begins in flashback and solemn voice-over (“The world has changed . . . Much that once was is now lost”) that outline the forces of evil that have gathered at the story’s launch. Men and elves, inhabitants of Middle-earth, having once routed an evil called “Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord,” are faced with his resurrection. The key to Sauron’s ultimate power is a gold ring that has fallen (or landed — the ring has its own agenda) into the benign stewardship of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). In very brief: The story of The Lord of the Rings relays the quest of Bilbo’s cousin, Frodo (Elijah Wood), to destroy the ring — or, as the author himself wrote rather more majestically, “to find the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Orodruin, the Fire-mountain, and cast the Ring in there . . . to put it beyond the grasp of the Enemy for ever.” Some 340 pages (into the book) and three hours (into the film) later, the Fellowship leg of the journey comes to a close. Frodo’s travels continue, however, for two more volumes, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, a journey whose epic scope parallels that of the film’s director: Jackson turned each volume into a separate feature, and shot them in succession over a year and a half. If all goes according to plan, the unholy, somehow deeply American union between Tolkien and Burger King (or “Lord of the Onion Rings,” as one of the trade papers put it) will endure for two more Christmases.

Divided into six books that are usually published in three separate volumes, The Lord of the Rings entered the world piecemeal. Jackson’s film traces the events of the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, which was published in Britain in 1954 when Tolkien was 62 (it would be more than a year before the balance made it into print). The whole work was written between 1936 and 1949, but Tolkien, an Oxford scholar and teacher (the book is deeply influenced by the Old English poem Beowulf), often insisted there was nothing “allegorical or topical” about it — despite its battle between Good and Evil, and the struggle over the “master-ring” (“the One Ring to rule them all”). (Later, this veteran of World War I would admit comparisons between Frodo’s quest and Britain’s fight against Germany in the second Great War, though it’s easy enough, and perfectly reasonable, to read the book without giving thought to National Socialism.) Tolkien’s book sold well but didn’t reach its popular apogee until the late 1960s, when it was discovered with a vengeance by the same youth culture that from Woodstock to Spahn Ranch went looking for Eden on Earth.

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The hobbit’s heroic quest is fairly ä standard — the individual’s journey into knowledge, here as trodden by fuzzy feet. Frodo, aided by his wizard friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), leaves his protected village in the hobbit land of the Shire, to rid the world (Middle-earth) of Sauron and his creeping dark shadow. Along with seven others, the pair compose a pan-species fellowship that includes a man called Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen); another, Boromir (Sean Bean); an elf, Legolas (Orlando Bloom); a dwarf, Gimli (John Rhys-Davies); and three other hobbits, Sam, Merry and Pippin (Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd). The journey takes Frodo from the pastoral Shire, over mountains through deep earth, into the Elven kingdom of Rivendell (a Gothic idyll, with a fillip of art nouveau, ruled by Hugo Weaving’s Elrond) and the mysterious Golden Wood of Lothlórien ruled by the Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). Not all of it is idyllic — the Shire is a morass of explication and hobbit sentimentalism, while the film’s final stretch drops off precipitously after much sword-clanging and bloodletting. But as with most journeys, it’s what comes between the start and the finish that counts — the small frights, the Elven warriors, the oozing hoof of a ghostly horse, the wonderfully eccentric Weaving pulling out lines as if he were drawing and quartering the language.

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