The Lord of the Rings

I picked up the extended edition of the The Return of the King on the day it came out. And even though I was anxious to see it, I held off because I wanted to watch the first two again, before the third. Needless to say, even if you’re doing one a day, it’s hard to clear out that much time on your schedule. I had to wait for the holidays.

When I was in high school, I remember talking about an LOTR movie with my friends. Which way should they go: animation or live action? Who should play the roles? Were there enough talented little people in Hollywood to play the hobbits? The preview for Ralph Bakshi’s version had been so good, but it was just a teaser with ominous narration by Orson Welles. The film itself didn’t live up to it. I decided at that time that I wouldn’t worry about it; I’d be satisfied with story as fiction.

When I first heard taht Peter Jackson was working on an adaptation, I wasn’t excited. For one thing, I barely knew who he was. Heavenly Creatures was a good film. And looking back on it, you can see where Jackson’s style might be conducive to Tolkien’s tale, but at the time, I scratched my head and wondered “why him?” As I heard more about the project, I began to get excited. By the time The Fellowship came out I was rabid.

These films are huge. They’re like Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, in that you can’t really review them. There is so much that is perfect about The Lord of the Rings, that mentioning the flaws seems petty.

It starts with the look. I grew up with the Brothers Hildebrand illustrations on the first Tolkien callendars. I liked them well enough at the time, but eventually grew dissatisfied with them. I somehow missed it when Alan Lee and John Howe took over. (Life intrudes, you know) Their vision of Middle Earth is darker, mistier and more finely wrought. The Hildebrand lines are thick and solid, the colors bright. Lee and Howe’s lines are sinewy, obscured by fog and vegitation. Their Middle Earth is lived in. That’s their genious. Tolkien’s world is so compelling because it has such a rich back story, a history that informs the age of the tale. Lee and How flesh that out visually. They were brought in by the filmmakers to serve as conceptual designers. They created separate visual designs for every culture in Middle Earth. You can see Rohan’s history in the tracery of its soldier’s armor. It’s the same with Gondor and even the orcs.

They say a director’s job is ninety percent done if he picks a good cast. After seeing the accompanying making of documentaries I’m not so sure of that.  Peter Jackson had to deal with an astounding amount of technical detail. But he helped himself in casting these films so exquisitely. The hobbits are terrific. Especially Sean Astin as Sam. And you can tell Merry and Pippin apart, something I was never able to do in the books. Viggo Mortensen is threatening and yet Kingly as Aragorn. Ian McKellen captures Gandalf in all his prickly yet humane glory. I could go on.

And yet by doing such a great job, Peter Jackson puts something at risk here. I re-read the books shortly before The Fellowship came out, because I wanted to refresh my familiarity with the story. I hope that doesn’t prove to be the last time I read them. I hope that, in the future, when I feel the need to return to Middle Earth, I don’t just reach for the DVD’s because that’s easier.

Because no matter how good these movies are, they pale in comparison to the movie inside your head when you read Tolkien’s words.


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December 2004
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