The rest of the world is only now beginning to feel the tremors. J.R.R. Tolkien fans, however, have been feeling them for a while. The buzz has been building for more than a year, and last Friday even industry naysayers became enthusiastic about director Peter Jackson's three-movie adaptation of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
A select audience at France's Cannes Film Festival was treated to a 26-minute preview of footage from the still-unfinished film trilogy. The scenes presented were reportedly so astonishing that Rings has eclipsed dozens of finished films competing for the Palme D'Or award. "The best movie at Cannes isn't in competition," says a report at Mr. Showbiz. The Age, an Australian newspaper, reported, "Coming out of the cinema, back to the real world of Cannes cafes, the same line was repeated everywhere: 'I can't wait to see more.'" The wait won't last long; the first of three installments—The Fellowship of the Ring—reaches theatres this Christmas.
It must be a great relief for the folks at New Line Pictures, who have watched the cost of the trilogy climb to $270 million dollars. Robert Shaye, founder of New Line and CEO, personally presented the preview. A seven-minute summary came first, introducing Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin), and other major characters. Then came a 14-minute action sequence in which the heroes journey through the Mines of Moria, assailed by terrifying armies of orcs and, finally, a winged devil called a Balrog. The preview concluded with a three-minute collage of moments from the second and third chapter. (For further information on the preview's screening, visit TheOneRing.net's Cannes Festival page. The official movie Web site is www.lordoftherings.net.)
Even if the movies are as profound a cinematic achievement as optimists predict, perhaps their greatest influence will be to draw a new generation to the books themselves. Tolkien's storytelling, like that of C.S. Lewis, does not last merely because it offers frightening conflicts, memorable characters, and dazzling settings. Dozens of fantasy novels are compared to the works of Tolkien every year, and very few remain popular a decade later. What sets The Lord of the Rings apart?
This is a question I'd encourage readers to ponder as they read the trilogy before the film arrives in December. And yes, I'd encourage you to read it before December. The films may be spectacular, but Tolkien's language, something that can only be distantly echoed by a movie, is one of the great delights of his work. Reading The Lord of the Rings won't spoil it for you any more than reading the Bible can spoil The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told. Tolkien wrote for the love of what he called "co-creating with God," using his imagination for the sheer pleasure of it. Like a traveler returning from another world, he was compelled to share, in excruciating detail, what he beheld there. If the movies do succeed, Peter Jackson's achievement will be a signpost pointing the way to some of literature's finest mirrors of God's truth.
It might not even be a hard-realism saga that preserves for our children the heights and the depths of today's tragedies. If you see The Fellowship of the Ring when it opens in theatres this December, I'd encourage you to remember that World War II was very much on the mind and heart of J.R.R. Tolkien as he wrote The Lord of the Rings and sent chapters to his son, who was in the military at the time.from Film Forum, 12/06/01
The Fellowship of the Ring opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, December 19, bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's work to the big screen whether the Tolkien family likes it or not. Buzz is building after last week's screenings, and fans are gaining confidence that director Peter Jackson might have made the first decent Middle-earth movie.
David Ansen (Newsweek) believes the movie is "too violent for little ones," but he raves about it anyway: "Jackson's fierce, headlong movie takes high-flying risks: it wears its earnestness, and its heart, on its muddy, blood-streaked sleeve. It transcends cheap thrills; we root for the survival of our heroes with a depth of feeling that may come as a surprise. It leaves you with your wits intact, hungry for more." Ansen also becomes the first to see the film as timely. "[Frodo] must form a coalition among the races of Middle-earth … to battle the armies of the Dark Lord. Is there an echo here of our current world?" (It has been a recurring phenomenon since the successful series was first published that each generation interprets it as relevant for a different reason—The Lord of the Rings has been called a parable of the wages of addiction, racism, industrialism, and more.)
Tolkien's fans should count it the most encouraging sign of all to hear that Ansen left the theatre "thinking a trip to the bookstore to pick up The Two Towers might be in order."
Variety predicts the movie will "please the book's legions of fans with its imaginatively scrupulous rendering of the tome's characters and worlds on the screen, as well as the uninitiated with its uninterrupted flow of incident and spectacle. Jackson must have convinced someone that he would do it right, a view thoroughly borne out by what's up on the screen." There are compliments for everyone involved, and high praise for Howard Shore, whose musical score is "constantly supportive, creative and complementary to the action. As such, it represents an object lesson that handily points up how unnecessarily intrusive and insufferably distracting John Williams' work is in Harry Potter."
The Hollywood Reporter says the film "rarely takes a wrong turn." In a tempered review, the writer concludes that the film is "so well-made and well-cast that one can have no reservations about the rest of Jackson's monumental creation."
In the first official review offered in the religious media, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "The intensity of the battle scenes and the depiction of evil is so vivid that the PG-13 rating seems inadequate. This is no children's fantasy." But he assures grownups that this is an exemplary fantasy. "It is the visual artistry which takes the focus rather than any individual performance," he writes. "Tolkien's book is rich with descriptive details and Jackson has helped to give each unique part of this world its individuality. Credit Tolkien for originality but give Jackson and his team their due for realizing Tolkien's vision and putting it up on the screen." From the film's compelling story, he draws this observation: "We can't always choose the events of our lives … all we can do is choose how we will act when those events occur."
Film Forum will feature more reviews in the coming weeks, as this is just the beginning of the response. In the meantime, there are always the books. If you live in or near Seattle, click here to read about "A Hobbit's Holiday," a celebration of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien taking place this Saturday, December 8. (I'm hosting the event.)from Film Forum, 12/13/01
Pre-screenings of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring continue to ramp up the excitement about the epic's big December 19th opening day. But this week, Peter Jackson's ambitious $250 million dollar project gained its first official complaints.
Film Critic's Christopher Null is the only naysayer thus far, but what a lot of nays! "The obvious digital backdrops that start to wear you down … the fights are not particularly well-choreographed, either. You don't get a good sense of scale of the big battles, and the in-close fighting is edited too frantically to follow well." He boldly claims that "most moviegoers will find it overly long and just too exhausting."
So far, though, Null is a minority of one. Just listen to the other mainstream reviews:
"The Fellowship … is thrilling," exclaims Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, "a great picture, a triumphant picture, a joyfully conceived work of cinema that would appear to embrace Tolkien's classic with love and delight, and rewards both adepts and novices … Every detail … engrossed me. I may have never turned a page of Tolkien, but I know enchantment when I see it."
The highest praise yet comes from ScreenDaily's Emanuel Levy: "Jackson's Ring cycle generates the kind of epic cinema excitement encountered in the films of Abel Gance (Napoleon), Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, Ran), David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), and arguably last seen on the American screen in Coppola's Apocalypse Now. It certainly far surpasses the standards of popular epics like Braveheart or Gladiator, the Oscar-winners of 1995 and 2000, respectively." It contains "a moral and emotional significance" and is "bound to assume a place of honor in film history." Even though it's a fantasy, it "remains grounded in reality, dealing with relevant human themes of loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, and responsibility."
"Fellowship … is an unqualified triumph, its status as the best Western fantasy film ever made all but indisputable," says Nev Pierce at BBC Films. "I have no doubt the series will get better now that the groundwork is laid."
At MSNBC, Todd McCarthy raves that the film "is an epic by any standard and looks to please the book's legions of fans, as well as the uninitiated. Jackson must have convinced someone that he would do it right, a view thoroughly borne out by what's up on the screen. [He] keeps a firm hand on the work's central themes of good versus evil, rising to the occasion and group loyalty in the face of adversity, and always keeps things moving without getting bogged down in frills or effects for effects' sake."
"At last, smart movie making, with a real sense of creativity, style, wit, and texture. You can't ask for anything more," says Roger Friedman (Fox News). And he's not the only one who sees visions of little golden statues. "Are there Oscars waiting for Fellowship? Certainly for special effects, costuming, makeup, and other technical categories." But he adds, "What Lord of the Rings really revels in, though, are the characters and their relationships."
Calgary Sun's Kevin Williamson simply declares, "Lord of the Rings, folks, rules. And while perhaps Harry Potter's spell will grow stronger as later episodes of the planned marathon of Potter flicks unfold, for now anyway, Lord of the Rings stands the taller of the two—a mythic, sprawling fable with a palpable sense of doom … It begins to fully dawn how much George Lucas, um, borrowed from J.R.R."
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir says, "The handful of Tolkien purists likely to pillory Jackson for his various departures from the sacred text are missing the point on a world-historical scale. This isn't a doggedly literal adaptation, along the lines of Chris Columbus' competent but spiritless Harry Potter. It's an interpretation that seeks to capture Tolkien's magic in a new vessel, an epic with grimy hands and a core of mystery. It's a work of art created on its own terms."from Film Forum, 12/21/01
Merry Christmas, readers and moviegoers. It would be good, in these days of frenzied merchandizing, to remember the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, which he included in a letter to his son Michael in 1962: "Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no 'commercialism' can in fact defile—unless you let it."
Speaking of Tolkien, Christmas, and commercialism, you may have already noticed the flood of Hobbit-related toys, trinkets, T-shirts, soundtracks, posters, and Burger King glass goblets that are helping to hype the long-awaited movie trilogy. (Collectors, take note: The ring used in the movie is currently available on a German eBay site, winning an early bid of $46,000.) New Line Cinema has a lot riding on the success of The Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring, which opened this week. They're determined to convince you that one movie rules them all.
They needn't worry. In a what many people have called one of the worst movie years in recent memory, critics almost unanimously agree that Fellowship is one of the best, if not the best, cinematic experience of the year. Film enthusiasts invoke revered titles like The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Lawrence of Arabia in their comparisons. Perhaps Tolkien would have been pleased. He confided to his publisher in 1957: "I should welcome the idea of a … motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization; and that quite apart from the glint of money, though on the brink of retirement that is not an unpleasant possibility." If he were still with us, he would stand to receive some hefty box office percentages.
Stephanie Zacharek at Salon.com struggles for the right superlatives: "The most heartbreaking thing about faithful moviegoing is that awe, beauty and excitement, three of the things we go to the movies for, are the very things we're cheated of the most. The great wonder of The Fellowship … is that it bathes us in all three, to the point where we remember—in a vague, pleasurably hallucinatory sensation from another lifetime—why we go to the movies in the first place. It would be an insult to say the picture merely lives up to its hype; it crashes the meaning of hype, exposing it as the graven image it is. Advertising is dead: Long live moviemaking."
"The film does full justice to Tolkien," says Christopher Tookey (Daily Mail). He calls the film "a landmark in cinema, an awesome feat of imagination and daring. Critics who gave five-star ratings to … [the] uninspired Harry Potter movie are going to have to find ten if they are to do justice to The Fellowship. Here is landscape photography of a grandeur and emotional resonance that we haven't witnessed in the cinema since John Ford revolutionised the western or David Lean took to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. The movie has a mythic grandeur and a profound understanding of human corruptibility that makes the Star Wars movies look like kids' stuff."
Christopher Howse (Telegraph) calls it "easily the most impressive fantasy film ever made—at least until next Christmas."
David Denby (The New Yorker) registers a few complaints: "Too many blackened caverns … too much chanting by a male chorus on the soundtrack. The movie … repeats itself more often than a talkative cabbie driving out to the nether regions of Middle-Brooklyn." But after that complaint, he joins the applause anyway: "I have to admit that I capitulated soon enough. Once it gets going … [the movie] is consistently beautiful and often exciting … surely the best big-budget fantasy movie in years."
Ed Gonzalez (Slant Magazine) writes, "Jackson has stunningly authenticated Tolkien's mythic landscape. There is a sense of belonging here, as if we've finally stumbled across that old friend we've only seen in dreams and read about in the thumb-worn pages of Tolkien's novels."
It has even won over religious critics who, earlier this year, condemned onscreen wizards.
Lisa and Eric Rice (Movieguide) write, "Fellowship … is a wonderful 'epic' movie that vividly captures most of Tolkien's vision, including his moral vision."
Paul Bicking (The Dove Foundation) says, "The visually stunning film and enthralling adventure will capture audiences with its tale of bravery and friendship." (In spite of this, he concludes, "the graphic, gruesome battles, while true to the book, prevent our recommendation.")
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) has mixed feelings: "I had expected to either love it or hate it and instead found myself squarely in the middle. It's an engaging tale told with panache, but it's not without its flaws. At three hours, it often feels too long, and yet I was disappointed when it was done."
Peter T. Chattaway at Canadian Christianity reports, "The film paints a vivid, compelling portrait of an ancient world and the fascinating creatures that lived, fought, and died there. The film gets even better when it settles into its main story, and for one simple reason—despite the vast sums they spent on sets, props, and special effects, the filmmakers pay close, careful attention to the relationships between individual characters, and the actors, almost without exception, do a marvelous job of bringing the inhabitants of Middle-Earth to life."
I cannot offer a completely objective perspective on the film. I first read Tolkien when I was 7, and I remember more specific details from Bilbo and Frodo Baggins's journeys than I do about my own childhood. Tolkien gave me strong metaphors for the battlegrounds of my own life and my own heart, for the forces in conflict that are described in Ephesians 6:12. Every reader's imagination is different, and different viewers will respond differently, but when I saw Fellowship on Wednesday night, it was as though director Peter Jackson had tapped into my memories. With the first sighting of Gandalf moseying into Hobbiton, I felt right at home.
Almost everything was just as I had imagined it. Okay, maybe I imagined Aragorn as slightly darker, more weatherbeaten. But Ian McKellan's performance as Gandalf seemed flawless, from the gleam in his eye to the ferocity of his temper. The Hobbits are perfectly childlike, the Ringwraiths and the Balrog perfectly terrifying. Most Tolkien devotees will quibble over what director Jackson got right, what he got wrong, what should have been left in, what should have been cut.
But good literature and good movies are two different things. If the film had included all of Fellowship's beloved events—Tom Bombadil, the Barrow Wight, Bilbo's songs, and Frodo's dance—detail-obsessed fans would have nodded knowingly while others might have lost interest or gone for more popcorn. Tolkien once said of movie adaptations, "The failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies." Jackson has admirably and efficiently streamlined the story, while honoring the book's "core." This is his interpretation of Tolkien's romance, just as Arthurian legend has been interpreted by T.H. White, Thomas Malory, Steven Lawhead, and Monty Python. As moviegoers are drawn to the book and its sequels, those gaps will be filled.
Where the movie is flawed as a movie is in its pacing. In an admirable attempt to include as many scenes as possible, Jackson moves extremely fast. This robs us of an accurate sense of time passing—in the books this journey takes months, but onscreen it feels like a few desperate days. When the Hobbits grimace at having to leave the Shire or Rivendell, I sympathize. We also miss out on the complexity of many central characters. Hobbits Merry and Pippin, and Gimli the Dwarf, are reduced to sidekicks with the occasional zinger.
But these complaints are minor in view of what Jackson does accomplish. His adventure has a distinctly different style from Spielberg/Lucas-brand adventures. Viewers are not invited to enjoy the battles the way we gasp and thrill at Star Wars shootouts. There's real fear and desperation in the conflict. We experience frightening pursuit and frenzied battles just the way the adventurers themselves do … as sudden, chaotic, life-threatening crises. No time for cocky movie-star nonchalance here. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) isn't a wisecracking Han Solo; he's the kind of guy you'd choose to defend you if the fate of your family, your nation, and a natural paradise were on the line.
The effects are standard-setting; Jackson and WETA Studios have stolen the torch from Lucas and ILM with this awe-inspiring work. But some sequences are clearly stronger than others. I was left shaken and breathless by the fellowship's flight through the cavernous Mines of Moria, the film's most spectacular scene, but kinder, gentler places like Lothlorien receive very little attention. (When the Lady Galadriel is tempted to seize absolute power, we're given a vision of what she might become—and frankly, it looked like a bad cartoon.) Fortunately, New Zealand's natural beauty makes the argument for Middle Earth's goodness; it's the film's finest special effect of all.
Even though Tolkien regretted the loss of his privacy in the rising tide of fame, he once said, "It remains an unfailing delight to me to find my own belief justified: that the 'fairy-story' is really an adult genre, and one for which a starving audience exists." Longtime fans and newcomers alike should be grateful that this, the grandest of fairy tales, has fallen into Peter Jackson's capable hands. He's given us a feast unmatched in the history of cinema—jaw-dropping visuals, compelling storytelling—and in 2002 and 2003, we'll get second and third helpings.from Film Forum, 12/27/01
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring ruled the box office so impressively, moviegoers can count on Tolkien-mania returning in force next Christmas, when the film's sequel—The Two Towers—opens. (The Return of the King will wrap up the trilogy the following Christmas.) The first film in Peter Jackson's riveting big screen adaptation continues to draw more raves than any movie since Titanic. A lot of these reviews have been mentioned in Film Forum over the last three weeks (1, 2, 3), so let's focus on newer releases this week.from Film Forum, 01/17/02
For me, it was an unforgettable year, if only because the literary world I loved as a child finally came to the big screen in a worthy adaptation with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings—The Fellowship of the Ring. It is remarkable how the actors bring each beloved character passionately to life. Viewers can't miss the story's emphasis on moral responsibility and the seductive nature of evil. It has its flaws—Jackson struggles with the size and scope of the novel, and inevitably rushes things along at a breakneck pace to try and encompass as much as possible. We're left rattled, exhausted, and Tolkien fans complain about how the film skips some favorite episodes. But that harrowing cliffhanger ending sent almost everyone I know to the bookstore or the library, eager to find out what happens next, unwilling to wait until The Two Towers opens next December. Any movie that makes people read great literature is a reason to celebrate. I can't wait for the DVD release, which reportedly features 40 more minutes of essential storytelling.
It’s a debate that won’t go away. I continue to receive e-mail from angry readers who don’t think I should have dared explore the issue Harry Potter and witchcraft here at Film Forum. Many Christian organizations continue to describe Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as “soft porn” promoting the occult. But some writers and moviegoers are questioning how these critics can say such things while, on the other hand, praising films like Return to Never Land and The Fellowship of the Ring, which, like Harry Potter, show heroes using magic to achieve their goals.
This week, Michael G. Maudlin of Christianity Today’s Books & Culture Corner addresses the ongoing debate over the alleged dangers of Harry Potter. Maudlin writes, “This primitive shunning of Harry Potter is made all the more strange when contrasted with the Christian response to The Lord of the Rings.” He points out similarities in the series, including how “magic is seen as a neutral instrument that can be used for either good or evil. And both authors allow their heroes to make full use of magic in their cause. So why are not both condemned equally?”
Anti-Potter propagandists claim that the age-old tradition of magic as a literary device is an invitation for readers to experiment with occult practices. If this is true, then one thing is very clear: Tolkien’s world is more dangerous than Rowling’s. After all, Lord of the Rings has arguably served as the primary literary source of trends like Dungeons and Dragons and other cultural phenomena that indulge their participants’ curiosity about the occult. Maudlin reports, “One Web site even sells Lord of the Rings Tarot Cards. Have some people used Tolkien as an entry point to the occult? The answer must be yes.”
He concludes, “Neither series makes much sense apart from a Christian ethic. Both works convey a palpable sense of Providence; both lift up agape love as the highest virtue; both flesh out what it means to have noble character; both see evil as coming from the heart and not ‘out there.’ So why does Frodo get a pass while Harry is demonized?”
Good question. To follow the logic of Movieguide’s Ted Baehr, we should be condemning not only Potter, but also The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and the Arthur legends with their heroic wizard, Merlin. Fairy godmothers use magic wands in Cinderella, and there is magic everywhere in the Christian-themed works of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle. I grew up a Disney fan, and as a child I loved to sing along with a seemingly innocent little cricket: “When you wish upon a star / makes no difference who you are / Anything your heart desires will come to you.” How then was I saved from a lifelong obsession with astrology?
The magic of fairy tales is an essential metaphor for miracle, mystery, talent, and spiritual gifts. It is quite a different thing from the foolishness of the occult. If young readers are taught discernment and the value of symbolism, these stories will give them strength. But children tend to develop curiosity about things they are told to fear. Therefore, brethren, fear not the stories of Muggles, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.from Film Forum, 11/14/02
This week, New Line Home Video delivered a package that will be on a lot of Christmas wish lists. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring—Special Extended Version DVD set—four full discs—improves upon the theatrical release, fills story gaps, and offers pleasant surprises. Fans of Tolkien's classic series will be delighted to see that several episodes from the book are now included in the film.
On top of more character development and extended scenes, the new version also offers a more leisurely, informative, and comical introduction to the hobbit lifestyle, and the camera lingers longer on the astonishing set design—village design, really—which was crafted to seem if these cultures existed for centuries before the filmmakers arrived. When Gandalf warns that Sauron threatens all the lands of Middle Earth, we now know more and appreciate better what beauty, joys, and traditions the enemy may destroy in future episodes.
In addition to the extended film itself, there is such a wealth of information here that Tolkien fans will explore for hours on end. Documentaries focus on Tolkien's immersion in languages, how his passions helped him endure after the loss of both his parents, and Peter Jackson's long quest to get the three movies made. But there is so much more as well.
I can't think of a better way for moviegoers to prepare for the opening of The Two Towers next month than to settle in with this sprawling, beautifully realized work. No home video package has ever offered such an in-depth look at the creative process or the way excellent storytelling can influence an audience.
That other fantasy saga continued to draw raves as well. I applauded the new DVD Extended Edition of Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptation The Fellowship of the Ring last week. This week, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) offers his own rave review. "For the new expanded edition of the film, Jackson didn't simply splice in some thirty minutes of additional footage, but reworked the film to incorporate the restored material as effectively as possible, even including new musical material written and recorded by composer Howard Shore for the new version. Far from feeling padded, the new version of the film actually improves on sequences that felt rushed or incomplete in the trimmed theatrical version. Given the richness of the source material, there's virtually no fat even in the deleted scenes, and Jackson's economy of storytelling remains very much in evidence. Some of these newly restored scenes add so much to the film that you wonder how Jackson was able to cut them in the first place. Of course a four-hour theatrical release would have been prohibitive, but still the choices of what to cut and what to retain must have been agonizing."REVIEW
Lord of the MegaplexThe onscreen Fellowship of the Ring launches a new wave of Tolkienmania.by Steve RabeyChristianity Today, posted 11/12/01COMMENTARY
The Lord of the Rings, The Passion of The Christ, and the Highway of HolinessHas God been "re-routing" us through popular movies, books, and cultural events?by Chris ArmstrongChristian History Newsletter, May 7, 2004
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