The Irish Times
August 7, 2000

One Ring to Keep Them Out
Edward Power

Wellington is in the grip of Hobbit-mania. And it's not a pretty sight. Innocuous early tremors - local bookshops reported a tenfold increase in sales of Lord of the Rings, amateur dramatic productions of Tolkien's chubby, pre-Harry Potter novels proliferated - swiftly ceding ground to scenes of hysteria rarely encountered this side of a Star Trek convention.

The geeks, fat on Internet innuendo, rolled into town, drawn by rumours of billowing film sets swarming with furry-toed runts mushrooming in the verdant New Zealand countryside. And man, were they serious.

It was simply a matter of time before the hard-core nuts - obese, corn-fed Tolkien zealots who wear medieval garb at weekends and boast about watching the Star Wars: Phantom Menace trailer 16 times - turned mean. They'd long-hauled all the way from Kansas to trade nerd talk with New Zealand director Peter Jackson and his coterie of special effects wizards.

Instead, a ring-fence of dour security guards - who'd probably never played a single game of Dungeons and Dragons in their lives - fixed them a look and said: "Scram!".

The first break-in occurred days into preliminary shooting. Three reporters from an online horror magazine turned up chest-deep in proverbial Hobbit guano at Jackson's digital workshop on the outskirts of Wellington. Perimeter patrols doubled in a bid to discourage interlopers. Some chance. A 36-year-old American was recently apprehended for allegedly stealing pre-production video clips and attempting to post them on the Internet.

Tinseltown's Tolkien flirtation spans four decades - from the era when mushroom-chomping counter-culturists hailed LOTR as an anti-capitalist treatise ranking alongside Sgt Pepper and the musing of Timothy Leary.

But this has never been a "go" project. Too big, too risky, too expensive. John Boorman briefly talked up his plans for an adaptation but blanched and made Arthurian paen Excalibur instead. Avant-garde animator Ralph Bakshi - emboldened by the success of George Lucas's fantasy/ science fiction cross-over, Star Wars - spewed out a murky, hit-and-miss cartoon adaptation that jerked abruptly to conclusion mid-narrative. By the early 1980s pretty, vacant follies such as Krull and Dragonslayer were killing off the mini-boom in fantasy flicks. Everybody forgot about Hobbits storming multiplexes.

Now, backed by the clout of Los Angeles's New Line Cinema studio, former splatter-punk standard bearer Jackson is at the helm of the New Zealand production; three movies filmed end-to-end pencilled-in for world-wide release Christmas 2001 to 2003. Chiefly notable for ushering a fresh-faced Kate Winslett into the public eye in 1995's lesbian-murder fandango Heavenly Creatures, the rambunctuous North Islander is a controversial choice. Jackson's early canon - indie productions Bad Taste, Brain Dead and Meet the Feebles - spews baby-in-a-blender gags and sub-Gremlins juvenility. Sick. Very sick. If you can sit through Meet the Feebles without feeling compelled to retch, I'll buy you breakfast.

But in interviews Jackson steers a steady course; doffing his cap to aficionadoes startled by the casting of matinée mannequin Liv Tyler as elven princess Arwen, a minor figure whose role is significantly expanded to inject a modicum of "lurve" interest - Tolkien was a fusty Oxford don, his female characters were gilded wallflowers, more concerned with eliciting appreciative coos and simpers from his central protagonists than actually doing or saying much of substance - while insisting the $130-million trilogy will primarily be pitched at those who haven't read the books.

There's an Irish angle too: it is heavily rumoured that LOTR's world-weary elven race - a synergy of Nordic folk spirits and Celtic immortals - will trot out their weighty pronouncements on the futility of existence (they are a glum lot) in soupy Irish brogue. This would jar with the source text where Welsh, rather than Irish, mythology is a discernable influence, but scarcely comes as a surprise given Hollywood's belittling affection for everything green.

The cast, with one minor exception - young Scot Dominic Monaghan plays fiesty Hobbit fighter, Merry Brandibuck - is notably Celt-free. Speculation that Sean Connery would assume the mantle of crotchety-mage-turned-Christ figure, Gandalf proved ill-founded (the part went to Shakespearean scowler Ian McKellan). Dubliner Stuart Townsend, star of loyalist ultra-violent romp Resurrection Man, secured the role of Aragorn - the nearest you'll get to a conventional hero in Tolkien - but was replaced within days of arriving on set. Word has it that Jackson didn't realise Townsend was only in his mid-20s (Aragorn is described as a morbid forty-something).

Replacing him is Latino B-movie stalwart Viggo Mortensen (straight-to-video fans may recall his show-stealing turn as Satan in the lumbering Christopher Walken mid-1990s biblical snooze-fest Prophecy). Oh, well. At least parts of New Zealand resemble Killarney on a clear morn'.

Purists have sniffed at Jackson's labours. Oxford's furrow-browed Tolkien Society haughtily decried the casting of Hollywood big-leaguers such as Tyler and maturing child-star Elijah Wood, who steps into the hairy feet of hobbit saviour Frodo Baggins.

Tolkien's son, Christopher, pointedly shied away from endorsing the project. But keeping academics and diehards on-side - while producing a hunk of swords-and-sorcery sufficiently non-cerebral to sate the popcorn-munching masses - is set against the task of bucking public disaffection with bloated, preachy blockbusters.

A bleary Internet preview - smatterings of roughly-hewn clips interspersed with footage of special effects engineers toying with rubber goblin miniatures - drew six million first-day hits last spring. But, then, Phantom Menace pulled in a comparable figure and that film's subsequent failure to fire moviegoers' imaginations suggests a deepening weariness with clunky good-versus-evil morality tales. Jackson, however, might point to a rather more pressing headache - how to repel the seething ranks of fanatics swelling at his gates?