January 7, 2001
Why Frodo May Be More
Than a Match for Harry
IN this country, it seems impossible that 2001 could bring a more eagerly awaited movie than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, based on the first of JK Rowling's children's books. A £100 million film made in Britain from a hugely successful English author's work, with young English actor Daniel Radcliffe as Harry: surely it must conquer the world.
But Harry faces a stiff challenge in attracting cinema audiences. At the end of this year, the massively expensive Harry Potter film will be locked in combat with another movie, improbably conceived on an even larger scale.
This is Lord of the Rings, based on the fantasy trilogy by another British author, the academic JRR Tolkien (1892-1973). For the past 12 months, shooting of all three Tolkien stories has been taking place in New Zealand, and it was completed just before Christmas. The first story, The Fellowship of the Ring, will be seen by audiences from December 19, a month after Harry Potter opens. Its sequels, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, will open at Christmas in 2002 and 2003 respectively.
The cost of filming the trilogy has been estimated at £180 million, making it the most expensive movie project ever undertaken. The production boasts a 77-strong cast, a crew of 2,500 and a 438-day shooting schedule.
If the budget on Lord of the Rings is sky-high, so are expectations surrounding the films. Fans of Tolkien's 1,000-page trilogy about hobbits and elves in the fantasy land called Middle Earth are truly devoted. Since it was first published in the mid-Fifties, it has sold 50 million copies and has been translated into 26 languages. British reader polls from three years ago saw it named best book of the century, and it easily won a recent Best of Millennium survey by amazon.com.
The films, then, will have to be good to merit comparison. On paper, at least, they look promising. Their director, Peter Jackson, a rotund, bearded New Zealander, has an intriguing CV - if not exactly one that suggested he would throw himself so whole-heartedly into Tolkien's works. Jackson, 39, has a taste for gory humour, exemplified by his first film, Bad Taste (1987), and The Frighteners (1996), which veered between grisly comedy and slasher-movie horror. He is best-known for the stylish Heavenly Creatures (1994), a story about murderous New Zealand schoolgirls that marked Kate Winslet's film debut.
Jackson scripted the Lord of the Rings trilogy with his long-time collaborator (and live-in girlfriend) Frances Walsh. "We've been writing it for two or three years," he said recently. "It's a complicated work. These films are not official Lord of the Rings films. The Tolkien estate is not involved. Professor Tolkien has passed away. These are not the official interpretation - they are our interpretation collectively of these characters in this story."
Jackson and Walsh have assembled an impressive cast. British acting knight Ian McKellen plays the bearded wizard Gandalf. Ian Holm is Bilbo Baggins, while the role of Frodo Baggins, the saga's hero, has gone to Elijah Wood, 19, one of America's most impressive young screen actors. Liv Tyler has the role of princess and elf warrior Arwen, while acclaimed Australian actress Cate Blanchett appears as the elf queen Galdriel.
Still, the films must please several constituencies, all with a vested interest in Lord of the Rings: fantasy-movie fanatics, literary academics, Tolkien obsessives and those readers who discovered the books during the counter-culture boom of the Sixties.
A further problem for Jackson is that previous fantasy films have proved how hard it can be to get this particular genre right. One recalls with a shudder the plodding Legend (1985) starring the young Tom Cruise. Willow (1988), based on a tale by George Lucas, and The Dark Crystal (1983), by Jim Henson, were only marginally better.
There's also the fact that everyone in the world with internet access seems to have strong opinions about Lord of the Rings, and has posted them on websites. Around 400 fan sites exclusively devoted to the production contain sentiments ranging from orgasmic anticipation to grave foreboding.
Some sites tell you how many minutes remain before The Fellowship of the Ring opens nearly 12 months hence. The ability and charisma of actors cast in the most minor roles is minutely discussed; Sean Connery, rather than McKellen, is the preferred Gandalf in the chat rooms. The over-arching question is: can the films possibly be as good as the books? Reading these postings in bulk becomes depressing; one starts to feel that these people badly need to get a life.
Yet their fanaticism is being carefully nurtured by a slow drip-feed of information from New Line, the American mini-studio behind Lord of the Rings. In April, New Line made available on the Internet a trailer for the film - and within 24 hours, an astonishing 1.7 million users had downloaded it. (Compare that figure with a mere million for the last Star Wars movie.)
A new Lord of the Rings trailer can be seen in American cinemas from next Friday, and one can predict that fans will pay good money to see it, then walk out satisfied before the main film begins.
The set in New Zealand remained off-limits to the media during most of the shoot. Some prominent publications wanted to send reporters to witness filming, but balked after New Line imposed strict conditions about access and who in the cast could be interviewed.
Then New Line cannily invited Harry Knowles, self-styled "movie geek" and the man behind ain't-it-cool-news, America's leading film gossip and preview website. Knowles posted (in no less than 11 long daily instalments) a gushing paean to Jackson, the cast and the set.
"It is my belief that these films are going to be huge - much like the Star Wars series," wrote Knowles. "It will do for fantasy film what Star Wars did for science fiction: make it bankable and culturally significant on a grand scale." Even some of Knowles's ain't-it-cool fans accused him of selling out to the studio and becoming a "fanboy".
His postings were a coup for New Line. But the sense remains that information is being tightly controlled, even after actors have completed shooting. I met Blanchett in Italy on another film set last summer, and asked about Lord of the Rings. "Oh, I'm hardly in it," she said vaguely. When pressed, she added: "Galadriel is one of the few female elves in the story. She's a touchstone for Frodo and reappears at his darkest hour." That was all she would say - and one already knew it from reading Tolkien.
Still, the year-long build-up has begun. Most of us are happy to wait to see what Jackson makes of Tolkien's story, even if thousands of fanatics are silently fretting. But Jackson has sensible words for them: "It always has to be an interpretation," he said recently. "It can't be a film made by committee. Although you listen to everybody's ideas, you eventually have to go with what you feel is right."