January 27, 2001
Screening of a Cult
You know you're in the presence of a cultural phenomenon when a movie trailer generates more press than the movies that opened that week. The first example of this was the advance reel for Star Wars, Episode I. Fans of the original trilogy flocked to the theatres to watch a two-minute trailer for The Phantom Menace, which has since gone on to be the second-highest grossing film ever.
I was one of those who paid good money to see Wing Commander (a stinker), merely to catch the two minutes of Star Wars footage that ran beforehand. The trailer rocked, but despite its box-office popularity, the movie was a disappointment, at least to me. It just couldn't live up to years of expectations. I don't know what I was expecting, I just wanted something ... more.
You would think I'd have learned my lesson, but last Friday I was at the front of the line to see the first matinee screening of 13 Days, specifically because the trailer for The Lord of the Rings was screening beforehand. I stayed for the movie (surprisingly good, considering Costner's accent strayed hither and yon), partly because it interested me, but partly because the usual refund policy was suspended, the theatre having learned its lesson from Wing Commander walkouts.
Anyway, lest you wonder what I was doing there that afternoon, let's just get this out on the table. I am a Tolkien nut. I have read The Lord of the Rings more times than I can count, and I still read through the series at least once a year. I also engage in long-running debates over Tolkien minutiae and, yes, I used to sit around and discuss with friends the burning question: If you were making a Lord of the Rings movie, who would you cast? (Unlike most, I would definitely not choose Sean Connery as Gandalf. Although my first vote would have gone to Donald Sutherland -- one word: eyebrows -- I am quite happy with Ian McKellan, who can act the pants off Connery any day of the week.)
Clearly, I am a card-carrying member of the cult of Tolkien, and we are legion. But there is dissension in the ranks, a theological rift that even an ecumenicist like me cannot mend; a chasm as deep as the one in Moria, and almost as difficult to cross. Basically, it is this: There are some Tolkien-o-philes who are not pleased that this movie is being made.
If you haven't read the stories by J.R.R. Tolkien, I am most certainly not going to try and summarize them, as that would only emphasize the surface elements -- magic rings, dwarfs and what-not -- that make it sound, well, childish. Which they are, but only in the best possible sense: in the way that children can totally give themselves over to their imaginations.
And that is where the rift begins. If Middle Earth can only exist in one's imagination, then to capture it on film does a great disservice to the tale. It deserves to be left, goes this line of thinking, to play out across the screen of the reader's mind. Even the Tolkien estate has disavowed itself of the movie. Richard Crawshaw of The Tolkien Society, a registered charity devoted to promoting and protecting the author's work, was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph: "The Tolkien family are definitely not on board as far as the film is concerned. The general view is that there is not a need for it as it is a book of words and was not created to be a dramatic presentation."
There is a part of me that agrees with this argument. I don't believe director Peter Jackson will be able to capture the essence of LotR on film. I agree Middle Earth can be fully realized only in the imagination of its readers. Deep cries out to deep, and all that rot. Not to mention the worry that the film will live down to the reputation other fantasy films have set, fare like George Lucas' Willow or that Tom Cruise flick, Legend, or the most recent abomination, Dungeons and Dragons (could someone please explain that ending?). Finally, if the LotR movie fails to capture everything that makes the books great, I'm scared people who haven't read the books will write them off.
God knows previous attempts to adapt Tolkien's work to film have shown how easy it is to shred what is arguably the best (and certainly the most popular) work of fiction of the last 50 years. There's the atrocious 1978 TV cartoon adaptation of The Hobbit (a precursor to The Lord of the Rings) and, from the same year, Ralph Bakshi's stylish but stultifying live action/cartoon combination take on the trilogy (which just ends about halfway through the story, because, rumour has it, Bakshi ran out of money). Worst of all is the laughingly bad 1980 animated TV movie The Return of the King, produced by the same awful Hobbit team.
Even if the movie does capture the essence of the books, it still might not mend the damage done to the genre by Xena, Hercules, Sheena and all those others who, between them, have rendered anything marrying fantasy and adventure disreputable.
Finally, Jackson's comments that technology has only now progressed to a point where Tolkien's vision can be realized only worry me. It sounds as if the three movies -- The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King -- might be turned into big-budget F/X showpieces, when the heart and soul of the story is so much more. With 2,500 crew members, 77 speaking parts, 438 shooting days so far (the principal shoot wrapped up Dec. 22), a budget of $180-million and a cast of thousands, including more computer-generated Orcs than you could shake a forest of Ents at, it is already being called the biggest film project in history.
It's easy to focus on how big the film is. But in the books, the epic-ness, if you will, is tempered by the way Tolkien focuses almost completely on the micro detail, following pairs and trios of characters who move through this landscape.
So yes, there is a part of me that does not want to see Tolkien's work profaned, turned into just another glorified Hollywood B-movie. My mind rebels at the thought of Frodo's face staring out at me from the side of a cheap plastic cup from McDonald's, of Gollum hawking for Visa, of all the Ring-junk and tie-ins and merchandise that will be cast into the maw of our ever-hungry consumer culture.
Watching the trailer last Friday did nothing to quell my worries. Yes, there were a few scenes that made my heart leap for joy (a glorious helicopter shot of The Fellowship of the Ring hiking up the flank of Caradhras, for instance), but there were also some that worried me. The computer-generated army of Orcs looks, well, computer-generated, Mordor is way too bright and cheery, and the big money shot at the end of the trailer -- when the entire Fellowship walks past the camera -- looks as if it was shot against a blue screen. (The trailer is now on-line, at www.lordoftherings.net, and a shot-by-shot analysis is at www.theonering.net).
Then again, you can't judge a movie by its trailer, as they say. And though part of me is against it, a larger part of me goes all squishy inside when I think about seeing LotR on the big screen. I try to maintain my movie-critic composure, but every time I talk about the movie, I wind up wetting myself with excitement.
It's not just me. It appears the majority of fans are champing at the bit. Of the hundreds of Tolkien fan sites on the Internet, only a small percentage oppose the movie. The majority of sites are done by giddy fanboys who take every word that Tolkien wrote as gospel truth and for whom this movie is like the Second Coming.
I shudder to think I am one of them, but despite my reservations, I am counting down the days until the film opens. In my heart of hearts I know that no matter how good the The Fellowship of the Ring may be, it will not live up to the mountain of expectations I have placed before it.
Still, it doesn't matter. As long as there's no Jar Jar Binks, I'll be happy.