|The National Post
May 30, 2001Giving Flesh to Myth
"I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of 'history' for Elvish tongues," wrote Tolkien in 1965 -- though by that time he knew he had been proved wrong.
The Lord of the Rings, the trilogy Tolkien wrote in fits and starts between 1936 and 1949, is one of the most popular volumes of the century. His fans -- as his harassed family will attest -- are everywhere. And New Line Cinema, set to release The Fellowship of the Ring (the first in Tolkien's trilogy) in December, is determined to smoke them all out.
Many are willing. The first glimpse of the film came on an Internet-only trailer: 1.7 million Tolkien fans downloaded it the first day, 6.6 million by the end of the week. Then, when the first cinema trailer was released last January, those fans were a boon to Kevin Costner's Thirteen Days (to which it was attached), queuing for hours, and returning for more. Today another teaser appears (there will probably be another, more juicy one, before the big day), preceding screenings of Pearl Harbor.
Speeding over wooded hills -- Middle Earth, presumably -- the camera rests briefly in the round-doored home of a very fresh-faced Hobbit, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). He's surprised by the good wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen), and there -- there's a glimpse of the powerful ring that propels the trilogy; the ring that makes its wearers disappear, that inexorably turns them to grasping evil, and is wanted by the dark Lord Sauron in Mordor. Frodo owns it, more or less by accident, and he -- along with the Fellowship of the Ring -- is to be its reluctant destroyer.
A couple of white-clad maidens gambol among trees (echoes of Heavenly Creatures, perhaps, also made by Peter Jackson); phalanxes of Orcs stream over a hilltop (this was also on the Internet trailer, and though they never get very close, the sheer numbers are impressive. Apparently the New Zealand military helped). A huge, echoing cave (the Mines of Moria, though you're not told that), in which a rather too boyish and clean-cut Frodo whispers, "I think there's something down there." He owns up that he's afraid, and is informed he's "not nearly frightened enough." The trailer ends with a hiss: "Preciousssss." (That's Gollum, of course, as all who've read it will know.)
A few journalists at Cannes were treated to a 20-minute clip of The Fellowship of the Ring, broke into applause, and have been full of praise since. I'm willing to believe they hadn't taken leave of their senses -- and I do truly look forward to the movie -- but this teaser prompts in me a bit of disquiet.
Maybe it's simply to be expected. The fear, with a project of this sort, is that the actualized figures don't live up to their stature in one's imagination. I read Swallows and Amazons obsessively -- but when I came to see the film, I felt a thud of disappointment that the adventurers and pirates and buccaneers had become little British private school girls in fluffy dresses.
Tolkien's method, in The Lord of the Rings, is to suggest rather than to slavishly record appearances. Atmosphere counts for much, as do the Anglo-Saxon rhythms of Tolkien's measured language. Characters are more recognizable by their attributes -- their heroism, their craven evil, their indecisions, their lineages -- than by the colour of their garments (and where colours are recorded, they are symbolic). You might say they are types -- but in a good way.
It's odd to see Hobbits -- who I always thought were rather ruddy, earthy types -- played by such boyishly human figures. Or Gandalf as a beardy Ian McKellen. It makes them all so much smaller, somehow. But then, I think -- they'll have three movies, over three years, in which to gain in symbolic stature. By the third, they may even have achieved the status of types, and moved into that other realm, of myth, that Tolkien inhabits so easily that you hardly notice he's the one making it all up.
But I find it disquieting that the teaser indicates the danger of going the other way, into a more limited species of generic -- that of the action flick, or summer thriller. The music, pounding, unremarkable; the tricks of loudness and sudden changes that make you jump; a couple kissing (frankly, I don't remember -- though I'm willing to be contradicted -- anyone French kissing in The Fellowship of the Rings, and I think I would have noticed), and the terribly formulaic way in which we're set up for scary things to happen. Be afraid. Be very afraid. OK.
Moreover, what got those journalists at Cannes gasping (it's not shown here) was a special-effects extravaganza in which Gandalf and the Fellowship battle the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. As DreamWorks' Shrek illustrated, again, technology can do wonders, but it can't provide a film with heart.
I know, I know. It's not fair to review a two-minute teaser as if it was the film. A teaser is just supposed to increase my anticipation. This didn't, really, but I'll go and see the film anyway -- just because.