Sunday, December 14, 2003

"Lord of the Rings" adaptations surpass expectations

No one was a bigger doubter than me when New Line Cinema announced its intention to put J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" on film. Visions of the disastrous animated adaptations of the books swirled in my head, and I imagined Ringwraiths that acted like Jason Voorhees and a Gollum with razor-blade tipped fingers. Those were, after all, my biggest reference points for New Line.

Then I began to hear about this New Zealander named Peter Jackson, who was a devoted fan of the books, and I began to see some of the early stills and notes from the movie via the Internet. Those little things piqued my curiosity, but I still wasn't convinced.

Once upon a time, I had a yearly date with Tolkien's trilogy, well, actually with all four books, because I include "The Hobbit" in the cycle. The month before the first film opened, I realized it had been several years since I visited with my old friends. I passed over the leatherbound version and the shiny, new version with illustrations by Alan Lee that hold a place of honor on my bookshelf. Instead, I dug out the old, torn, stained and dog-eared paperbacks from my youth and dived back into the world of Middle Earth.

I read the books with a passion that I hadn't experienced them with since the first time I picked up "The Hobbit" in seventh grade. I knew, after all, that this was the last time I'd see Middle Earth through my own eyes. This was the last time, I'd see my own personal vision of Tolkien's lands and characters. I knew my perception of the story in future readings would be clouded by visions of Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen (who, by the way, is about as close as you can get to my original vision of Gandalf.)

Then came the day when I sat in a darkened theater, waiting with a mixture of excitement and trepidation to see those words that were burned into my memory scroll across the screen - "One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them, One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them."

I knew they'd trump up the romantic angle and leave some other things out - it is Hollywood after all. But I'm happy to report that the films were nowhere near the disaster that I expected. In fact, they were better than I had ever imagined they could be. Oh, I've got quibbles, of course, but no major complaints. Among the quibbles that my colleagues are tired of hearing about:

· No Tom Bombadil. OK, I know he wasn't really essential to the plot of the books, and I know that sidetrip has little bearing on the story. But I still would have liked to see the barrow wight scene.

· Arwen's calling of the river at Rivendell. I thought the change in the story undermined Frodo's character a bit, and we all know it was Gandalf who crashed the river down on the Nazgul. Arwen was hardly in the book, but of course, Hollywood needs the romance.

· No final come-uppance for Saruman. This one probably bothers me more than any other. I wanted to see the scene where Gandalf confronts Saruman after the fall of Isengard. I also think viewers need to know Saruman's fate. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for the DVD for the Gandalf scene. As for the other, apparently Jackson didn't shoot it at all.

But for every quibble I can find, there are 10 things that Jackson and Co. got right. Among them:

· The hobbits themselves. Realistically, I know it's done with camera angles and digital tricks, but when I see the actors who played hobbits in another setting and see they're human-sized, I do a double-take.

· The casting. I haven't seen a single bad casting decision. No one in the world could have played Gandalf and Saruman but Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, and Jackson nailed the other characters just as well.

· The battle with the Balrog at Khazad-dum. Could it have been done more perfectly? I don't think so. Of all the scenes in the movie, this one was probably the most true to the vision I had in my head.

· Gollum. Without a doubt, the most incredible CG character of all time. The viewer has no trouble at all believing that he's 100 percent real.

In the end, the movies have been much truer to the books than I expected. I do feel a twinge of sadness that Middle Earth no longer belongs to me alone. Even though millions of people have read the books, before the movies, they were a much more personal experience. Now everyone shares the same vision - but at least it's a good one.

Now if we can just convince Peter Jackson to take on "The Hobbit." I know it's going to be done now, and I really don't want to see anyone else at the helm.