Bored of the rings? Expensive film has some uneven moments

For decades, one of the most common complaints new readers had about J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy, the Lord of the Rings, was the rambling, nearly inaccessible beginning. Many of the early chapters seemed unbearably dry because of the need to set up later more dramatic events.

While filmmaker Peter Jackson provided some creative solutions to this central problem, he could not overcoming the talk-centered aspects of the story, leaving the three-hours-plus film with sections that many in the audience might find boring.

In turning a classic piece of fiction into a movie, it is sometimes better to let it be done by someone who loves the literature too little rather than someone who loves it too much. Jackson, unfortunately, dedicated himself to a thorough recreation of the fiction. Written from the 1930s to the 1950s, the books predate television’s huge impact on modern consciousness, and certainly did not anticipate the cut and paste imagery of MTV, even though they have influenced many contemporary writers from Tom Clancy to Steven King. Tolkien’s means of storytelling is more akin to Grim Brothers’ fairy tales than to modern fiction.

True fans of the books might find little fault with the film since most know so much about the story already – they could likely recite many of the lines along with the actors. But those new to the work are hit with a host of names and places straight out of a mythology created specifically by the author for these works. New viewers also have to overcome a significant insertion of background material because the original books were preceded by a book called The Hobbit, which laid out the groundwork for the film tale.

Because Lord of the Rings was so influential in developing the Star Wars film series, some fans hoped the impact of the film would be as great on the uninitiated audience as Star Wars was in 1977. While Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three movies to be released over the next three years, is even more graphically appealing than Star Wars, this movie may not reach people in the same way.

The visual aspects of the film are nearly perfect – Tolkien was particularly skilled in shaping his world of Middle Earth – it is the subtler things Jackson missed, not only in interpreting the books, but in making Tolkien’s vision attractive to a modern, impatient audience to whom the thrills of action are more important than beautiful scenery, and to whom significant moments are boring.

Jackson did an incredible job in reducing the kinks of Tolkien’s plots, installing complete story lines into the actual time sequence in which they happened. Readers of Tolkien often had to wait hundreds of pages to find out what happened to a character. While this gave the book a remarkable strength, it would not do for a film.

But Jackson – too religiously close to the original books – sought to hammer the audience over the head with moments he thought they should get, those moments and symbols he felt were too significant to allow the story to carry on its own. Thus, the audience was subjected to whole scenes dripping with unnecessary melodrama, and extended shots of the ring. Like plots found in Shakespeare, Tolkien’s work needed none of these enhancements. Each of these – and there were too many – subtracted from the art, cheapening the overall feel of the film.

One other significant loss was to the book’s incredible humor. In translating the Hobbits to film, Jackson made Hobbits "cute" in the worst meaning of the word. They were a happy people, a carefree people, a people who dance, sang, drank and squabbled, but seemed unable to escape an overly tenderized treatment. Tolkien had never taken Hobbits overly seriously either – but there was always an edge to his treatment. During each section in which they were portrayed as a people, Tolkien added numerous puns, a tongue-in-cheek treatment that Jackson failed to bring to the screen.

In some ways modern audiences might find the film more fundamentally faulty. Released a month after Harry Potter, Fellowship of the Ring is a similar kind of fantasy aimed at a more mature audience. But it is told in a fairy tale format, which at times seems as out of touch with modern sensibilities as westerns have become. Whereas Star Wars and its subsequent films tickled the modern mind with futuristic gizmos, Lord of the Rings brings us elves, dwarves and goblins – as well as a Tolkien-created creature called a Hobbit.

If audiences can endure the early development, the film’s dramatic battle scenes – particularly in the underground city – will amaze and delight even the most skeptical movie-goer, providing visual effects equal to anything found in movies such as Jurassic Park. For the die-hard fan of Tolkien’s books, this is a dream come true.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group