Flesh for fantasy
Director Peter Jackson incarnates Tolkien’s epic fantasy world
It seems that each generation needs its pop- culture mythos—the kids have their Harry Potter, and Generation X has its Star Wars. And now the Boomers finally have an excuse to dress up silly (if so inclined) as they wait in line at the cineplex to partake of their long-anticipated The Lord of the Rings. First published in the ‘50s and adopted as the template for hippy-dippy doings back in the ‘60s, J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy has always been one intimidating bastard for the orcs-in-suits down in the factory of dreams. As it should be. What other work can claim to have almost single-handedly spawned the second-largest section in any given bookstore, Fantasy?
The essential story is fairly simple—a hobbit (sort of a midget with hairy feet and pointy ears) named Frodo is conscripted by a wizard called Gandalf to carry a magic ring into the wastelands and throw it in the mouth of a volcano in order to keep it out of the hands of an evil force that will use it to turn the world to darkness and enslave all therein.
Along on the quest are a handful of other hobbits, an elf, a dwarf and a couple of humans. They encounter many temptations and obstacles along the way. It’s all very old-fashioned and traditional as epics go. But it still seems odd that this “property” has absolutely intimidated Tinseltown for so long (we can’t really count the animated attempts back in the disco era).
Fringe filmmaker Peter Jackson at first seems an odd choice to be entrusted with helming the hugely anticipated trilogy. Following the underground success of his debut Bad Taste, Jackson followed up with Meet The Feebles (a venereal take on The Muppets) and in 1992 with the mother of all gore movies, Dead/Alive.
However, with Heavenly Creatures in 1994 Jackson got the notice of the Hollywood suits and finally established his credibility. A compelling character study about two schoolgirls’ fever dream plot to kill one of their mothers, Heavenly Creatures is at turns tragic, witty and horrific, with mesmerizing surreal asides set in the girls’ shared fantasy world. It would be here that Jackson would punch his e-ticket to The Shire, and from there on into Mordor.
And so, roughly six years and $300 million later, Jackson has finally returned from the wastelands with the first installment of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. And a wondrous (and unusual) thing it is. None of his anarchic excess is on display. He seems to have realized the responsibilities of his undertaking, focusing his manic energy into creating a letter-perfect land that generations have already traversed in their minds.
Jackson delivers a richly detailed illustration of the first novel. The film is gorgeous—from the pastoral simplicity of The Shire, to the Maxfield Parrish hues of Rivendell, and on to the darkly beautiful confrontation with the Hell-spawned Balrog, an underground tableau slashed through with the raw reds and depthless blacks of a Heironymous Bosch hallucination.
If the film can be faulted for any weakness, it would be the rushed nature of the story; character development necessarily takes a back seat to pacing in order to make the three-hour running time tolerable to the attention span, if not the tailbone. It’s a minor quibble to be sure; most in the audience have already spent many a leisurely adolescent afternoon being introduced to the characters’ backgrounds and motivations. It’s a symbiosis of sorts: The audience enters the theater packing the emotional baggage of Frodo Baggins, Gandalf the Wizard and the other members of the Fellowship and entrusts Jackson at the wheel to deliver the epic visualizations in which to invest those souls.