Is The Lord of the Rings Safe?
by D. Michael Martindale

Perhaps the worst part of the film is when Gandalf says to Frodo Baggins, “Is it safe?” How can this not sound like a goofy satire of the quote in the Dustin Hoffman film Marathon Man?

Yet the quote is appropriate in its own way. Filmmaker Peter Jackson took upon himself a burden unequaled by any filmmaker in the history of movies by trying to bring the fantasy world of Middle-earth to the silver screen. Not even the expectations George Lucas faced when delivering the much-anticipated “Episode I” of Star Wars could match it. Millions of fans over several generations have fallen in love with author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world, from hobbits to elves to invented languages to the landscape itself. They all want to visit Middle-earth themselves, and they all have their own personal idea of what it should be like.

What fool of a filmmaker would take on such a burden of expectation? It simply isn’t safe to do so. No one will be satisfied!

But that didn’t stop Peter Jackson, a relative newcomer to filmmaking with a short resume that includes Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. In spite of the efforts of a few before him who failed miserably to effectively adapt the epic-sized story to film, he decided to shoulder the burden.

The Lord of the Rings is a classic tale of a fantasy world populated by icons from our cultural history-elves, dwarves, wizards, magic rings. Plus a remarkable concoction original with Tolkien: hobbits. These are endearing beings half the size of humans that are remarkably similar to nineteenth century British folk, except for their hairy feet.

Bilbo Baggins is an old hobbit of questionable respectability who went off on a dragon-slaying adventure with a band of dwarves many years ago. He happened upon a magic ring during that adventure, and as the film opens, Bilbo is about to celebrate his 111th birthday by disappearing on another adventure and willing his estate to his young cousin Frodo, including the magic ring. Gandalf the wizard, renowned in Hobbitton for his astounding fireworks, discovers a terrible secret about that ring: it is the One Ring, an evil artifact forged by the dark lord Sauron. In an ancient battle, Sauron was defeated and the ring of power lost. But now that the ring has resurfaced, Sauron is gathering his forces and searching it out again, sending dread emissaries to haunt the pleasant environs of the Shire, home of the hobbits.

The Lord of the Rings has been tremendously influential throughout the decades. It virtually invented the modern genre of fantasy, and has often been imitated, but rarely matched. For Mormons, it is a superb example of how to write a religious and moral tale disguised in the trappings of a fantasy adventure. Author J.R.R. Tolkien was a committed Catholic, and enmeshed his own strong beliefs into the moral fabric of his fantasy world.

When Peter Jackson decided to adapt the series, right off he made the right decision: a trilogy of films to match the trilogy of books. Nothing less would have a chance of success. As it is, this lengthy three-hour film adaptation is a severely compressed version of the story in the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. To have tried to compress the whole trilogy into less than three films would have resulted in the same disastrous failure that previous efforts experienced.

Jackson allowed himself great artistic license in the plot details, as one would expect in a movie adaptation. But he remained true to the overall plot. And his efforts in evoking Middle-earth to the finest faithful detail were masterful. Jackson succeeded in this risky endeavor as much as he did because he himself is numbered among the millions of fans who feel a personal stake in Middle-earth. He cared about the story and the characters and the world.

Full disclosure compels me to admit that I came to this film as a frustrated would-be filmmaker and a fan of Tolkien who wants to visit Middle-earth. Not just any Middle-earth, but my Middle-earth: the one I’ve imagined in my head all these years. Therefore it was impossible for any filmmaker to please me with a screen adaptation of Lord of the Rings-so I thought. Inevitably, there would be a million things I would do differently.

That turned out to be true when I saw Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring. There were a million choices I would have made differently. Yet I still enjoyed the film as much as was possible for me. The choices and trade-offs Jackson made, though not mine, were reasonable choices, and I couldn’t fault him for making them.

I would have fleshed out the prolog opener that rushes through some vital backstory essential to the Tolkien novices in the audience. I would have transformed that hurried narrated sequence into an integral part of the action, as Gandalf explains to Frodo what this magical ring is that he inherited. I would not have peppered the landscape with so many familiar faces of popular actors, but have helped the verisimilitude of Middle-earth by using as many unknowns in principle roles as I could.

I definitely would not have cast super-good guy Elrond the elf king with Hugo Weaving, the evil villain from Matrix, a terrible choice. I could have done without Liv Tyler as a heroic elf figure, considering the baggage of cheesy films she drags around in her wake. But I’ll watch John Rhys-Davies (Shogun, Sliders, and two Indiana Jones movies) any day. As the dwarf Gimli, he was unrecognizable anyway under all that makeup. Only his characteristic voice gave him away.

The greatest concern I have over the film is the ending. It dragged out much too long, first the battle, then the departure of the Ringbearer. The parts in the ending that dragged were also parts that didn’t stay true to the book, and here is one place Jackson should have remained more faithful. Tightening up the ending would also have provided him with precious minutes to help flesh out other parts of the story that received too short shrift, in my opinion.

The history of Gollum was the part that wanted most glaringly. For such an important character in the story, his film version is nothing but a vapid computer-generated concoction, a pathetic spook in the night with no meaning. Cut down the tedious goblin battle at the end and give Gollum a little substantive screen time, please!

Yet with all these complaints that I walked out of the theater with, the bottom line was that I couldn’t wait to go back and see the film again. Peter Jackson had invoke Middle-earth, had let me live there for three hours. The experience began to haunt me the minute the images faded from the screen. With such a reaction, I could only conclude that I did like the movie after all. Peter Jackson had taken the risk, shouldered the burden, and succeeded.

Is Lord of the Rings safe? Can the millions of fans in love with Tolkien’s world come to the movie and avoid deep disappointment? Absolutely! The film is a sincere, loving adaptation by a genuine fan, and does indeed allow you to visit Middle-earth, not only with breathtaking, state-of-the-art movie magic images, but with a respectful portrayal of the story, the characters, and the environment itself that, if not exactly matching your imagination all these years, still satisfies. If you’re a fan, it’s safe to visit Middle-earth through the vision of Peter Jackson.

And if you’re not a fan, you may enjoy the film even more, without all the baggage of anticipation and dread weighing you down. I envy you your fresh exploration of a story that has enchanted untold millions before you!

 


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