Thursday, December 20, 2001


(CAVEAT LECTOR: I tried really hard, but I wound up putting in some spoilers. But only people who know the books I'm talking about will understand any of this entry anyway, so I suppose I shouldn't worry my pretty little head about that too much)

I'm having trouble even getting started on this column, which of course is going to be about the new Lord of the Rings movie that premiered today (technically, looking at the clock, I should now say "yesterday" but it's still today to me, as it always is). I wanted to go to sleep and take up the subject tomorrow, but impressions, phrases, points continue to come over me and they will not let me sleep until they're down and shared in some fashion.

Uber-nerd that I am, of course I went to see this film today, the very first day it came out, even though doing so entailed an 80-mile round trip with an uncertain end, to wit, the movie theater in Rawlins has no advance ticket sales policy and no real way of dealing with a high-demand premiere like this (I remember, years ago, nearly getting shut out of the very first Batman movie there and winding up in the Picasso section, front row center, stuck craning my neck to watch a nearly cubist Joker nearly win the day).

Like many a Middle Earth maniac, like many a Dungeons and Dragons (or, in my mother's parlance, "Dragons and Dum-Dums") devotee, like many a silly sword and sorcery seeker, I've been waiting for this film pretty much my entire conscious life and damned if I was going to wait one more day, even if it snowed and blowed and ran me off the road.

With all of the advance reviews and publicity, and with my utter faith in director Peter Jackson (whose earlier "Heavenly Creatures" I love), and with my crowing delight at the casting of Viggo Mortensen (the devil in the first of those silly "Prophecy" movies) as the future king, I went pretty sure that I was going to enjoy the thing a lot – which certainty threatened my objectivity profoundly.

So, both in the interests of cross cultural exchange and of borrowing a Tolkien tabula rasa, I dragged along my ice fishing buddy (who drove into the bargain, knowing me too well and wisely suspecting that were transportation left to me we'd end up in a ditch somewhere as I channeled my inner Italian and tried to talk with my hands AND drive in my excitement). He is aware of the general plot and storyline from his own years as a talk jock (competitive speech and debate at the high school level is rife with, well, with younger versions of me) but has never read any of the books, not even The Hobbit, so he was my perfect foil; his reactions would gauge the movie qua movie while my own could be used solely to examine its relationship to the book.

It worked beautifully; we were still raving about the thing together 45 minutes after leaving the theater while we topped off the night with a pint of Murphy's Stout at a local pub (Guiness, alas, only now being available on tap in Encampment, and while on an ordinary night a mere 20 miles would never be permitted to stand between either of us and a proper pint, we'd already driven 80 and were jazzed to the eyeballs to boot).

Yup, he liked it, too, but that's not the extraordinary thing. The extraordinary thing, people, is that the pair of us loved for the most the same things about the film!

Oh, I got more into it than he did, of course. At times I became so absorbed that I forgot he was there, while he was at least at times able to take note of my competition for the title of Biggest Nerd in Saratoga (i.e. we weren't the only folks who made the journey for the premiere) (I won't say who else was there lest I blow their cover, natch).

What's so great about it?


Adaptations often suffer by comparison with their original sources because of the problem of translating imagination and making its appeal universal. Frequently readers of a book will complain about the movie because, e.g., actors chosen to play key characters didn't fit the reader's own very personal mental picture of what those characters looked like or sounded like or moved like. Key elements of a big novel might get left out in the interests of time or clarity or comprehensibility for the uninitiated (for instance, the Missionaria Protectiva has yet to be mentioned in any adaptation of DUNE, and my best friend's beloved power suits made nary an appearance in the film version of STARSHIP TROOPERS).

On the whole, I'm as guilty of such complaining as anyone, guys, I really am!

BUT... While there is next to nothing in this movie that really looks or sounds or acts the way I imagined it when first I read Tolkien's books at the tender age of eight or so, or when god-knows-how-many-timeseth I read it again about a month ago, THAT'S GREAT!

I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that with a book as deeply loved and deeply felt and vividly recalled as this one, it's actually pretty cool to see what someone else imagined while reading it.

Especially when that someone else, those someone elses, is/are as incredibly imaginative, fastidious and all-around brilliant as Peter Jackson, his production designers, his screenwriting team, and his cast, all of whom, I now suspect, had at least in purely visual and aesthetic terms a better vision of the world Tolkien created than I have had in all my years of loving and reading these books.

Yes, a bold and maybe a weird statement, but hear me out:

I first encountered this stuff in early elementary school. In second grade, I snuck into the older kids' viewing of the Rankin-Bass cartoon of The Hobbit – and, complain about what Rankin-Bass, and later Ralph Bakshi, did with these books in translating them to cel animation as some might, for every griping purist, animation snob or general sad sack, there is a person like me who used to be a kid whose entire world was opened to Tolkien and his ilk by exposure to these admittedly pretty crummy cartoons (though no one will ever convince me that John Huston was not a born Gandalf; it's still his voice I hear in my head when I read the wizard's dialog and I found myself superimposing it, if that would be the correct verb, on Ian McKellen's as I took in the movie. Had Huston still been alive, he would have been the ONLY choice for this role. End of story and if you disagree start your own double-damned blog).

I had devoured the whole mess, even the Silmarilion by the time I hit third or fourth grade. And I was in love.

But I've never been to England, see. And at the time of these first readings, I'd never seen much in the way of industrial blight or land laid waste. My Misty Mountains were the Snowy Range (and still are; they do very nicely in that imaginary role); my Great River Anduin the North Platte (and still is even now, though I've seen the Mississippi); Long Lake, Saratoga Lake. Weathertop looks a lot like Libby Flats in my head, and I've never been able to stop conflating Orthanc, Saruman's tower at Isengard, with the fire lookout station at Kennaday Peak.

And of course, the Shire was a lot like Saratoga, or later, places like Annandale-on-Hudson, New York or Montague, Massachusetts.

Intellectually I knew Tolkien had locales more familiar to HIM in mind - English villages and countryside (why else call the Hobbits' home the Shire?), Germany, etc. as he wrote. But in my mind's eye that's not what I saw. How could I?

But now, through Peter Jackson's movie, I feel I have seen a much better approximation of what Tolkien was trying to invoke. My mountains are beautiful and in the right situations quite forbidding, but there is no equivalent to the horror of Caradhras as depicted in the film. The North Platte makes for a great boat trip, and goes through some spectacular canyons while it's still very small, but it is not the majestic waterway J.R.R. had in mind. Orthanc is huge and dark and angular and not at all the friendly, austere quarters from which my friend Judi watches over the forest every summer (though because of this connection in my mind it was especially shocking to watch Orcs cutting down gorgeous deciduous trees the likes of which I only came to know while living in the northeast U.S. from the vantage point of the top of Orthanc in the film).

Oddly enough, Weathertop did look a lot like Libby Flats. But I digress as usual.

Another thing that makes this film truer than true to the original is what Jackson has done with the storyline. True, I'm as annoyed as anyone could be at the absence of Tom Bombadil – he was far and away my favorite character in Fellowship of the Ring, the one I wished I could know in real life, the one I admired and still seek to emulate, the one even today I love author Tom Robbins for in some way resembling – and the particularly cynical among us will doubtless needle the rest of us for weeks in a manner befitting the comic book salesman on the Simpsons for not boycotting the film because the characters of Arwen Undomiel and Glorfindel have been combined in what is obviously a ploy just to beef up the cheesecake factor. In a perfect world neither of these things would have happened, and Fatty Bolger and Bill Ferny would still be there to enjoy and non-readers would know the name of Galadriel's gigolo... but these are really petty quibbles in the face of what Jackson pulled off that Tolkien didn't – which really is one of the most triumphant transfers from one medium to another I've ever seen.

Think back, those of you who know the books well, to how much of the serious and foreboding, important action seems to take place outside the confines of the actual narrative. How much of the second book, The Two Towers, actually refers to things indirectly, as mere backstory, at the expense of a lot of excitement, emotion and impact?

I'm talking particularly about most of the Saruman backstory. From Gandalf's imprisonment in Orthanc to Saruman's breeding of the Uruk-Hai, his razing of the forest and his establishment of a rival Mordor in the realm of Isengard – all that takes place offstage, as it were, in the books. By the time any of our protagonist reach Isengard, it's all just an ugly fait accompli.

In the film, however, we get to see it and fear it properly as a beautiful forest that sports one elegant tower as its only sign of habitation is gradually transformed into an industrial hellpit. We even get an excursis from Saruman on how orcs came to be, something we only get in the appendices of the novels.

The novels would have been twice as long if Tolkien had tried to use this fine cinematic device, the cut between simultaneously occurring scenes, to any good effect in his books, especially when the real impact of the Saruman storyline is so very, very visual. Which is why Tolkien resorted to, for instance, Treebeard raging in The Two Towers about Saruman's destruction of the forest instead of trying to write a long, probably turgid description of that forest.

There is more that I could point out. Other critics have noticed the loving attention to detail and craft that have made even the brooches of Lothlorien – not even mentioned in dialogue, as the whole leave taking of Lorien is omitted from the film – something eye catching enough to make the seasoned Tolkien toker anticipate their importance in the upcoming sequel. The satisfaction of seeing Hugo Weaving – who has looked like he was born to play an elf in every film he's made from Priscilla Queen of the Desert to The Matrix – being the elf he should always have been. Sean Bean as Boromir, not given much screen time or dialogue, but still playing out that poor man's entire tragedy fully enough to allow even my ice fishing buddy to understand what the guy is going through.

I will end on one other note: this movie is deeply satisfying also because of its evocation of emotions that are only sort of there for the long-time Rings reader in the books. The books contain many declarative sentences indicating that the characters are grieving or fearful or puzzled.

The movie shows stricken Hobbits collapsing in tears in the snow outside Moria, handles the merely scary in the books in such a way that I'm pretty sure I'm going to have nightmares tonight.

Truly it's a marvel.

In Saratoga life, it's a rare movie that I dub an 80-mile movie. How many films are really worth the effort to get to Rawlins to see them, when soon they'll be available on video and soon after that, available used off of websites to own for a lower price than the initial movie ticket?

I'm going to have to call this movie about a 240-mile movie.

Good thing I had my car tuned up recently.