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Catholic World News News Feature

From Book to Film January 09, 2002

Not too long ago, movie adaptations from books began to employ the conceit of adding the original author’s name in the film title: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Bram Stoker’s Dracula; William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was an idle boast: None of those films were particularly faithful to their source material (nor, incidentally, were they particularly good films).

Things were perhaps clearer in the past, when everyone knew that Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, though classic films, were not L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

Yet neither Baum’s nor even Mitchell’s books ever quite generated the level of intensely passionate fan devotion inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings. This is a fact not lost on New Zealand director Peter Jackson (previously best known for The Frighteners), whose ambitious three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings launches this December with The Fellowship of the Ring.

Jackson is so concerned that he should not be seen as trying to create Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring that in 1998 he went so far as to tell readers of Harry Knowles’s "Ain’t It Cool News" (aintitcool.com), a web site of film reportage and rumor-mongering: "You shouldn’t think of these movies as being The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is, and always will be… one of the greatest [stories] ever written. Any films will only ever be an interpretation of the book. In this case my interpretation."

That is not to say, however, that Jackson is not trying to be true to Tolkien’s vision. Jackson also told Knowles’s AICN web site:

I guess if I was making the movies for anyone else (other than me), it would be Professor Tolkien himself. I will never know what he would think of the films we are about to make, but by being faithful to his themes, his characters and the things he clearly cared about, I can at least feel I’m honoring his wonderful imagination in the best way I know how.

The fidelity of the film project to its source material has also been touted by production members other than Jackson. The screenplay was described as "perhaps the most faithful screenplay ever adapted from a long novel" by actor Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf, on his own web site (mckellen.com). Several other cast members have voiced astonishment at the incredibly detailed sets and props and the ground-breaking special effects that are being used to bring Middle-earth to life.

MOVING TOWARD FIDELITY

However well the films ultimately realize Tolkien’s vision, the outcome, like that of the great quest related in the books themselves, has often been in doubt.

When Jackson first began pursuing the possibility of a Lord of the Rings movie project, he started out with a deal for a two-movie version with Miramax Pictures. Later Miramax decided that the project should be condensed into just one medium-length picture. But then New Line Cinema stepped in with an offer of a much more expansive three-film production. The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, is expected to have a longer running time than Miramax was ultimately willing to allot for the whole saga.

Of course, running time alone is no guarantee of faithful interpretation; and even Jackson has more than once tacitly admitted that the production has not always aimed for the level of fidelity that the project currently claims. As the director last year told The New Zealand Herald:

Way back at the beginning we thought there is quite a bit of this we are going to have to alter or change, do things to turn the book into a film, but the more we got into it… we’ve gone further and further back to the books again. So a lot of our so-called clever ideas at the beginning, we’ve long since abandoned and Tolkien hopefully has a fairly clear voice in the film.

Tolkien fans may be gratified by this suggestion that it was the power of the books themselves that inspired this increasing fidelity to the source material. There is, however, at least some question whether another force may have been a factor in the filmmakers’ decisions: fan pressure, especially in online venues.

Certainly the risk of fan disappointment is formidable. In the years since its completion, Tolkien’s great saga has appealed to a vast, almost comically diverse audience, encompassing Oxford literati in the 1950s, tie-dyed flower children in the 1960s, teenaged role-playing gamers in the 1970s, conservative Catholics and other Christians in every decade, and countless others. In the last decade or so, representatives or heirs of practically all these groups have taken to the Internet in droves, establishing hundreds of web sites, chat groups, and other online communities devoted to Tolkien’s writings. (See sidebar) LOST IN THE TRANSLATION

Yet contrary to common media stereotypes, most Tolkien readers are not merely "geeks" or "needs." Rather, they are people who have encountered in The Lord of the Rings an unforgettable vision of glory and truth and tragedy and loss. The poetry and mythopoeia of Middle-earth, the "beauties that pierce like swords or burn like cold iron" (as C. S. Lewis put it)--these are what matter to most readers.

It is this mythopoeic quality, this elusive sense of something Tolkien called "faerie," that many readers feel has often been lost whenever Tolkien’s world has been transposed into other media. Consider the dismal, generic, sword-and-sorcery artwork that graces (or disgraces) the covers of many cheap paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien-themed calendars, and the like. Or take the 1970s animated versions: the Rankin-Bass Hobbit and the highly truncated Lord of the Rings from animator Ralph Bakshi.

The problem actually runs deeper than poor recreations of Tolkien's work. The entire style of Western epic mythopoeia has not fared well in translation, especially to the big screen. When was there ever a truly good film of the type of mythic fantasy adventure involving wizards and dragons, dwarves and elves, warriors and princesses? From Willow and Legend to Dragonslayer and Dragonheart, from Excalibur and Camelot to Conan and Kull, the best such films have been merely adequate. In fact, tongue-in-cheek parodies like The Princess Bride and Shrek have been far more successful than attempts at the real thing (just as Cervantes’ Don Quixote all but eclipsed the real chivalric literature of the Middle Ages). It is a sobering thought that to date, the closest thing to a successful cinematic Western mythic epic fantasy adventure may be the science-fiction mythology of George Lucas’s Star Wars films.

Clearly, Peter Jackson has his work cut out for him. The director is well aware of the monumental significance of his task: "Every film genre," Jackson told AICN, "has been done well over the last 100 years, but not this type of fantasy story. If we get it right, it will be the first time. No film maker could ask for a greater challenge than that."

COPING WITH RUMORS

But Jackson has also faced another challenge: dealing with web-based rumors, reports, and controversies ranging from worrisome to wearisome. Some online sources claimed that hobbit Sam Gamgee would be transmogrified by the film into a girl, or that Sam’s relationship with Frodo would be depicted in homosexual terms. Other reports alleged that the Elven princess Arwen would be reinvented as a Xena-like "warrior princess," and perhaps be added to the all-male Fellowship of the Ring. One garbled press account about the Fellowship supposedly being freed by Galadriel from the clutches of her nonexistent "evil sister Queen Beruthiel" must have come as a nasty shock to fans; apparently the reporter mistook as fact a michievous webpage offering a humorously inaccurate "summary" of Tolkien for lazy students.

All of these rumors have been debunked by Jackson and others. Yet at least some web browsers believe that the production may have backed off on some planned revisionism as a result of online fury.

"I think [fan concerns] played a large part" in shaping the films, says Australian Garth Franklin of DarkHorizons.com, a film site similar to AICN. "Jackson himself interacted with movie webmasters and fans on a regular basis throughout the production to get feedback. He’s extremely aware of fans and is making these films with them in mind."

Franklin gives particular credit to his American counterpart, Harry Knowles of AICN. According to Franklin, Knowles has "been the key player" on the internet pushing the film project to be as faithful as possible. Others give partial credit to a petition on a major Tolkien fandom site, TolkienOnline.com, that collected over 16,000 signatures urging Jackson not to subvert Tolkien’s vision.

But other Web observers disagree. "I don’t think fan response would influence this project," says Michael Regina, webmaster of TheOneRing.net, another Tolkien fan site:

Absolutely not… I think [the filmmakers have been] very curious about our reaction to certain things… but Peter Jackson, being the professional director that he is, brings a real passion to his work, and I don’t think he would be influenced by anyone’s opinion but his own.

It is true that Jackson comes across as a man with his own vision for the films. And fan pressure is hardly an irresistible force: Another web-based petition by fans of the Marvel super-hero Spider-Man gathered over 5,000 signatures, but failed to persuade Sam Raimi, director of next year’s Spider-Man film, not to replace their beloved hero’s traditional mechanical web-shooting devices with spinneret-like organs in his wrists.

Whatever the impact of the online fan presence on the production of the films may have been, it has undeniably played a major role in the publicity and marketing strategy of New Line Cinema. In addition to repeated online statements and Q&A sessions with Jackson and others, the studio released the first "teaser" trailer exclusively via the web, and prominent webmasters were invited to a preview of footage at Cannes. And for fans who want to know for sure that they have made a mark on the films, however small, membership in the official "Lord of the Rings" movie fan club at LOTRfanclub.com carries the privilege of having one’s name listed in the film credits in DVD release.

HOW FAITHFUL?

In the end, how faithful will the movies really be? Clearly the requirements of a film trilogy demand some departures from the book. For example, the adventures in Tom Bombadil’s land, while of great imaginative interest, delay the plot rather than advancing it, and Jackson reasonably chose to omit this passage. Other characters and events have of necessity been eliminated; while some characters, such as Arwen, have for dramatic reasons been given more substantial roles. (A document at TolkienOnline.com lists reported changes along with arguments pro and con in each case.)

Yet great effort has been made to preserve not only the key events in Tolkien’s story but also the flavor of Tolkien’s narrative and of his world. Jackson has repeatedly said that much of the dialogue is drawn straight from the books--including some dialogue (subtitled in the film) that is conducted in the languages Tolkien invented for his Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and other creatures.

The design of the film’s props and sets has been guided by two of the few artists to achieve some respectability in interpreting Tolkien’s world: Alan Lee and John Howe. Building on Tolkien’s own etchings, Lee and Howe have fleshed out a world of painstaking detail and authenticity. Elven runes grace swords and other artifacts; buckles bear the coat of arms of the wearer’s army; and the hobbit-ness and wizard-ness of characters like Frodo and Sam and Gandalf and Saruman have been subtly enhanced by undetectable but effective prosthetics.

The New Zealand landscape, too, provides for every type of terrain and vista found in Middle-earth, from the cheerful valleys of the Shire, to the forbidding peaks of the Lonely Mountains, to the intimidating forests of Lothlórien and Fangorn. Several of the British cast members have described New Zealand as being very much like the British landscape that inspired Tolkien, but larger, younger, wilder: the ideal setting for Tolkien’s primeval history.

So there is some reason for hope that Ian McKellen may be right when he says that Tolkien’s work has been adapted with exceptional fidelity. However it has come about, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings may turn out to be--if not J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings--at any rate a worthy tribute and an evocative interpretation. Perhaps it will even be a film that is a great work in its own right.

[AUTHOR ID] Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic whose work appears in a number of media, including magazines, radio, and Web. The creator and webmaster of The Decent Films Guide (decentfilms.com), he has degrees in media arts and in religious studies.

[SIDEBAR]

TOLKIEN ON THE NET

AN ODYSSEY FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM.

In the earliest days of the internet--in the late 1960s, when it emerged as a network connecting scientists, graduate students, and Defense Department researchers--there were two pop-culture phenomena that kept popping up on the rudimentary web sites of the time: the science-fiction TV show Star Trek and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. That these two entertainment vehicles would appear online was natural, considering their appeal to so-called "nerds" and "geeks."

During the mid-1970s, an enterprising programmer of large mainframe computers wrote one of the first computer games, a text-based game called Adventure, which was a sword and fantasy story reminiscent of Tolkien’s work. This game gave birth to an industry which today includes some of the most popular multi-player online games, where players assume the roles of characters that continue to exist in the virtual world even when the player logs off.

At the same, more pedestrian pursuits began with fans using the new technology of email to join with like-minded Tolkien readers, to discuss the books in minute detail. In some of these discussions, fans asked each other which actors should be cast in particular roles in a film version--then only imagined--of The Lord of the Rings.

In the three decades since that time, the internet has become diversified beyond its Trek and Tolkien origins, but the Lord of the Rings still maintains a presence far more prominent than other cultural markers. A search of the web for "Tolkien" recently turned up 490,000 pages containing that word. The Google.com web-search directory came up with hundreds of discrete web sites dedicated to the author’s works. Among these online offerings are web sites, email lists, and bulletin boards dedicated to academic literary analysis; philological study of Tolkien’s invented languages; board, card, and role-playing games; lists of genealogies and maps; original and published artwork; downloadable computer wallpaper and screensavers; fan-composed and performed music; and more.

Since the announcement that a film version of the movie would be produced was made several years ago, even more web sites and discussion boards have popped up to offer the latest tidbits and rumors, many of which are subsequently proven to be untrue but cause temporary uproar, outrage, and applause nonetheless. For months, fans checked in daily or weekly for the latest news on the film, or for spy photos of actors in costume or sets from the New Zealand filming locations, or for snippets of the filming script.

Some of the most useful and popular web sites are "One Ring: The Complete Guide to Tolkien Online" (http://onering.virbius.net), the confusingly named, but separate "TheOneRing.net," and the "J.R.R. Tolkien Information Page" (http://www.csclub.uwaterloo.ca/u/relipper/tolkien/rootpage.html). Both sites are guides to some of the thousands of other web sites

As so many current Tolkien fans read the books without seeing their Christian underpinnings, it is perhaps understandable, if disturbing, to find that a number of sites and newsgroups involve fans who revel in the darkness and evil that Tolkien cast as the antagonists in Lord of the Rings. At one such bulletin board, called "Morder – Dark Messages," partincipants recently discussed: "Who is better Melkor or Sauron?" (The former is the Satan-like character in Tolkien’s mythopoeic The Silmarillion; the latter is the main antagonist of the eponymous Lord of the Rings.)

A SHARED REVERENCE FOR THE WORK

What all these web sites and discussion boards share is an almost reverential love for all things Tolkien. Whereas sites dedicated to other entertainment works like Star Trek, Star Wars, and The X-Files are often filled with debate over the current merits of the work being produced, and excoriations of the producers and writers, just about every note and posting on these Tolkien sites extol the merits of the Lord of the Rings.

This overweening love could have been a problem for Peter Jackson, as the inevitable compromises and changes were made to the book in order to make it a marketable movie suitable for a wide audience. But while some changes were made--and bemoaned by the rabid fan base--Jackson apparently listened to early criticisms and attempted to satisfy those fans with a more faithful rendering. Those fans in turn appear to be grateful, and for the most part they are cautiously optimistic that the movie will not do violence to the purity of Lord of the Rings as they see it.

With the three movies that make up the cinematic version of the trilogy due to come out over a three-year span, the internet which has allowed fans to form a worldwide community will not see a slowdown in the capacious interests of fans and the proliferation of web sites dedicated to the phenomenon. In fact, once the first movie has hit the neighborhood cinema, one can confidently expect to see an explosion of traffic on the email lists, bulletin boards, and web sites as fans rush to praise or pan the movie--or more likely, to do both, depending on their perspectives. Tolkien fandom will likely continue to spread online and become even more deeply ingrained into contemporary culture, helping to make The Lord of the Rings a new Homeric epic: an Odyssey for the new millennium.

--Domenico Bettinelli, Jr.

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