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[whitespace] Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood
Hobbitual Friends: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) must embark on a perilous journey in 'The Lord of the Rings.'

Live Ringers

Director Peter Jackson trims the fat and serves up a Tolkien feast in 'Fellowship of the Ring'

By Richard von Busack

J.R.R. TOLKIEN'S famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, has been bled dry for almost 50 years, by everyone from George Lucas to Led Zeppelin. All the more reason that the superb film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings is the season's greatest surprise.

The antihero of The Lord of the Rings, published 1954-55, is a piece of jewelry, and director Peter Jackson even gives the discordant ring a point-of-view shot. In ancient times, this ring was the Doomsday weapon of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. When the ring is found in the possession of a hobbit in the least-ambitious hamlet in all of Middle-earth, Gandalf the Wizard (Ian McKellen) sends it away in the custody of the young, dreaming Frodo (Elijah Wood). But word of the ring gets out, and a band of men and not-men, united by a past of mutual mistrust, meet to escort the fateful object back to Mount Doom, where it was forged eons ago.

Jackson and writers Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyans make the familiar epic pitch-dark, adding the conflict between Gandalf and the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) from later in the series. Jackson also stresses the tale's qualities as an ecology fable. Thus he renders The Lord of the Rings pagan, not Christian. And this tactic may be the smartest decision he's ever made as a filmmaker.

Middle-earth is being ripped apart and polluted for literal war machines--open pits and open hearths straight from Bosch. (The scenes of oaks uprooted by orcs are all the more painful for the thought of the dying oaks hereabouts.) The unravished New Zealand landscapes are harsh yet virginal, contrasting with the peasant backwater where the hobbits live their little Renaissance Faire lives.

We head through the muddy town of Bree, alive with ruffians and rats. And the elf encampment at Lothlorean is ethereal, as if some architect had built a palace into a grove of Sequoias without injuring or upstaging the great trees.

Jackson captures the unearthliness of these architects, these elves. The Fellowship of the Ring is graced by Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett as the nobles Arwen, Elrond and Galadriel. The power of good is remote and slightly disdainful. In this war between darkness and light, the elves are the commissioned officers--they have their own agenda, and they're not to be trifled with. I agree with the dwarves: I don't trust those elves either.

Dull patches abound in the book: the travelogues, the endless verse, the hippy-dippery of the Tom Bombadil episode (all three are deleted from the film). Still, Tolkien was probably at his worst in hailing his Virgin Mary figure, Galadriel; there's no Catholic so fulsome as an English Catholic. Fortunately, Blanchett snaps that stuff shut. In some instances, her Elf-Queen Galadriel is even a bit of a bitch--cold and powerful. Her elfin superiority leaves her open for a nasty shock from the power of the ring.

The rest of the acting is just as canny. Elijah Wood's sweet-faced Frodo and Sean Astin's Sam are like rambunctious children--never on camera long enough to be pests. Viggo Mortensen's Strider has the best 1960s manner. With his beard and attractive sullenness, he's a ringer for the old posters of Jim Morrison. Ian McKellen shades in Gandalf's righteousness, makes him a little weak, a little grubby, a little bit of a bluffer. Thanks to Ian Holm's performance, you emphasize with the plight of Bilbo Baggins, snared in ring neurosis. Jackson even adds humor to this epic without puffing it full of froth--John Rhys-Davies' Gimli roars, "You shall nae toss this dwarf!"

As I watched the film, I wondered if I was once so taken by The Fellowship of the Ring because I'd thought Tolkien's writing was beautiful. Certainly, McKellen's reading of the incantation that begins, "One ring to rule them all," is as tenderizing as hearing a favorite bedtime story.

Nostalgia wasn't enough to keep me watching. What Jackson excels at is teasing out the sense of character underneath these legendary figures. When they used to say the time wasn't right for a Lord of the Rings movie, maybe it was more than merely a matter of the effects not being online yet. What was lacking was the right amount of skepticism and depth. If a live-action film had been made in the book's heyday, it might have been childish, bombastic, as basically simpleminded as the Star Wars trilogy.

As he did in Heavenly Creatures, Jackson suggests that there's always more to fairy-tale good and evil than meets the eye. You can't ask for more than that sort of wisdom in a fabulous epic. Damn it, a whole year until the next episode.


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (PG-13; 178 min.), directed by Peter Jackson, written by Jackson, Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, photographed by Andrew Lesnie and starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen, opens Wednesday (Dec. 19) countywide.

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From the December 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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