the hell with critical distance. I fucking love The Lord Of The Rings. I want to see it again right now.Prejudices upfront: I've read The Lord Of The Rings several times over the years, but I've never bothered to learn Elvish or gone to a party dressed as my favourite character. When I read the novel now, I'm inclined to skip over bits -- sometimes rather large bits, particularly those extremely hobbitty parts in The Fellowship Of The Ring where Tolkien's pastoral-English-village dream of the Shire feels like the third circle of hell to a confirmed urbanite.
Hardcore Tolkien fans should know that some surgery has been performed on the book. Time has been telescoped, some characters have been lost or combined, and others have been enlarged.
Fortunately (for me, at any rate), Peter Jackson and his co-scenarists have reshaped the narrative to suit my tastes. We get out of the Shire and onto the road at a dead run, pick up Strider in Bree and find the Ring Wraiths in hot pursuit almost immediately. Put it this way: if you're going to the movie to hear the songs performed, and Tom Bombadil's your favourite character, stay home. You'll hate it.
Jackson and company start the film with a great whack of narration about the history of the Ring for those in the audience who haven't read the story. Cate Blanchett, who plays the elf queen Galadriel, does the honours over an epic battle scene depicting the creation of the Ring by the dark lord Sauron and its loss in battle. Then it's off to the Shire, where the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) arrives for the 111th birthday party of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who's about to head east, leaving his property and the Ring for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood).
The film's most remarkable special effect is the way the hobbits are convincingly shown as very short characters, waist-high to humans and elves.
Short actors have been cast as hobbits (Holm, Wood, Sean Astin) opposite tall actors (Viggo Mortensen, McKellen, Sean Bean, Hugo Weaving), and there was some brilliant doubling in long shots, but the filmmakers also manage, through digital trickery or blue screen, to make us believe in the early scenes that Gandalf is twice Bilbo's height while they interact in the same frame.
Through the second and third hours, Jackson and his collaborators, particularly cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Babe) and production designer Grant Major, deliver a series of jaw-droppers, including Arwen (Liv Tyler) carrying the wounded Frodo on her horse (37 Tolkien purists just fainted reading that) pursued by the Ring Wraiths, and the battle in the mines of Moria.
Jackson perfectly matches various bits of New Zealand landscape to the action of the story, and there's some tremendous CGI for Mordor and Saruman's tower at Isengard.
Jackson's hotly awaited production is the most unlikely cinematic mega-project of our times. At least I thought so when I read that New Line had given just under $300 million to the director of Heavenly Creatures to make a nine-hour series. But after seeing 25 minutes of TLOTR at Cannes, I was angry that I had to wait seven months to see the rest. Now I'm mad that it's a year-long wait to see The Two Towers next Christmas.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING directed by Peter Jackson, written by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson, produced by Barrie M. Osborne and Jackson, with Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen and Sean Astin. 179 minutes. A New Line Cinema release. Opens Wednesday (December 19). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 87. Rating: NNNNN