The Phantom Menses

It's Only the Blood of Brothers That Flows Through Tolkien's Episode I

I, for one, would love a new Star Wars. Yeah, I guess George Lucas is a bit of a pill, and, okay, techno-Christian moral absolutism is probably a "bad" thing. But in an era in which digitech relativism has obliterated space and time as we know it, a real feat of movie magic would be mythsploitation that holds us in one place longer than a weekend or two. After the Phantom Menace letdown and, lest we forget, September-ember-ember Eleventh-eventh-eventh, it's tough to resist the desire for something socially and spiritually massive enough to lift us up where we belong. Such a force of Hollywood may impinge a little upon my subjectivity. But hey--I wasn't really using it anyway.

So I was stoked in spite of myself last summer when the phrase "new Star Wars" started swirling around New Line Cinema's $270 million adaptation (not counting marketing costs, mind you) of J.R.R. Tolkien's phantasie classicke trilogy The Lord of the Rings--which begins this week with The Fellowship of the Ring, and will culminate in The Return of the King at Christmas 2003. This is fantasy's moment, with adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia and Camelot in the works. And it wouldn't be out of line for Tolkien's Frodo to replace Luke in our pop-cult cosmology. After all, the wee hobbit's quest to destroy the Dark Lord Sauron's evil ring amidst the flames of Mount Doom in darkest Mordor was already Star Wars 25 years before its time. Not only did it have a Luke, a Death Star, and an Obi-Wan in the form of the grandfatherly wizard Gandalf; it had a fascist streak scary enough to make Lucas look like Rosa Luxemburg. Long before Papa George ended the Seventies by painting a new intergalactic order in proto-Reagan black and white, Tolkien, writing throughout World War II, was responding to our mid-century moral morass by creating a world that argued for Victorian virtue and national obligation. We are family. Go kill orcs.

The Lord of the Rings wouldn't be fantasy's Ulysses if it didn't give readers a religion. Tolkien, who had seen modernity born at the battle of the Somme, wanted to create a cosmology alternative to all the Jungs and Joyces and motorcars besieging his worldview. And he channeled his love for the receding English countryside into a descriptive zeal that fills the story's every glen and forest with a cinematic gorgeousness that borders on nature porn. For a guy who mistrusted any technology that arrived after the handcart, Tolkien could have been one hell of a Hollywood director.

Homosocial justice: Elijah Wood in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'
New Line Cinema
Homosocial justice: Elijah Wood in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'

In that sense, bringing Middle Earth to life in The Fellowship of the Ring--directed by New Zealand horror wiz Peter Jackson, clocking in at just under three hours, and squeezing in about as much gore as the PG-13 will allow--seems fairly easy. You've got your quest; your quester (Elijah Wood); a sturdy Fellowship of man, elf, and dwarf along for the trip; and enough cash to forgive the amassed debt of sub-Saharan Africa. And how's this for Zeitgeist-rocking good luck? The voiceover that begins the movie tells of an "ancient evil" (that's Sauron) from "the East" encroaching upon the free people of the West (Frodo and crew). What can I say? That kind of thing is just in the air: Variety has even noted the hobbits' "startling blue eyes." (Show Daddy the money.)

But tying things together isn't so simple. Tolkien may have been great at reifying his reader's sense of the pastoral, but his story sprawls in dozens of directions at once, and is written in a fairy-dusted spirit that's unsalvageably bereft of irony and utterly humorless to anyone beyond bachelors who one day hope to recite their wedding vows in Elvish. Before we get Frodo from his home in the Shire to Mount Doom, we've got to deal with Black Riders, the Prancing Pony, the Council of Elrond, the Mines of Moria, Gollum, Gondor, the vagaries of Elven verb conjugation, and, of course, the Hobbit, which explains how Frodo's uncle Bilbo came upon the ring in the first place. (There's also a curious lack of girls--which we'll get to later.)


Thankfully, Fellowship is no Harry Potter-style retread. Faced with an insurmountable thousand-page text, Jackson, along with co-screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, lets his sensibility step in. His comic-horror background is perfectly suited to Tolkien's myriad phantom menaces--especially the towering Isangard, home to good-wizard-turned-evil Saruman, played to the hilt by horror vet Christopher Lee. The trio has reworked the plot to feel like classic sci-fi (throwing in scenes spoken in Elven to keep fanatics at bay); they've given the Fellowship's previously wooden heroes (including the blandly hunky Aragorn) at least a little psychological complexity; and they've ratcheted up Gandalf's Joe Campbell-esque mytho-humanism. And Jackson has made the thing look really, really cool to boot. His landscapes are the best thing to happen to New Zealand since Edmund Hillary, and, with the exception of one cheesy troll encountered in the Mines of Moria, we're rarely jarred by his densely digital creation. Even the trick of filming adult actors and then computer-shrinking them down to appear as pint-sized hobbits looks fine (though it does make Elijah Wood's face look a little puffy).

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