The Phantom Menses

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

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.

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).  

But between the various breaks for back story, the two false endings, Frodo's pair of near-death scenes, the attempts to establish motivation among the members of the Fellowship, and the tacked-on love story used as an excuse to squeeze in more of the Elven Princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), the movie never really gels. In fact, it's dull. We want to root for the free peoples of the West--and man, Gandalf would make a soothing Donald Rumsfeld--but the theme of Frodo's inability to understand his historical mission is a little too close to George W. for comfort. (By The Two Towers next Christmas, we can expect that Frodo will have fully come into his own.)

Which doesn't mean that The Lord of the Rings ain't a sure thing with a certain segment of the population. Tolkien may have disdained the "smell" of literary allegory, but Frodo's journey of becoming has proven allegorical fodder for an astoundingly diverse array of fringe dwellers: language nerds, tree-huggers, techno-Utopians, peaceniks, Victorian reactionaries, acid heads, dragon slayers, and Robert Plant. All of which (except maybe Robert Plant) are effectively included in the sneering demographic sampling of geeks that New Line must snare in order to recoup its investment. When the Ring trailers started running last summer, the timing seemed ideal: Those D&D shut-ins from junior high had grown up to become the tech necromancers conjuring America's e-biz magick. Why shouldn't their dorkwad ur-myth become our new Star Wars? The demystifying nature of the dwindling economy would only add irony to one of Tolkien's favorite themes: the death of Edenic abundance (represented by the lushly agrarian Shire, which sort of looks like pre-famine Ireland) at the hands of modern industrial blight (represented by Sauron and his soot-breathing orc hordes).

Jackson may have a hard time manhandling the plot, but he studiously maps the book's boy-cult terrain. There are Volkan-like elves for the Trekkies; a weed-smoking Gandalf for Phishheads (who are advised to get as high as humanly possible before seeing this movie); a massive orc that looks like a cross between The Rock and one of the dudes in Slipknot; and giddy lil' hobbits that look as if they'd rather be questing off to audition for a new Britpop band than to save Middle Earth. And really, wouldn't you? Arrested young maleness being fantasy lit's elixir of life, Jackson has fused Tolkien's theme of heroic becoming with fantasy's rep as a bastion for the sniffly type. The movie is awash in pensive pink skies and nurturing green glens, watery wombscapes, and Robert Bly-in-tights male-bonding. The relationship between Frodo and his hobbit-savant, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), is especially sweet. In fact, the whole thing is wondrously homosocial: Excalibur by way of a Pantene ad.

There may be something a little subversive about an adventure flick that takes on conflicted maleness during a time of war. But a blockbuster wherein you see only two women in three hours--both looking like statues of the Blessed Virgin--is more than a little creepy. Tellingly, the main group of online Jackson-haters seems enraged by the fact that there are too many damn women in the movie. First among their list of textual betrayals is a scene in which Liv Tyler, as the Elf Princess, is sent to save Frodo from Sauron's host of Black Riders. (In the book, a male elf, Glorfindel, is given this task.) Later, the Fellowship is welcomed into Lothlórien, an enchanted forest full of effete, singing elves, and ruled by the film's other woman, Galadriel. Hungry to test Frodo's will, she asks for him to display the ring, and he hands it to her--which is heartening because the ring is supposed to turn anyone who possesses it into a craven lunatic. Galadriel immediately becomes drunk on the ring's power and morphs into a towering banshee mega-bitch with the voice of Satan. Then she has what appears to be an orgasm, cools out, passes the ring to Frodo, and retires to her chamber for a Tab and a facial. The next female voice we hear is that of bombast angel Enya, whose "May It Be" plays as Frodo and Samwise sail off into Episode II.

So the ur-myth is haunted by the ur-enemy: Girls will always be geekland's Mount Doom. It's a little disappointing that the pressures of post-Lucas trilogy-making didn't allow Jackson to do more with that theme, especially since his best movie, 1994's Heavenly Creatures, is a generous, horror-tweaked black comedy about two girls whose insular friendship gives their fantasy life an erotic dimension. But as indie-rock hobbits Ween once pointed out, there's no telling what might happen if you "get too close to my fantasy."

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