Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


Rehearsals for my new kabuki musical spectacular are on hold for the holiday season and set to resume after the first of the year. The show is shaping up well and it should be ready to hit the boards in late January, on schedule and under budget. I'm so pleased. My two fabulous co-stars, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, gave me enough of that new cereal additive, Special K, to last me through the break and I'm finding all sorts of new energy. I just got off the phone with Madame Rose, my publicist; we just laid out a whole new marketing campaign to whet the public' s appetite. We are renting four large billboards at key locations in the greater Los Angeles area and we're putting large photos of me in full kabuki make-up and kimono on them with the legend "Are you ready for this?" It'll be a sensation. 

As I don't have to worry too much about the show for some days, I was able to turn my attention to Chateau Maine and the holiday decorations. Norman and I usually were relatively modest in our approach in the past, so this year I decided to go all out and have created the entire dramatis personae of Babes in Toyland in fairy lights all across the front lawn. I do not like to give short shrift to the religious meanings of the holiday so I have created a nativity scene using 9 foot high Barbie and Ken dolls in the side garden near the porte-cochere, complete with speakers which blast the Hallelujah Chorus on an endless tape loop. Johnny Carson, my next door neighbor, was unkind about this display and threatened to call the Beverly Hills police but I got the last laugh as the whole thing is wired into one of his power outlets. 

Speaking of holiday festivities, Nurse Lynn and I decided to start our celebrating a little early this week and went off to the opening of Peter Jackson's new version of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. As I was in a generous mood, I also took some of the members of the Mount Zion AME gospel choir who had been so kind to me during the disastrous shoot of the What A Friend We Have In Cheeses campaign at Mount Rushmore last month. Lynn, I and a dozen African-American church ladies went off to the Cineplex for a few hours of high adventure entertainment. 

The Lord of the Rings was originally an epic novel by British author J. R. R. Tolkien, first published in the mid 1950s (although written primarily in the early 1940s). Tolkien was a linguist and an Oxford Don, who, as a student, prior to World War I, amused himself by inventing languages. Two of these languages, called by him Quenya and Sindar, were developed to the point where he began to write poetry in them and it was a short step to his beginning a literary tradition for them, and then a history behind this. The people Tolkien created for his literature and languages were the elves, a noble, immortal race of co-dwellers with humans in an earth that never was. Over the years, he expanded the mythology, the history and the traditions of his Middle Earth and added new races such as the Dwarves, the Hobbits (or Halflings) and the hideous Orcs. 

In the late 20s, when Tolkien was a young father, he amused his children by telling them tales of his mystical imaginary world. One of these, The Hobbit, was eventually published in 1937 and was successful as a children's fantasy both in the United Kingdom and the US. Tolkien's publishers, smelling a good thing, asked him in the late 30s for another book about Hobbits and he sat down and began to write The Lord of the Rings, an epic tale of adventure, war, betrayal, and hope. It took him a dozen or so years to complete it. This novel was not for children, more than a thousand pages in length and dealt with important themes found throughout folklore and borrowed heavily from traditional English, Norse and Germanic myth. To deal with the length, his publishers split it in thirds, bringing out The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. The books were a modest success in England but made no impression on Eisenhower America and were soon forgotten. A decade later, the Baby Boom, a generation interested in the fantastical, rediscovered The Lord of the Rings and sales took off. Cheap paperback versions of the novel became practically required reading in the late 60s and early 70s. Soon the imitators and expanders on the Tolkien concepts arose. Tolkien had inadvertently invented modern Fantasy fiction; however, as he had spent decades creating a fully realized world with its own carefully created cultures, and as those cultures had their roots in language, very few have ever equaled him in content or power. 

Peter Jackson, in his decision to create a new film version of The Lord of the Rings, decided to deal with the novel's unwieldy length by creating three films, each covering one of the trilogy of novels created by Tolkien's publisher. All three films were shot and completed simultaneously but, for marketing reasons, are being released annually at the holidays over three years. This year's installment is The Fellowship of the Ring. In it, we learn that the magic ring owned by the Hobbit Bilbo (Ian Holm), is not a harmless object that just renders you invisible but is the one ring of power, forged by the evil Sauron the great, ruler of the dread land of Mordor. Sauron is growing strong and wishes to reclaim the ring so that all of the earth will again fall under his sway. 

As the film opens, Bilbo retires at great age leaving his property, including the ring to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). Frodo, along with his servant Sam (Sean Astin), and a couple of Hobbit cousins Pippin and Merry (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) are forced to flee their homeland chased by evil riders in black, the dreaded ring wraiths, servants of Sauron. They meet up with Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), heir to the throne of Gondor, but living in disguise as a Ranger of the wild countries of the north. After a number of adventures, the Hobbits arrive at Rivendell, the home of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), one of the most powerful of the great Elves. There, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), identifies the ring for the assembled representatives of the free peoples and the danger it represents is made clear. The ring must be destroyed, especially as the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) has turned traitor and is attempting to steal the ring for himself in order to supplant the evil Sauron. 

A fellowship is formed in order to safely convey the ring to the fires of Mount Doom in the land of Mordor, for only the fires which created the ring can destroy it. In the fellowship are the four hobbits, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an elf prince, Gimli (Jonathan Rhys Davies), a dwarf and the warrior Boromir (Sean Bean), son of Gondor's steward. They journey through the Misty Mountains, under those summits through the ancient Dwarven city of Moria, home to great evils, to the Elven wood of Lothlorien, ruled by Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and beyond where the fellowship is broken through treachery and betrayal. The film ends with Frodo and Sam continuing on alone as their companions follow other destinies. 

Peter Jackson, the New Zealander who wrote and directed the film, is best known in this country for his film Heavenly Creatures, about a notorious New Zealand murder case. He also created some low budget splatter films. His one major Hollywood effort, The Frighteners with Michael J. Fox, was a flop a few years back but showed that he had an extraordinary visual imagination and knew how to use special effects in service of a story rather than letting them overpower it. He turned out to be the right person for the job of bringing Tolkien to the screen (of the previous attempt, Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version, the less said, the better). Jackson filmed in New Zealand in order to minimize costs, filmed all three chapters simultaneously so as to lock in performers for a single price, and co-owns several special effects houses that created many of the miniatures and digital effects used in the film. A single mind filtering all of the elements of a film this complex led it to be a coherent work, rather than the usual committee drafted mish-mash. 

Jackson remains remarkably faithful to Tolkien's narrative. He prunes certain episodes, combines or eliminates minor characters, and builds up others for story purposes (Saruman to give a more corporeal antagonist than the enigmatic Sauron and Arwen (Liv Tyler) to heighten a romantic subplot). However, unlike the other recent fantasy Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, he also understands that the needs of film are very different than the needs of literature. Harry Potter felt like a filmed novel - episodic and indifferent. The Fellowship of the Ring feels like a movie. Tolkien is not a cinematic writer. He's closer to the Victorians with their love of description. His action set pieces are quick and to the point, allowing him to move on to his next lyrical description. Jackson knows that for a film to work, it must move and he builds on Tolkien to create action and suspense. Purists may resent it but it makes the film work. 

There have been plenty of other films in the swords and sorcery vein over the years (Krull, Conan the Barbarian, Willow) but most of them have failed as films as their only reason for being was the fisticuffs and the special effects. Jackson gives enough screen time to the 'why' behind all of that to allow this film to succeed in ways and on levels that no other major fantasy film has in the past. It's difficult to predict such things in advance, and two thirds of the film has yet to be released, but it has the makings of a film classic. 

The performances in the film are uniformly excellent; the common thread being the conviction that all the actors bring to their characters and the material. These people truly care and have a stake in the outcome of events. There is no tongue in cheek here. Well, maybe a little bit from Ian McKellan but it's totally in character. Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean bring their conflicted warriors to full life and show the cost of their violence on their minds and souls. Elijah Wood, as the protagonist, has a wonderful blend of naive innocent optimism and total world weariness as the enormity of his task begins to dawn on him. Sean Astin, an actor I've admired ever since Rudy, gives his would be comic relief role a true poignancy. In smaller parts, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett shine. The only one who seems a bit out of place is Liv Tyler who seems more like starlet flavor of the month than a noble Elf of high estate. 

The true star of the film, in many ways, is not the humans, good though they are, but rather the dazzling New Zealand countryside. Zooming helicopter shots of mountains, forests, rivers, and green meadows are both familiar and eerily exotic, capturing Tolkien's loving descriptions of Middle Earth perfectly. The special effects, and it's hard to tell sometimes where conventional film stops and digital takes over, never overwhelm but serve the story. I'm pretty good at spotting film tricks but I could not figure out, in some shots, how they resized normal sized human actors into the diminutive Hobbits and Dwarves. 

I read the novels several times years ago, and am a devotee of fantasy fiction but the good ladies of the Mount Zion AME choir had never heard of Tolkien. We all enjoyed the film enormously. It works whether you are intimately familiar with the world of Middle Earth or are a newcomer to the genre. Some scenes will be too intense and scary for younger children, but pack up the rest of the family and go. 

Hole dwelling. Dragon fireworks. Runic script. Morgul blade stabbing. Horses of foam. Savage war machines. Goblin birth. Eagle rescue. Thing with tentacles. Collapsing stairs and bridges. Magic mirror. Colossal statues. Waterfall funeral.

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