Plastic Fantastic

"Much that once was is lost" is the poignant opening phrase in Peter Jackson's long-awaited, mega-million-dollar production of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Absent fidelity may be less the issue than temps perdu—there's an elegiac tone to this lavish first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's cult trilogy.

Robustly ranging from the cozy nook of a hobbit's parlor to the blasted pitch-pots of darkest Mordor, visualizing Nordic elves and subhuman, blue-faced orcs, staging wizard wars with the panache of a Hong Kong master and building slowly to a boffo ending, Peter Jackson's adaptation is certainly successful on its own terms. Like the animated skeletons in a Ray Harryhausen adventure flick, the relics have come to life. With the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, American critics of a particular age (and possibly gender) have their own Harry Potter.

Indeed, watching the smoky, twisted images of the computer-generated masses in hand-to-hand combat with decomposing goblins or listening to the wit and wisdom of Gandalf the Grey (an unrecognizable Ian McKellen), I was forced to acknowledge the degree to which Tolkien's imaginary universe had impressed itself on my 12-year-old brain—and, despite the timeless struggle between good and evil, how little that mattered to me now. For me, the trilogy's appeal was exemplified by its maps, the invented languages, and the hundred pages of appendices at the back of the final volume. Unlike C.S. Lewis's Narnia, Tolkien's Middle Earth has no discernible religion. The book itself is a sacred text—which is to say, it proposes the world as a text, a literary analogue to the abstract pleasures found in the purely statistical universe of baseball.

Elf Help: Hugo Weaving in Lord of the Rings
photo: Piere Vinet/New Line
Elf Help: Hugo Weaving in Lord of the Rings

Details

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
New Line

Little Otik
Written and directed by
Jan Svankmajer
Zeitgeist
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Back in the day, the whole idea of a Lord of the Rings movie would have seemed a desecration. Where Ralph Bakshi's ill-fated and largely forgotten animated version lacked gravitas, Jackson has marshaled all manner of digital wizardry in the service of Tolkien's pre-technological fantasy of doughty little creatures defeating the forces of absolute evil. The effects are more literal than literary and less archaic than newfangled. Utopia exists: Not only have Ian Holm, who plays Bilbo Baggins, and Elijah Wood, as his nephew Frodo, been reduced to an imaginary hobbit height of three feet, but Liv Tyler's Elvish princess seems to have enjoyed some sort of virtual liposuction. Indeed, impossible crane shots notwithstanding, everything feels visually enhanced. Even the unnaturally green and rolling New Zealand landscape has seemingly been improved with impossible gorges and canyons.

Although the Elvish settlement of Rivendell resembles an Alpine ski lodge for garden gnomes, and the more rustic Elves of Mirkwood would appear to dwell in a kind of tree house expansion of the Enchanted Tiki Room, the movie only rarely achieves a sense of kitsch grandeur—as in the image of colossal statues in the river mist. More often, it's a cluttered attic of cloying pre-Raphaelite visual notions. The equivalent of Tolkien's often turgid descriptions, a single Jackson image is likely to include falling leaves, cascading water, and streaming sunlight (not to mention the sound of panpipes in the gloaming). The strongest sequence is virtually monochromatic, for being set amid the ruined columns of a vast underground city.

The phantom zone where Frodo finds himself whenever he slips on the sinister ring he is charged to destroy is similarly restrained—a blurry, blustery realm of negative images. I was amused to see that these include noisily suggestive cutaways to the fiery slit of doom that is the object of the quest, but then I'm no longer a believer. (My faith was shaken back in high school when I flippantly referred to The Lord of the Rings as the greatest novel of the 20th century and a friend's older brother asked if I was talking about The Magic Mountain.) Still, it's a religion I remember, particularly as a spell cast over the more fanciful wing of the '60s counterculture. What happened to those "Frodo Lives" pins, the anti-war graffiti written in Elvish, the underground newspapers with names like Gandalf's Garden, the fey psychedelic troubadours singing songs of Middle Earth?

The metaphors were surely relevant. I doubt I'm the only one to survive a lysergic experience in which the world was unpleasantly divided between hobbits and orcs or who recognized Richard Nixon as some sort of miserable Gollum. How much fun it would have been to see a real desecration of Tolkien that periodized the trilogy's cosmic adventures by having them played out inside the brain of some acid-ripped hippie—the Fellowship leaving the snug communes of northern Vermont on a perilous mission to cast the "ring of power" into the boiler of some fetid East Village basement. But that would defeat the entire concept of timeless fantasy.

In the essay "On Fairy-stories," written in the late '30s at the time that the idea for The Lord of the Rings was taking shape, Tolkien argued that "the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds was the heart of the desire of Faërie." Some will surely find a parallel between Tolkien's cosmic struggle and our own current crusade, but reference to this world is the last thing that The Fellowship of the Ring wishes to make.

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