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Rings of Fire 

The daunting journey of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to the big screen.

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
Quite a while ago, in a time forgotten by many mortals, a powerful magic ruled the Western lands, emanating from luminous citadels known as movie theaters. Those who still remember this mystical epoch call it "The '80s." Think of Legend and Willow and The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Until recently, as fantasy returns to fashion and epic cinema achieves the unprecedented zenith of The Lord of the Rings, the '80s seemed to represent, but for sparse exceptions (most produced for television by Robert Halmi), the final flowering of the fantastic film.

During this time, in New Zealand, a freaky Kiwi named Peter Jackson was toiling away on a four-year labor of love called Bad Taste. Enlisting the help of friends, and doing the lion's share of production work himself, Jackson -- then employed at a newspaper -- spent his weekends from 1983 to 1987 creating a minor monsterpiece, chronicling the exploits of extraterrestrial entrepreneurs bent on turning earthlings into hamburger. The feature went on to become a standout at Cannes, paving the way for Jackson's repulsive Muppet mockery Meet the Feebles (1989) and splatter extravaganza Dead Alive (aka Braindead, '92).

With his partner and co-writer Frances Walsh, Jackson went on to direct the art-house hit Heavenly Creatures ('94), a fact-based account of two teenage girls whose intense imaginations in repressed, 1950s New Zealand lead to murderous consequences. The team followed up with the Hollywood oddity The Frighteners ('96), a sort of Ghosthucksters that bombed hard, perhaps due to mixing Michael J. Fox into Jackson's enduring penchant for Oedipal horror, graphic carnage, and sadistic slamming of polite society.

Born on Halloween in 1961, Jackson has a fondness for macabre bloodbaths that made him seem an unlikely candidate for helming the glorious spectacle of a live-action Lord of the Rings. (John Boorman, director of Zardoz and Excalibur, strove to launch his adaptation in the '70s but never advanced beyond development.) Jackson had seen the animated, truncated Ralph Bakshi version as a teenager in 1978, and subsequently became a huge fan of the trilogy. But it was only in 1996, when his curious bid for a King Kong remake fell through, that he pursued his vision, producing a comprehensive demo reel in New Zealand and pounding office doors in Hollywood.

The rest is already movie-biz history. The film rights to Tolkien's tales -- held by producer Saul Zaentz since the mid-'70s -- finally opened up to Miramax, which cut a deal with Zaentz to counterbalance the costs of the producer's The English Patient. The crowning moment came via New Line, a company proud of its genre franchises (Scream, Austin Powers), whose CEO, Robert Shaye, understood the method of Jackson's madness, signing him to adapt Tolkien's epic as three films, with a total budget of nearly $300 million.

Tolkien, who believed his epic tales existed largely beyond the technical scope of cinema, sold the film rights for a comparatively paltry $15,000. This has caused some unrest in the family. His son, retired professor Christopher Tolkien -- who lives under an assumed name in France, purportedly with a wild boar in his garden to deter overzealous fans -- has disowned his own son, Simon. In a recent interview with the London Independent, Simon Tolkien explained that his father barred him from the board of the Tolkien company for publicly expressing support for the new films.

Now, riding a global buzz building since the books' initial publication, former schlockmeister Jackson and partner Walsh have been awarded honorary doctorates from New Zealand's Massey University. It's a gesture of national pride, of course, but it's also ironic, a distinction that even the esteemed Professor J.R.R. Tolkien never achieved, although his works have sold over 100 million copies worldwide, establishing him as one of the most beloved authors not only of the 20th century, but ever.

To explore Tolkien's rich endeavors, one must traverse a few centuries and thousands of miles.

Born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien lost both his parents as a child and was raised with his brother in Birmingham, England, by a Roman Catholic priest. He studied at Oxford, fought the First World War in the Lancashire Fusiliers, married, received his M.A. in 1919, and -- from 1925 until his retirement in 1959 -- served as professor at Oxford, specializing first in Anglo-Saxon, then English, language and literature. With paperback editions of his books eventually finding incredible success among students and countercultural pioneers, Professor Tolkien sailed off for the Blessed Realm in 1973.

It was in 1937, when Tolkien was 45, that he published The Hobbit, a superla-tive fiction that grew as much from the inspiration of tale-spinners like Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) as from the professor's knack for weaving elements of his lore-laden day job into bedtime stories for his children. Set in a complex, invented land called Middle Earth (a term culled from medieval poetry), The Hobbit tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, a diminutive, meticulous, middle-aged representative of the titular race.

Stirred from his complacent existence by an insistent wizard named Gandalf the Grey, plus a dozen intrepid dwarves, Bilbo sets forth on an adventure that includes reclaiming lost treasure, helping to vanquish a dragon, and -- especially -- taking possession of a magical golden ring.

Drawing from a cosmology of Middle Earth he had been building since 1915 -- which continues to grow posthumously in tales edited by his son, Christopher -- Tolkien kept doing what he did best, often in the company of the Inklings, an informal group of Oxford writers including C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia books). From 1936 to 1949, The Lord of the Rings took form, to be published in 1954 and 1955.

The series' reception, for nearly a decade, was mild. Nonetheless, the achievement was grand. Tolkien had accomplished a unique feat, creating an epic as rich as those of Homer, Dante, or Spenser, but delivering it as accessible prose, in the form of novels. What he achieved in literature is the same thing George Lucas would later achieve in movies: the creation of a populist, mix 'n' match mythos, filled with accessible archetypes and moral lessons.

Readers found themselves captivated by the trek of Bilbo's nephew, Frodo, who -- again under the auspices of Gandalf -- sets forth with fellow hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin from their beloved Shire, this time with the arduous mission of destroying his uncle's magical ring in the fiery forge of the volcano Orodruin, within the realm of Mordor, where it was cast ages earlier.

Meanwhile, the dark lord Sauron strives to reclaim the ring and destroy Middle Earth. As the magical Third Age closes, and the Fourth Age (of men) looms, Frodo and his comrades meet with countless dangers, as does Gandalf, who struggles against another wizard, Saruman the White. Armies clash, fate hangs in the balance, and Tolkien captivates.

To better understand a genius, it is often helpful to speak with one, in this case a gifted actor fluent in five languages (none of them Elvish, alas), who has accumulated over 200 film credits spanning more than half a century.

"There were five wizards ... Istari," explains Christopher Lee, who portrays Saruman in all three films, beginning with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring. "But we only see two, Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. Saruman the White was the greatest and the mightiest and the most brilliant for a long, long time," Lee says, betraying perhaps a suitable degree of immodesty.

"Tolkien did say that The Lord of the Rings is more or less Britain 7,000 years ago," the sonorous actor continues. "Hobbiton is the personification of all that is best in the British countryside. It's all very cozy in the beginning, and it gets steadily more grim."

British-born Lee, who'll chalk up four score years of life in the spring (around the time he appears as Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones), discusses his career and involvement with the project with a disarming candor quite unlike his presence in the Hammer Films Dracula series that put him on the map. "Acting decided upon me," he enthuses, reflecting on his career in the Royal Air Force and British special forces during World War II.

"After the war, I was having lunch with my cousin, who was Italian ambassador to this country, and he said to me, "What are you going to do?' I said, having been in the war for five years, "I'm not going back to being an office boy in the city for a pound a week. I'll probably be a diplomat' -- that seemed to be the idea in the family. And he said, "Have you ever thought of being an actor?' Just like that, across the lunch table.

"I said, "Not really.' I'd acted in school plays. He said, "Well, think about it, because your great-grandparents founded the first opera company in Australia' -- which is true, they did -- "and the voice is in the genes, and maybe the ability is there, too. Think about it.' And suddenly I thought, "Why not? What a great idea!' That's where it started, at the end of 1946."

Lee toured Europe for 10 years, working in film, television, radio, and theater. "I learned," he emphasizes. "Sadly, today, very, very few young actors and actresses are prepared to do that. They all want to be rich and famous in 24 hours."

While Lee's reputation -- from Rasputin to The Wicker Man to Jinnah -- precedes him, he was open to doing a cold reading for The Lord of the Rings. Having met Tolkien briefly at an Oxford pub in 1954, he had been interested in potential Ring films for a long time. "I think my agent was probably well aware of my knowledge of the three books," he explains, "which I read every year, and have done since they came out." He was in the middle of shooting a BBC production of Mervyn Peake's fantasy trilogy Gormenghast -- plus a couple of days on Sleepy Hollow -- when the call came in.

He recounts a visit in early 1999 to a London church, where Jackson and Walsh had set up a video camera. They taped him reading for Gandalf (the part eventually went to Sir Ian McKellen, whom Lee describes as "superb"), but soon decided that they had found their ideal Saruman. Lee shot his scenes in New Zealand early last year, and vividly recalls Jackson's direction. "He kept on saying to me, "Remember, you are not a human being! You are an immortal.'"

Lee's enthusiasm for Tolkien's mythos and the new films is unquenchable.

"I consider myself very fortunate, because I always dreamed that someday The Lord of the Rings would be made as a film -- and I had the additional dream, of course, as an actor, that I would be in it. So dreams sometimes do come true."

It's amply evident that communal dreams -- myths -- were of chief concern to Tolkien. Taking his cues from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, he forged his own heroic cycle, beginning and ending not in the Mediterranean but in his invented Shire. In between, he appropriated vast amounts of European legend and folklore -- elves, dwarves, warriors, dragons -- to fill in what he called his "branching, acquisitive theme."

Most prominent in The Lord of the Rings are elements from the medieval Icelandic sagas, which stem from the Norse Elder Edda (or Poetic Edda), a collection of verse tales written over a millennium ago. Not unlike the stories found in the defining tomes of many religions, these narratives describe the making of the world, the deities and supernatural beings who shape it, and the men who struggle within it.

From the Edda sprang a great many revisions and retellings, including The Prose Edda of Icelandic scribe Snorri Sturluson. As a relevant, iconic example, the dragon -- long a symbol of philosophical prowess in the East -- gradually became a symbol of decadence and evil throughout Europe. As Sturluson retells the Elder Edda's dragonslayer legend, he adapts it to his specific voice and narrative trajectory. Unlike Tolkien, however, Sturluson seems to have been obsessed with his literary ambition, devolving into a sociopath who was eventually murdered by his son-in-law.

The Eddaic legends carried on in the eighth-century Old English poem Beowulf and the 13th-century Icelandic epic The Völsunga Saga, both of which arrive anonymously in our hands today. In the 19th century, it was the German composer Richard Wagner who signed his name to definitive retellings. His operatic tetralogy The Ring of the Niebelungs is filled with iconography that Tolkien would later incorporate into his own tales: the lone warrior king, the magical (yet insidiously corrupting) ring of power, the dragon, the broken sword mended.

Tolkien's lifts are, in fact, so numerous that a cynic could cite him as a pilferer, were his prose not so grand, his universe so indomitably complex. (The professor, a renowned linguist, even invented two languages for use in his world: Quenya, based on Finnish, and Sindarin, based on Welsh.) Still, merely leafing through the Icelandic sagas brings forth the names of numerous characters Tolkien used (including Gandalf). There are also many close matches: an evil lout named Snaketongue (to match Saruman's henchman, Wormtongue), the god Odin's brother Vilir (which looks more than a little like the name of Tolkien's race of gods, the Valar). Does the wicked Gollum come from the Judaic myth of the golem? When Gandalf wrestles the demonic Balrog, is it not akin to the biblical Jacob wrestling an angel?

Ultimately, Tolkien renders such nit-picking irrelevant -- or even enjoyable -- for his themes of power and ambition, of territorial conquest and self-sacrifice, override skepticism. What is intriguing, however, is how vehemently the professor denied any and all allegorical significance in his work. In his introduction to the paperback editions he writes, "I think that many confuse "applicability' with "allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author." Fair enough, but when one considers that The Lord of the Rings was written largely during World War II and hinges upon the machinations of a dark lord and his evil riders called Nazgûl (first three letters look familiar?), one cannot help but infer some contemporary significance.

So just how does one go about adapting such an audacious and complicated work to the big screen? The Bakshi version ended abruptly and stumbled at the box office. More successful were the two simplified Rankin-Bass television productions, The Hobbit and The Return of the King, which feature truly extraordinary design. (One must simply smile at the battalion of goblins -- or Orcs -- singing the chain-gang song "Where There's a Whip, There's a Way.") But live-action versions?

"When I first found out they were going to do this, I thought they were crazy," divulges Philippa Boyens of her writing partners, Jackson and Walsh. A playwright, theater instructor, and former director of the New Zealand Writer's Guild, Boyens is rightfully chuffed about her auspicious screenwriting debut: "When I read their treatment, I got really excited, and it was a job that grew from there."

"We knew this had to work as a film," she continues, addressing the topic of creative license. "That's what drove the creative process. The book came to meet the demands of telling the story on screen. Having said that, whenever there was a departure -- and there had to be -- we tried to stay true to the book.

"If there was a moment that needed shortcutting, or we needed to go more into the internal process of the character, we would often try to write with an event that we knew must have happened but wasn't necessarily visited by Tolkien," Boyens explains. When asked about forming consistent, Middle Earth-specific language, she adds, "You can't work on something for three years and not get your ear tuned to that dialogue. Without boasting, I think we got to the point where people found it hard to distinguish what was exactly from Tolkien and what was original from us."

Boyens frequently found herself called upon to ply her trade spontaneously. "The very first time we went to set, at Weathertop [one of many Tolkien-esque locales], a line wasn't playing," she says, chuckling. "That was my first experience of having everyone -- the crew, the cast, the director -- turn to us and say, "What's another line?' Fran [Walsh] and I went off into a huddle and started scribbling frantically. That became the norm. The great irony is that I think that line was cut anyway."

Tolkien's works have inspired scores of fantasy writers, among them Richard Adams (Watership Down) and Terry Brooks (The Sword of Shannara), but Boyens has her eye (and pen) set on adapting Ursula K. Le Guin's fantastic A Wizard of Earthsea. "In a way, as much as I love Tolkien, as a woman I really relate to her work," Boyens explains. "She's a colossus in terms of pure imagination."

Since Earthsea is also a series, Boyens laughs knowingly, "Yeah, I only do multiple films!"

The Lord of the Rings is definitely a tale of multiples -- books, films, languages, marketing tie-ins, but especially production units. In order to capture all the locations in which hobbit friends Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin) play out their adventure, it became practical to shoot all three films back to back. This meant a total of 274 shooting days spread over 15 months, often with several units operating at once.

It took an extremely adventurous producer like Barrie M. Osborne to keep the machine running. Osborne, known for the cult hit Wilder Napalm and the mega-hit The Matrix, found in The Lord of the Rings more than enough reason to leave the Matrix sequels in other hands, instead spending several years of his life transforming New Zealand into Middle Earth.

"Logistics were quite immense, supporting five separate shooting units and interlinking them with satellite communications so that Pete could keep an eye on what the second units were shooting. It's like supplying an army," says Osborne. "We'd be in very remote locations, and catering for the different units. There was a morning when I think we served 1,400 eggs for breakfast. It was quite a huge undertaking."

A massive amount of armor and weaponry was also created for the film, mostly by Richard Taylor's WETA studio, a strong component of Jackson's previous films. (Conceptual designs were provided throughout by acclaimed Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe.) Osborne recounts that 26 40-foot trucks were required to transport the swords, shields, and chain mail (forged from 14 miles of PVC pipe) around the country.

While organizing the logistics may have been killer, Osborne waxes contemplative when asked about the stories themselves. "What I love most are the many characters you can identify with, and the arcs those characters travel. You have a guy like Aragorn -- played by Viggo Mortensen -- he has a dark path. He feels that his ancestry let mankind down and didn't live up to their promise, so he carries that in his lineage. He has to come to terms with that through this journey, accept where he came from, and rise above it."

Osborne is quick to laud the rest of the cast, including Cate Blanchett as the elf queen Galadriel, Liv Tyler as her granddaughter Arwen, Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, Sean Bean as the noble Boromir, John Rhys-Davies as the dwarf Gimli, and Orlando Bloom as the elf Legolas. Apparently, there's also a nasty Gollum waiting for us, voiced by English actor Andy Serkis but animated like an evil Jar-Jar Binks. Seems like justice.

All right, then, we've got a bunch of little guys with furry feet trying to smuggle a piece of jewelry past some über-meanies, but how might a modern audience apprehend these stories? Providing a little wisdom outside the maelstrom of film production, Los Angeles-based lecturer Dr. Stephen Hoeller steps forth.

"There may be a somewhat more informed appreciation of Tolkien at this point because, since the first Tolkien excitement in the '60s, we've had quite a mythological revival," he says. "A good many people have been affected by an interest in myth, primarily by way of the work of [mythologist] Joseph Campbell."

Hoeller, a retired professor of comparative religion who speaks regularly at Hollywood's Gnostic Society Center, refers to Tolkien as "the wizard from whose pen, as from a sorcerer's wand, sprang the great myth of the 20th century."

The insightful Hoeller left his native Hungary at a very young age (while Tolkien was still writing The Lord of the Rings), and fondly cites the work of Hungarian Carl Karenyi ("the most psychological of mythologists"), especially in collaboration with C.G. Jung ("the most mythological of psychologists").

From Karenyi and Jung's Essays on a Science of Mythology, Hoeller quotes, "Only the greatest creations of mythology could hope to make clear to modern man that here he is face to face with a phenomenon which in profundity, permanence, and universality is comparable only with nature itself."

Referring to the psychological archetypes inherent in Tolkien's work, Hoeller posits some surprising links: "With the elves we have a sort of transcendental, angelic archetype that in Jungian terms points to the self, the individuated ego." He continues his scintillating comparison, relating the hobbits' quest to neutralize evil as an inner journey.

"One can feel the relevance of the myth to oneself, to one's own struggle with the darkness, and our own need to get rid of something that we are carrying -- and which is troubling to us -- the ring," he says. "There is something to think about there -- that power is not always good -- that may need a certain amount of revision, contemplating the inspiration derived from Tolkien."

A movie, a book, ancient stories, living archetypes. When all is said and done, the most enthralling thing about the arrival of the film of The Lord of the Rings will be that it's not really an arrival at all. In the best possible sense, it seems to represent a departure.

About The Author

Gregory Weinkauf


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