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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
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Page 3 of 4

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.

About The Author

Gregory Weinkauf

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