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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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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.

About The Author

Gregory Weinkauf

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