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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.
Screenplay by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Liv Tyler, and Cate Blanchett
Opens Wednesday, Dec. 19
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.'"