Rings of Fire

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

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."


Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins.
Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins.

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Directed by Peter Jackson

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

AMC 1000, AMC Kabuki, Metreon, UA Alexandria, and UA Colma

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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."

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