From: Jim

Lord of Rings biggest project in movie history
2,500-member crew worked on trilogy, which was shot in New Zealand and has 77 speaking parts

Mark Feeney
The Boston Globe

A year from now there is a good chance you or someone you know — or, at the very least, someone who knows someone you know — will be buying a ticket to see the first instalment of what is already being called the biggest project in movie history.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is coming to the screen. On Dec. 19, the film version of the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, is scheduled to open. A year later will come The Two Towers, and a year after that, the trilogy concludes with The Return of the King.

“It’s a genuine cinematic first,” says Mark Ordesky, the film’s production executive and president of Fine Line Features, the arthouse subsidiary of New Line Cinema, which is producing Lord of the Rings. “At no time in the history of film has anyone made a commitment to a simultaneous filming of a trilogy of films.”

That commitment is to the tune of a reported $270 million. The production, which was shot in New Zealand, has 77 speaking parts, a 2,500-member crew, and a 438-day shooting schedule. Principal photography concluded Dec. 22.

“It was a helluva wrap party,” chuckles Ordesky.

The director and co-scenarist is Peter Jackson, best known for Heavenly Creatures (1994). The cast includes Ian Holm as Bilbo, Elijah Wood as Frodo, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Viggo Mortenson as Aragorn, and Liv Tyler as Arwen.

In Boston, some 15,000 kilometres from New Zealand, the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring is keenly anticipated at Houghton Mifflin Co., Tolkien’s U.S. publisher. With 50 different editions of Tolkien’s works in print, Houghton Mifflin has a vested interest in the success of the films. It has seen sales of the trilogy triple over the past three years, thanks in no small part to publicity about the movies.

The opening is even more eagerly anticipated in New York, where New Line’s owner, Time Warner Inc., has its headquarters. The studio is hoping the Tolkien movies will help it recover from a string of costly flops, the most recent being the Adam Sandler vehicle Little Nicky.

But where the opening is most eagerly anticipated is on the World Wide Web.

“The collective enthusiasm from the Internet has been a roar,” Ordesky happily notes.

“There are Web sites out there that watch every little tidbit they can find on, literally, a daily basis,” adds Clay Parker, Tolkien projects manager at Houghton Mifflin. “To keep up with that stuff, I check some of them three times a day, and have for more than a year.”

There are at least 400 fan sites exclusively devoted to the production. Many of them feature countdowns to the first film’s opening and list not just how many days remain, but hours, minutes, and, yes, seconds.

When New Line made available a Lord of the Rings trailer in April, 1.7-million users downloaded it the first day. By comparison, the first day the trailer for Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace went online, a million users downloaded it.

Such fervour is a two-edged sword for New Line. It guarantees the films a vast presold audience. It also means that audience has very strong ideas about what it wants. Production news often takes a back seat on the Web sites to complaints about casting (Ian McKellen is playing the wizard Gandalf, but Sean Connery clearly seems to be the chat-room choice) or deviations from Tolkien’s text. The trilogy runs to a thousand pages. The films are expected to run between six and seven hours. Clearly, something’s got to give — though try telling that to Tolkien buffs.

Mike Foster, U.S. representative for the English-based Tolkien Society, admits he will be one of those waiting in line next year. “But it’ll be with a dire foreboding,” he says. Referring to two characters in the trilogy, one of whom has a pronounced lisp, Foster expresses fears that “the merchandising tie-ins could be ludicrous: a Gollum Happy Meal with a fissRating four & chipsss McLunch? A Mattel Barbie Galadriel?”

The Lord of the Rings inspires a loyalty on the part of its admirers — who have included such eminences as W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and C. S. Lewis — that can make the enthusiasm of, say, Harry Potter fans seem tame by comparison. Three separate reader polls in England in 1997 saw the trilogy named best book of the century, and it won handily in’s Best of Millennium survey.

Tolkien’s tale of hobbits and orcs and elves in an imaginary land called Middle-earth has sold 50-million copies and been translated into 26 languages since it first appeared some 45 years ago.

“It’s not only a franchise,” says New Line’s Ordesky. “It’s also the collective imagination of tens of millions of people who are passionate about these books.”

The trilogy was well received in the mid-’50s, when it first appeared. But it wasn’t until the mid-’60s, when it appeared in softcover editions, that the books became a phenomenon. Bumper stickers proclaimed “Frodo Lives” and “Gandalf for President.” Rather to his chagrin, Tolkien became as much an icon of youth culture as the Beatles. (There was actually discussion of the Fab Four starring in a film version of the trilogy, with Paul as Frodo and John as Gollum).

By no means did the trilogy disappear in the ’70s — there were, for example, animated versions of its predecessor novel, The Hobbit (1977), and The Lord of the Rings (1978) — but it lost its talismanic status. The success of the Star Wars films helped make Tolkien seem passe — unless one realized the debt George Lucas owed him (Obi Wan-Kenobi is a galactic Gandalf, Yoda’s maddening syntax and lizardy look are straight out of Gollum). The trilogy had been absorbed into the culture. Wherever one finds sword or sorcerer, whether on page or screen, odds are one will find a Tolkien influence, too.

The enormous commercial success of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (1977), a posthumously published collection of fairly esoteric writings on Middle-earth history, indicated both the extent and staying power of the trilogy’s popularity. “It never went back down” in terms of sales, says Houghton Mifflin’s Parker, who estimates the company’s Tolkien sales this year to be in the mid-eight figures.

That New Line has a very solid property on its hands there can be no doubt. The big question about The Lord of the Rings on-screen isn’t why, but how. The nature of the property guarantees the crowds will be there next year. It’s what’s been done to the property that will determine whether they’re still there for the subsequent films.

In the rueful words of William Goldman, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, “When you’re dealing with three movies, your first one (had) better be good. Because if it isn’t, there’s no interest in the second or third.”

The Author

John Ronald Reul Tolkien, the lord of The Lord of the Rings was an unlikely cult author. A pipe-smoking Oxford don who was a leading authority on medieval English, Tolkien was from an early age fascinated by languages. He began making up new ones as a boy, and in that hobby lay the inspiration of The Lord of the Rings.

“The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse,” he once said. “I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish.’ … It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in ‘linguistic esthetic.’ ”

Born in South Africa in 1892, Tolkien moved to England when he was 4. He graduated from Oxford in 1915 and married the next year. As a junior officer, Tolkien saw action in the Battle of the Somme. After the war, he worked as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary, before taking a teaching post at the University of Leeds, then Oxford.

One day, while grading examinations, he came upon a blank page and wrote the sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” Thus was born The Hobbit (1937), a book for children. It met with such success that Tolkien’s publisher urged him to write a sequel, which proved to be The Lord of the Rings. A far more complex and sophisticated book than its predecessor, it comprises The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1955) and The Return of the King (1956).

Tolkien died in 1973.

The Trilogy

J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is set in Middle-earth, a pre-industrial land with a society vaguely reminiscent of medieval England. Its inhabitants include not just people but elves, dwarves, orcs (also known as goblins) and hobbits. Hobbits are very much like humans, only about half the size and with furry feet.

The trilogy is a classic quest. It centres on a gold ring with magical powers that a hobbit named Frodo Baggins has inherited from his uncle Bilbo (how Bilbo came to possess the ring is told in Tolkien’s children’s novel, The Hobbit). Frodo learns from the wizard Gandalf that the ring belongs to Sauron, the Dark Lord, a figure of absolute evil. Sauron’s regaining the ring would enable him to conquer Middle-earth. Frodo’s task is to take the ring to the place of its making, in Sauron’s kingdom, Mordor, and destroy it.

The trilogy is also a classic morality tale.

In attempting to destroy the ring, Frodo must battle himself as well as Sauron’s many minions. For the ring corrupts its possessor even as it bestows great powers. Frodo must destroy the ring before it, or Sauron, can destroy him.