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Good Hobbits

The four furry-footed thespians relate how LOTR changed their lives.

Being three-foot-six tall, with pointy ears and hairy feet, may not seem like an enviable job. Especially when it involves being in New Zealand, away from family and friends, for 15 months. Plus 12 to 14 hour days, often in remote locations, with new physical skills to learn and scenes that had to be repeated twice because of the problems of scale.

But the enthusiasm that bubbled up from the four actors when they spoke about their experiences was scarcely containable. Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Sean Astin (Sam), Billy Boyd (Pippin), and Dominic Monaghan (Merry), interrupted one another, topped each other’s stories, laughed at one another’s jokes and, most of all, heaped praise upon the man with the singular vision to pull it all off: Peter Jackson. Indeed, Elijah Wood was so keen to play Frodo, bearer of the Ring, that he couldn’t wait for the director—who had been seeing a lot of British actors for the part—to start in Los Angeles. Instead, he persuaded some friends to film his own audition, then sent the videotape to the man himself.

“They wanted to put me on tape in a casting office,” explained Wood, “but I thought that would be a bit sterile. I wanted to convey my real passion for this role, and for the film, in my own kind of way. So I found a costume, learned a few passages from the book by heart, went out into the woods near my house, and got my friends to film different scenes from all sorts of different angles.”

It was a risky strategy, especially given that Frodo, far from being a squeaky-clean Luke Skywalker-type, is an extremely complex character, both morally and psychologically. But Elijah Wood was alive to those dangers, and made sure he included the full spectrum of Frodo’s personality: “The scenes kind of ran the gamut. There was something from Hobbiton, when Frodo meets Gandalf for the first time in the beginning. And something from the end, when he’s all that’s left, and all that he can see is the Ring. So basically it was Frodo all sort of innocent and lovely, and then completely gone at the end.” This was part of what appealed to Wood, the sense that his character would develop over the three movies, and would be a very different Hobbit at the end. “Frodo runs this amazing arc, in which he goes from being this innocent, curious adventurer at the beginning to being a very flawed and conflicted character. And the challenge of creating that arc was intriguing to me.”

Being of tender years, the actors were not of the generation that read Tolkien’s book as a matter-of-course, but their parents sometimes were. Dominic Monaghan’s father, a die-hard fan, bought him The Hobbit for his thirteenth birthday, and The Lord of the Rings the following Christmas. Even so, he found it hard to immerse himself in the all-enveloping world of Middle-earth. It was something he only managed later, while traveling back and forth on the train to London for auditions. Sean Astin admitted he’d only tried to read the book once he’d been asked to audition for the part of Sam, and even then somewhat selfishly, to see which scenes featured his character. Billy Boyd, was another one who didn’t read the book properly until he knew he had the part. And, like Astin, his perspective was skewed by knowing that he was to play Pippin.

What hooked Elijah Wood, who had never attempted to read the trilogy, was reading the script. “It just took me into another world. It freaked me out. I remember driving home after reading it and I was expecting Orcs and things to be following me.” Something similar happened during filming, when Elijah Wood was shooting a scene with Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf. “It was just a pick-up of a scene, but suddenly I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m listening to Gandalf and he’s telling me about the history of the Ring.’ And I’ve never done that before. But there were many moments like that in the film, because everything was portrayed in such a realistic way. Every actor became their character.”

The final word on the experience of playing Hobbits, however, goes to Dominic Monaghan:

“Hobbits have a real innocence. They love wholesome things and they enjoy good food, good living and great company. They are people who embrace life. All four of us were like Hobbits at the start of the process, we’re probably more so now.”

National Elf Service

Being an immortal isn’t easy, as Liv Tyler and Orlando Bloom tell us.

For their round-table interviews, the actors were grouped roughly by species: all four Hobbits grouped together, two wizards and a Dwarf, two human warriors, and two Elves: the immortal Princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) and sword-wielding Elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom).

The two young actors’ real lives could not have been more different. Tyler, the 23-year-old veteran of more than a dozen movies (including Armageddon), five Cannes Film Festivals and myriad interviews, was relaxed and confident. Bloom, by contrast, tended to blurt out his answers, often interrupting his fellow interviewee. His over-excitement was understandable, however, since this was his first Cannes and his first press junket. Tyler had simply been offered her part, her striking, angular beauty peculiarly suited to Elven pointy-ears. The less-experienced Bloom had to audition for his first leading role, and heard he’d got the role two days before he left drama school. It goes without saying that Bloom was thrilled to secure his part in The Lord of the Rings…and movie history. “To have been given the opportunity to portray someone like Legolas was exciting and terrifying at the same time, because he is so far beyond any being that you could imagine. Elves have super-human strength, reflex speed, and sensory awareness. They’re these incredible angelic spirits, who create and appreciate great beauty.”

First and foremost, however, Legolas is a warrior, so Brit Bloom had two months of preparation in New Zealand before shooting even began. “I started off with archery, I rode about 20 different horses, I had physical training in the gym, and I had to learn the Elvish ways of speaking and fighting. Their fighting is based on ancient European and Asian martial arts, so I had a trainer who taught me how to use the blades. I also did a lot of movement training, because movement is my way into the character.”

Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures being one of her all-time favorite films, Liv Tyler never thought twice about playing the Elf princess Arwen. Also, in an unashamedly “girly” way, she loved the idea of the “incredibly powerful, special love” between her immortal Elven-princess Arwen and the love-struck, mortal human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen).

Inevitably, there had been suggestions that this romance, which does not form an integral part of the trilogy as such, had been brought to center-stage by Jackson and his co-writers solely to “up” the lovey-dovey quotient. But Tyler was quick to point out that this wasn’t the case.

“At the end of the third book, there’s an appendix called Aragorn and Arwen, and that’s what the whole thing is based on. So although you only see Arwen a couple of times in the book, at the end of the third volume, Tolkien summarizes and tells the whole story of these people. So that was all Tolkien. It wasn’t made up in any way; it all came from that.”

Could this be the greatest film ever made? Nigel Floyd talks to the cast and crew.

Approaching on foot, we round a bend in the path and the round castellated tower comes into view. All around us on the grass were gaily colored stalls and tents, some of them only partly constructed. Preparations were underway for a celebration. A party to mark the one hundred and eleventh birthday of the highly esteemed Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, perhaps? No, this was not Hobbiton; it was the Cannes Film Festival press junket for Peter Jackson’s three-part film adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s perennially popular fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings. Rumor had it that some of these Hobbit-themed constructions were the actual sets from the film’s opening scene, shipped in specially for the occasion from Three Foot Six studios in Wellington, New Zealand. No expense had been spared, and though it was only make-believe, the effect was still magical.

The film’s set designer was also on hand to supervise the assembly of the sets. Most striking of all was the fact that they were deliberately over-sized, forcing humans to perceive the world as Tolkien’s diminutive Hobbits—average height three-foot-six—would have experienced it. Had the beer tent been open, one would have had to reach up over the bar to order a drink, peering up from below as a frothing mug of ale was handed down by the cheery landlord. If anything could transport you to Bree, this was it—if it hadn’t been for the clement weather and friendly, expectant faces…We’d been brought from Cannes to the gates of this chateau in a modern motor coach. Now we were being transported to Hobbiton by the vehicle of our imaginations.

Shepherded by our hosts, we climbed the stone steps and entered through a pair of large wooden doors, into a gently sloping garden with a view of Cannes, and the distant azure sea. Even when we were corralled by myriad PR persons into the area set aside for the al fresco press conference, the buzz of anticipation continued. After years of speculation and internet rumors about New Line’s $270 million adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, we were going to hear concrete facts from the mouths of those actually involved in making the three two-hour films. Even the most jaundiced and blasé among us were aware that this was a privilege granted to few, so our calm professionalism was tinged with more than a little childish excitement.

The previous day, our appetites had been well and truly whetted by an exclusive screening of 28 minutes of footage from the trilogy. We had not, though, been the very first to see them. That privilege, quite rightly, had been reserved for members of the cast. While queuing outside the Olympia cinema, with our special security passes slung around our necks, we had caught a glimpse of Elijah Wood, Liv Tyler, Sir Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, and sundry other actors as they emerged from their screening and ducked into waiting limos. Judging their reactions was tricky, but their smiles seemed to indicate that they were more than happy with the results. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for the stunning impact of what we were about to see.

Inside the auditorium, the atmosphere was tense but electric. Even New Line executive Mark Ordesky’s formal introductory speech was enthusiastic, his corporate style not quite disguising the excitement he felt at revealing his company’s most ambitious project. Then Peter Jackson ambled on. A short, bearded Kiwi bloke with tousled hair and little round glasses, his modest physical presence utterly belies the stature of his talent, and the monumental challenge he and The Lord of the Rings crew faced during the lengthy, hectic and sometimes harrowing shooting schedule. Because, for all his genuine humility, this is the man who directed the blood-soaked Braindead and the emotionally-devastating Heavenly Creatures; the film-maker New Line Cinema confidently entrusted with $270 million of their money; the director/writer/producer who, without ever raising his voice or losing his temper, oversaw a grueling, 274-day shoot that finished on the very day it was supposed to.

Yet Jackson’s typically self-effacing introduction to the jaw-dropping footage was as low-key as one could imagine. He explained that what we were about to see was some scene-setting, followed by snippets of story designed to introduce the characters, and finally a continuous “14 minute lump of action”, complete with a score composed by Howard Shore. When the images finally flashed onto the screen, what immediately struck one was how seamlessly Jackson’s team had solved the myriad problems of scale.

For example, the scene in which the tall wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) towers over the diminutive Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Clearly the actual disparity between the two actors had been exaggerated CGI trickery. But how, within the same frame, was Gandalf able to hand Bilbo his wide-brimmed wizard’s hat? Before we had time to ponder this mystery, tiny figures were trudging across snowbound mountain vistas, evil-looking Black Riders were thundering across the screen on horseback, Frodo and his fellow pointy-eared Hobbits (Sam, Pippin, and Merry) were hiding by the roots of a giant tree, and fearsome Orcs were brandishing weapons. The scale of the spectacle was breathtaking; the level of visual detail astonishing; yet Jackson’s inspired visual imagination had remained true to Tolkien’s original literary conception of Middle-earth.

Then came the fluid “14 minute lump”, the impact of which far surpassed that of the previous snippets. Suddenly, we were plunged into the Mines of Moria, as the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring traveled deeper into its dark, labyrinthine tunnels. Journeying alongside Frodo (Elijah Wood) on this leg of his epic journey were his three Hobbit companions: Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd)—plus Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom), two human warriors, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), and their mentor, Gandalf. Ambushed by scampering goblins and attacked by a giant cave-troll, the members of the Fellowship survived by the skin of their teeth. Their escape looked uncertain as they negotiated the stairs of Khazad-dûm, the edifice collapsing beneath them as they leapt from one teetering column of rock to the next. As we left the cinema, drained but exhilarated, there was no doubt in my mind that we had witnessed movie-making history.


The bigwigs behind the film reveal how it all came to pass.

At the Cannes press conference for The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson was flanked by his co-writer Philippa Boyens, producer Barrie Osborne, executive producer Mark Ordesky, and Richard Taylor, whose New Zealand-based company, WETA, was responsible for the film’s multi-faceted visual effects. Inevitably, initial inquiries concerned the origins of the project.

Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh had started thinking about The Lord of the Rings while filming The Frighteners in 1995, but at that time the film rights were owned by producer Saul Zaentz (The English Patient). Using their first-look deal with Miramax, Jackson and Walsh persuaded head honcho Harvey Weinstein to buy the rights. But Miramax was reluctant to commit to several films. Jackson and Walsh stuck to their guns, feeling that over-compression was what had defeated previous attempts—including Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated version—to bring the epic to the screen.

The breakthrough came later, when Jackson and Walsh met with Bob Shaye of New Line: “We originally thought of doing two movies,” explained Jackson, “but in our meeting with Bob Shaye, he said: ‘It’s three books, it should be three films.’” After some exploratory trips to New Zealand, New Line decided that Jackson and his team could deliver and adaptation of LOTR that would justify their colossal investment.

With characteristic boldness, Jackson and Walsh asked playwright Philippa Boyens to help write the screenplay. It helped that she loved the source material, but the prospect was still a daunting one: not only was this her first movie script, there were three to write.

“I was actually a huge Tolkien fan, so I was really nervous about reading Peter and Fran’s 90-page treatment. I couldn’t see how it could be done. But it was compelling, a real page-turner. At first I was overwhelmed, and then I got excited. The challenge was to stay as faithful as we could to the books, and make it a gripping cinematic experience.”

With more than one hundred million copies of The Lord of the Rings sold, and nearly two million hits on the movie’s website, Jackson and his collaborators were all too aware of the feverish levels of anticipation, plus the potential for fan-by sniping. “There are going to be people that have different ideas on things,” acknowledged Jackson, “but you can’t make a film by committee. We had to take our own decisions. It’s not a movie made for fans, but it is a movie made by fans.”

So Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens trusted their own gut feelings right from the start: “You have to go on your instincts, because even with three movies, we couldn’t include everything. One of the rules that I put into my head was that a lot of people had read The Lord of the Rings, so what we should be making was a film that’s faithful to the book even for people who remember it from 15 years ago.”

“People that are totally obsessed fans are obviously going to see major things that we had to lose, or work our way round. But we’ve tried to make sure that all the key events and characters are included. Obviously, we’ve been very careful—because it’s a complicated book—to tell the story in a way that’s accessible to people who know nothing about The Lord of the Rings.”

While clear storytelling was essential to the films’ success, it had to go hand-in-hand with visual spectacle. The beauty of New Zealand’s landscape provided many locations, but the creatures, costumes, armor and weaponry had to be made from scratch by a dedicated army of designers and skilled technicians. Drawing upon the work of conceptual artists John Howe and Alan Lee, Jackson and his team strove to create what producer Barrie Osborne called: “a singular Tolkienesque brushstroke.” To do this, they bought the entire visual effects operation under one roof. WETA’s Richard Taylor, visual effects designer on all Jackson’s films since Bad Taste, gets an incredible multiple credit on Rings, as Creature, Miniature, Armor, and SFX Supervisor.

“On our biggest days,” Taylor explains matter-of-factly, “we had up to 500 people in full prosthetics and armor, and we regularly had seven of the nine leads in full prosthetic makeup. During large-scale battle scenes, there might be six second-unit filming crews operating simultaneously.” Yet one clear vision determined the look of the production, and if there was ever any doubt, Taylor and Peter Jackson simply returned to the “bible”—a copy of The Lord of the Rings that was always on hand. “At no time did Pete say: ‘This is going to be my vision, put this book aside.’ It was always: ‘Return to the original source material’.”

Taylor aimed for a gritty realism, immersing the actors in a muddy, grungy world where they literally had dirt under their fingernails: “Our general philosophy was that, at all times, no matter how fantastical we chose to make the settings and creatures, we must ground them in reality. Because then the audience would be that much more accepting of the fantastical.”

Jackson, too, fought shy of the word: “fantasy”, which he felt was inaccurate and misleading. “We treated The Lord of the Rings as a historical film,” he explained. “We felt that Tolkien spent a large part of his life creating a mythology for Britain, which was essentially a pre-history. Just as you would if you were making a film about Rome, we did research into the world of Middle-earth. We read his books and all of the writings, and it became real. This really happened, these people went through this, and we’re trying to dramatize that.”

The story goes that in a radio interview, author Robert Heimlein was asked, “What is science fiction?” “It’s what I say it is,” Heimlein replied. Some people took that as arrogance. I think he meant we may not be able to determine the boundaries of sf, but we know it when we see it. Exactly the same applies to fantasy. It’s just a case of employing the duck test. You know: ‘if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

But to be sure we understand each other, I’ll attempt a rough working definition. Fantasy tends to be set in worlds that resemble historical periods, typically with a medieval flavor. These worlds are more likely to be feudal than democratic. The laws of physics as we know them aren’t necessarily obeyed, because magic often features. But the magic will have its own rules, consistently applied. There a good chance that dragons, elves, unicorns, ogres and other fantastical creatures will busy themselves as freewheeling heroes and heroines, wicked queens, noble princes and the like. Characters will invest lots of energy in seeking things, be it their destiny, a treasure hoard or a supernatural McGuffin that promises to avert disaster. In this they will be opposed by the forces of Evil, occasioning much swordplay, mighty battles, and magical combat.

Of course, the above doesn’t begin to embrace contemporary fantasy, magical realism, anthropomorphic fantasy or the many other diverse branches. But unless we’re careful we can be sucked into the argument that all fiction, being an artificial construct, is a form of fantasy. That way lies madness. What’s generally referred to as sword and sorcery, heroic fantasy or high fantasy—the greatest exemplifier of which was JRR Tolkien—is what we’re talking about here.

The roots of fantasy are as old as humanity itself, and undoubtedly first found expression as fanciful tales told around campfires. Every civilization, extant and extinct, had their epic stories of heroes and gods. The hierarchy of deities populating ancient Egyptian mythology; the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Apollonius’ adventures of Jason and the Argonauts; Virgil’s Aeneid; Arabian fables; Celtic myth; the Anglo-Saxons’ Beowulf; Icelandic sagas—all contain elements still common in fantasy fiction. It’s a lineage traceable through the ages, from the 12th century romances of Arthur and Merlin, to Edmund Spencer’s 16th century confection The Faerie Queen, to the seeds of the Goths in the mid-18th century and the birth of the novel.

The 19th century saw what might be called the first golden age of fantasy, and it manifested in many different ways. It included the baroque works of such authors as William Morris and George Meredith, the folkie whimsicality of Washington Irving and Mark Twain, the colorful adventures of H Rider Haggard and the brooding supernaturalism of Robert W Chambers. Even Dickens, utilizing vengeful ghosts to hammer home his moral tales, could be said to inhabit a slice of the fantasy section. Children’s fantasy bloomed, with Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Lewis Carroll’s Alice and E. Nesbit’s The Book of Dragons. And let’s not forget the scientific fantasy of Frankenstein and the dark fantasy of Dracula.

It was at about the point where the 19th century shaded into the 20th that fantasy began to take on something of the appearance we recognize today. Edgar Rice Burroughs gained an enormous audience for his Tarzan novels, a series firmly in the “lost race” strand of fantasy, and L. Frank Baum’s many Oz books cornered the idiosyncratic end of the market. Lord Dunsamy, AA Merritt, Talbot Mundy, Clark Ashton Smith and others emerged as writers of a kind of proto-fantasy that would evolve into the form we know today. But arguably fantasy owed much to the advent of pulp magazines, which saw their popularity soaring in the early years of the new century. Titles such as Argosy, The Thrill Book, and perhaps the most celebrated pulp of all, Weird Tales, did much to fashion the genre. Weird Tales, in particular, was instrumental in launching the careers of a number of writers who would shape the genre, notably Conan creator Robert E. Howard.

Howard may not have invented sword and sorcery, but he was its greatest champion and most prolific producer. Apart from Conan, he introduced the heroic characters King Kulf, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Moen and Turlogh Dubh, and his influence on the field remains considerable. But he saw little recognition in his lifetime. In 1936, already displaying signs of instability and devastated by the death of his mother, Howard shot himself. He was 30 years old. The following year an English academic published an unregarded little children’s book called The Hobbit. But like Howard, Tolkien’s fame was a long time coming.

A plethora of other fantasy pulps appeared in the wake of Weird Tales, among them Fantastic Adventures, Terror Tales, Strange Stories and, in 1939, the short-lived but seminal Unknown, edited by John W. Campbell Jr., the man behind the SF field’s most respected magazine, Astounding Stories, the last 39 issues of Unknown (Unknown Worlds for the last two years of its life), can truly be said to have changed the face of fantasy fiction. L. Sprague De Camp was a regular contributor, along with Jack Williamson, Robert Bloch and a host of other name writers.

Perhaps most importantly, in terms of the kind of fantasy we’re discussing, Unknown published Fritz Leiber’s first story, “Two Sought Adventure”, the debut outing of his characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The pair defied expectations. Fafhrd’s huge frame and barbarian heritage was belied by a quick intelligence; Gray Mouser was a slippery pipsqueak with often slower wits. They could act amorally, but invariably came down on the side of right. There was humor in their relationship—sometimes to the point where they approximated the Laurel and Hardy of fantasy—though darkness and exotic peril were equally present. They were rounded, imperfect, human characters, with real desires and prejudices, and their ongoing adventures resulted in a huge leap in sophistication for heroic fantasy. Leiber, a major figure in both SF and fantasy, continued to write about Fafhrd and Mouser, constantly refining them, right up until a year or two before his death in 1992.

It’s probably fair to say that fantasy made no great strides in terms of public recognition in the 1940’s and `50’s. It lived in quiet places, simmering in the dying pulps and the digest magazines that succeeded them. There were occasional appearances of mostly reprint fantasy in book form from small presses like Shasta, Gnome and Fantasy Press, and a handful of American fanzines kept the flame burning. Basically, this was preaching to the converted.

But to say the 1950’s were subdued as far as fantasy was concerned isn’t to imply that nothing of significance happened. In what has to have been one of the longest gestation periods in literature, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had begun to build his imaginary universe shortly after World War I. Merton Professor of English at Oxford University until his retirement in 1959, throughout the `40’s and `50’s Tolkien read drafts of his narrative to C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, the four of them having formed a society of Christian writers called the Inklings. This culminated in the publication, in 1954-55, of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Earth didn’t shake. A decade passed before anything happened.

Up to the 1960’s, mainstream publishing was more or less unaware of fantasy as a discrete category. The unlikely catalyst that changed this state of affairs was a noisy dispute between two leading American publishers. In 1962, Ace Books exploited a technical loophole that meant some of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels were, in effect, out of copyright. They published Burroughs’ Pelucidar books, and some of his one-off novels, in paperback. Rivals Ballantine Books, regarding themselves as Burroughs’ official publisher, hit back the following year by issuing the entire Burroughs canon, including all the Tarzans, in attractive uniform editions. For several years, as the dispute smoldered on, millions of copies of the author’s works flooded the market, helping to stimulate a taste for fantasy adventure. But this was only a curtain-raiser.

In 1965, Ace put out the first paperback editions of the three volume The Lord of the Rings. Because their right to do so was again in contention, this became known as the “pirate” edition. Once more, Ballantine considered that they had the moral, if not legal, high ground, and within a few months had their “official” editions in the shops. A whole new generation of mostly young readers, many of them students, discovered Tolkien for the first time and loved him. In less than a year, Ballantine sold a million copies of their editions. Ace moved in excess of 100,000 copies of the “pirate” version before having to withdraw from the fray. The Lord of the Rings, a classic example of a “sleeper,” if there ever was one, was instrumental in opening the floodgate.

Every US mass-market publisher got into the act. Lancer Books reissued Robert E. Howard’s works, as edited by De Camp, with ravishing Frank Franzetta covers. Ballantine launched its highly successful Adult Fantasy series, in which Lin Carter selected classics of the field for reprint. New work was commissioned, fresh writers began to emerge. The genie was out of the bottle.

From the `70’s to the present, fantasy has grown to the point where the field is so fecund and far-reaching it’s difficult to keep a handle on it. Recent estimates put its share of the UK book market at around 14%, with an even higher proportion in the US. What accounts for this astonishing escalation of a genre that barely existed 30 years ago? As I’ve argued elsewhere in the past, I think there are several reasons. One is the comfort factor, the appeal of a form that offers some kind of certainty in our increasingly perplexing, morally ambiguous, overly materialistic culture, particularly in these troubled times. I see nothing wrong about the desire to engage with a literature that deals in fundamental issues of good versus evil. Nor do I see it, as some critics do, as a kind of reactionary, anti-rationalist impulse. It’s no rejection of science to want to escape occasionally into landscapes of pure imagination that don’t necessarily depend on accepted logic.

Another reason for fantasy’s popularity, in my view, is that it’s reached a level of maturity where it can convincingly tackle topics relating to the real world, and do it with the kind of assurance that used to be the sole province of science fiction. And that brings us to the always contentious argument that science fiction is “just” a branch of fantasy. Which of course it is: a rationalist branch. But maybe we should consider the proposition that fantasy is now outselling science fiction—which it is, by a head—because it’s doing what sf used to do so well, and it’s doing better? If it was nothing else, science fiction was always the literature of ideas. It had innovation, it could be satiric, questioning, and even inspiring. Occasionally it was actually subversive. Science fiction has had a lot to tell us about our present condition, albeit dressed as far-flung futures or alternate worlds. It still does, but to a much lesser degree. The torch is passing to fantasy, a literature that at its best addresses ideas and emotions.

Modern fantasy, the latest incarnation of storytelling’s most enduring form, has become a broad church, comfortably embracing talents as diverse as JK Rowling, Tad Williams, Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan, David Gernmell, Terry Brooks, Robert Holdstock, Storm Constantine, Terry Pratchett, Freda Warrington, Tom Arden, Peter S. Beagle, Joy Chant, Louise Cooper, Charles De Lint, Stephen Donaldson, Philip Pullman…and any number of other names from a long list that readily comes to mind. There can be a timeless quality about the finest fantasy that doesn’t necessarily apply to science fiction, so that not unusually an epic saga from five centuries ago may be more readable than a 40 year old science fiction novel.

I cut my teeth on science fiction, read acres of it, and given the chance I still write it. No doubt it will be on the up again. But for now it might not be a bad thing if it withdraws to figure out a new direction. Meanwhile, fantasy is emerging from the shadows where it’s languished too long as a bastardized sub-genre. Stand back and let the once poor relation take a bow.

Two Wizards and a Dwarf

Christopher Lee, John Rhys-Davies, and Ian McKellen Give Us the Gossip

In striking contrast to the young, medium-sized actors who play the Hobbits, Sir Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee and John Rhys-Davies have the gravitas and presence that come with age, height, and experience. It’s easy to see why McKellen and Lee were cast, respectively as the good wizard Gandalf and his corrupted counterpart Saruman. What takes some swallowing is the idea of the robustly built Rhys-Davies as Gimli the Dwarf.

Asked whether they had read The Lord of the Rings prior to filming, their contrasting personalities were immediately apparent. McKellen admitted, apologetically, that he had read only The Hobbit. Lee, whose patrician tone and conspicuous erudition border on the arrogant, said: “I read it when it first came out, then waited for the second, and then the third. And now I read it every year, so that’s something like 45 years I’ve been reading it.”

Rhys-Davies, however, doesn’t mince his words. “I hated it. I struggled through it. I kept falling asleep in it. All I can say is, the film’s a lot better.”

Rhys-Davies bluff humor was equally apparent in his account of the rigors of filming. “My fondest memory is of being on the side of a hill and seeing two men carrying my armor up the hill, two ladies carrying my costume, a woman carrying my helmet, another carrying my boots, and then the armorers carrying the axes. And then they put it all on me and Peter Jackson said, ‘Now run after them.’”

Preferring to emphasize the positive, McKellen described a day on which he and eight other members of the Fellowship of the Ring were dropped by a helicopter onto virgin snow near the peak of a mountain. He had annotated his script to read NAR, actor’s shorthand for No Acting Required. Prophetic words indeed.

“There really was no acting required for that occasion,” he remembers, “because there we were trudging through snow about 12 inches deep, plodding up to a distant peak. At moments like those, you don’t think, ‘There’s a camera on that helicopter that’s coming around’; you’re on the journey. We were there in Middle-earth, at a time when human beings had only just arrived. In a world where there were immortal wizards, immortal Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits.”

As if that were not enough, the difficulties of scale that beset the entire production affected the actors in a particular way. “One of the things that was not so much tiring as tiresome,” said McKellen with an air of polite resignation, “was that because the Hobbits must appear smaller than the humans, each scene had to be filmed twice—once with me as Gandalf and Elijah Wood and the other actors as the Hobbits, then once again with their scale doubles, people who were the appropriate size. Then the scene had to be done again with the real Hobbit actors, Elijah and the others, but not with me. In those scenes, Gandalf was played by a very, very tall New Zealander, six-foot-eight. He was walking along the street in Wellington one day and somebody walked up to him and said, ‘Would you like to be in a film?’”

Nevertheless, McKellen was as gracious as ever, insisting that “You forgive it all when you see the film.” Christopher Lee, too, was unstinting in his praise. “I’m a great admirer or Tolkien, and I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, because it’s the very essence of Tolkien, which is something that people didn’t believe could be done.”

John Rhys-Davies had sensed something special when he first met the ensemble cast. “When I walked into the room and looked around, I was astonished. I thought, ‘Good God, he’s got to be Frodo, that’s got to be Sam, that’s got to be…’ You just looked at these unmade-up faces and you realized that you were in very safe hands; because if a director can cast that well, you know he’s done 80% of his job.”

Seeing the completed footage, the actors were able to see clearly how much digital technology—often the bane of their lives during the shoot itself—had contributed to the film’s extraordinary visual impact. Yet what most impressed Sir Ian McKellen was how director Peter Jackson had used the visual effects to serve the story line and the characters.

“Peter has taken this new technology, much of which was invented for this film, and put it at the service, not of something purely fantastic, but at the service of ordinary people, in extraordinary situations. What I like about his myth that Tolkien has created is that, although there is magic in it, and people can do superhuman things, their progress towards the destroying of the Ring wouldn’t be achieved without the particular characters of the people on the journey.

“The story never twists on some magic, which is just a storyteller’s device; the storytelling is about human emotions that we all recognize. The drama comes out of recognizable human attributes, even though some of the characters are not human—their jealousies, their ambitions, their good nature, their vision of what the world could be.

“So this film would be nothing, despite its special effects, if it weren’t for a cast who were encouraged to really delve into themselves. And that’s why, so often, there was take after take after take, to get that believability of spirit.”

Ways of the Warriors

Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean on their warrior characters

The two actors who were clearest about their characters were Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean, who play the human warriors Aragorn and Boromir. They were equally clear about the fact that their characters don’t see eye to eye on the Ring and its awesome power. Aragorn respects and fears the Ring, whereas Boromir is initially against destroying it, because he believes it could be used as a force for ultimate good. But as the quest continues, Boromir is forced to change his mind.

“Boromir’s people have been in the forefront of the battles, keeping the evil forces at bay, acting as a sort of buffer zone,” explained Bean. “So through the generations, he’s become a very military-minded man who believes in strength and taking action. And that’s why his aim is to use the Ring against this evil force, rather than to destroy it. Boromir doesn’t understand the power, the magic or the implications, but towards the end, he says, ‘I didn’t know what I know now. It’s much more complicated, this power of the Ring.”

Mortensen continues for him. “Through his experiences in Middle-earth, Aragorn begins to understand other species that live there, to appreciate and value the Elves, the Dwarves and the Hobbits. In a sense, the whole trilogy is about alliances being formed, about people coming together against the coming danger. So there is no one heroic figure, because the success of the quest relies on the unique qualities of the nine who make up the Fellowship. It’s the group effort that counts in the end, because the Fellowship is only as strong as its weakest link.”

But with five different cultures involved, explains Bean, it’s not always plain sailing. “At first, Boromir is very doubtful we should be bringing all these different species along. I’m used to leading an army and all I’ve got is Aragorn, a wizard and this motley crew of Elves and Dwarves and Hobbits. There are many times when it seems like it’s going to fall apart, but ultimately they all know they have to stay together…It rests on these nine beings to save everybody.”

Finally, Mortensen speaks the two words that have been on everyone’s lips all afternoon: Star Wars. “Inevitably, people will compare Rings to movies like Star Wars, but I think that these characters are much more individual, original and fleshed out. Peter also went to great lengths to ensure that the relationships included all their unspoken doubts and fears. You really see that being played out, on their faces, in their actions and even in their hesitations. Star Wars was fun but it was more on a surface level: this character is good, this character is evil, whereas in The Lord of the Rings, you get those gray areas in between.”