By Michael Wilmington
Tribune Movie Critic

Movies have their own special magic, of course, but it helps a lot to have a great book and great words behind them.

A supreme recent case in point: the visually spectacular and absolutely mesmerizing “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” a state-of-the-art epic opening Dec. 18 that surpasses its predecessor (last years “The Fellowship of the Ring”) for sheer thrills and visual splendor.

Yet, packed with technological marvels and rousing scenes and characters as it is, “Two Towers” could not have spirited us away to all those lands of wonder if it weren’t for the shy Oxford professor of Old and Middle English who dreamed it all up: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

The Head of the Class

No recent movie exploits all the various modern resources of cinema – from computerized effects, animation, sound recording and crystalline location shooting – with more flair than Peter Jackson’s film of the adventures of Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship of the Ring.

Few movies this year have been more faithful to their source – in this case, one so universally familiar. Yet few have a source more consciously literary, more drenched in academia and learning, than Tolkien’s fantasy novel cycle.

Tolkien hardly seems a likely candidate for cinema canonization. He was a lifelong academic; student of literary texts and comparative linguistics; and a devotee of Norse, English and Icelandic epics who put his vast knowledge to use creating his own world and inventing the history, languages and people – and wizards, orcs, and hobbits – who flourished there. Though Tolkien may have lived in a kind of sequestered academic paradise, the three linked novels of “”The Lord of the Rings” (“The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers”, and “The Return of the King”) are a sustained feat of imagination that has entranced millions since their British publication in 1954 and ’55 – especially since their explosion of American popularity in the mid-1960s.

Tolkien conceived and wrote the books seemingly as much for his own pleasure as for the financial success that was at first slow in coming: planning and writing them in a 15-year period beginning in 1937, composing much of the work during the Second World War in segments he sent to his soldier son Christopher. The novel’s huge battle between good and evil probably reflected his and his son’s WWII experience (and the elder Tolkien’s service in the Boer War.) (huh?)

But they were also part of an even longer sustained effort of imagination. The author, born in 1892, spent most of his life (to his death in 1973) creating and describing the imaginary fairy-tale world and history of which the “Rings” cycle is only a part, inventing at least four languages, hundreds of characters and a voluminous history and archeology stretching over many centuries. That’s what lies behind the onscreen richness of the movie “Rings”.

Difficult to Fathom

Can you imagine the pipe-puffing, hugely well-read, devoutly Catholic Tolkien, who liked to compare himself to his home-loving hobbits, hobnobbing with the big-movie sophisticates who put his novel so smashingly on film: the wildman New Zealand writer-director Jackson (whose first features were the gorefests “Bad Taste” and “Dead Alive”) and high-flying New Line executives Bob Shaye and Mark Ordesky? Or trading quips with the studio people to whom Jackson went first: Miramax’s Weinstein brothers? (“J.R.R., baby, here’s how I see Bilbo: Robin Williams crossed with Herve Villechaize. By the way, I’ll tell you upfront: We’ve got to cut it.”)

Incongruously or not, “Lord of the Rings,” which survived an earlier failed attempt at filming by animator Ralph Bakshi, has proven ideal movie material – and more than that, ideal material for the technologies and special strengths of movies today. A “Lord of the Rings” movie made in the ’50s, ’60s, or even the early ’90s, probable couldn’t have had this opulence and fantastic spectacle. It couldn’t have given us so intensely the huge bloody battle of Helm’s Deep, couldn’t have visualized so perfectly the hobbits’ loathsome guide Gollum or transported us so convincingly to the ancient land of good and bad wizards Gandalf and Sauron, with its cathedral-like caves and talking trees, its vaulting towers and horrific, mysterious dark riders.

There are silent epics that have something like the special majesty and magic of “Towers,” including the Babylonian sequences of D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” and the quest scenes of Raoul Walsh and Doug Fairbanks’ “Thief of Baghdad” and the forest scenes of Fritz Lang’s “Die Niebelungen”: three movies that might have influenced Tolkien. But we’re lucky that it took all these years to realize “The Rings” – and that Jackson and his New Line bosses eventually committed to making three movies instead of two, that he made them altogether in one shoot – and that, despite some liberties, he committed himself so fully to Tolkien’s original vision.

Like all moviemakers, Jackson makes changes – even major ones. (Liv Tyler’s character Arwen comes not from the story but from a footnote, obviously a ravaging one.) But if you see the movies right after rereading the novels – which I did – you may be shocked at how close they are.

Topped Reader Polls

That’s only Tolkien’s due, I think. After all, he spent a lifetime imagining Middle Earth, Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, Gimli, Aragorn, the Gollum and all their voluminous back story – which is exactly why “The Lord of the Rings,” despite a notable lack of enthusiasm from Tolkien’s colleagues in university literature departments, long have topped reader’s polls for the 20th Century’s best novel.

Jackson deserves his success partly because he did what most cinematic adapters should: stick to the test. Certain authors – Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Tennessee Williams and John Steinbeck for example – translate very well because their works were imagined with cinematic richness and because their adapters usually film them faithfully. (Robbing Henry James’ novels of their convoluted interior narration, which usually happens in the movies, may seem justified but it reduces their impact and shrivels their meaning.)

Consider David O. Selznick, a producer notorious for his endless memos and high standards of quality – and a man who firmly believed that any movie adapted from a popular novel should retain as much as possible the original story and characters or risk alienating devoted fans. Selznick should know. In his heyday, he produced scores of successful films, from classics such as, “David Copperfield” or best sellers such as, “Duel in the Sun” – and he always stuck to the book.

Two towering cases in point: his Oscar-winning films of “Gone with the Wind” and “Rebecca,” two film that pleased (and continue to please) audiences who knew the novels well and audiences who didn’t know them at all.

I think Selznick is right – and that those modern-day producers who ignore his advice and trash or radically change their novels-into-film often do so at peril. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t. But with “Hamlet” or “David Copperfield” or “Don Quixote” – or with Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” – you want the words to inspire the image, because it was those words that first inspired us.