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The 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy triumphs

The  films should satisfy even the most ardent Tolkien fans. By Christopher Bahn

Tolkien fans around the world are counting down to Dec. 17, when at long last we'll know the answer to a hugely important question -- whether the final film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy will live up to all the expectation. (Oh, and also whether or not Frodo can destroy the evil ring of Sauron and save the world.)

We've been burned by cringe-worthy trilogies before, and the big thud of Matrix: Revolutions is still fresh in our minds. But director Peter Jackson's got an even more difficult task than ensuring that Return of the King is a good wrap-up for the first two Rings films. He must satisfy the legions of admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien's story, who are adamant that any film version should stay true to Tolkien's original vision.

The Tolkien estate, which does not control film rights to the novels, is apparently already a lost cause, maintaining what's been described as a "barely concealed hostility" to the films and now possibly blocking Jackson from making a version of Tolkien's Rings prequel, The Hobbit. And Tolkien himself was often grouchy at less-than-magical adaptations of his work, derisively complaining that one scriptwriter threw in "a great many Eagles, not to mention incantations, blue lights, and some irrelevant magic... He has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights."

Jackson's films do linger on the battle scenes, but they're otherwise more faithful to the books than anyone could reasonably have hoped. He has gone to great trouble to capture the spirit of the works, hitting all the major points of the trilogy's plotline, and keeping Tolkien's themes of honor, friendship, environmentalism and the horrors of war central to the story, where they belong.

Staying faithfulMaking films is a long, arduous process, requiring hundreds of people and thousands of artistic decisions from casting to script to special effects, any of which are potentially catastrophic. That the Rings movies were finished at all is impressive; that they're as good as they are is remarkable indeed. Want to see a failed adaptation? Check out Ralph Bakshi's awful 1978 animation. Cheap and indifferently written, it's had so much of the plot chainsawed out to fit into a two-hour film that it no longer makes any sense at all -- if you haven't read the books you'll be lost; if you have, you'll be infuriated by the idiotic changes. It's a film with such poor attention to detail that its villain does not even have a consistent name -- sometimes he's "Saruman," sometimes "Aruman."

Jackson's movies are, on the other hand, are very concerned with capturing the feel of Middle Earth. For instance, the question of what the characters and settings looks like, for many readers, is deeply influenced by the artwork of Alan Lee and John Howe, who have been illustrating Tolkieniana for decades. When Jackson began assembling the look of his films, he put Lee and Howe in charge of his design team -- that simple but crucial decision netted him the work of their years of contributions to the Tolkien canon.

As a storytelling medium, film demands greater literalism books do, and has less tolerance for longwindedness. The medium of a story dictates not just how you tell it, but often what it is that you must tell. What's just fine in a book is often hopelessly overlong and dull in the movies. People will only sit in a theater for so long, and Jackson's three-hour films are straining that limit as it is. Jackson had to follow the advice Gandalf gave Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring: to decide what to do with the time that was given to him.

There simply isn't enough time to cover everything in the three novels, even in a trilogy that will wind up at around eleven hours long in the DVD versions. A typical movie script covers one minute of screen time per page, so the three Rings films work out to around 540 screenplay pages. Tolkien's books are around a thousand pages long. Clearly, huge amounts of story had to remain unfilmed.

Of the three movies, King will be the most significantly changed from its book. Frodo and Sam's encounter with the giant spider Shelob, the climax of the Two Towers book, now opens Jackson's King. And Tolkien's extensive "Scouring of the Shire" denouement, basically a short story tying up the hobbits' tales, was never even filmed.

Improving on TolkienIn many cases, Jackson's streamlining is a clear improvement. Tolkien's strengths as a writer included a literally world-spanning imagination, fine characterization and lots of well-written scenes, but his sense of story structure was often questionable, and his poetry was a drag. There's plenty in the books that might seem confusing or clumsy to casual audiences. Take Aragorn's sword Narsil -- which, like King Arthur's Excalibur, is a literal symbol of his royal destiny. Tolkien gives it to him in the first book with little fanfare, killing any suspense about whether Aragorn will choose to take the throne he was born to. Jackson, wisely, puts the moment in King.

We would have lost some great cinematic moments in an overly literal interpretation of Tolkien. The Ent attack on Isengard was a highlight of Jackson's Two Towers, but in the books, we're only told about its aftermath. Which seems more exciting to you: a secondhand tale about a forestful of vengeful trees ripping the villain's stronghold to pieces, or actually getting to see it? It's ironic that Tolkien was inspired to create the Ents because he thought the "walking" Birnam wood in Shakespeare's Macbeth was a copout.

In the final analysis, a purist for Tolkien's novels might do well to remember what mystery writer Raymond Chandler supposedly once said when asked if he felt his books had been mangled by Hollywood. No, he said, nothing happened to my books. There they are, up on the shelf where they've always been. 

Christopher Bahn is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.