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While Professor Tolkien was engaged in the tedious task of grading examination papers, he discovered that one student had left part of the answer book blank. On this page, the student wrote, "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." The professor of medieval literature then decided that he needed to find out what a Hobbit was and why it lived in a hole. His investigations grew into a tale he told to his younger children. It became a book called The Hobbit (1937), set in a pre-historic era in a mythical world which he called by the Middle English name of Middle-earth. ("Middangeard" was a ancient expression for the everyday world between Heaven above and Hell below.)
He had already begun to shape his stories during World War II "... in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire." Tolkien spent nearly two decades detailing his rich and complex world, which has served as the model for many lesser imitations and has inspired countless homages, including Ralph Bakshi's ill-fated 1978 animated version. On December 19, 2001, generations of fans will flock to see a faithful, three-hour live-action adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien's beloved follow-up to The Hobbit and the first in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson (whose macabre imagination brought us the critically-acclaimed Heavenly Creatures) have taken on the daunting task of filming all three books simultaneously -- with a 400-million-dollar budget -- and translating Tolkien's sage to the big screen (with part two, "The Two Towers," scheduled for Christmas 2002 release and part three, "The Return of the Ring," scheduled for Christmas 2003). Jackson's meticulousness should lead to a worldwide box-office bonanza. The film's eight-minute prologue breezes through the necessary exposition into a remarkably concise history of the One Ring, a seemingly unadorned gold band forged by the dark lord Sauron and how it fell to the humble, furry-footed Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. The sequence offers sneaky glimpses of Gollum, the sniveling, amphibian-like former owner of the ring, and a stupefying battle scene in which Sauron crumples throngs of soldiers with unnatural ease.
The film condenses minor characters and incidents, yet remains true to Tolkien's themes of the corruptive influences of the ego. After the thrilling prologue, audiences may rest assured that Jackson's reverential shaping of Middle-earth, with the indispensable aid of Tolkien book illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe, sustains its cinematic conception. What better setting than lush, unspoiled New Zealand to provide an exotic locale for Jackson's soaring compositions? Aficionados will marvel at their resemblance to the craggy oil renditions of the secluded Elven city of Rivendell, the pastoral hills of Hobbiton, and the complex, corpse-ridden mines of Moria. Novices needn't worry about absorbing the details. The creatures and architecture, led by Grant Major's production design and Richard Taylor's effects workshop at Weta Digital, have surpassed Industrial Light and Magic with their wondrous widescreen canvas, blending just the right touch of CGI with seamless perfection.
The film relaxes its pace in the Shire, where elderly Bilbo celebrates his "eleventy-first" birthday and, at the insistence of the wizard Gandalf the Gray (the great Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen), passes the ring to Frodo (Elijah Wood), our reluctant hero. As he flees home with his fiercely loyal companion Sam (Sean Astin), he is hounded by the loathsome Black Riders, or the Nazgul -- nine kings who became enslaved by Sauron long ago and relentlessly seek the ring, which "wants to be found." The duo is joined by the jolly pair of Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and they all are rescued from doom by the enigmatic human ranger Strider (Viggo Mortensen). Meanwhile, Gandalf wrestles with the turncoat wizard Saruman the White, who stirs up an army of ghastly Uruks (a cross between Orcs and goblin-men) and scourges the countryside as he constructs his malevolent fortress (an allusion to Tolkien's environmental concerns during the industrial revolution). After taking part in a council with Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Hobbits, Frodo vows to throw the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom where it was forged. The second half of the film chronicles Frodo's coming to terms with his burden and the creation of a new family, the nine-member fellowship.
Elijah Wood, with his wide and startingly blue eyes, renders the iconic hero with a particular combination of qualities that gives him complexity, doubts, and hesitations. His friendship with gentle, selfless Sam against the ego-driven backdrop of war makes a heartfelt and endearing metaphor. McKellen is magnificent as the aging Gandalf, jolting the narrative forward as he guides the weary wayfarers. He is an idiosyncratic sorcerer, trapped in an old man's body, fighting the horrible softness of age. Throughout the film, many characters are tempted by the ring's corrosive power and chapters unfold with literary richness. Suspicious fans can rest assured that even Liv Tyler, as the willful Elf princess Arwen, fares well in Pre-Raphelite attire and a splendid horseback chase that brings to mind the Biblical parting of the Red Sea. Jackson's scrupulous adaptation of this first part of Tolkien's 1,000 page tome draws us in deep but never gets bogged down in special effects for the sake of spectacle.
Tolkien's stories share the godlike power of shamans who travel to another time and place to make the world new again and give us a better understanding of our lives. His stories ask the same timeless questions represented by classical mythology: Who am I? What happens when I die? Where do I belong in the universe? Heroes are the symbols of the soul in transformation and the journey we take through life. The stages of that progression, the natural stages of growth, make up this expedition as presented in The Lord of the Rings. If the balance between good and evil lies in the littlest hands -- such as those of the Hobbits -- we can rest assured, the meek shall inherit the earth.