A thousand years from now, after any number of world catastrophes have decimated our libraries, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy may take its place as one of the ur-texts of Anglo-American culture ' a historical document that traces our origins in the dark, dank ooze of Middle-earth. For the trilogy's most loyal readers, it already belongs next to the Magna Carta, a fact that both pleased and displeased Tolkien. Drawing on his work as a philologist, the Oxford don meant Lord of the Rings to sound like some medieval epic in some medieval tongue that had been handed down over the centuries and then heroically translated, by Tolkien himself, into English. But he didn't have great respect for those who actually fell under his spell, once referring to the millions of fans who embraced his books in the '60s and '70s as "my deplorable cultus."
I was part of that deplorable cultus. At least, I think I was. Back in the mid-'70s, when I should have been studying, I was instead locked in my dorm room with my copies of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King ' that and my bong. My two roommates had their own copies, and the three of us were utterly devoted to the books. In fact, for a while there, I think we thought we were the fellowship of the ring. But as I look back on those lazy, hazy days, I realize that I barely remember a thing about them. We got high, we read, we got high, we read, we got high. Mostly, we got high. Consequently, the books, when I thumbed through them again recently, hit me like some recovered memory of extreme idleness. Why did I devote most of sophomore year to reading them? It beat going to class, I guess.
I'm not sure where that puts me on the spectrum of those who've been anticipating the release of Peter Jackson's cinematic adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring ' hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, I suppose. But I wasn't prepared for what Jackson, a New Zealand director best known for 1994's Heavenly Creatures, has come up with: an enthralling three-hour movie that both does justice to the book and stands on its own as one of the great adventure epics in the history of cinema. Like the book it's based on, The Fellowship of the Ring has severe narrative problems: The story doesn't develop, it ensues. But if you can see past that and make yourself comfortable in the rarefied realm of myth, Jackson will mesmerize you with the loving care he's lavished on Tolkien's Land of Enchantment.
"The world is changed," a narrator says in the movie's opening moments. "I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air." And one of the great things about Jackson's adaptation is that he's preserved Tolkien's sense of the utter aliveness of nature, the sheer power of earth, wind and fire. Shot in New Zealand, which appears to have a topography as richly varied as our own country's, the movie presents one breathtaking natural landscape after another, each enhanced by Jackson's flawless eye for composition and movement. And then there are the unnatural landscapes ' fiery pits of hell cooked up in the cauldron of Jackson's own f/x shop. Not since Hieronymus Bosch have we been given such a mind-blowing, gut-wrenching vision of the evil forces that are capable of overtaking the world.
After a memorable battle-climaxing prologue, we're dropped down in the Shire with Bilbo, Frodo and the rest of the hobbits ' a serenely cozy setting that represents pre-Merrie Olde England. Here and elsewhere, production designer Grant Major succeeds where so many production designers fail: He grounds his flights of fancy in reality. The hobbits' underground homes, where most of us would be quite content to loll away our lives, are both utterly charming and a little dingy. Like the hobbits themselves, the movie has dirt under its fingernails, and this adds to our sense of what's at stake ' the messy vitality of everyday life ' when Frodo (Elijah Wood) and three other tag-along hobbits join two men, a wizard, an elf and a dwarf in a quest to destroy the talismanic ring forged by Sauron, the Lord of Mordor.
That quest, which is only a third of the way to being accomplished at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, involves a number of challenges and opponents ' a large number. There are the Ringwraiths, with their oily black steeds and their flowing black capes. There are the Orcs, who look like the bastard sons of Nosferatu and Jesse Ventura. There's the Balrog, which defies description. (Jackson, whose early splatter films have to be seen to be believed, is a creature-feature phenom.) And on the distaff side, there's the Elf princess, Arwen (Liv Tyler), the Elf queen, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and...well, that's pretty much it for women, but at least they're not the source of all evil this time around. Location-wise, Frodo and his companions visit a Shangri-La called Rivendell, a sylvan Eden called Lothlorien and the Mines of Moria.
The latter is a mountainous complex of caves and tunnels that may put some in mind of Tora Bora. Alas, by this point in the movie, the plot's one-thing-after-another structure is no longer holding things together, and our journey has begun to seem as long and arduous as Frodo's. I'm not sure how Jackson and his co-scriptwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, could have gotten around this without burying the book they've come to praise. Tolkien, who built Middle-earth from the etymological ground up ' "To me, a name comes first, and the story follows," he once said ' wasn't thinking about possible movie deals. And the trilogy seems about as movie-friendly as, say, The Iliad. In comparison, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books practically read like screen treatments, requiring only a director with a smidgen of imagination.
If only Jackson had been let loose on them! For, over and over again in The Fellowship of the Ring, he displays a deft feel for the delineation of personality, the little touches that bring a character to life. And the guy knows how to activate a scene. I can't remember a movie where I was so interested in what was happening on the screen but so little interested in why it was happening. With his ocean-blue eyes and his earnest air, Wood makes a fine Frodo, but I suspect the hobbit won't lodge himself in the pop-culture firmament the way Luke Skywalker has. A pity, because everything is prepared for lift-off, everything except a story to match this movie's epic grandeur. With its two sequels set to arrive in theaters next Christmas and the next, Part One left me feeling both exhilarated and ' I hate to say it ' slightly bored.