Not unlike Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien remains a massively popular author whose seemingly "morbid" work often reflects surviving the horrors of war, firsthand. Tolkien was also a devout Catholic -- a demographic gleefully bashed by the entertainment industry in countless movies, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. The question is, who profits on the blood, sweat and tears of the late scholar?
Tolkien's eldest son Christopher has avoided making public comment on the movies -- though as manager of his father's estate he is refusing to grant rights for a Rings museum in director Peter Jackson's hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. Producer Saul Zaentz does huge business as -- of all things -- Tolkien Enterprises, ringing up millions of trinkets, cheap and dear. Meanwhile, Professor Tolkien's great-grandson Royd Tolkien appears as a soldier extra in The Return of the King and has grown fond of bungee-jumping in New Zealand -- apparently not exactly a chip off the old block.
This current Rings mania is certainly engaging, but is it not also a mad circus? Can it all be comprehended?
The Return of the King
Leave it to the King to start putting things in perspective.
"The danger with any movie that does as well as this one does," says Viggo Mortensen, speaking in a documentary on the Fellowship of the Ring DVD, "is that the amount of money it's making and the number of awards that it's got becomes almost more important than the movie itself in people's minds. I look at that as, in a sense, being very much like the Ring, and its effect on people. You know, you can kind of forget what we were doing, if you get too wrapped up in that."
Conversing later from his mobile phone, Mortensen, who plays the prodigal king Aragorn, seems quite well balanced in appraising these stories and their themes. For someone who had never previously read Tolkien's books and got the gig on a moment's notice, he's a seemingly unlikely, but well-informed, center of gravity.
"Once I got into the book on the plane, I started to recognize characters firstly from the [Nordic] sagas. There were a lot of archetypes and story lines and even a whole series of place names that were taken literally, or with very few changes. I could see it was probably like his geek way of having fun, Tolkien -- setting up all these little riddles and things for himself. I'm sure I haven't found the half of them."
Okay, so the actor is calling the author a geek, but he's kind of glad to have participated?
"It was an opportunity to be part of that tradition in a way, you know? Just like he, then, was not just a scholar . . . but he actually could be a living part of the connection, of that chain, from those writers a thousand years ago. He could be in the game, rather than just an ardent fan of the game."
Mortensen carried his sword around everywhere in New Zealand, yet he values not that dinged-up chunk of metal but the many memories attached to it. He's a bit of an eccentric fellow, but he likes company, even founding the small publishing house Perceval Press in 2002, to see to it that his works and those of others have a way of reaching the world.
His co-star Dominic Monaghan, who plays the Hobbit Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck in the movies, speaks highly of the screen king in the studio-sanctioned documentaries, calling him "gentlemanly and polite." One could say, most succinctly, that Viggo, the King, plays well with others.
This much appears to be the case, then: Making The Lord of the Rings was fun. But what about applicability? Apart from looking neato on the big screen, why do these tales hold such gigantic appeal?
Adding weight to another documentary segment, scholar Tom Shippey, author of J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, offers: "When people say that this kind of fantasy fiction is escapist and evading the real world and so on, well, I think that's an evasion. It's actually trying to confront something that most people would rather not confront."
Ian McKellen, who plays the wizard Gandalf, speaks astutely of the project, and the world around it.
"I think it should be noted, before anyone starts comparing the coalition that's gone to the Middle East with the Fellowship that went to Mordor, that there is no appeal to the Almighty in Tolkien, though he was a Catholic. Your president and my prime minister may well appeal to Divinity, but there's no church in Hobbiton. It's the perfect place to live, and there's no church in it."
The staff and robes are absent, but the same compassionate gleam you see in Gandalf's eye is twinkling in McKellen's. "That's the side of the story that appeals to me, and my views of the world: that it's the little guys who do it in the end.
"It's a myth, it's a story, it didn't happen. You relate that to the world in your own way, and I think that's what's great about these stories. Peter Jackson isn't telling anybody what to believe or how to act. He's just saying: Look at the way they did it in Middle-earth."
There are definitely parallels to our world, if not always direct ones. Miranda Otto portrays Éowyn, who rides into battle with the story's men, but despite her handiness on the battlefield, she just doesn't come across as the pugnacious type, but rather highly sophisticated.
"I don't think I did know that I would ever play a woman warrior," says Otto. "I mean, I'm always attracted to strong women's roles. I think it comes from my mother, who's a strong, gutsy woman -- not boisterous or anything, but very strong, underneath it all. But I hadn't imagined myself sword-fighting, no; I hadn't predicted that one."
Otto, a celebrated actor with a body of work ranging from her launch in 1986 in Emma's War, to a mammalian study like Human Nature, to The Flight of the Phoenix currently filming in Namibia, is accustomed to working with a bunch of boys.
"What I like about Éowyn is that at first it seems like it will be a romantic story and that the significance of her in the film will just be about her love for Aragorn, but it turns out that she becomes a character in her own right . . . I mean, the physical side is great, too, but we shouldn't just hide behind the physical aspect of it. Make sure it's mentally strong as well."
Of course, the movie also offers the exact opposite of this philosophy, a character who's completely unhinged, and an actor who, for most of the movie, is entirely concealed in an illusory physical shape by the "tricksiest" CG work in modern cinema. Andy Serkis, jollified and admittedly "compulsive," is quite clear on the motivations that went into the story's pivotal character of Sméagol, a.k.a. Gollum.
"I purposely played Gollum as an addict," states Serkis, frankly. "That was my intention. I chose drug addiction very much as a metaphor for the Ring, you know, this symbol of power, this symbol of lust and craving, desire and need. I think that allows the audience to be empathetic towards the character in a certain way, because he's not just stealing the Ring because he wants the Ring. The Ring owns him. It completely dominates his life, and he loves and hates himself as he loves and hates the Ring."
Another insane character in Return of the King is Denethor, the steward of Gondor, who rose to power unjustly and refuses to give up the throne. (Again, interpret as you see fit.) It took another fine veteran of stage and screen, Australia's John Noble, to bring this madman to life.
Noble, a family man and a drama and voice coach, director of more than 80 plays and all-around charming presence, is someone you'd very likely not recognize as his deranged character. (You can look for him next in the Kiwi feature Fracture, by Larry Parr.) Noble posits that he drew upon King Lear to create the disturbing Denethor. In the movies, Denethor cruelly subjugates the role of his son Faramir (David Wenham) while celebrating, then mourning, his favorite son, Boromir (Sean Bean).
Indeed, sons of unreasonable fathers may feel strong empathy for Faramir, and find some fascination with Denethor, whose rule in a crumbling kingdom is coming to an abrupt end. You could almost call the elder "King Leer," but Noble's dramatic and vocal gifts take the performance further, into one of the most sinister and memorable of the year.
"Working with Peter Jackson," says Noble, "he's a very respectful man in the sense that he doesn't tell you any more than he has to. And so the whole process was very professional, and very intense."
Jackson . . . Jackson. Right. The man whose career took off with aliens drinking each other's vomit, who frequently depicts matriarchal figures being slaughtered, is now, unofficially, the world's coolest director.
Jackson, who toiled as a photo-engraver for a Wellington newspaper until he'd saved enough to helm his first feature, Bad Taste, loves his work. He also loves South Park parodies of his work. And, at least in interviews, he's unassuming, scarcely lifting his eyes from the table, studying his forearms as if they are new discoveries. But with his wife and writing partner Fran Walsh, and their co-writer Philippa Boyens, he knows his craft, and how to put it across.
"Once you put people in medieval costumes, and they're talking in a slightly archaic language, and they're talking about magic kinds of things, you are skating close to the edge. You can go into Monty Python-land very, very quickly if you're not careful. We were aware of that, and we just tried to make the movies have a degree of dramatic content and depth, and a weight, if you like, that would steer us away from the brink of satire."
Indeed, Sean Astin, who portrays loyal, brave, somewhat homely Samwise Gamgee in the films, is an artist with just about perfect pitch. He weeps a lot in Return of the King, freaks out, panics, suffers. And yet, furry feet and all, there's not a moment of caricature.
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"Everyone was about the business of doing their work," offers Astin, who's arguably not only the most heroic character in the saga but the quickest wit in the cast. The child star of The Goonies and Rudy also posits that true fellowship was the key to his success. "If I would have been stupid enough to look around at other people and see how they were responding to what was happening, it could have stilted everything."
"Everyone was doing hard work. Some guys would have to lift things, and some guys would have to shovel things, and I just had to do emotional work. I felt like I was doing the equivalent of the hard work that the rest of the crew was doing. I was just doing it kind of inside."
Asked about his feelings for the omission of Christopher Lee in the third film, Astin, an actor, does not conceal his sentiments. "My heart aches for Christopher," he repeats, more than once. Jackson doesn't have much to say about editing out Lee, instead merely telling us to wait for the DVD cut, which he hasn't completed yet, but may include nearly an hour of additional scenes.
More of the movies, more of the books. Andy Serkis is now an author (of a Gollum book, natch), and Ian McKellen seems interested in acquiring a Rings pinball machine. Jackson boasts that since the movies have arrived, sales of Tolkien's books have leapt through the roof. From crass commercialism to the classroom, the King has indeed returned. This may prove not the end of a phenomenon, but the merest glimpse of a vast horizon of storytelling. Meanwhile, in the Lord of the Rings franchise, it appears that the road goes ever on.