Film Reviews

A Long-Expected Party

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?

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.

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Gregory Weinkauf
Contact: Gregory Weinkauf