I read The Lord of the Rings in 1963, when I was eleven, two years before the American paperback edition became a cult book on college campuses. My mother had ordered the book from England—it had an American publisher, Houghton Mifflin, but the American hardcover must have been unavailable, or else we thought it would be classier to own the British—and so I had a superior attitude toward the paperback and toward the Tolkien craze when they came along, like a person who has been summering in the Hamptons since the days when they were mostly potato fields. I felt pleased to have read the book before it was a book everyone read. It’s a feeling one does not necessarily outgrow.
Looking back at the history of the book’s reception now, I can see that my snobbishness was partly due to ignorance. The three volumes of The Lord of the Rings came out in 1954 and 1955, here and in England, and they attracted enough grown-up attention—W.H. Auden was a big enthusiast—to provoke Edmund Wilson to one of his haughtiest dismissals. “It is essentially a children’s book—a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand,” he wrote in 1956, and he called it “balderdash.” I had, obviously, missed all that, and something about owning a British edition (George Allen & Unwin), that came as a boxed set, along with not knowing any other children who had ever heard of it, made the book seem a rare and nearly private treasure.
It also made the book seem distinctly British. I don’t know where my notion of Britishness came from. Maybe from sea stories, of which I was a major consumer (what was that all about?), maybe from having Anglophilic parents, certainly from the King Arthur legends. What I associated with Britishness was the sensation of historical depth, of stories behind stories behind stories, and that was what caught my preadolescent fancy in The Lord of the Rings. “Balderdash” is the wrong word, since it suggests a kind of commercial trashiness that you would have to be as mulishly perverse as Edmund Wilson could sometimes be to attribute to a writer like Tolkien, but let’s face it, a lot of The Lord of the Rings is pretty corny stuff (although a lot of it is original and inventive, too). What gives the book its undeniable appeal—it has appeared at the top of many “century’s best books” polls, Tolkien is the subject of a critical study naming him “author of the century,”* and the book has sold more than fifty million copies—depends on the reader. Auden admired the quest motif, which seems to me nearly the corniest thing about it.
What pulled me in was the “complete world” effect, the illusion of spatial and temporal extension beyond the boundaries of the story proper. The story is about a master ring, a little like the Nibelung’s, that brings its owner power but that also corrupts. The ring has an ancient history; when The Lord of the Rings begins, it has fallen into the hands of Frodo, a benign creature called a hobbit. The dangers of the ring are explained to Frodo by a friendly wizard, Gandalf, and Frodo undertakes to destroy the ring by the only means possible—by making the terrible journey to Mount Doom, in the land of Mordor, and throwing the ring into a fire in the mountain. He acquires a company—the fellowship—that includes a dwarf, an elf, and a man, and they encounter various imaginary species of beings, such as ents (talking trees) and orcs (goblins, which in Tolkien are genetically engineered elves) along the way. Each species has its own mythology, and a lot of the book is devoted to long tales and detailed accounts of the linguistic and biological peculiarities of the various creatures. The red and black hand-drawn map, folded and pasted into the back of the hardcover edition, which names places never explored in the book—Haradwaith, Tolfalas, Khand: what went on there?—was darkly wonderful to an eleven-year-old imagination.
What did that imagination imag-ine Middle Earth—Tolkien’s mythical world—to look like? The original edition did not have illustrations, so I must have pictured the characters, most of which are fantastic creatures, by means of a set of already learned visual styles. These were probably the heroic and rather grim realism of the N.C. Wyeth drawings for books like Kidnapped and The White Company, pictures I found a little frightening, and the muddy colors and romantic attitudes of comic strips like Prince Valiant.
So what, with these tools, did I make of passages like this?
Two great trolls appeared; they bore great slabs of stone, and flung them down to serve as gangways over the fire. But it was not the trolls that filled the Elf with terror. The ranks of orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they were themselves afraid. Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it…. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.
“Ai! ai!” wailed Legolas. “A Balrog! A Balrog is coming!”
A Balrog is plainly a creature one would not wish to encounter, but how concrete is the image Tolkien’s words evoke? Not very. The thing is “maybe” man-shaped, but larger than a man; it has some sort of mane which is on fire; it is accoutered with sword and whip. (Where did it purchase that whip, by the way?) The note of terror is struck not so much by the physical description as by the word “wailed.” Although I’m sure I found this passage fascinating, I don’t think I had a strong visual impression, or that not having one made much difference to my absorption in the story. The Balrog was, essentially, an idea.
The main visual part of my long-term memory of the book is that handmade map: I can still mentally trace the progress of Frodo and his valet, Sam, over the three volumes, from Hobbiton to Mount Doom. I imagined the landscape more or less on the model of my own backyard. The rest of my memory is a residual sense of the lore of Middle Earth, the stories upon stories that the characters and the narrator tell, an elaborate, unfinished saga of another world—erased, by now, of almost all detail. I do not remember The Lord of the Rings as a loud or violent book. I remember it as an eleven-year-old’s Proust.
I was therefore completely unprepared for the new film adaptation of the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, which was written and directed by the New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson. I took along to a preview a fourteen-year-old whose judgment I respect, and who had recently read the book. As we walked out of the theater three hours later, I said to him, “They really made a lot of stuff up for the movie.” He patiently explained to me that everything in the movie is an almost literal recreation of the book. And when I went back to read the book again, I saw that he was right. The Balrog you see in the movie, a huge, hideous, roaring monster who takes up practically the whole screen, is just as Tolkien describes it. The whip is in the left hand, the blade in the right. I asked my fourteen-year-old com-panion, suddenly an indispensable aid to my understanding, whether the images on the screen matched the impressions he had formed when he was reading the book. “Pretty much,” he said.
The Fellowship of the Ring is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It is, indeed, intensely faithful to the text, although, unsurprisingly, a great deal of the story is omitted. The Tom Bombadil episode, for example, in which the hobbits, near the start of their journey, are entertained by an interminably cheerful, Pete Seegerish sort of fellow in yellow boots who breaks into song with alarming frequency, is cut completely, along with any mention of his lady, Goldberry. Even cultists can be grateful for that. The filmmakers also tinker with two of the very few female characters Tolkien bothered to imagine, contriving a love interest that gives one of them a little more screen time. Though there are references to the history of Middle Earth, most of the historical interpolations are either highly abbreviated or missing altogether. So are the dozens of songs Tolkien created for his characters to sing. Jackson has reduced the book’s lore to the story of the ring. It is a fully realized world, but the sense of indefinite extension is missing.
What remains is the action—the chases, fights, battles, and so on. The opening scenes, in Hobbiton, are tranquil enough, but once Frodo’s journey to Mordor begins, the pace is quick and the action rarely pauses. The camera swoops and swirls, the music jacks up the tension, the editing seeks to shock. It is a pretty scary movie. The Balrog is far from the most hideous of the creatures Jackson has realized.
Even the landscapes are dramatic. Most of the movie was shot in New Zealand (as were, simultaneously, movies of the other two volumes, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, which will be released in 2002 and 2003). There are natural landscapes—mountains and meadows and forests—but there are many artificial landscapes, too, of mines and cav-erns and exotic cities, and it is almost impossible to tell which is which. One senses in almost every frame of the movie a lot of digital fine-tuning of the image. The meadows are too manicured, the streams too sparkling, the skies too dazzling or too lurid. Your eye never relaxes because the image is both lifelike and too lifelike. You find yourself unconsciously looking for the seams in a seamless picture.
The same is true of the characters. Hobbits are short: the tallest is only a little over four feet. The actors who play the leading hobbit characters, though, are normal-sized people. By a combination of perspectival tricks and the use of blue screens and the like, when the hobbits appear in scenes with other characters, they do seem much smaller, hobbit-sized. It is an uncanny smallness, though—since they are not midgets, but ordinarily formed human beings—just as the grandeur of the landscape is uncanny. Everything is somehow real and unbelievable at the same time.
This was how my fourteen-year-old companion had visualized the book. What I had read as a kind of historical novel, he had read as a fantasy adventure. His visual imagination was shaped by a completely different stock of stylistic referents, from Xena, Warrior Princess to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and most of all from the virtual reality of computerized games. Hundreds of orcs swarming up huge pillars in underground caverns, enormous armies flattened by a burst of supernatural light, people being swept up hundreds of feet into the air—these are all the ordinary images of PlayStation, Game Boy, and computer games like Age of Empires or Diablo II. They are images that were unimaginable to a kid in 1963, for whom Rocky and Bulwinkle represented the cutting edge of visual culture.
The three films of The Lord of the Rings cost $270 million to make. These days, licensing agreements alone cover a lot of that cost even before the movies get into the theaters. The movies should be hugely popular in their own right as well, though. They manage to reproduce even the most fantastic elements of Tolkien’s book in visual terms. There is not much one can do with Tolkien’s dialogue, and the filmmakers don’t try: their dialogue is as hammy as the original, though there is much less of it. Within the limits of what an actor who plays a wizard or an elf can do—people can sometimes behave elvishly, but elves cannot behave any other way—the impersonations are fully realized. Ian Holm, who plays Bilbo Baggins; John Rhys-Davies, as the dwarf Gimli (he has the only funny line in the movie: “No one trusts an elf”); and Ian McKellen as Gandalf are particularly good. Elijah Wood, who is Frodo, is also effective—although Frodo is supposed to be fifty (a young-looking fifty, it’s true) and Wood looks about ten. It is fun seeing that ancient master of horror schlock Christopher Lee as the evil wizard Saruman.
Still, the appeal is limited in two directions. Peter Jackson’s first cinematic love is horror movies, and The Fellowship of the Ring is nearly a horror movie in its intensity. Young kids will be scared. And for kids pushing fifty, there is a lesson about the evolution of the mind’s eye over the last thirty-five years that may be a little painful. It’s not Proust anymore.
January 17, 2002