Monday, December 19, 2011

Bringing Middle Earth to the Big Screen

Aragorn: Gentlemen, we do not stop 'til nightfall.

Pippin: What about breakfast?

Aragorn: You've already had it.

Pippin: We've had one, yes. What about second breakfast?

Merry: I don't think he knows about second breakfast, Pip.

Pippin: What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn't he?

Merry: I wouldn't count on it.

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

"The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" made me wish that my mother had lived to see J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy brought to the silver screen.

Actually, I felt that way about all three of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth movies. It was a thought that kept weaving its way through my brain as I watched them in the theaters. It's a thought that still goes through my mind when I watch them on DVD.

Mom woulda loved this.

Mom was a reader. She liked all kinds of books, really, but she particularly liked fantasy stories.

I remember, for example, one summer when my brother and I were little, and our family went on a car trip somewhere. To keep us entertained, my mother read to us from the first book in the Narnia series, and she kept reading those books to us after we got back from our trip — until we had finished every book in that series.

Mom didn't read the Tolkien books to us. We read them on our own. Or, at least, I did — and I assume my brother did, too.

Mom must have read them, too, because I remember when an animated version of the "Lord of the Rings" prequel, "The Hobbit," was made, and she was as excited about it as anyone.

For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that animation was the only way Tolkien's books could be brought to the screen — and that seems to have repulsed some of the more prominent directors. When United Artists acquired the film rights to the books, Stanley Kubrick, who never did much (if anything) in animation (and whose "A Clockwork Orange," ironically, debuted on this date in 1971), was approached about directing the Beatles in a film based on them.

But Kubrick rejected the offer. The story could not be filmed, he reportedly told John Lennon.

Things changed in the next 30 years, though. Advances in filmmaking that were unimagined in 1970 enabled Peter Jackson to make his remarkable "Lord of the Rings," the first installment of which made its debut 10 years ago today.

When that occurred, I thought a lot about Mom. She had been gone for several years by that time so it was only natural, I suppose, for me to see it with my brother. We heard about long lines and decided to wait a few weeks to avoid the crowd — and then, for one reason and another, we wound up being delayed even more by some unforeseen circumstances.

By the time we saw it, it was near the end of its theatrical run — and the "crowd" we had wanted to avoid turned out to be nonexistent. I'm sure the theater was packed at the start of the movie's run, just like any other theater in the country, but the place was practically empty when we went to see it.

That was just fine, though, because it was like having a private screening room. We could speak to each other in a nearly normal tone of voice and not have to worry about disturbing anyone. My memory is that there was only one other person in the theater, and he was sitting a fair distance from us.

Whenever amazing things happened on the screen — and, in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, amazing things were always happening — we could chat about them above a whisper.

I guess it never occurred to me when I was reading the trilogy how difficult it would be to turn it into a movie — but, even with the advances in filmmaking techniques and some prudent whittling of the story, it took about nine hours of screen time spread out over three movies in three years to accomplish.

The movie that premiered 10 years ago today set the stage for what was to come — as did the book that inspired it. It introduced the audience to all the characters of Middle Earth, a not–inconsequential task but a necessary one, given the story that still had to be told.