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Tolkien: the movie

Despite his track record, the director promises that The Lord of the Rings will be done right

New Zealand immigration officials had three lines set up at the Auckland airport last summer, when the airplanes carrying Peter Jackson's film crew landed: a line for New Zealand residents (including Mr. Jackson), a line for elves, and a line for hobbits. Hobbits. A live-action, three-film production of The Lord of the Rings is now filming in several well-known secret locations. The New Zealand army is on board, providing extras and engineers, and the huge production has provided a big boom to New Zealand's tourism industry. Special effects have finally advanced to the point where J.R.R. Tolkien's epic trilogy can be made "properly," according Mr. Jackson, who will co-write and direct the three movies.(Tolkien's work needs little introduction; it has sold 50 million copies and been translated into 25 languages. Tolkien, an Oxford professor and a close friend and spiritual mentor to C.S. Lewis, wrote about the quest by a hobbit, Frodo Baggins, to destroy an evil ring, before the dark Lord Sauron could use it to conquer Middle Earth. Lewis judged the work "good beyond hope.") First, the facts: New Line Cinema is spending more than $180 million. The studio hopes for a Christmas-summer-Christmas release schedule, beginning in December of the year 2000. This will mean that instead of the usual year-or-more waits between sequels, people will be able to see the whole trilogy in a single year. The executive producer is Saul Zaentz (who won Oscars for his films Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The English Patient). Harvey and Bob Weinstein, of Miramax films (they brought us Dogma), are also involved. They hold the potentially lucrative merchandising rights. (Can we expect orc figurines at Taco Bell?) Elijah Wood (Deep Impact, The War) will play Frodo, and Sir Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters, Richard III) will play the wizard Gandalf. Aragorn (Strider) will be portrayed by Stuart Townsend (Resurrection Man). Liv Tyler (Armageddon) will play Arwen, and Sean Astin (Rudy) will be Sam Gamgee. Christopher Lee has signed on as Saruman. Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) will play Galadriel. Gollum will be an entirely computer-generated character; and instead of using small actors, the full-size actors playing hobbits and dwarves will be shrunk in post-production by computer. Tolkien's work ranks high in the corpus of Christian literature. What might Hollywood do to this faith-affirming masterpiece? Will producers make it a children's fairy tale? (That's been done once already, in those disappointing animated films.) A screed on McCarthyism? A parable about the coming of the European Enlightenment? Surprisingly, Peter Jackson has indicated in interviews and various replies to fan websites that he's a loyal Tolkien devotee, and wishes to be true to the literary work. But his previous films are uniformly disturbing. He won an Academy Award nomination for his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, a visually beautiful but morally repugnant story about two young girls who kill one's mother. Jackson chose to make a "non-judgmental" film about matricide. His other films are just as distressing. Meet the Feebles is a wretched 1989 film that has gained cult status. Essentially, it's about Muppet-like puppets doing the most obscene, violent, and vile things Mr. Jackson could imagine. There's sex, murder, drug use, puppets eating other puppets, and even graphic puppet nudity. And Mr. Jackson's Bad Taste, only slightly more tasteful, is a sci-fi film seemingly made on a budget of about eight bucks. It was Mr. Jackson's first film, and it won the prestigious "Gore Award" at the 17th Annual Paris Festival of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. A plot summary suggests why: Aliens land in a small town and package the town's inhabitants in cans for export as a new delicacy. Government agents must stop them. Bad Taste is a rotten film, significant only because it shows a love for gore. There's plenty of violence in The Lord of the Rings--after all, it's about the war for Middle Earth--but there's no gore. In his battle scenes, Tolkien describes heroism, not hemoglobin. Will Mr. Jackson yield to the temptation and make his movie a bloody big spectacle? Still, we mustn't underestimate the strength of the diminutive hobbit (Gandalf never did). Mr. Jackson seems to recognize that the literary work deserves better than the usual Hollywood treatment. "It has taken 45 years for filmmaking technology to finally catch up with Tolkien's imagination," Mr. Jackson has said. "We will be treating Tolkien's work with the respect and integrity it deserves."