At the end of every year the urge to take in several hours of epic cinema storytelling never fails at filling my darkest mid-winter nights with adventure. What better way is there to spend all that spare "holiday season" time than enjoying a bit of movie magic? Ever since my childhood I've been romanced by the otherworldly wiles of fantasy films, being always at my most vulnerable around Christmas with an easy schedule and a heightened desire to escape into the imagination I possessed as a little girl where I could be as Grace Jones-crazy (Conan the Destroyer), Tanya Roberts-sexy (Sheena), Nigel Terry-valiant, Nicol Willamson-wise (King Arthur and Merlin, respectively, in John Boorman's Excalibur) and Brigitte Neilsen fierce (Red Sonja.) Surely I needn't mention how easily I took to playing Dungeons and Dragons in my teens or how largely Led Zeppelin figured into my lifelong playlist -- anyone who can claim the feeling of being partially raised by fantasy and sci fi flicks takes to rock 'n' role-play like a good sword to a well-oiled sheath. However, I would like to point out how deeply one Englishman, who was recently voted the 92nd "greatest Briton," John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, has irreversibly influenced contemporary popular culture forever by writing faerie stories to entertain his children. Being a big Tolkien nerd myself, I count him in the topmost of my top ten "greatest Britons," after a handful of musicians, writers and and that Arturus Rex guy.
Love it or loathe it, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga has made a significantly comfy niche for itself within the ever-evolving pop culture realms of the last fifty years. Here's how I figure it: if it weren't for Tolkien's love of his family and, with the same esteem, an Old English epic poem called Beowulf, then there wouldn't be a little story called The Hobbit. If it weren't for Tolkien's The Hobbit there wouldn't be Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. If it weren't for either of these, baby boomers wouldn't have old "Frodo Lives" buttons to stumble upon amongst their keepsakes, there would be at least four tracks missing from any given issue of a Led Zeppelin's greatest hits collection ("Over the Hills and Far Away," "Misty Mountain Hop," "Battle of Evermore," and "Ramble On" offer the most direct of direct references to Tolkien's text), Dungeons and Dragons might be played under the more clunky and less promising moniker Witches and Wardrobes, there'd be no Sindarian or any other languages devised by Tolkien for mythology geeks to flex into their extracurriculars, and the Black Metal aisle at Amoeba would be, let's face it, considerably thinner in theme and content, being bereft of such a deep well to draw their inspiration from. In fact, browsing the Metal section is like to exploring Middle Earth itself (with a heavy focus on the realm of Mordor, of course) with band names like Amon Amarth (the Sindarian name for Mount Doom), Cirith Ungol, Gogoroth, as well as Sauron, Isengard, Nazgul and Cirith Gorgor popping up here and there in a veritable roll call of Lord of the Rings faces and places. Heck, I know of more than one working band at Amoeba that would lose either a handfull of songs (Prizehog claims at least two songs are inspired by Lord of the Rings) or a band name altogether (Crebain is named after Saruman's murder of crow-spies). Then there are albums that owe their creation to Tolkien's imagination, like Blind Guardian's Nightfall in Middle Earth and songs like Summoning's "Khazad Dum" -- the list goes on and on.
Most of all, and this of the utmost importance, without Tolkien's work I'd be out of roughly twelve hours of tremendously awesome holiday movie viewing, for there would be no Lord of the Rings extended cut, dare-you-to-watch-all-three-DVDs for my friends and I to absorb for days in a row before the year turns in; without this story, New Zealand, along with one of her favorite sons, Peter Jackson, would be masterpiece-less. (Fun fact: Jackson's film Return of the King, based on the third book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, won eleven Academy Awards, sweeping every category it was nominated for, including best picture.)
I love, love, love the Lord of the Rings, both Tolkien's text and Jackson's cinematic interpretation. The two are such separate entities, yet as closely related as a father recognizing himself in the face of his son. The adaption from book to film is nothing less than fantastic despite all the original material that didn't make the cut. Many fans of the books, I'm sure, find their knowledge of the story missing from time to time when watching Jackson's films, moments lost in translation as it were. I, for one, would like to know what happened to Tom Bombadil, that crazy little deus ex machina from the Fellowship of the Ring? I remember sitting in the theater musing on how unfortunately swift the hobbit's jaunt from the Shire to the village of Bree was; in chopping Tom's portion of the tale there'd be no Goldberry, Tom's river-spirit wife, no Old Man Willow to trap Merry and Pippin, and no Barrow-wights to encounter. I really wanted to see that send off where Tom gives the hobbits their long daggers -- treasures exhumed from the barrows, thus arming the halflings before they leave the Old Forest to make for Bree (in the movie "Strider" mysteriously provides the hobbits with weapons as they set up camp on Weathertop, but I digress...). When it comes to fingering out the differences between the yarns spun by Tolkein and the sweater knit by Jackson, one could indulge in a long rut of fault-finding and nit-pickery indeed, but those folks overly concerned with minor details no doubt may find other ways in which to satisfy their interests, like fawning over the work of the genii at Weta Workshop. [Weta Workshop -- the creative visual design and digital/creature effects juggernaut responsible for a heaping helpings of movie magic that transformed everything "normal view" into Middle Earth milieu in Jackson's movies, has since created one of those nerdy trading-card games featuring rather fantastic-looking images of many characters from the Lord of the Rings book that never made it into the movies like, for example, Radagast the Brown pictured above with (cut outs of) his fellow wizards.]
Merely viewing the Lord of the Rings film trilogy this time around wasn't enough; my friend and I proceeded to dig deeper into the saga by exploring all the production featurettes and behind-the-scenes secrets that comprise the six extra discs and we were pleased to discover that not only was it way worth our time, but we learned so much as we sat spellbound while taking in the cleverness of naive camera effects like forced perspective, physically involved innovations like "big rigs," and advanced special effects which in many cases proved to be movie magic history in the making. It was like a film school crash course focused only on the fun stuff. Also, if you love drama, there is no shortage of human pageantry to be absorbed in viewing the many personal stories of connection, stress, love and heartbreak that unfold in much of the less-technical behind-the-scenes features. There is also, both within the films and the special features, no shortage of beautiful men, bearded or otherwise. This is one so-called "dick flick" that has others beat in the manscape department, with a cast of mostly men whose mannerisms and appearances span a broad aesthetic scope. Not to discount the lady actors -- I just have to give up major kudos to the casting director who has impeccable taste.
For my part, I find myself so pleased in viewing the Lord of the Rings trilogy this year that I equate the experience to a spell of therapeutic healing of sorts. Having watched all the films, and much of the bonus material for extra credit, I feel really good. It feels a lot like that thankful relief I felt at approximately 8pm on November 7th, 2008 -- election night. Maybe this is coming from way out there, and I know it's gonna come off real dopey, but the only word uttered almost as much as the words "ring" or "Frodo" in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy is the word "hope." Make of it what you will, right now I feel as though I just pounded brimming pints of the "hope." And I feel good, even better than the Precious. Here are a few more beards for the road:
Here's hoping The Hobbit (the movie) turns out even half as well....