by Rick Fulton
Scottish Daily Record
Scottish Daily Record & Sunday Mail Ltd.
GEORGE LUCAS says it inspired Star Wars and readers voted it book of the century.
Now, almost 60 years after an underpaid Oxford professor first put pen to paper, Lord of the Rings is about to become the movie series of the new millennium.
JRR Tolkien's classic fable of Middle Earth, elves, orcs and hobbits is being made into a pounds 100million trilogy laden with special effects.
New Zealand director Peter Jackson, who starts shooting the three- year project in October, hopes the adventure fantasy will eclipse Star Wars as the world's greatest film series. He said: "As a story, nothing can come close to it."
The last piece in the jigsaw was the casting of Gandalf, the wizard who guides hobbits Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in their stewardship of the fabled Ring.
Sean Connery loved Jackson's script but could not commit himself to the time needed for such an epic project, while Star Trek's Patrick Stewart and former Dr Who Tom Baker were considered too typecast.
Jackson finally opted for Oscar-nominated Scots actor Sir Ian McKellen. He was impressed by his power and range and recalled Sir Alec Guinness's Star Wars role as Obi-Wan Kenobi, later played by Ewan McGregor.
A spokesman for producers New Line Cinema said: "We are delighted to have Sir Ian in the project. He has read all three scripts and adored the project. He thinks it's a wonderful part."
Sir Ian will fly out to New Zealand to work on the first film, The Fellow-ship of the Ring, in January.
Once the 18-month live action parts are completed, the film will take as long again in pre-production using state-of-the-art computer special effects.
While the first film is being edited for release at the end of 2000, Sir Ian and the rest of the cast will begin work on the sequel - The Two Towers - which will hit the screens in 2001.
The third instalment, The Return of the King, will follow shortly after.
Jackson is determined to stay faithful to Tolkien's original plot. An insider said: "It would be a travesty if the story was buried under special effects. We don't want it to be another Phantom Menace."
In the books, Gandalf leads a band of heroes in a quest to destroy the Dark Lord Sauron, whose rings of power threaten the world.
What Sauron lacks is the ruling Ring, which is in the possession of a hobbit called Bilbo Baggins - a small creature with big feet who lives in a quiet, leafy place called The Shire. He uses the Ring for magic party tricks - but little else.
When Gandalf tells him that Sauron has enlisted the dreaded orcs and is destroying Middle Earth to find the Ring, the hobbit entrusts it to his nephew Frodo who must venture to the distant Cracks of Doom and destroy it for ever.
Ian Holm will appear as Bilbo but Lord of the Rings fans have raised eyebrows at the casting of all-American boys Elijah Wood as Frodo and Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee.
One critic said: "Middle Earth is really Middle England - not the mid-west," but Jackson insists both actors will be coached in perfect Shire English.
The role of Pippin, Frodo's best friend, has gone to 5ft 5in Scots actor Billy Boyd. He said: "It's a long time to sign up for to play one part, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play this great role in a huge Hollywood movie.
"It's the first time anyone has ever really tried to film Lord of the Rings , so it's incredibly exciting to be involved in that."
Other stars considering roles include Kate Winslet as the elf Eowyn. Jackson gave the actress her big break in Heavenly Creatures and she is known to be interested in working with him again.
When the Lord of the Rings trilogy begins filming in New Zealand it will be the largest production ever to be mounted in the southern hemisphere.
The Mountains of Mordor, where the Ring is destroyed, will be shot on North Island's volcanic plateau and the forest scenes in the country's Southern Island.
Special effects will be used to add castles and fantasy creatures to the landscapes. For the battle scenes, Jackson recruited 15,000 soldiers from the New Zealand Army.
Although most of the cast are human, there will be one computer- generated creature like Jar-Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace.
Jackson decided that Gollum, a human drained by the ruling Ring ,would have to be computer-generated to look just right.
He said: "We have the finished designs. He's not too fishy or too froggy. I think he looks fantastic."