Director Peter Jackson, currently shooting the first of three films devoted to the saga, has drafted in some smoother female forms to supplement the hairy feet, pointed ears and flashing axe-blades of Tolkien's heroes - and upset many fans of Middle Earth in the process.
Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett are to play Arwen and Galadriel, roles which were marginal in the original story but are now greatly enlarged in the screenplay.
The love story between Arwen, Elven princess of Rivendell, and Aragorn, heir to the Dunedain kingdoms, played by Viggo Mortensen, has also been given greater prominence, according to reports from the film's closed set in New Zealand.
Hobbit fans fear the essence of Tolkien's 63-year-old work will be lost. In an effort to reach a wide cinematic audience. 'It is a popular story already because it gets the mix of magic and danger right,' said Alex Horton, 17, from Croydon, who has read both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit four times each. 'I don't see the point of messing with the elements of a story that has worked for so long for lots of people.'
Websites devoted to news of the film's progress and of its frequently postponed release dates are full of the same sentiment. While some teenage commentators agree that Jackson is treating their favourite text responsibly, there is concern that too much romance will drag the story down into the same league as critically panned fantasy epics such as George Lucas's Willow - also shot in New Zealand - or Labyrinth.
'The only hope for this film of The Lord of the Rings is that it steers clear of lots of love interest,' wrote one alarmed Australian fan.
The decision to cast two female stars and increase the impact of their characters on the story has been defended by New Line film executives as the best way to heighten and simplify the drama. The three new films will also beef up the role of Sauron, the evil genius of the story.
Tolkien scholars have raised eyebrows, too. 'Traditionally in Middle English tales men lead the action,' said Dr Vincent Gillespie, professor of English at St Anne's College, Oxford. 'It is fairly male-dominated stuff and women have either a domestic or a faerie role, representing "the other side".
'The film could build reasonably, though, on the growing idea that women were powerful "fixers", or "peaceweavers", behind the scenes in these tales.'
Douglas Gray, a friend of Tolkien and the man who held the first Tolkien Chair of English at Oxford University, said he did not believe the works needed feminising. 'It is some time since I read them now, but I certainly don't think that Tolkien was a misogynist in any way. He was more interested in heroic male figures, but he told these stories for his own children, after all, in the 1930s, and they were not all boys.'
Tolkien had three sons: John, who became a priest, Christopher, who posthumously edited his father's last book, The Silmarillion; and Michael. His fourth child was a girl, Priscilla, who, like her eldest brother John, still lives in Oxford.
Jackson, director of the new film version, has adapted the screenplay with his wife, Frances Walsh. The writing duo are so far best known for their film Heavenly Creatures.
The cast is a mixture of British and American talent. Elijah Wood is Frodo Baggins, Ian Holm plays Bilbo Baggins, Sean Bean is Boromir and Ian McKellen is the wizard, Gandalf.
It is planned that the dwarfs will have Cockney accents while the Elves will have an Irish lilt. Hobbits are expected to speak with a West Country burr. Full-size actors will be shrunk with computer effects, and prosthetics will provide the hairy feet.
Armour for the 15,000 extras is being knitted by members of the Wellington knitting club. Special effects software will multiply the extras into an army of 100,000.
The first film in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring , was originally slated for release this winter. But filming only began in October and the release was pushed backed to summer 2001. It is now expected to be ready for Christmas 2001.
The sequels, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, will follow at Christmas 2002 and 2003.
Vanessa Thorpe Arts Correspondent
Sunday April 2, 2000