The J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, long thought to be unfilmable, is being brought to the screen by New Line Cinema. The series of three live-action films, the first scheduled to reach theaters in late 2001, will feature a cast including Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian Holm as Bilbo, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Ian McKellan as Gandalf.
"Like Frodo, the hero of this saga, we're on a film `quest,' " New Line head Michael De Luca said Oct. 8 in an announcement that confirmed months of rumors. Director Peter Jackson - best known for 1994's dark fantasy Heavenly Creatures and the 1996 paranormal slasher comedy The Frighteners - began principal photography last Monday in his native New Zealand.
Set in a pre-industrial world called Middle-earth, The Lord of the Rings - which comprises the volumes The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King - chronicles a group of civilizations as they struggle against a malevolent supernatural being bent on enslaving them. Required reading by teenagers and college students in the trippy '60s and early '70s, the saga has sold more than 50 million copies in more than 30 languages since it was published between 1954 and 1956, according to Houghton-Mifflin, Tolkien's U.S. publisher.
New Line's budget for the series is said to be between $120 million and $150 million. A good chunk of that will go to Jackson's digital special-effects company, which will shrink full-sized actors to play Tolkien's pint-sized hobbits and simulate the clashes of massive armies depicted in the story. Several roles will be played by "digital actors," creations the filmmaker surely hopes will meet with greater public acceptance than Phantom Menace's much-maligned Jar Jar Binks.
Jackson plans to make all three movies at once, and release them at six-month intervals. Filming is expected to last through next year.
Of course, if you frequent the right Internet news groups and Web sites, you knew all this ages ago.
The increasing popularity of Internet movie spying - typified by rumor-monger Harry Knowles' chaotic aint-it-cool-news.com site - has never been more apparent than it has been in the zealous ferreting out of Lord of the Rings data. Virtually unedited, the sites post rumors from pseudonymous sources who range from studio moles to complete know-nothings. No crumb of information is deemed unworthy - and with so many cybersleuths able to contribute a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, the truth emerges surprisingly often.
Jackson and New Line say they're acutely aware that one of their main challenges is to satisfy Tolkien's enormous fan base. Though the Oxford don's 1,200-page work has appeared in nearly all of the populist "top books of the century" polls taken recently, the literary world has never allowed Tolkien to sit at the grown-ups' table. New Line's vow "to make this saga a deeply felt experience for moviegoers everywhere" has given the faithful new hope.
"My team and I have poured our hearts into this project for the past three years," Jackson has said, perhaps to address the concerns of fans who remember too well Ralph Bakshi's lame, animated adaptation in 1978. "We owe Professor Tolkien and his legion of fans worldwide our very best efforts to make these films with the integrity they deserve."
In recent weeks, the director - who is cowriting the films - has been the envy of fans everywhere, able to play for real the "Cast your ideal Lord of the Rings movie" game loyalists have enjoyed for decades. Some choices have gotten raves. When Christopher Lee got the nod as sinister wizard Saruman, there was much rejoicing, with Knowles - whose aint-it-cool has been impressively accurate in its casting dispatches - beginning his Internet report with a less-than-dispassionate "Oh dear god this is COOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!."
Likewise, the choice of Sliders star John Rhys-Davies to play gruff dwarf Gimli was deemed bold and ideal. Also well-received were the casting of two Sir Ians. Holm was hailed as an inspired choice to play Frodo's elderly Uncle Bilbo, as was glowering McKellan, most recently of Gods and Monsters, who will play blustery wizard Gandalf.
Reactions were mixed about the actors who will don prosthetic feet as hobbits. At 18, Wood - seen bashing alien skulls in last year's The Faculty - strikes some as too young to play ringbearer Frodo.
Frodo's faithful companion Sam Gamgee will be portrayed by Sean Astin, star of the 1993 college-football crowd-pleaser Rudy. Though he has since played adult roles in Bulworth and Courage Under Fire, some have expressed doubt that he's up to the challenging role.
Perhaps the loudest complaints have concerned casting of the movie's few female roles. Tolkien often presents the women in his stories as the epitome of beauty, and many readers have mental images no living person could hope to match.
Blanchett (Elizabeth) will have a tough enough time in the relatively small role of serene elven queen Galadriel, but the choice of Liv Tyler as elven princess Arwen has sparked an Internet firestorm. Perhaps unable to reconcile Tolkien's vision of chaste loveliness with the image of Ben Affleck slipping an animal cracker into Tyler's underpants in Armageddon, many have reacted with outrage.
"This is exactly the kind of casting I detest," wrote one distressed fan on the Knowles Web site. "If this is true, my hopes are down by 90 percent. This is horrible."
Adding to fans' consternation is the unconfirmed report that the Arwen role will be vastly expanded. New Line's statement describes Tyler's character as an "elf warrior," leading some to fear that Arwen will be Xena-fied. Such a move may broaden the movie's appeal, but it's likely to be met with howls by the faithful.
Many parts are left to cast, and names continue to circulate on the Internet rumor mill. The Web spies appear to have been right again. Though New Line has yet to confirm it, the Hollywood trades now report that Stuart Townsend is out as leading man Aragorn - news first reported on the rumor sites. Knowles goes one further and states emphatically that Viggo Mortensen has been given the role. Another leading whisper has Hollywood couple Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman vying to play secondary romantic couple Faramir and Eowyn. Will the detectives be correct again? Somewhere, a cyberspy is trying to find out.