I first heard of the Peter Jackson film adaptation of Lord of the Rings the way almost everyone else in the computer industry did – online. I knew Jackson as a filmmaker for both over the top kookery the likes of Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive – which are among the most extreme, yet good humored, films ever made – as well as the film which sort of graduated him as a serious film-maker, Heavenly Creatures, which I thought was OK, but not as interesting to me as his earlier material.
“Great,” I recall thinking, “He’s clearly got the right streak of extremity to do a good job. I hope it works out.” That was the last I really thought about it, except noting from time to time with surprise that the ongoing production was garnering an increasing wave of excited and approving commentary online from some very opinionated and ornery forums, such as Slashdot and in some online film-geek communities. I still wasn’t really paying attention, but the general sense of the commentary I was picking up was that, yes, Jackson’s extremity of commitment to his film projects was coming through in the production.
Then the first trailer for the film was publicly released on Apple’s web site sometime in 1998, I think (I could be way off base). A co-worker mentioned it to me and the real geeks of the office all gathered around a 21″ Apple monitor to watch. When the dust cleared, we all burst out gabbling at once in excitement, amazed. The first film was still over a year away from release but it was apparent that the cinematic approach Jackson had settled on somehow resonated with our own privately constructed visualizations of Tolkien’s world.
I’d seen the 1978 Bakshi animated version as a kid. It gets a bad rap to this day that it does not deserve – Bakshi’s Nazgul are excellently creepy, and his use of rotoscoping and aggressively artificial visualizations give the film a cinematic depth rare in animation, as well as a serious tone which is one of the reasons I have a soft spot for the film. Sadly, if predictably, his story compression and avoidance of the Brothers Hildebrandt style of warmly-firelit, Maxfield Parrish Middle-Earth scenery guaranteed the touchy animator a box-office disaster. Apparently, he’s still not over it, and has been quoted dissing Jackson’s project.
Television animators Rankin-Bass had produced a cute, featherweight adaptation of The Hobbit for broadcast at about this time – utilizing the holiday special formula of cuteness and musical numbers. I recall being, oh, mildly irritated by the adaptation. Then, following the Bakshi disaster, Rankin-Bass picked up the last half of The Lord Of The Rings and made their own conclusion to Bakshi’s attempt on Tolkien’s fastness, entitled Return of the King.
Unfortunately for me, this film made the understandable business decision to eschew Bakshi’s darkly psychedelic vision in favor of… cuteness and musical numbers (there is a memorable orc marching song which is entitled ‘Where There’s A Whip, There’s A Way’). Today, you can conveniently purchase all three of these miscegenated projects on DVD at your local Costco… at a higher retail price than the four-disc extended edition Jackson Fellowship of the Ring.
Seeing the trailer for what promised to be a pleasing translation of the books made me happy, but I again more or less forgot about it, keeping an eye on the horizon for the release date of the film.
Sometime in 2000 I realized it was time to find a copy of the books again and work through them. I expected it would take up to three months, reading in the evenings. I was disappointed to find that editions of the trilogy that employed Tolkien’s numerous watercolors on the covers or supplementing the original illustrations by the author were not easily available. I decided not to fight it and picked up the trade paperback edition that features the watercolor art of the Jackson adaptation’s production designer, the most easily available edition prior to the films’ release.
To my surprise, I tore though the books in well under a month, leaving quite a bit of time before the December 2000 opening of the first of the new films. An unexpected benefit was the reinvigoration of my knowledge of characters and situations in the books. This made the experience of the trailers seen that summer in theatrical distribution much richer and involving, and helped to greatly raise my level of anticipation for the film.