Even before the One Ring ruled all box offices, fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's personal mythology were always blown away -- and sucked in -- by its epic scale. Middle-Earth is a huge realm, with its own history, language and gods. Everything fit together perfectly because Tolkien spent most of his life creating that world. He wrote fantasy before it was even a genre, and his books set some kind of high point for what one human imagination can conjure up. As many critics have said before, the whole thing adds up to a stunning accomplishment.
And that's how you'd have to assess Kiwi director Peter Jackson's transfer of The Lord of the Rings to film (although where Tolkien was a one-man show, Jackson's accomplishment is built on the efforts of thousands). I probably read The Lord of the Rings three or four times by the time I was 17, and all I can say is that the movies go way beyond what I ever imagined. Jackson not only didn't screw up fans' dearly held images, he actually took the whole thing to an entirely new level. It took an oddball, outsider director to bring the vision of an oddball, outsider academic to life.
With this new DVD set featuring an extended cut of the film, we're at the end of the long journey of the fellowship. As with the effort to dispose of the ring, it's been quite a slog -- the three extended versions add up to more than 11 hours of viewing. If you've collected all three sets, the six discs of special features give you an insane amount of information about the books, the films and New Zealand's sights and sounds. It's a geek's paradise.
The extended cut adds 50 minutes to the final film, making it more than four hours long. The add-ins are worthwhile, like seeing Saruman's final demise and more adventures with the armies of the dead. The documentary on Tolkien is fascinating, and the story of the world premiere in Wellington is touching, as the cast offers its final goodbyes.
Tolkien's mythology resonates for its epic themes of struggle and loyalty, but in the end it is pure fantasy: His world of absolute good versus absolute evil doesn't offer much wisdom for this gray-shaded world we live in. But as a book or -- thanks to Peter Jackson -- a movie, it's one of the great escapes of all time.
Publication date: 1/13/04