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The Lord of the Rings Official Movie Guide
Reviewed by Shane Ivey, ©

Format: Book
Genre:   Nonfiction Movie Tie-In
Released:   November 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

Reading the Official Movie Guide is a little like looking back at three years of rumors, interviews, and hints: most of what can be found inside has been said elsewhere, but nowhere else has it all been put together. Built around interviews with the director, writers, designers, and principal actors of The Fellowship of the Ring (the first movie of the trilogy), the Official Movie Guide discusses the process of making the movies, the ways in which the various actors approached their characters, and the extraordinary lengths to which the filmmakers went to create Middle-Earth as a living, growing, history-ridden world.

The Road to Middle-Earth

The Guide begins with a short history of author J.R.R. Tolkien and the creation of The Lord of the Rings and its prequel, The Hobbit. The notes are necessary context for newcomers to the trilogy, but they are incomplete. Where better to discuss the previous attempts to capture The Lord of the Rings on film? Most fans have seen the flawed animations by Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass, but what about Tolkien's early negotiations with Forrest Ackerman about a proposed Disney adaptation, replete with unicorns and glittering palaces (the discussions didn't get far)? The challenges faced by earlier filmmakers bear directly on the process of developing what may be the first successful adaptation.

There is also a brief biography of director Peter Jackson that is similarly incomplete. It discusses his quirky, disturbing early films and it touches on the critically-acclaimed Heavenly Creatures and his first mainstream effort, The Frighteners, but it fails to discuss the roles each of those past films played in netting Jackson, a cult director with no spectacular box office successes, the most expensive production in movie history. The importance of Heavenly Creatures, for instance, can hardly be overstated: it garnered Jackson's first Academy Award nomination, and it is the one film cited time and again by performers explaining their willingness to commit years of their lives to his vision of The Lord of the Rings. What do Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners teach us about Jackson and his production crew and their approach to the Rings trilogy? Apparently that's for another volume.

The Journey: Creators, Actors, and Designers

Interviews with writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, and with set designers John Howe and Alan Lee, illustrate one of the recurring themes of the Rings trilogy: their approach to the story as created history rather than fantasy. This echoes Tolkien's own approach to the books, writing as an historian with an interest in mythology and linguistics: his goal was to tell meaningful tales within a credible mythos, to create something with more depth than "fairy stories". This philosophy infused Tolkien's writings with incredible depth and detail - too much, for many readers - and it infuses the filmmakers' design and presentation of environments, costumes, and characters. Linguistic advisors specializing in Tolkien's work recreated the invented languages of Middle-Earth. Every button and piece of fabric, every weapon and tool, every surface seen on film was crafted with an eye toward the history behind it. The cheery village of Hobbiton was built a year before filming so that its houses and gardens could grow and look genuine. The characters and their clothing and hair look lived-in, unkempt, real; everything is meant to be more perfect than picture-perfect.

What's missing from the screenwriter interviews is discussion of what was left out. Considering the controversy surrounding some of their changes to Tolkien's story, this is a surprising omission. Placing the peaceful Arwen, the Elven love interest of hero Aragorn, in action sequences; deleting a broad swath of The Fellowship of the Ring including the fanciful Tom Bombadil and the terrifying Barrow-wights; the rearrangement of the pivotal Council of Elrond; some rather campy-sounding additions to the sinister events of Isengard, such as a telekinetic wizard-duel between Gandalf and Saruman and scenes of orcs growing in weird pods; these and other changes to the source material are divisive enough among fans, and important enough as illustrations of the differences between creating for the page and creating for the screen, that they begged to be discussed here. But they weren't.

Interviews with the actors were better and more informative. Stars Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Sean Astin (Samwise) discuss the depth of love and friendship between their characters and the importance of that relationship in the development of the story. Orlando Bloom and Cate Blanchett discuss the ways they captured the essence of Legolas ("I think of a cat.... they are graceful and poised, but always switched-on.") and the beautiful, mercurial Galadriel. Viggo Mortensen dove into the physicality and emotional depth of his role, and Ian McKellen discusses the background of the wizard as a character in literature and the lively, dangerous, unforgettable character of Gandalf.

Much Missing, Much to See

The Official Movie Guide features a wealth of information and terrific illustrations of the production, but too much was left out. For all the discussion of visual effects there is no information on Gollum or the Balrog - both of them critical creations done completely in CGI - or Sauron himself, or the ever-present threat of the Ring-wraiths. Perhaps there was concern of revealing secrets in the book that are best left seen on screen, but they belong in the Official Movie Guide. Or will there be another Movie Guide published - really, really Official this time - after we have a chance to see the movie for ourselves?

Still, the Official Movie Guide is worth reading, if only for the chance to get information and full-page imagery that would otherwise require hours of research online. For the millions of fans who have been counting the days to the film's premiere since 1998, this will only whet your appetite even more.

Shane Ivey is producer for RevolutionSF.

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