NEW YORK - So universal is the interest in J.R.R. Tolkien that the bespectacled image of Peter Jackson, the 40-year-old New Zealander who co-adapted and directed three films of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy in one swoop, has now been seen by more people than Jackson's previous movies combined, including Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners.
Because of his slight, chubby stature and his propensity to go barefoot and in shorts even at New York's swank Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Jackson often is compared to a hobbit.
But in a conversation with The Sun on the eve of the premiere of his first Tolkien movie, The Fellowship of the Ring (the other two will follow at yearly intervals), Jackson seemed more like one of Tolkien's dwarves - a driven, energetic artisan who spends time in creative foundries and crafts his goods to last.
He may also, like the dwarves, make a mint. His version of The Fellowship of the Ring is a masterly fantasy that will seduce non-cultists and Tolkienists alike with its torrent of action and sweeping visual poetry.
Such is Jackson's skill as a storyteller that even those who don't know anything about Gandalf, the wise and caring wizard, Aragorn, the steadfast human, Frodo, the brave hobbit, or Gollum, the corrupted quasi-hobbit, soon care about their entwined destiny.
It's as if the fate of our world - not just Tolkien's Middle-earth - depended on it.
As you were adapting the book, did you try to introduce at least two key elements of the plot simultaneously?
I certainly didn't want to fall into the trap of making the film too stately and too staid. The novel, for all its wonderfulness, is renowned among those readers who don't enjoy it as being dense and overly complicated and even ponderous. I wanted to give the movie a dynamic energy and a sense of momentum.
We tried as much as possible not to have people preaching at the camera - when you're hearing that Gollum was captured and tortured, we break it out into a cinematic visualization. Obviously, we did a lot of other changes to the book: rather than just have Gandalf relate his escape from Saruman to the council, you see him being imprisoned by Saruman, and we do it more as a progression in real dramatic time than a flashback.
It's a big story, but also a great story with good characters - and not all are apparent at first reading. What's ultimately interesting about The Lord of the Rings is the villainy. Sauron is the ultimate dark lord figure, but you never see him - he takes the form of a flaming eyeball.
And you know it's not going to be exciting to see, oh, Arnold Schwarzenegger square off against a flaming eyeball in the climax. The betrayer-wizard Saruman is a useful secondary villain, but he stays in his dark tower in this movie and doesn't leave. We came to the realization, which is obvious, really, that the ring is the villain of the film. I treated the ring less as an object or prop and more as a potent character.
What conveys the ring's power most intimately is your aural and visual depiction of the twilight world Frodo enters whenever he puts the ring on his finger.
That came out of my trying to milk every good idea Tolkien had and put it in the movie. When you are experiencing the book, somehow you're not imagining the twilight world that much even when you're reading descriptions of it. I hope the film can make you think, "Oh wow! That's what it's like to put the ring on!"
The most interesting visual surprise I had when we were making the movie was how small the hobbits were. You read the book and you know the hobbits are 3'4" or 3'6", but you get caught up in events and forget. But in the movie you're not allowed to forget. Every time you have a shot of a hobbit you see how small they are. It focused for me that it is about little people going out into the big bad world, and that made it really beautiful.
If there's one criticism that's cropped up in the advance notices, it's that the movie - like the book - is too episodic.
I always regarded it as a road movie, and it is the nature of that genre to be episodic. The story breaks into three different storylines, which it has to do to be the story of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Was there any single concept that helped you organize this welter of material?
History was the general tone we tried to give the whole trilogy. If I were making a film about, say, Henry VIII, I'd do the research, I'd gather pictures of Henry, and find as much about him as I could, and write a script, and try to make people feel they were in that period of English medieval history.
And I thought, let's approach The Lord of the Rings as if Tolkien wrote a factual account of events that took place, and as if these peo-
ple, whether they were wizards or hobbits or dwarves or elves, had the reality of people that existed and were not made-up characters.
That approach controlled every decision we made concerning the actors, the physical design, and the look of the computer-generated world. Howard Shore did a remarkable job on the musical score, trying to make it culturally based. He thought about what elvish music would sound like, what hobbit music would sound like. We wanted a sort of antiquity to it, and a feeling of authenticity.
What cultures were you thinking of when you say you tried to make it 'culturally based'?
The hobbits are clearly very English. I always think of hobbit adventures as being about these little Englishmen going abroad in Europe for the first time, and encountering strange foods and languages and being very suspicious about the whole thing. We cast for physical features - heights, bone structures, all that stuff. We were using various devices so that hobbits would appear to be about four feet tall, but even when we were casting hobbits, we had a rule they couldn't be below 5'4" or above 5'8".
The most difficult race to visualize were the elves. The elves were a nightmare. They're such a keen central part of what Tolkien really cared about. They're immortal and slightly non-human. He writes about them in an evocative way without really providing a description. You're left to try to capture their being, and what they're going to wear, and nothing ever quite seems to reach what you had in your imagination.
They're this odd combination of preciousness and strength.
And that was frustrating. I think we did OK in the end. We decided elves should be slender and elegant and have high cheekbones. We tried to cast the most perfect human beings we could find, like Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler and Orlando Bloom. We tried to use music and light and architecture and arrive at something that approximates what we had in our imagination.
What guided you in giving the ensemble a set of accents that worked?
Mostly it's a form of English that actors learn, called R.P., for Received Pronunciation. At drama school, if actors are Scottish or European or American, they come up through R.P. and all end up sounding similar to each other. We started with that, and we introduced certain other accents for some characters. Viggo Mortensen, as Aragorn, has a reasonably defined American accent. But that seemed to suit the character because Aragorn is the loner, the quiet stranger.
I don't know Fritz Lang's films, but I love David Lean's films. I did want to make an epic film, and David Lean is synonymous with the epic film. I wanted to make a film that felt huge without losing sight of the characters.
Sometimes the compositions register like a frieze, and at other times you really whip the camera around.
I always try to think of the camera as being another character; I like the concept that you can enhance the emotion of the scene by moving the camera. The camera can express emotions different from the emotions that the characters are playing. If the actors are playing a quiet moment - and you're moving the camera around quickly - it suddenly sends a different signal to the audience. I like that level of complexity. It makes the audience try to second-guess what is going to happen.
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