In early 2002, Tucson school teacher Jon Ben-Asher sent a note home with his fifth-graders seeking permission to take them to see "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

He told parents he thought the PG-13 film was acceptable for 10-year-olds, but he cautioned: "There are a couple heads that get chopped off, an arm or two, some fingers, and some intense battle scenes."

Despite the warning, all of the nearly 30 kids in the class went on the field trip -- and a half-dozen parents tagged along, too.

"Parents were hugging me," Ben-Asher said, recalling the ecstatic response. "People were crying. And the kids were saying, 'What's the rest of the story?' "

When Time Warner Inc.'s New Line Cinema division set out a few years ago to make a trilogy of movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," the studio figured the target audience was geeky 35-plus men who grew up obsessed with the book. Because of the intense action the series would entail, they certainly didn't rely on anyone younger than teen-agers to propel it at the box office.

But a funny thing happened on the road to Mordor. For many parents, the story's "never lose hope" morality tale ultimately prevailed over the severed heads and spurting blood. Some educators got behind the movie and encouraged kids to see it. And stars like Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen blossomed into heartthrobs, drawing away young girls -- and their mothers -- from Harry Potter and toward Legolas and Aragorn.

New Line marketing chief Russell Schwartz said young girls have, in fact, become among the "most ardent supporters" of the "Rings" series, right up there with the hardcore Tolkien freaks.

The result is that a violent action-movie franchise also has become a beloved family classic patronized by preteen girls and even some 8-year-olds. In the minds of many parents, "Rings" is akin to "Star Wars," and maybe even "The Wizard of Oz," in the family-movie pantheon. The ability to reel in an ever younger audience helped push the second "Rings" movie -- "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" -- to about 8 percent more domestic ticket sales than the first.

Now, it is stoking the epic buzz that accompanied the release last Wednesday of the series finale, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." The new film is casting such a wide net that it threatens to sap business from more traditional family movies like "Peter Pan" and "Cheaper by the Dozen."

Youngsters hooked

While the "Rings" saga wasn't conceived with family audiences in mind, there were signs that children were entranced almost from the start. For example, a set of nine character figurines given away in a Burger King Corp. promotion were hot items, and the merchandising program, with offerings suitable for kids as young as 5, was a hit.

But Schwartz said "the great paradigm shift happened between 'Fellowship' and 'Two Towers,' " when the first movie was issued on video and DVD. Parents seeing the movie for a second or third time began letting their young kids sneak into the room, too -- and pretty soon, the whole family was hooked. "It became a family thing," he said.

That's what happened in Normandy Park, Wash., just outside Seattle, where Laurie Bialik allowed her daughter Gemma Jackson, now 9, to watch "Fellowship of the Rings" after first viewing the movie a few times herself.

Gemma initially left the room during the scary parts, but she stood outside the room to listen. Eventually, she watched the whole thing, and last year the whole family went to see "Two Towers" in the theater -- four times.

Laurie Bialik said she was concerned that letting her daughter watch the film repeatedly would desensitize her to the violence. But she added that Gemma recognized that it's a fantasy, and she said that she "likes the message of the books, which comes out so clearly in the movies: that there is always hope, and whatever is good in the world is worth fighting for."

Appropriate rating

It's the fight scenes that seem to attract a lot of young boys. Dustin Atkinson, an 8-year-old in Downers Grove, Ill., said that while some of his friends' parents think the series is "too scary" for kids his age, he loves the swordfighting and other battle scenes.

"Everybody in my family is into 'Lord of the Rings,' " said his mother, Laurie Davis. "It's hard to watch it and not include him."

With each "Rings" film, New Line has been asked by the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board to cut back the level of detail in certain scenes, like a beheading in "Fellowship," that would have resulted in an R rating. The resulting PG-13 movie is much preferred by studios, because despite the warning that it may not be appropriate for kids under 13, it doesn't prevent anyone from seeing the film unaccompanied.

Schwartz said New Line doesn't court younger kids directly, and the PG-13 rating does make it difficult or impossible to buy TV ad time on kid-oriented networks like Nickelodeon. But the studio clearly can reach that audience through TV advertising aimed at older siblings and parents.

For "Return of the King," for instance, New Line has purchased ads during an NBC special featuring Justin Timberlake and during an airing of "The Wizard of Oz" on the WB.

While the action scenes are riveting, there are signs that Tolkien's themes are sinking in with young fans. Pablo Hernandez, an 8-year-old in Tucson, said that he, too, would love to grab the ring that is the object of so much attention in the movie.

"It has writing on it, and when you put it on, you go invisible," Hernandez said. But while the ring's power threatens to corrupt all who touch it in the movie, Pablo has different plans should he ever lay his hands on it: "I'll share it."