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There was no way I was going to get out of seeing "The Return of the King," the final installment of Peter Jackson’s "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. In fact, it was more or less a forced viewing, word-of-mouth and community pressure to know what was going on was so great. Days ahead of time, my husband bought tickets for us, our children and several of their friends, lest our little movie house on the prairie sell out on opening Friday.
I’ll skip the plot summary, since the movie has been promoted relentlessly for more than a year and a half. Jackson shot all three parts at the same time, and parceled them out into simultaneous global blockbuster openings. Return of the King and the two previous installments are being reviewed in the same reverential terms as George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy. "Lord of the Rings" is said to be a classic, to have re-set the bar for fantasy movies. The battles of Aragorn, Legolass and Gandalf against the evil empire of Mordor are supposed to mark our kids’ childhoods the way the adventures of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker stamped an earlier generation’s imaginations. But I’ve always thought adults who like to sit around and talk about great Star Wars moments are dim, at best. There’s something I’m missing, I guess, because the movie opened earlier this week at midnight (on a school night) and hundreds of kids and otherwise sensible adults stayed up until 4 a.m. to see it.
I asked my 10-year-old son what I should look for. "Cool weapons, awesome moves, and awesome special effects. Like the oilephants, and the ents, those are giant walking trees. And trolls. I want to see trolls." That about sums it up. The last two installments of The Lord of the Rings had kicked off an almost overwhelming epidemic of imaginary sword fighting and bow-making in our neighborhood. Which in itself isn’t so bad, except that constant vigilance is called for when the 10-year-olds are always flailing away at each other with branches, measuring sticks, broom handles and anything else that can be imagined into a weapon.
As I settled into my seat for a long, 3 1/2 hour bout with my stiff shoulder and cranky back, I tried to work up a good attitude. Surely " Return of the King" would provide something interesting to think about. I read the J. R. R. Tolkien books in high school, when they were a cool, cultish fashion to indulge, and then forgot them completely. Now my kids are reading and rereading them. The movies are said to be as close to the interminable books as movies can be, so what else would hold my interest?
As my son pointed out, the digital special effects, as well as ordinary old costumery and scene setting, are remarkable. An entire parallel world has been created, with remarkable attention to detail. I found myself studying the textures of textiles, and the chasing and burnishing of swords. There are terrifying flying dragons, horrifyingly steep mountain trails, a marvelously defended city, a realistic volcano eruption, and oilephants, warrior-mastodons decked out for battle, the Middle Earth version of a Bradley fighting vehicle. It’s a war movie after all, and the main action is the desperate movement from one badly overmatched battle to another. Despite all the carnage and force, there’s more bravery than blood, more sorrow at the prospect of death than actual parting. I sat in a row behind the 10-year-olds and watched their heads. What would draw their attention? They were transfixed — the only thing that made them move were some giant animatronic eagles. But that makes sense, because these boys are all serious ornithologists. There was only one troll.
At first it would seem that the digital special effects are an efficiency. For example, instead of hiring 1000 people to canter downhill on horses for the camera, you can hire 100, and digitally multiply them by 10. "Return of the King" is full of some of the most massive battle scenes you’ll ever see, mostly digitally enhanced — the mind turns to World War I, for example, to wonder what if there’d been aerial photography over the trenches?
But in fact the digital technology is a very expensive investment, and only a few firms (Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic being one of the leaders) are good enough to deliver the sort of effects we see in "The King." Art and skill aside, movies are a huge, increasingly world-wide business and their profits aren’t just measured in box office receipts and popcorn sales — if this were the case, a 3 1/2 hour movie would be a bad investment, because theaters couldn’t turn over the seats often enough. So the special effects must be there for another reason: they help knit the movie into a web of thousands of other products, and they mutliply the product. One example is the shift, since the introduction of the digital video disc, to the practice of re-viewing a movie: DVDs allow the movie to be viewed again with commentaries, translations, outtakes and alternative endings. They aren’t just videos in a new form, they are a new product in themselves. Special effects give DVD makers lots more to show, in a recycling, reusing sort of way.
But perhaps the most important part special effects play is to create interest and word-of-mouth far beyond the hard-core fandom of Middle Earth impersonators that exists around books. Since in film today the profits are really made in licensed merchandise, spinoffs, video and DVD sales, and promised sequels, all the buzz about the digital battle scenes and lumbering mastodons is adding extra oomph to an industry that’s always depended on blockbusters. It’s an industry that also has been deeply threatened by television, cable, and video cassette rentals. The real success of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is that it’s profits are supposed to crest in the billions, not the mere millions, through integrated merchandising. The New York Times reports that the licensing rights for "Lord of the Rings" video games alone will bring a minimum of $20 million.
It’s impossible where I live to meet someone who hasn’t seen the latest of the trilogy, or isn’t planning to see it, or hasn’t heard about it. Our local bookstore is doing a brisk business in volumes that explain the special effects, the swords, the back story, the costumes and of course, the preparation of handsome actors. So it’s hard not to think that the triumph of the "Lord of the Rings" movies is really the triumph of an intricate, consolidated marketing system, on a global scale. Peter Jackson and his actors and writers and technicians will all win Oscars for sure, for their service to this world-wide industry. Still, we want more trolls!
SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois.