Bored of the rings

Peter Jackson may be king of the Oscars, says David Thomson, but his effects-laden epic has destroyed the magic of the movies
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So now we are all New Zealanders and Tolkienistas. The third part of The Lord of the Rings won 11 Oscars (every one for which it was nominated), matching the totals of Titanic and Ben-Hur.

The day after the Oscars, The New York Times carried a full-page colour picture of the New Zealand countryside and urged yet more movie-makers to make that long journey. Perhaps they will, along with those armies of the night, the tourists. I hope New Zealand can withstand those attacks and keep its panoramas as pristine as they were in Peter Jackson's eye - or in the thorough computer enhancement displayed in the three movies.

I'd advise New Zealand to be wary. In the same way, my feelings about the total movie that is The Lord of the Rings are mixed. I have many reasons to like the trilogy, not least the fact that grandparents, parents and children can watch the films in every expectation that all ages would be fulfilled. I congratulate Jackson on a sweep of storytelling that can be such a unifying force.

Nor do I doubt Jackson's genius as an epic visualiser of terrifying armies, forbidding lakes and castles that cannot decide whether they are havens or traps. It is not really a question of whether Jackson has brought the world of Tolkien to life, for Tolkien himself never needed or bothered to see every detail. He had his own mind's eye, and he relied on the same capacity in readers.

Jackson, on the other hand, had every right and reason to bring the complete scope of the Shire and beyond to life. I doubt he cared about being faithful, but he didn't have to care. Tolkien evoked the armies and the places; Jackson had to cast and clothe them - or he had to ensure that every computer in that other army was doing its bit to deliver sumptuous detail wherever you looked.

There's a story going around that's a fascinating record of where this computer art stands. I'm still not sure whether it's apocryphal. Jackson wanted the best battles ever seen, so he asked his team to write a computer program in which every figure in the mass of warriors behaved as an individual.

The programmers went away and did their work. They laboured and explored and refined at these crafts as had never been done before. And they were magically rewarded. At the very first battle to be filmed - some of the figures ran away! They were so real, they were scared!

That can't be true, can it? Yet my uncertainty speaks to the doubts many feel about just how thoroughly one version of the lifelike (computer generation) is taking over from another (mere photography). Will there come a day when the computers create the stories? When the battles or love scenes turn on how the pixels feel?

Peter Jackson has been very candid in interviews: he is much less interested in what these films are about than how they're done. But, of course, one dayhow they are done may become the consuming subject of human culture. The place for human decision-making and thus matters of moral judgement, or falling in love, or being manic or depressed today, may have been bypassed.

Jackson is the victor in a great gamble that is still not fully appreciated. He wanted three films to cover The Lord of the Rings. He found an early supporter in Harvey Weinstein, the co-founder and chairman of Miramax and the most daring and tasteful tycoon in pictures today, whatever you may have heard about his manners.

But Miramax is owned by the Disney Corporation, and the investment needed for the trilogy was so enormous that Weinstein needed board approval. Tolkien is not exactly Disney material. It has never really been Disney's policy to place such stress on the conflict between good and evil.

Disney was alarmed by the look and feel of the dark ages that Jackson intended. They felt the threat of fear or discomfort, and they noticed Jackson's relative indifference to likeable or cuddly characters. They turned the project down. Beneath the surface, this is no small part of the current dissension within Disney and the move to have Michael Eisner removed as the chairman.

So Eisner regarded the Tolkien trilogy as a long shot, too adult for Disney's marketing - after all, there is a profound difference between the true Gothic of Jackson's vision and the mock Gothic of Disneyland castles. So New Line, a smaller company, stepped in. It was the last resort. But for New Line, I'm not sure the films would exist.

And don't doubt the closeness of that call. The day the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, previewed, there were many in the audience of critics who came to jeer. When I saw a preview of Titanic, there were studio people nearly in tears for certainty that they were about to lose their jobs.

But the trilogy has been hugely successful. Presumably, this Christmas there will be DVD packages of all three films that may mean the books never sell again. And Jackson's glee will be confirmed, for a while at least. Many more movies will go for computer generation and effects greater than those of the Rings. The art of cinematography - of photographing real light, real places (even New Zealand) and real faces will go further into decline.

Now is the time for discontent, and the chance to recollect how - in interviews - Jackson is not just charmless, but churlish about meaning. I think he saw Tolkien as a vehicle for his mechanical imagination.

But notice what has slipped from Tolkien (apart from the very language of the books and the endearing crustiness) - the people, the characters. They are there still, and they are actors. But none was nominated for Oscars for The Return of the King, not even Ian McKellen. The actors do their job, but they are like music accompanying the wonders.