Lord of the Rings

A dazzling fable but not one for the purists
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"What about page 53?" a voice shouted, as the lights dimmed for the first British press screening of The Lord of the Rings. The little dig at the Tolkien purists who will be poised to descend, gibbering, on all textual deviation when the film opens next week was a reminder that, for the devout, this is a moment of nervous apprehension.

For sceptics, on the other hand, it's likely to be an occasion when the vices of cinematic adaptation – compression and paraphrase – come to look more like blessings.

Even at three hours long, the first instalment of Peter Jackson's trilogy is going to demand considerably less of your life than the original, and the fact that it substitutes images for words guarantees to dissipate the gluey sonority of the author's prose – an adhesive substance that has stopped many prospective readers in their tracks.

And, as a sequence of images, The Lord of the Rings is undeniably dazzling.

Among other things, Jackson's $300m (£200m) budget has bought him a whole landscape still fresh to the eye – his native New Zealand delivering locations that range from the Teletubbies cosiness of The Shire with its windmills and subterranean cottages to the forests and mountains of Middle-Earth.

It also bought him staggering amounts of processing-time, which he uses with a brio that gives a new meaning to that old cliché about computer wizardry. Some of his effects are warming – including the perfect smoke clipper that Gandalf puffs out to sail through Bilbo's modest smoke ring – but others aim to chill, and they do so with more than mere percussion.

In the scuttering swarm of orcs advancing on the heroes or the sudden swoop into a subterranean arms factory you see a genuine visual imagination at work, one that knows how to play with the lurch and flinch of an audience's subconscious reactions. The architecture of this film, barring the Celtic revival tweeness of the Elvish villages, has a Piranesi grandeur to it.

As fable, though, it's likely to satisfy only those who are easily satisfied: either children, or grown-ups who seek a refuge from the more ambiguous moral battles of real life. The Lord of the Rings finds its true kinship not with the grand myths of history but with the faded photocopies of recent years.

There may even be younger viewers who will bring an anachronistic charge of plagiarism against Tolkien, seeing an Obi-Wan-Kenobi figure in Gandalf and an echo of the Force in the Ring's availability to good or evil. And anyone who wants a replay of the troll attack from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone will find one here, a good deal more bloody and terrifying, it's true, but cut from the same graphic cloth. That similarity will hardly matter to those who are already charmed.

The doggedly unenchanted, meanwhile, will have to wile away their time reflecting on the curiously arbitrary nature of magical powers – at one moment terrifying insuperable and at the next strangely cloddish – or wondering how a supposedly anti-fascist fantasy should have ended up dressed in such Teutonic accessories.

You cannot help feeling that Hitler would have adored this film, with its hideous Untermenschen, its homeland-loving hobbits and its Aryan beauties. He would have recognised that elemental myths – like magic rings – don't dictate how their power is to be exploited.