The hobbits, elves, dwarfs, wizards, and even humans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ”Lord of the Rings” trilogy hold a vivid and viciously guarded place of honor among literature buffs. So bringing this classic fantasy of good vs. evil (first published in 1954) to the screen, in three films shot back-to-back, was no glib undertaking. ”It’s about the fans — absolutely,” says Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo Baggins, the hobbit who must destroy a magic ring of dark powers. ”That was the challenge — infusing the movie with as much of Tolkien’s vision and spirit as we possibly could. It’s one thing for someone who doesn’t know the books to tell you how wonderful it was. The hardest sell is the fans.”
So far, it’s a bull market, thanks in part to New Line Cinema’s savvy online approach — e-mailing regularly with Tolkien devotees and courting important fansites (several webmasters were even invited to see 20 minutes of footage that debuted at Cannes in May). Then there’s the goodwill surrounding Peter Jackson (”The Frighteners”), a longtime J.R.R. junkie himself. Lucky, since he’s been filming, editing, and overseeing his own special-effects wizardry for almost two years now. His philosophy for such intense focus: ”We have a saying in New Zealand, and with ”The Lord of the Rings” it was an expression I kept on board: One job at a time, every job a success.”
Marketing tie-ins with such companies as Burger King and JVC electronics are helping New Line defray the cost of the trilogy (now rumored to be around $300 million). Sean Astin, who plays fellow hobbit Sam, considers all of it benevolent commercialization. ”This franchise has a depth and quality,” he says. ”It’s an artistic and populist synergy.” With Jackson’s first cut weighing in at a reported three hours and 25 minutes, this also could be the year’s biggest movie in more ways than one. But what we really want to know is, where can we score some Merry and Pippin action figures?