Fantasy and extermination

Jem jones reviews: Peter Jackson (director), JR Tolkien, 'The lord of the rings - Return of the king', general release

Despite the enduring popularity of the genre, successful fantasy films are few and far between. An undoubtedly major obstacle is that of portraying believable fantasy creatures - a recurrent motif. Having a load of extras running around in obvious rubber masks tends to lessen the chances of suspension of disbelief. If the film is to be successful - and the budget large enough to sustain the special effects - it has to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible; and conventional logic would have it that the cinema-going public does not go for outlandish fantasy. This is borne out by the debacle of Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord of the rings film (1978), which finished half way through the trilogy. The cartoon was seen as proof that Tolkien's epic, while being an enduring classic in literary form, could not be translated to the big screen. The New Zealand director Peter Jackson has confounded all the nay-sayers. His adaptation of The lord of the rings has been a success both with the critics and with the viewing public. The films have won a slew of awards and taken a veritable fortune at the box office. Not only that, but they have reawakened interest in Tolkien and his work and introduced a whole new audience to the world of Middle Earth, as evidenced by LOTR having recently won the BBC's competition to find the nation's favourite book. It tells the story of the quest undertaken by brave heroes to destroy the one ring - a seductive and destructive magical artefact - and defeat the dark lord, Sauron, before he conquers all of Middle Earth. The third and final film, The return of the king opened at cinemas last month, and by the end of its three hours and 20 minutes the epic tale is brought to its conclusion.

Personally, I find myself deeply ambivalent about both the books and the films. There is much to be critical of. The return of the king sees Aragorn taking his 'rightful' place as king of Gondor, due to his pure blood line. The orcs, the servants of Sauron, are portrayed as irredeemably evil, as faceless, unruly and rebellious hordes (with distinctly Slavic features in the books) that must be exterminated by the 'good' races. Women are conspicuously absent, with the exception of Eowyn and Arwen, both of whom feature far more in the films than they do in the books. And as for the work-shy, parochial, petty bourgeois hobbits "¦

Despite myself, though, I find it hard not to be moved by LOTR. My heart ached for Gollum as he is tormented and ultimately consumed by the power of the ring. I cried when Faramir led the disastrous charge against Osgiliath, while back in Minas Tirith, Pippin sings a lament to Faramir's uncaring father. LOTR is, at heart, a story about friendship, courage and loss.

The trilogy should properly be regarded as a whole, rather than three separate films. The return of the king is unfortunately the weakest of the three parts. The battle scenes take up a great deal of screen time and, although awe-inspiring, after a while the computer-generated images become a little repetitive. When the witch-king, who cannot be killed by a man, is killed by a woman, Eowyn, I could not help but think of Macbeth (whose central character has an Achilles heel), and how the battle scenes are no less effective for occurring off stage. In contrast to the time and effort lavished on the battle scenes, the end of the film is oddly disjointed and unsatisfying.

Part of the reason for this is that the whole sequence from the book - where the hobbits return to the shire, to find that it too has been changed - is missing from the film. Some Tolkien purists have expressed outrage at the ways in which Jackson's films differ from the original text. However, in his study of mythology, Claude Lévi-Strauss noted how stories evolve in the telling, but concluded that such retellings added to the myth, and should be regarded as a part of it.

When he wrote LOTR, Tolkien drew heavily on his knowledge of Scand-inavian and Celtic mythology. Indeed he stated that he intended to write a mythology for England. The lord of the rings can be seen not only as an enjoyable story, but also as mythology, and this is plainly part of its appeal.

Jackson's film adaptation is a worthy retelling of Tolkien's masterpiece, and demonstrates why the story is so enduringly popular.

Jem Jones