And not just any movie. Adapting any work for the silver screen is a daunting -- and often disastrous -- affair, but adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved, epic, infinitely complex Lord of the Rings trilogy is work only for a madman or a wizard. Thank God Jackson is a little bit of both. This first Lord of the Rings movie is better than fans of the books possibly could have imagined. And that's saying a lot.
Set in prehistory in a fantastical place called Middle-earth, The Lord of the Rings centers on the story of an unlikely hero, a peace-loving homebody of a creature called a hobbit, who finds himself at the center of a great battle between good and evil. In order for good to triumph, this hobbit -- Frodo Baggins, played by that master of the wide-eyed innocent stare, Elijah Wood -- must travel far from his beloved Shire, over mountains, through mines, across rivers and valleys, at great danger to himself and his companions to destroy the bringer of all evil: a simple gold band he inherited from his cousin, Bilbo (Ian Holm).
The ring seems innocent enough; wearing it renders you invisible. But soon a nasty, at first almost unnoticeable side effect emerges: a mad obsession with the ring's power that grows over time. With the help of family friend and wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo soon discovers that the ring was created long ago by the evil Sauron and in it lies a will to power that's not exactly benevolent in nature. Once all-powerful before defeated by the race of men, Sauron wants to rule again. Regaining his ring will allow him to do so and in the process enslave hobbits, dwarves, elves, men -- all of Middle-earth. But not if the Bagginses have anything to say about it.
How a hobbit family came into possession of the ring is the story of The Hobbit, a prequel to the trilogy. Jackson (Heavenly Creatures) dispenses with that book's events in an excellent and beautifully imagined opening montage that traces the history of the ring, sets up Sauron as the big bad, and hints at the special effects stunners to come.
And they do come. The first -- and most important -- special effect Jackson employs is pitch-perfect casting. No one is out of place, from the bewildered but brave band of hobbit friends (Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan) to the rugged, road-weary protector of the ringbearer, Strider (Viggo Mortensen). Tolkien's rare female presences are beautifully wrought; Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett were born to play Elven queens. Blanchett is as ethereal and inscrutable as Galadriel was meant to be. Tyler's Arwen is more combative and more substantial than in the book, but it's a welcome evolution. Ethereal can only go so far.
Cue the villains. As staggering as this movie's attention to detail is, the stars of the show are its menacing bad guys. First and foremost is the ring, almost a character unto itself due to Jackson's deft touch; when the ring falls to the floor, we hear not the tinkle of gold hitting stone, but the soul-shaking boom of a battering ram. The film's mastery of Tolkien's darker stuff is evident early on when the Ringwraiths appear, with their voluminous black cloaks, hissing voices and ear-shattering shrieks. They bring the urgency of the quest to life, a feeling intensified by the grotesque orcs and a master race of mutated fighters called the Uruk-Hai. Jackson's coup de grace, however, is Gandalf's face-off with the ancient Balrog, a demon of shadow and fire destined for the nightmares of many a young viewer.
With all of this going on, it's easy to see how the drama of the tale could have been overshadowed by the effects. Jackson isn't above the occasional money shot, and the digital cave troll is as fake-looking as the one in Harry Potter (although the few early peeks we are afforded of former ring owner Gollum seem more promising). But what is so beautiful about Jackson's craftsmanship is how he masterfully corrals a mammoth cast spread out across at least a half-dozen mind-blowingly meticulous tableaux, making them all work in the service of his first love: Tolkien's tale. This is a movie made first and foremost for those who already cherish the trilogy, and purists should rejoice. A little tinkering around the edges leads to no serious missteps. And those unfamiliar with the material will definitely see what the mania is all about.
But don't rely on what you hear. For years, fans and filmmakers feared there were too many words to capture on screen. In the face of Peter Jackson's phenomenal adaptation, one finds that there are simply not enough.