February 18, 2002
Tolkien For Dummies
miles to go: 1,950.01

As a graduate of the Always Read The Book Before You See The Movie school of film appreciation, I still haven't seen "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Apprentice," "Bridget Jones's Diary" or "Ghost World." (And it will probably be years before I do see any of these movies, mainly because I currently seem to be tearing through books at a rip-roarin' one page per every 4.6 weeks. Recreational reading has once again become one of those things for which I have limited time/attention/energy/opportunity molecules.)

I made an exception for "The Lord of the Rings" this weekend for two reasons.

Reason One: free popcorn.

Reason Two: I had no intention of ever reading "The Lord of the Rings" ANYWAY.

I've tried to read J.R.R. Tolkien, over the years. I really have. "The Hobbit" was the centerpiece of our sixth grade *Smart Kids Who Will Be Geeky Unpopular Outcasts in High School* advanced-level reading class. I remember finding it ponderous, impenetrable and weird, like an Algebra textbook, or The Bible. But I managed to get through it anyway, earning an A- on my book report. 

Later, as a geeky unpopular teenage outcast, I tried reading The Lord of the Rings, mainly because all of the really cool people in my family -- my mother, my grandmother, my groovy Uncle Jerry -- were rabid Tolkien junkies, and I wanted to be just like them. (Sort of the same reason I started drinking and smoking.) Once again, I found it painfully slow-going. The prose and the imagery simply didn't capture my heart and my imagination, the way they had my family members. So I abandoned the effort after a couple of headachy late-night library book sessions.

As an adult, I had relationships with a couple of men who were passionate about the Ring books, so I gave them another spin. Once again, it was more than I could handle. (The books and the relationships, actually.)

And now I'm married to a Lord of the Rings devotee. It must be fate.

To his credit, David has never put any pressure on me to read Tolkien. But then again, pressuring people to do stuff they don't want to do isn't his style. (Instead, he uses subliminal persuasion and subtle mind-control techniques, until the next thing you know you're eating Thai food/listening to Pere Ubu/riding a bike/celebrating three and a half years of sobriety. He's a sneaky one, that Ю僱êrvØ¡.) He owns a handsome leather-bound set of The Lord of the Rings, and once in a while he drags it down off the bookshelf and re-re-re-re-reads favorite passages. But he never says, "You should be reading this book, Secra" ... or "I think you might enjoy this book, Secra" ... or "I'm going back into the chat room to shop for a groovier wife RIGHT NOW if you don't read this book, Secra." I know the books are there, should I ever want to read them. He knows I know they're there. I know he knows I know they're there.

We're comfortable with this arrangement.

In the meantime, when the movie hit the theaters last year -- when it immediately became this huge international phenomenon, breaking all sorts of box office records and garnering buttloads of awards and nominations and People Magazine articles -- I was faced with a personal dilemma. Do I break my own cardinal rule about reading the book before I see the movie? Or do I attempt to schlog my way through 43,897,621 pages' worth of incomprehensible dialogue, weird stilted description and ELFSPEAK, forcryingoutloud, just so I can go see this year's Big Movie?

The dilemma was solved for me when David announced "You need to see this movie in a theater."

This is my other cardinal movie-going rule: when somebody tells you that this is a film you need to see in the theater -- as opposed to waiting for it to come out on video or on HBO or as an ABC Movie of the Week, six years from now -- you go see it in the theater. Period. (To this day, I still wish I'd seen 'Last of the Mohicans' for the first time in an honest-to-goodness theater, instead of as a rental movie: I can only imagine how enjoyably devastating it would have been to see Alice step off that cliff in Dolby Surround Sound.) 

David had already seen 'Lord of the Rings' -- he went to see it with his kids last month -- and he assured me that the story line was linear enough and backstoried enough for even the non-fans in the audience to follow. Tolkien For Dummies, as it were.  Plus, he said, attempting to entice me with Secrastuff,  there would be plenty of things *I* like. Romance. Magic. Cute edgy anti-heroes. An Enya-worthy soundtrack. Lavish CGI-generated scenery straight out of a Maxfield Parrish painting.

Free popcorn.

The next thing I knew, David and I were settling into our seats at The Grand Lake Cinema in Oakland with our mega-bucket of rubbery theater popcorn, watching the opening credits roll by.

And of course I was hooked, three minutes into the film.

The plot, at least as *I* interpreted it, goes something like this. Elijah Wood -- he of the snaggly teeth and the Go Speed Racer eyes -- is a hobbit who has embarked on a complex and dangerous quest, attempting to return an evil gold ring to the source of its creation in order to destroy it forever. Accompanying him on his quest are his best friend Sam, a couple of other hobbits whose names I didn't catch, a dwarf whose name I didn't catch, an elf whose name I didn't catch, and not one but TWO Cute Edgy Anti-Hero Guys whose names I didn't catch. Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett make brief luminous appearances, as Elf Royalty whose names I didn't catch, but it's clear that their roles are secondary ... mostly to ensure that there will be a couple of female Happy Meal toys. Every once in a while the story line would explode into another raucous, violent battle scene with progressively ickier-looking wraiths and monsters and bad guys. It was like watching a football game: prolonged periods of relative inactivity, where the players stand around in little anxious huddles, discussing strategy and frowning a lot ... followed by brief moments of violent noisy activity ... followed by another prolonged period of inactivity. But it was all done with such artistic and creative finesse that the periods of activity and inactivity were equally interesting and watchable.

I even experienced a major Whoa Moment, about a third of the way into the movie, when Frodo and his group of adventurers reach the elf kingdom. Rivendell is an EXACT REPLICA of a place I visit in one of my favorite serial dreams ... right down to the the Bavarianesque architecture, the huge snowcapped mountains and the cascading waterfalls. My reaction was intensely visceral: I almost shouted "Oh my god! I've BEEN there!" right in the middle of the hushed movie theater. (But I didn't: that would have been bad theater manners.)

I suppose the thing that surprised me the most about the movie, though -- besides unexpectedly visiting the village from my dreams, I mean, or besides the fact that my butt didn't go numb in that cramped little theater seat -- is how quickly three hours flew by, even without an intermission. I only recall checking my watch a couple of times.

The other thing that surprised me? How anxious I am to see the next installment.

I want to know what happens to Frodo and his faithful pal, Sam. (While we're at it, I want to know who Sam's real father is. Is it John Astin? Or Desi Arnaz, Jr.?) I want to know if Gandalf is permanently dead this time, or just sort of temporarily dead again. I want to see more romance develop between Liv Tyler and the Cute Edgy Anti-Hero Guy Who Didn't Die in the First Movie. I want to see if the blond Bow-and-Arrow Elf Guy braids his own hair in the mornings, or if he has somebody braid it for him. I want to know if they rescue the two dim little hobbits who were kidnapped by the bad guys. And of course I want to know if the ring is destroyed, once and for all.

The way I see it, I can either wait another ten excruciating months -- until the second movie finally arrives in the theaters -- in order to get the answers to these burning questions.

Or I can cheat ... and read the book.

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happy belated birthday, BEV!
[the sea monkeys are in the mail.]