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The Lord of the Rings never really rang my bell. I read most of it as a child but my heart lay with Enid Blyton, not J. R. R. Tolkien, and Mallory Towers distracted me from the final volume of the three-part epic.
My 14-year-old nephew, Richard, however, knows his trolls from his orcs, can recite pages of elfin poetry at the drop of a hobbit's hood and has memorised the maps of Middle Earth with the attention to detail of an SAS man about to be parachuted in. He has read The Lord of the Rings three times, cover to cover, and when he's not officially rereading it, it dominates his bedside table, like a Gideon bible in a cheap motel.
Yet going back to the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, to refresh my memory for the film, I was swept up by the journey of Frodo and his friends to destroy the evil, all-powerful ring. But, equally, I was appalled, as I hadn't been the first time round, by the pompous language and those dodgy female characters. "Maybe you just don't get fantasy," Richard said. "I mean, an elf princess is an elf princess. It's not like she needs a proper job or anything."
But, thanks to Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first part of which hits cinemas on December 19, I think we may have bonded to the point where we'll be sticking on elfin ears at New Year's Eve and creating our own two-person fellowship.
The film is almost three-hours long but it whizzed past faster than one of Gandalf's fireworks, which turned the sky above Hobbiton into a blaze of eye-piercing special effects. From those first scenes, where the old wizard (Ian McKellen) is in charge of pyrotechnics at the 111th birthday party of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), to the gruesome battle scenes near the end, where Bilbo's nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood) tries to keep the ring out of evil's way, we were gripped.
Jackson, a New Zealander whose previous credits include Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, has ensured that his script stays loyal to the original. He has said that the cast and crew were themselves Tolkien fanatics. It shows.
There has been some careful editing. Thankfully, much of the laborious elfin poetry has taken a hike. Admittedly, one of my favourite characters, Tom Bombadil, the kind-hearted Master of the Forest who saves Frodo's pals Merry and Pippin from the evil Old Man Willow, has been slashed, but it matters not.
The relationship between the elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) and the mortal Aragorn (a brilliant performance from Viggo Mortensen) is padded out, as one might expect of a blockbuster with no other "love interest".
Their quickie kiss on a bridge -- not in the book, and the cause of consternation among the Tolkien Internet nerds -- seems entirely appropriate. It is short, sweet and not so mawkish that it detracts from Aragorn's real job: helping Frodo with his quest. Tyler is adequate but she does not shine like Cate Blanchett, who plays the elf queen Galadriel with effortless grace.
Wood, with his blue, cartoon eyes, mophead and filthy fingernails, is more hobbit than human. Thanks to clever camera angles and special effects the 5ft 6in actor appears to be the perfect 3ft 6ins hobbit. It is hard to imagine a better Frodo.
McKellen brings a wonderful gravitas to the proceedings. His Gandalf is kind but firm, worthy of respect but never scary. If McKellen and Christopher Lee (Saruman) don't win Oscar nominations, I'm an orc. My only gripe is the ending, which is strangely anti-climatic after some bombastic battle scenes.
As, for Harry Potter: as Gandalf would doubtless vouch, there are trainee wizards and then there's the real thing.