Film Nerd 2.0 begins a march through Middle-Earth with ‘Fellowship Of The Ring’

There's not a week that goes by without someone either e-mailing me or reaching out through Facebook or Twitter to tell me how much they love the “Star Wars” series I wrote here as part of Film Nerd 2.0. That is something that I can't quantify in terms of how much it means to me that what I went through with the boys resonated so loudly for so many people, and I am excited to be able to share a new “Star Wars” film with them for the first time ever later this year.

But when it came to one of the other major movie trilogies, my approach was a little less considered. When the first chapter of the “Hobbit” trilogy came out in theaters, the boys were well aware of it and asked repeatedly to go see it. For movies based on books, I try to encourage them to read the book before they see the film, and in some cases, I make that a condition of them seeing the film. WIth the “Harry Potter” series, they had to hold off for two years until we'd gone through the entire book series, and it certainly felt like their experience was richer as a result. We read “The Hobbit” over the span of a few weeks, and then on New Year's Eve, my wife and her mother went out to a party, and I stayed home with the boys and watched the awards-season screener of the “Hobbit” that I'd been sent. They enjoyed it quite a bit, but right away, they realized that the movie and the book were very different experiences.

We ended up seeing the other two “Hobbit” films in the series, and by the end, they enjoyed the movies, but not in a deep way. I can tell which things matter to them and which things don't by watching the way they play in the days and weeks after they see a movie. When they love something, it gets folded into the weird shared imaginary world they inhabit when they start playing. It's an ongoing, living thing, this collective land where all their favorite things are mashed up into one cohesive fantasy where Jack Burton and the Indominus Rex can encounter Yoda and Mad Max and Batman, who are united against Godzilla. It doesn't make a lick of sense when I'm listening to them, but so what? Characters rotate in and out, and space is just as likely a location for their fantasies as any other. Concepts like time travel and pocket universes are completely routine to them, and their world view makes room for giant monsters, ghosts, super-intelligent robots, superheroes, magic, and talking apes. They live in a better world than I do, and I will fight savagely to protect that for them.

Based on their reactions to the “Hobbit” movies, I decided to hold off on Jackson's earlier trilogy until they specifically asked for them. I was careful not to say anything about them, one way or another, to avoid creating expectations of any kind. The last few months, Toshi's been on a real bender, and we've been watching some big titles, things he's been circling for a while. I knew it was coming, and sure enough, on a recent weekend, Toshi pulled several titles down from the shelf and laid them out on the coffee table so he could scrutinize the covers and ask me questions.

We recently watched “The Sixth Sense,” and he's seen enough Spielberg films to know that he wants to see the rest, and so he spent some time sizing up the cover to “A.I.,” which he's asked about previously. He's also been interested in “Big,” The Omega ManRudy, “The Jerk,” and more.  In the end, though, after his questions and his careful consideration, he told me he felt like it was time for “Lord Of The Rings,” and I shocked him by thinking it over and saying, “Yes.”

I decided that we're going to start with the Extended Editions of all three films. Simply put, why should I hold back material from them, especially in the films where I feel like crucial information was cut from the theatrical versions. I'm looking at you, “Return Of The King.” That means each of the movies I'm screening for them will be around four hours, something that sounds like a test even for my kids.

Saturdays have become our big day together. That's where we try to plan the most  things to do, and we pack in as much as possible. For the days we're doing these films, we're getting up early, going out for breakfast, then taking a walk or playing in the park for a while. At lunchtime, we watch the first disc of the film. Then it's time to play for a while and get outside again. Since it's pool season now, the boys love using the pool in my building, and by the time we wrap up an afternoon of swimming, they're good and tired, worn out and ready to relax. So that's perfect for dinner and the second half of the movie, followed by some reading or some game playing. These days, it is the time I spend with the kids that makes all the rest of it tolerable, and I was curious to see if they would enjoy the dense texts of these films or if they'd be bored, something which several of my nerd parent friends have warned me about. Makes sense, too. These movies are full of spectacle and mayhem, certainly, but they are also driven by the world-building and the character work, and that doesn't feel particularly inviting to younger viewers.

One of the things I try to convey to the kids when we talk before a movie is context. I am well aware that my reactions to movies are anchored in the context in which I saw them. “Fellowship Of The Ring” came at a time when I was pretty much neck-deep in Ain't It Cool, when we were having the most fun with whatever it was we were building, and it also came mere months after 9/11. The idea of heroism in the face of overwhelming odds and terrifying chaos was especially potent at that moment, and I have always suspected that part of the reason it hit me as deeply as it did is because I needed that message at that particular moment. I needed someone to reassure me that there will always be power in the act of decent people standing up to evil. Would the film's message mean the same thing to Toshi and Allen a full fourteen years later?

What was immediately apparent is that their reaction to the “Hobbit” series has nothing whatsoever to do with their reaction to these films. They are totally different things to the kids. From the opening, “Fellowship” had them on edge, absorbed, and they seemed to soak up the mythology quickly. They also fell in love with the characters here in a very different way. I wasn't sure what they thought of Gandalf in the “Hobbit” films, but here, they seemed to like him right away. There were some connections they enjoyed, and Toshi especially liked it when the giant stone trolls showed up. “They're from the 'Hobbit' movie! That's them!” They also both loved seeing Legolas again, who had been a highlight from the 'Hobbit' films, and they already like Bloom from his role in the first three “Pirates” movies.

What was also immediately apparent is that I forgot that Peter Jackson started his career making horror movies, and his visual vocabulary in “Fellowship” leans heavily on his horror roots. This is a seriously scary movie, and there were places throughout the film that had both of my sons positively freaking out. The first appearance of the Ringwraith by the side of the road, the bugs scrambling to escape the earth because of the weird frequency of evil pouring off of the thing, had Allen curled up against me, watching with only one eye. Pretty much every scene with the Ringwraiths had them freaked out, and the Uruk-Hai weren't much better. Watching the birthing of the Uruk-Hai in Saruman's weird Orc pit, both of the kids were basically cringing away from the screen.

One moment in particular really screwed with them, though, and because it came near the end of the first half of the film, they were able to tell me exactly how much they didn't like it and ask about a million questions regarding what the moment meant. It's during the Rivendell sequence, when Bilbo and Frodo see each other for the first time in a while. During their conversation, Bilbo has a moment where he sees the Ring for the first time, and when Frodo goes to put it away, Bilbo changes, for just a quick flash, into a nightmare monster version of himself. It freaked the two of them out, and Allen had tears in his eyes when he asked me if Bilbo was going to do that again. I promised he wouldn't, and then when we made it to the break, Allen asked me why that happened. “Bilbo's his daddy. Why did he do that?”

I explained to him that Bilbo isn't Frodo's father, but that doesn't really matter. He and Frodo are family. They love each other. His point is valid in that he couldn't imagine what would make Bilbo act like that towards Frodo. “It's the Ring,” I told him. “The Ring changes anyone who carries it. The change is very slow, but over time, it gets hold of people, and they lose themselves. The reason Bilbo gave the Ring up in the first place was so it didn't change him any more than it already had.”

Wide-eyed, Allen shook his head. “I don't like the Ring. Not at all.”

When we first saw the Mines Of Moria scene in early 2001, it was remarkable because of the tech on display and the breathless way Jackson built the scene from the moment the heroes entered the Mines to the heartbreaking “Fly, you fools!” from Gandalf at the end. In the fourteen years since, plenty of filmmakers have bored elements or ideas or the energy of that sequence, and the tech has become commonplace. I was actually nervous before showing them the second half, convinced that they weren't going to react well to it, or that it would seem too familiar.

I shouldn't have worried. Their investment in the characters is what made the film work, and I sometimes underestimate my kids and their ability to look past the tech to the ideas on display. What impressed me most was how quickly they became attached to every member of the Fellowship, and how quickly they knew their names and their relationships and their personalities. When Gandalf faced down the Balrog, they were furious and also really sad, but that was nothing compared to the reaction they had when Boromir tried to take the Ring from Frodo. It was like they'd been personally betrayed. They were outraged. Scandalized. And when Bormoir redeemed himself, their joy was infectious but short-lived. He dies a hero's death in the film, but it's brutal. I always forget just how big those arrows are that the Uruk-Hai keeps shooting into him, one after another.

At ten years old, Toshi gets very invested in the films he watches, and he takes after me in that he has very real emotional reactions to these things. It makes me laugh right now, though, because he works hard not to let me see his emotional reactions. The way my living room is set up, there's an easy chair and a big couch, and he will often sit in the easy chair, pulled as far from the couch as possible, so he can have his private reactions to things. Allen's the opposite right now. He views movies as an excuse to hang out and cuddle and rough house. It's nearly impossible to make it through a whole film at home without at least one break for Allen to scream and climb all over and end up breathless from laughter when I tickle him mercilessly.

Towards the end of “Fellowship,” when Frodo tries to slip away unnoticed and Sam finds him at the river, then swims out to join him, I looked over at Toshi. Even just seeing him from the side, it was clear he was soaked in tears. He kept wiping them away, and they just kept falling, and when the film ended, he managed to find enough of his voice to ask me, “Dad, is Sam going to be okay?”

“You know I can't tell you that.”

“I need you to tell me that. Is Sam going to be there to help Frodo? Are they going to make it?”

“Think about the films I've shown you. Do you think I'd show you a story where the bad guys beat someone like Sam and Frodo?”

That seemed to help. Later that night was when we had our amazing experience with “Halloween,” and then the following day was a birthday party for one of their friends. And on the way home from that, as the two of them were playing in the back seat, I heard them mention Frodo and Aragorn, and I smiled, knowing that Middle-Earth had finally been folded into their own personal mythology, and also knowing just how much more story they've still got to go. Even though they'll only end up with a few weeks between each of the films, that anticipation from movie to movie is part of the fun, and based on the phone calls and texts Toshi's been sending since “Fellowship,” he's as on the hook as he can be.