The rest of the world is only now beginning to feel the tremors. J.R.R. Tolkien fans, however, have been feeling them for a while. The buzz has been building for more than a year, and last Friday even industry naysayers became enthusiastic about director Peter Jackson's three-movie adaptation of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

A select audience at France's Cannes Film Festival was treated to a 26-minute preview of footage from the still-unfinished film trilogy. The scenes presented were reportedly so astonishing that Rings has eclipsed dozens of finished films competing for the Palme D'Or award. "The best movie at Cannes isn't in competition," says a report at Mr. Showbiz. The Age, an Australian newspaper, reported, "Coming out of the cinema, back to the real world of Cannes cafes, the same line was repeated everywhere: 'I can't wait to see more.'" The wait won't last long; the first of three installments—The Fellowship of the Ring—reaches theatres this Christmas.

It must be a great relief for the folks at New Line Pictures, who have watched the cost of the trilogy climb to $270 million dollars. Robert Shaye, founder of New Line and CEO, personally presented the preview. A seven-minute summary came first, introducing Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin), and other major characters. Then came a 14-minute action sequence in which the heroes journey through the Mines of Moria, assailed by terrifying armies of orcs and, finally, a winged devil called a Balrog. The preview concluded with a three-minute collage of moments from the second and third chapter. (For further information on the preview's screening, visit's Cannes Festival page. The official movie Web site is

Even if the movies are as profound a cinematic achievement as optimists predict, perhaps their greatest influence will be to draw a new generation to the books themselves. Tolkien's storytelling, like that of C.S. Lewis, does not last merely because it offers frightening conflicts, memorable characters, and dazzling settings. Dozens of fantasy novels are compared to the works of Tolkien every year, and very few remain popular a decade later. What sets The Lord of the Rings apart?

This is a question I'd encourage readers to ponder as they read the trilogy before the film arrives in December. And yes, I'd encourage you to read it before December. The films may be spectacular, but Tolkien's language, something that can only be distantly echoed by a movie, is one of the great delights of his work. Reading The Lord of the Rings won't spoil it for you any more than reading the Bible can spoil The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told. Tolkien wrote for the love of what he called "co-creating with God," using his imagination for the sheer pleasure of it. Like a traveler returning from another world, he was compelled to share, in excruciating detail, what he beheld there. If the movies do succeed, Peter Jackson's achievement will be a signpost pointing the way to some of literature's finest mirrors of God's truth.

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Hot from the Oven

We still have seven months until we get to see The Fellowship of the Ring. In the meantime, there are lesser fantasies entertaining audiences. Dreamworks' Shrek opens this week and Disney's Atlantis opens soon after. Last week, A Knight's Tale opened impressively, just behind The Mummy's blockbuster sequel.

A Knight's Tale, written and directed by Brian Helgeland (an Oscar-winner for his L.A. Confidential screenplay), is anything but a heavily researched period piece; it's more like a medieval costume party. The movie packages medieval jousting action for the WWF crowd and sets it to classic rock. It's all very tongue-in-cheek, high-spirited, and an opportunity for rising star Heath Ledger (The Patriot) to see if he has what it takes to headline an action movie. While Ledger's performance isn't disappointing anyone, most critics are preoccupied discussing the film's audacious soundtrack. They are also noting its old-fashioned, cynicism-free spirit.

Michael Elliott at MovieParables thinks the movie is "quite enjoyable in a popcorn munching kind of way. There is a great deal of humor, the violent action is not graphic, and the love story and sexual references are tastefully handled. What Helgeland was going after was obviously mere entertainment, and on that score he delivers." Douglas Downs at Christian Spotlight on the Movies takes issue with the film's astrological references: "I … believe that our lives are better directed by Sovereign means than 'the changing of the stars'," he writes, but still he recommends the film. "It has all the charm of The Princess Bride."

Parents are encouraged to check the reviews at Preview, where they address aspects of the film that might be inappropriate for younger viewers. A Knight's Tale earns praise from the site's uncredited critic, who calls it "a real crowd-pleaser as it humorously mixes historical scenes with today's sports. Surprisingly, many Biblical references are included in the dialogue." Movieguide declares it "a warm, friendly, entertaining movie with lots of good things in it, including a great father-son relationship, a woman of virtue, bad behavior rebuked, and many positive references to God." Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser highlights what he believes are the film's honorable themes: "The idea that people can rise above social status and achieve great things … takes the fore. Nobility is not a birthright, but a matter of the heart." One scene in particular, he adds, offers "a fantastic, human illustration of mankind's redemption by Jesus Christ." Both Preview and Focus caution parents that some of the film's music contains potentially offensive lyrics, and the hero's behavior with the heroine gives the typical Hollywood endorsement of premarital sex, although this is implied rather than portrayed.

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Critics in both the mainstream and religious media found some chinks in the movie's armor. New York Times' critic Elvis Mitchell finds some method in the madness of the film's rock soundtrack: "For the new picture's spiritual inspiration, Mr. Helgeland uses the swinging 1960's, when the British learned that style could rise from what they perceived to be the gutter. [The movie] is about the opportunity for reinvention that pop has come to represent and the punk ethos of 'seize the day.' But this groovy notion is where Mr. Helgeland stops thinking." He argues that the film's sentimental "follow-your-dream theme" eventually makes the movie "bland and predictable." Brian Miller at The Seattle Weekly agrees: "So far as kids' movies are concerned, Knight's Tale is notable for its absence of darkness, cynicism, and blood. All the believe-in-yourself platitudes stand in refreshing contrast to Scream-style sarcasm; problem is, Scream's a lot more fun to watch." He complains that "the constant, jokey parallels between jousting and modern sports" are so relentless that the joke wears out early. And The U.S. Catholic Conference calls the film's duration "a bit indulgent."

But most critics give the movie the benefit of the doubt, thanks to its high-spirited bluster. Michael Atkinson of Mr. Showbiz had a grand time: "That A Knight's Tale aims only so high, and risks credibility in favor of laughing-gas intoxication every step of the way, should condemn it to mediocrity. But instead, the film emerges victorious."

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Parents will probably be pleased to find a simple, traditional, animated fairy tale in theatres this week. E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan is the story of Louie, a trumpeter swan born mute. The baby bird's kind father finds a trumpet and teaches him to play, giving him his own specific opportunity to overcome his weakness and become a unique and talented individual. It's a good-natured tale, but according to most critics, the quality of the production is disappointingly poor.

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Preview's review is the most generous, avoiding commentary on the quality of the production and focussing on the story: "Like the previous film adaptations of White's stories," their critic writes, "Louie's story is a hit with young audiences. And parents will like the lessons of correcting your wrongs, along with the acceptance and love a father shows for the child who's different." The U.S. Catholic Conference merely shrugs: "Directed by Richard Rich, the charming story with its message of support and honesty translates to pleasant if not exceptional family entertainment." But Movieguide's critic highlights a weakness that is trumpeted by most mainstream critics: "Like some of director Richard Rich's previous works, the movie looks more like a Saturday morning cartoon. It's too bad that the commitment to family values didn't extend to a commitment to entertainment value." The second-rate artistry gave the film such an insignificant opening that many mainstream critics merely ignored the film. Roger Ebert writes that The Trumpet of the Swan is "an innocuous family feature that's too little/too late in the fast-moving world of feature animation. Maybe younger children will enjoy it at home on video, but older family members will find it thin."

Going Back for Seconds

What films have been, for you, the most spiritually uplifting? That is the question posed in a survey presently at Readers are responding with an impressively broad array of answers, testifying to the influence of movies from the popular to the obscure, from screwball comedies to violent science fiction epics.

There are repeated appearances of titles like Wings of Desire, The Apostle and The Shawshank Redemption. Babette's Feast, based on Isak Dinesin's beautiful parable of grace, moved one contributor to say, "I've never looked at food and celebration the same." "Thirty years ago or so I was powerfully influenced by Patton, The Graduate, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Jesus Christ Superstar," wrote another. "I still am."

The big screen's powers of inspiration are clearly not limited to certain genres. Some nominated the horror classic The Exorcist. The Matrixis described as "the most important movie for this generation. A movie about a techno-messiah that will hopefully help people see that most of what they have been force-fed about reality and religion is all lies and artifice." One contributor applauded Tim Burton's whimsical fantasy Edward Scissorhands, which has often been viewed as a Christ allegory. Another mentioned the graphically violent and disturbing The Bad Lieutenant for its portrayal of the salvation of a deeply depraved policeman who literally comes face-to-face with Jesus. Many raved about The Last Temptation of Christ, grateful for a film that considered the often-neglected human characteristics of Jesus. "Finally," one viewer testified, "here is a messiah I can follow and actually hope to emulate."

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"Would anyone understand if I said that the movie Groundhog Day moved me spiritually?" someone asked. "The story of a man being stuck in the same day to live over and over again, until he gets it 'right' is the essence of what we all are trying to accomplish in our lifetime. He is finally 'released' when he realizes that the only way to live life is to be loving and giving toward others."

Representing a trend that is spreading through churches across the country (including my own), one writer mentioned that he leads "a monthly discussion group at a local church where we watch movies with spiritual/religious content and then discuss them. I have recently led discussions on: The Apostle, Contact, Priest, The Rapture, Black Robe, At Play In The Fields of The Lord, The Last Temptation Of Christ, The Devil's Advocate, Monty Python's Life of Brian, Dogma, Matrix, Keeping The Faith and Pleasantville. For Easter this year we are discussing Jesus of Montreal." Leading a similar group at my own church, I've been challenged by in-depth discussions of Limbo, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Decalogue, and The Big Kahuna.

Film Forum's primary purpose is to help you map your way through new features now playing, as well as to examine the different ways Christians view popular culture. But the survey has inspired me to start a new section of our column, highlighting past films that are rewarding inspiring, and challenging viewers. E-mail me with a description of the films that have moved you most, noting how the film inspired you. Occasionally I'll post your recommendations; I'd especially like to hear about the discussions other groups are enjoying after watching a particularly challenging film. Can't find such a group in your area? Maybe it's time to start one.

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Next week: Responses to Dreamworks' new animated fantasy Shrek and other films.

Jeffrey Overstreet is on the board of Promontory Artists Association, a non-profit organization based in Seattle, which provides community, resources, and encouragement for Christian artists. He edits an artists' magazine (The Crossing), publishes frequent film and music reviews on his Web site (Looking Closer), and is at work on a series of novels.

Related Elsewhere

See earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: The Mummy Returns, Bridget Jones's Diary, Along Came a Spider, Driven, Blow, Spy Kids, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, and Memento.