Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
dir. Peter Jackson
Now playing at various theaters.

The Royal Tenenbaums
dir. Wes Anderson
Opens Fri Dec 21 at the Neptune.

A lot of movies came out this year, it's true. As of right now, however, it's difficult to imagine that 2001 was ever leading up to anything but the releases, a few days apart, of the only two real event movies of the season: Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring. Although the hype jets may have been more steadily fixed elsewhere, those in the know have long understood that the follow-up to Rushmore and the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy masterwork are far more central to the collective cinematic nervous system.

Of course, the fact that they aren't Harry Potter, that undercooked sausage of kid-lit cinema, hardly means the pictures have been hype-free; my friend and fellow Tolkien drooler called me the other day to tell me he'd just seen the "one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them" spin into the Burger King logo on TV. Sigh.

Tenenbaums has been subjected to a more highbrow strain of hype--since the motley family portrait can't really be used to sell French fries, The New Yorker will have to do.

But are these films events only because Burger King and The New Yorker tell us so? Hardly. Aside from the mammoth ambition of adapting not one, but three much-loved novels, the Lord of the Rings films promise to take over the withered Star Wars series' place as a generation's pop mythology of choice. Laser weaponry notwithstanding, all the elements are there: humble heroes, unvanquishable villains, and a holy quest. The Royal Tenenbaums comes to fill a more specialized need: the need to see what Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson will come up with next. Rushmore, their first collaboration, was a triumph on many levels, offering wry wit, emotional subtlety, uncanny design, and, at long last, a great part for the great Bill Murray. Best of all, within the theatrical artifice of its construction, it rang true, lending the thrilling sense that the artists behind it owned a distinctive, fully formed talent, and the soul to go with it. Tenenbaums represents another peek into the miniaturized vision that only these filmmakers can realize.

Upon viewing the two films, there was the inevitable letdown that follows such a prolonged expectation. Not that the films were poor--they simply had too much competition from their imaginary counterparts, the movies I'd seen in my head while waiting for the real things. As that insipid inner dialogue melted away, and I began to sift through my responses to these two wildly different pictures, what emerged was an unshakable sense that they're unified by more than the proximity of their release dates.

It's true that on the face of it, you couldn't ask for two more disparate forms of storytelling than Jackson's epic megalodrama and Anderson's dainty modernism. But underneath the coats of genre and stylization, the motors that drive these films are essentially the same: They're both fantasies striving to portray a world that already exists, however arcanely, in the collective imagination--two worlds begging to be given form.

Oddly, the world of The Fellowship of the Ring is the more familiar of the two, primarily because it has been documented at length, in words and on maps, for about 60 years. Tolkien conceived the land and inhabitants of Middle-earth in thoroughgoing, near-Biblical detail over the course of several fantasy books which became the lodestones of the genre. Their elemental influence permeates pop culture; even those of us who have no time for fantasy fiction have heard Led Zeppelin.

The Royal Tenenbaums occupies a universe whose source is a bit harder to put your finger on. Its iconography is equal parts synthesis and invention, a kind of Upper West Side of the mind in which J. D. Salinger, Orson Welles, and the Rolling Stones each take their place in an imaginary landscape full of rusty cabs, block-print hardcover book jackets, and the lost art of falconry. The New York City we see in the film, dotted by labyrinthine brownstones in which every room is a color-coded testament to Anderson's purposeful design fetish, distills the city's power to belong to everyone who has ever set foot there.

The Tenenbaums themselves are a distillation of how outsiders view the lives of the privileged, a potent combination of envy and contempt, effortlessness and incompetence. Their patriarch, Royal (played with masterful insouciance by Gene Hackman), is a curmudgeon for the ages, so blind to his own selfishness that he feigns a fatal illness in an attempt to bring his hyper-estranged family closer together. But he's also, crucially, an outsider, having left the nest many years ago to pursue a life of hedonism. The film turns on his cockeyed desire to re-ignite the hearth, and to recapture a union that only ever existed in the eyes of people pressed against the glass, looking in. The famous family--three genius kids in varying stages of neurotic collapse (Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow), and a wife he never divorced (Angelica Houston)--aren't quite as eager to forget the past, or forgo the resentments that have made them what they are. Rather than let Royal back inside, they cling to the thwarted honor of their neuroses. In their world, the only currency is belonging, and the only power lies in withholding.

What makes the film shine is the pristine frame around Anderson's depiction of all the anger, incest, mescaline, and suicide; he focuses not on the tempest, but on the teacup, the tennis dresses, the wall decorations, the closetful of board games--the artifacts. The primacy of the conflict is held at an artful distance. That distance elevates the story, which is told, as was Rushmore, in snapshots, diagrams, and line drawings, into a freshly minted archetype: the adaptation of an unwritten novel we've all read.

Because its source novel was written, The Fellowship of the Ring has a lot more imagination to surmount than Tenenbaums, which invents an imagination for us. Any film that tries to put faces and places to names like Bilbo and Frodo, Gandalf and Elrond, or Sauron and Mordor, begins with the challenge of not violating the preconceived images of the reader. Director Peter Jackson's adaptation is stunning not because it tries to duplicate the novel in three dimensions, but because it resounds as an evocation of it, hairy feet and all. The artifice of this world is a given; for some it's a deal breaker. If you can't say "Nazgul" without laughing, this is not the film for you. Within that, however, Jackson imbues his Middle-earth with a kind of realism, a working model of the place with principles and consequences (Gandalf bumps his head on the Hobbit-hole ceiling, for example) that allow the characters to follow their perilous quest with credibility.

Living up to the legend of Lord of the Rings requires more than CGI Orcs and a faithful translation of Elvish, however. Letting the adventure unfold--Hobbits on the run from the riders, Gandalf's confrontation with Saruman, the impossible battle in Moria's mines--is only part of the task (one Jackson pulls off heroically). To truly capture the spirit of the trilogy demands a sacrifice few epic films are allowed to make: no resolution. Fellowship ends in anticlimax, leaving the viewer to decide whether the quest is worth continuing. Without the anticlimactic ending, it's just another pseudo-Odyssey, replete with monsters and morals. But by refusing to force a catharsis, by letting the Hobbits waddle off into the ether alone and vulnerable, Jackson pays respect to the legend even as he creates it, allowing the imaginary world to live and breathe for us when the film is over. Which is all we're asking for, really.

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