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Tolkien blockbuster film has Swiss ring

Evil Saruman in a scene from the film "Lord of the Rings" Keystone

As JRR Tolkien's epic "Lord of the Rings" opened in Switzerland on Wednesday, the artistic concepts of the Neuchâtel-based illustrator John Howe played a starring role.

Howe, who relocated to Switzerland in the 1980s, helped propel the film to screen, with his compelling sketches and paintings of characters and dramatic events in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

As the man responsible for the film’s artistic concept, Howe explored the complex Tolkien universe in Part One of the Tolkien trilogy. The film, which cost $300 million (SFr490 million) to make, is expected to pay off handsomely. If it reaches number one at the box office, as predicted, it could earn $38 million (SFr62 million) in a single weekend.

Over the years, more than 100 million readers have felt the magic and conjured their own picture of Tolkien’s world, a benchmark fantasy that portrays a struggle between good and evil in a setting of mythic proportions. Now, audiences in Switzerland and elsewhere can enter the fantasy world created through Howe’s vision of the book. On Wednesday, long lines of eager filmgoers were reported at movie theatres.

Cast and crew of thousands

The first film of the Tolkien saga was shot by multiple crews on 274 days during a three-year period. It features thousands of digital wizards, and required the expertise of medieval weapons experts, stone sculptors, linguists, costumers, make-up designers, blacksmiths, model builders, actors and extras.

Howe’s mission at the outset was to give a level of integrity to the fantasy world by creating an alternative art history. He designed costume styles and artefacts, and generally made the imaginary universe as realistic as possible.

Creating a world

“You can’t make a real world in so little time, and to actually try and achieve some form of solidity was very difficult, but it was something that we were very attached to” Howe explained to swissinfo.”The problem is, you are dealing with a whole set of cultural values that you have translated in some way to bring them closer to the novel, which was the reference”.

The Lord of the Rings is directed by Peter Jackson, a New Zealander who moved Hollywood to the South Pacific for more than three years. Funded by the American cinema industry, the film and special effects are entirely shot among the strange subtropical New Zealand landscapes. It is rare for film directors to persuade the big film production companies to uncompromisingly go their way.

Jackson has written the preface for a new book written by Howe and published by Harper Collins. Howe plans to hold a booksigning in Payot bookshop, Neuchâtel on Friday. The artist’s works are also on display in Fribourg in the gallery “La Bulle”.

Monsters’ fingernails

“It is difficult to adapt this kind of book to the screen because you had to cut so many things and expand others to make a literary work become a piece of cinema” Howe said. “Peter Jackson had a well defined notion of what he wanted and as a result he pushed me into areas I would have never dreamed of going spontaneously”.

Howe moved his family to New Zealand, where he spent 18 months, on the set every day. He sketched hundreds of images using the backdrop of rugged South Island New Zealand landscapes. The drawings turned into miniature and life sized models, with realistic touches including the dirt under the monsters’ fingernails.

“We spent 10-12 hours a day drawing, which is quite a load to carry, and it had to be done on the spot. I think the thing that allowed us to take it on was being unaware of the amount of work involved. Had I had a clear idea of what I would end up producing over a sustained period of time I would have thought twice, but it simply didn’t occur to me. So I closed my eyes and jumped in.”

by Devra Pitt

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR