UNION SQUARE, NYC–The room is hot and overcrowded. The chairs have all been claimed long ago, and now it’s standing room only–though precious little remains even of that.
An excited chatter arises from the throng: “I wonder what he’s like?”
“Oh, I saw the entire cast at the Lincoln Center event on Saturday–he’s awesome.”
”He” is Andy Serkis
. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you clearly won’t have much conversational capital with this crowd. Serkis, of course, is Gollum/Sméagol in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy
. If that doesn’t ring a bell, heaven help you.
Serkis is at the Union Square Barnes and Noble to sign copies of his new book, appropriately titled Gollum. It is a personal account of Serkis’s experience with the movie, as well as a close look at the Gollum/Sméagol character, as a literary figure, and more as a groundbreaking film creation. Serkis’s Gollum is, after all, the first completely lifelike, computer-generated (CG) character in movie history.
As 7 P.M. nears, the crowd grows, in size and anticipation. Those who arrived early enough to get a seat have been wristbanded, to ensure that they receive a signed copy. For those outside the cordoned-off area, hope begins to dim, until a B & N staffer announces that Serkis will sign more books; the line, she adds, will begin along the Art & Architecture wall. I look up to see what section I’m in; next to me, someone squeals in delight. We are at the front of the line.
We don’t have it all, though. Behind pillars and closely clustered heads, the podium area is mostly out of sight. Regardless, everyone knows when Serkis enters: Wild applause greets him, along with girlish shrieks of “He’s so cute!” This, about the man who played a treacherous, abased, slimy, crawling, cave-dwelling, raw-fish-flesh-eating scoundrel?
Serkis is, in real life, quite unlike Gollum: He appears friendly, at ease, good natured, well spoken. I recognize him immediately as the uncorrupted Sméagol from Return of the King, and he bears a striking facial resemblance (in the best way, of course) to the CG Gollum.
Serkis’s remarks are brief; there are hundreds of books to be signed. He explains why he wrote Gollum, and reads a passage. Then, to the delight of all, he acts out a scene–a notorious dialogue from the Two Towers, in which good Sméagol manages, if ever so briefly, to subdue the darker of his two personalities. Without makeup, costume, or computer tricks, the scene is as convincing as if it had been plucked from the film–perhaps even more so, because it is unexpected, and played out right before us. The audience explodes into riotous clapping and cheers and whistles. They take a while to calm down, but why not? The accolades are well deserved.
Finally, the event opens up to Q & A. First question, and one evidently on many minds: “Are there plans to make a film of The Hobbit? Will you be in it?” It’s not an impossibility, though apparently Peter Jackson has not yet been able to get the rights. I overhear a whisper next to me: “At another event, I heard that Jackson is hesitant to do it, because the Hobbit is such a different narrative–so linear.” Sure enough, seconds later, from Serkis: “The thing about The Hobbit is that it’s a much more linear story.” Lord of the Rings nerd though I am, here, I am clearly outmatched.
As the discussion wraps up, the wait begins. While we are at the front of the line–we, the orange wrist-banded, the chosen–we must wait patiently for the seated folks with the more coveted green bands to go first. It takes a while, so I make conversation.
I am standing next to two diehard LotR fans, Stephanie, who is 23 years old, and Catherina, 22. They are old pros at LotR gatherings: They were at the Lincoln Center Lord of the Rings Weekend (a two-day event featuring the three films introduced by cast members), and “Trilogy Tuesday” in mid-December, when the first two LotR extended-version films were shown back-to-back, followed by a day-early screening of Return of the King. Stephanie and Catherina have read the books multiple times; they play Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit frequently. Stephanie is kicking herself for not bringing the game cards.
We are three women in our early twenties, but surveying the audience, it’s obvious that LotR has a hyper-universal appeal. How does a story by a conservative, devoutly Catholic Oxford medievalist and philologist–begun as a showcase for made-up languages–become, almost 50 years later, so beloved by so many, most of whom couldn’t care less about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Why are so many crowded into this now unbearably hot, claustrophobic space–young and old, male and female, black and white, nerdy and (pseudo-) normal?
“It’s the timing,” answer Stephanie and Catherina in unison. They, like many, are of the mind that given the state of world affairs, a tale about absolute good and evil–and the need for the former to confront and vanquish the latter–is comforting, and applicable, and needed. That this opinion is widely held is comforting in itself. They and another fan add that it’s also the story’s undefeatable sense of hope that draws so many in: “I like it because it’s so hopeful–it’s about not giving up. It’s about friendship, and how no one is alone. We all need our friends and neighbors,” says Sunny, who is 24.
As we get closer to Serkis, I ask the woman in front of me for her opinion. She repeats something the others have all said, too: “Well, it’s just such a good story.”
Yes, prreeciioouussss–it is.
–Meghan Clyne is an NR associate editor.