The cinematic journey finally began Wednesday for Lord of the Rings fans.

Lovers of the fantasy epic — including some who waited decades for a big-screen version — packed theaters nationwide to see the first installment of the film trilogy debut.

"I had high hopes for it, and they came through," said 35-year-old Amy Shapiro, a business manager at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose entire office took the day off to see the movie.

"I've been waiting all my life for this," she added, noting that — like many fans — she read J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child.

Reviews like those are expected to turn The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring into an instant box-office blockbuster. Advance ticket sellers have already reported that the movie based on the trilogy's first book was responsible for roughly 85 percent of their sales this week.

Russ Leatherman, founder of the Moviefone ticket telephone service, said the enthusiastic response was likely to make Rings second only to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone this season.

On Wednesday, fans from adults to schoolchildren lined up outside movie theaters for a chance to view the start of the journey of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit on a quest to destroy the One Ring.

Steven Ashley was at the bustling Loews Cinema at Boston Common. He'd already seen the film on Tuesday but returned for another screening with his co-workers from Stainless Steel Studios, a game company in Cambridge, Mass.

"I'll probably see it again," the 27-year-old said. "It didn't seem like three hours. I actually wanted more."

In San Francisco, fans started lining up outside the Metreon Theater just after 7:30 a.m., reading newspapers and clutching cups of coffee as they waited more than two hours for the first showing of the day.

"We're pretty much all a bunch of geeks," said Marcus Flores, a 31-year-old tobacco shop manager.

Some hardcore fans had wondered if the filmmakers could ever win them over.

Mike Field, a 44-year-old administrator at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, had thought it impossible to recreate the treacherous journey of Frodo and his alliance through villain-plagued Middle Earth.

"As the lights went down I was sort of sitting there cross-armed like, 'Go ahead, try to impress me,"' he said. "They certainly did."

Still others predicted that the film and its two sequels — all filmed at the same time — would take their place among other classic epics. Clifton Robinson, a high school student from Cleveland, said the film was "monumental — kind of like the new Star Wars.'

Elizabeth Stone and Samantha Meyer, teen-agers from Chicago, said Rings was even better than Harry Potter.

"I liked Harry Potter, but it got a little slow at the end," Stone said. "This movie never slows down. It's great!"

Like Potter, Lord of the Rings has the advantage of a fanatically loyal fan base of readers. Hard-core Tolkien fans are known to spend hours discussing the author's world of pint-size hobbits, ethereal elves, plucky dwarfs, imposing wizards and up-and-coming humans.

Intertops, the Internet sports betting site, set 7-to-5 odds that Rings would break the $90.3 million three-day, opening-weekend box-office record set by Harry Potter last month.

However, with a midweek debut, just like the previous record-holder Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, the largest portion of Rings business could come before the weekend.

The movie stars Elijah Wood as Frodo. Ian McKellen plays the wizard Gandalf, Viggo Mortensen is Aragorn, and Liv Tyler appears as the elf Arwen.