Rings Premieres in London

The much-hyped film version of The Lord of the Rings was launched Monday at a glitzy world premiere attended by stars Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen and Elijah Wood — the actor charged with bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's endearing hobbit Frodo Baggins to life.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the first in a three-part adaptation of the British author's epic fantasies, which have sold more than 100 million copies in 40 languages since they were first published in 1954.

The movie opens Dec. 19 on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although it has not generated the overwhelming attention of last month's premiere of the first Harry Potter film, an estimated 2,000 fans lined London's Leicester Square on Monday night, screaming and shouting as the stars arrived for the premiere.

The only major actor missing was Cate Blanchett, who gave birth to her first son Wednesday.

Tyler, who plays elf-maiden Arwen Undomiel, was stunned by the reception. "I've seen nothing like this ever before," she said.

Lee, 79, who plays the 8,000-year-old Saruman the White, a good wizard who turns evil, declared the film would "go down in cinema history."

"No one has ever seen anything like it," added the veteran actor.

Tolkien's trilogy has made heroes of Frodo and the wizard Gandalf. The story follows Frodo on a harrowing journey through Middle Earth, under Gandalf's guidance, to destroy the all-powerful ring that is coveted by the dark lord Sauron.

The total budget for the three films, all shot in New Zealand under the direction of Peter Jackson, was $300 million, making the work one of the biggest projects in movie history.

Editing on the second movie, The Two Towers, was to begin shortly. It is slated to be released in December 2002. The third, The Return of the King, is to come out a year later.

Executive producer Mark Ordesky, president of Fine Line Features, has said that the huge fan base for Lord of the Rings gave the studio confidence in going ahead with all three movies at once. That allowed filmmakers to economize on travel, equipment and talent costs.