This journey from page to screen is one of the best ever

Now that I've seen both of the new movies based on enormously popular 20th century fantasy novels, I have an announcement.

Frodo Baggins kicks Harry Potter's butt.

What that means, in cinema terms, is that Peter Jackson does a better job translating The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring to the screen than Chris Columbus does with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Indeed, Jackson's adaptation of the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic trilogy -- voted the most important book of the century by patrons of Waterstone's, a British bookstore chain -- ranks as one of the finest book-to-film projects ever, easily on a par with Gone With the Wind, The Godfather or The Graduate.

It's even more remarkable when you consider that Jackson's source material is far superior to any of these. While the literary quality of Tolkien's work has been in fierce dispute since The Fellowship of the Ring first appeared in 1954, it is certainly higher than Margaret Mitchell's glorified historical romance, Mario Puzo's potboiler about organized crime or Charles Webb's sketchy collegiate love story, which merely suggested the wit and emotion Mike Nichols injected into the movie.

The controversy over the literary status of The Lord of the Rings is most clearly illustrated by the contrasting opinions of British poet and critic W.H. Auden and those of American critic Edmund Wilson. Both reviewed the first part of the trilogy upon its original publication.

"No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring," Auden wrote. Wilson dissented, describing it as "a children's book which has somehow gotten out of hand," and adding that Tolkien's work betrayed "a poverty of invention which is almost pathetic."

By the time the final installment, The Return of the King, appeared in 1956, Auden found himself in the midst of a contretemps as ferocious, if less bloody, than a skirmish betwixt Elves and Orcs.

"I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments," Auden observed. "Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect."

Count me among those who find it masterpiece of any genre. I first read The Lord of the Rings, I am startled to say after doing the math, exactly 30 years ago, when I was 16. It was also, in 1971, the height of the countercultural vogue for the trilogy, when Middle-earth was appropriated by hippies and VW vans sported bumper stickers that said, "I brake for Hobbits."

It was this era that made The Lord of the Rings a huge popular success. Published in hardcover in the mid-'50s, the trilogy sold poorly until it came out a decade later in a pirated Ace paperback, which was shortly supplanted by an authorized paperback from Ballantine. Soon, college bookstores could not keep Rings in stock. Tolkien, by then well into his twilight (he died at age 82 in 1973) and long retired from his duties as professor of philology at Oxford, was bemused by his sudden superstardom, with thousands of letters, late-night phone calls from inquisitive fans, and the occasional long-haired, barefoot intruder in his garden.

The Lord of the Rings is that rare thing, a work of art that gets better with age -- both its own and that of its reader. I've long viewed literature as divided into two sorts of novels. There are those, like The Catcher in the Rye, The Fountainhead or Tom Sawyer, that are best read when the reader is young, callow and idealistic, as opposed to the likes of Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn, which can only be properly grasped after you've been knocked around a bit by the big world.

For three decades, I've placed The Lord of the Rings in the first category. Re-reading the trilogy recently in anticipation of Jackson's movie, I was astonished to find that I like it better now than I did as a teenager. While I wasn't looking, the narrative grew and deepened in texture, complexity and aesthetic satisfaction. Suddenly Frodo's quest, in an ancient magical world, to defeat the evil Sauron by destroying the Ring of Power, has relevance for my present stage of life.

One measure of the stature of The Lord of the Rings is how seldom it is labeled "sword and sorcery," a derisive genre term, when in fact it has more swords and sorcery per page than just about any book ever written. The quality of the saga lies with Tolkien himself.

Born in South Africa, raised in England, he fought in World War I until trench fever sent him home. His adult life was spent studying languages and mythology, first at the University of Leeds, then at Oxford. There he was part of a group of writers known as the Inklings, which included C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia). Since childhood, one of Tolkien's keenest pleasures was the creation of made-up languages. Given his deep immersion in Welsh, Old English and other root tongues, he was good at it. In fact, some scholars say The Lord of the Rings grew out of Tolkien's desire to create people (and elves, dwarves and Hobbits) to speak the languages he invented.

Tolkien was also profoundly familiar with the mythology of Northern Europe, from the Germanic stories of Siegfried to the Icelandic sagas. When he sat down to write The Lord of the Rings, he was steeped in these primal tales. When most of his successors sat down to write, they were steeped in The Lord of the Rings.

It is a testimony to Tolkien's original vision, not to mention Jackson's skill as a filmmaker, that the movie does not diminish the pleasures to be had from reading the novels, as so often happens when a book is made into a film. Even though The Fellowship runs two minutes shy of three hours, Jackson and his collaborators were forced to drop many incidents and lesser characters to keep the story manageable.

Representative of the lost characters is Tom Bombadil, an immortal local woodland deity who saves Frodo and his companions twice, and in between entertains them (and us) with much inspired doggerel and folklore. In fact, The Lord of the Rings brims throughout with narrative poetry -- snatches of ancient Middle-earth mythology -- which the characters recite to one another, and it is both quite good as poetry and quite authentic as folklore.

In rare cases, Jackson has made wholesale changes. Most prominent is his elevation of Arwen, the Elvish princess, from a beautiful wallflower to a warrior. In the book, Frodo is saved from the Nazgul, demon riders in search of the Ring, by an Elvish prince. It's more than a matter of political correctness for Jackson to give the job to Arwen. After all, she's an immortal elf with immense powers; does it make sense she'd be content to sit at home in Rivendell when the fate of the world is in the balance?

Jackson's touch at choosing what to keep, what to change, and what to leave aside is exquisite. The Tom Bombadil sequences would have dramatically slowed the movie, and yet they are among the many things that make the books worth reading and rereading -- or, in the case of filmgoers, reading even after you've seen the movie.

Come to think of it, that may be the highest accolade for Jackon's intelligence and skill. He has captured the spirit of The Lord of the Rings without neutering the books. After seeing the movie, you will hear not Ian McKellen's voice when you read the novels, not Elijah Wood's, not that of any of the actors. The narrative voice you will hear in your head remains, as always, Tolkien's.