This fall, wizards and hobbits rule the silver screen

America is off to see the wizard.

And the hobbit.

And the cyclops.

After years of being labeled kiddie fare or languishing at the bottom of the rental bin, fantasy is now the movie genre du jour, and its timing couldn't be better. What started this summer with the successful ogre tale "Shrek" is continuing into the fall with a crop of highly anticipated movies that are proving a welcome distraction for many Americans.

Helping them to escape are features like "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," opening on Friday, "The Fellowship of the Ring," arriving next month, and the current hit "Monsters, Inc." Unlike the real world, where uncertainty currently prevails, these stories offer everyman heroes taking on well-defined enemies, which is just what many people want right now.

"On the one hand, you can enjoy the feeling of combat without the consequences, and on the other, you can be confident that good is going to triumph over evil," says Lester Friedman, a senior scholar in film at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Good and evil are often at the heart of fantasy books and movies - where both the audience and authors can use an imagined place to grapple with life's big issues. The science fiction/fantasy section in bookstores is one of the two largest, along with mysteries, but fantasy movies have been hit-or-miss over the years, thanks in part to less-than-magical special effects.

Both "Harry Potter," and "Fellowship of the Ring" were in production long before Sept. 11, but both will likely attract people who originally hadn't planned to attend. In one early indicator of audience appetite, "Monsters, Inc." and its candy-colored world defied mixed reviews by raking in $122 million in two weeks. People are also snapping up "Harry Potter" books, by British author J.K. Rowling, as a way to keep current events at bay - and perhaps to be part of a community of fans, which observers say many may find comforting after the recent attacks.

Dan Page was shopping with his daughter, when he spotted the second book in the series and decided to buy it for some light reading. "I thought, 'This might be a nice way to escape the news of the day.' And it was," says the assistant director of communications for the Health Sciences department at UCLA. He plans to see the movie with his wife, who also has started reading the books in recent weeks.

Popular among both children and adults, the series of books about a bespectacled orphan who discovers he has magical powers has sold more than 116 million copies worldwide. Of US readers surveyed recently, 79 percent of kids ages 6 to 17 and 71 percent of adults say they plan to see the movie, according to marketing company NPD Group.

Ms. Rowling's books are heirs to the fantasy tradition, which grew into its own in the 20th century, thanks to pioneers like Tolkien. Scholars note that Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis and writers such as T.H. White and Kurt Vonnegut, used fantasy to grapple with the trauma they experienced during the World Wars.

By the time Tolkien was in his mid-20s, he had been wounded in World War I and had lost many of his close friends. "That led to a kind of questioning and doubt, which Tolkien sought to assuage through the vehicle of fantasy, particularly in order to contemplate the nature of good and evil in the world," notes Edmund Kern, a historian at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

Like the others, Tolkien wrote about that struggle allegorically, as when he laid out corrupting power of the ring in "The Lord of the Rings." That work was recently voted Book of the Century by British readers. Interest in the movie version is also running high: More than 3 million people downloaded the movie trailer on the Internet earlier this fall, temporarily crashing the movie studio's website.

The message in "Harry Potter" is simpler, and, at least initially, less dark. It highlights the idea that individuals are not powerless and can make a difference in their own lives and others'.

Its clever, made-up words and engaging storyline were enough to make a convert out of nonfiction reader Ruth Sexton. A vice president at a nonprofit educational company in Washington, Ms. Sexton says that when her favorite mode of relaxing - Fred Astaire movies - failed to make her less anxious about recent events, she grabbed the first Harry Potter book.

"By page 25, I was chemically addicted. The intensity of my interest surprises me," she says. She wasn't planning to see the movie, for fear that the richness of the series wouldn't translate. "But now I'm really thinking I must...."

Whether interest will last throughout the movie versions of both series is an open question. Each movie is expected to have several sequels - up to six for "Harry Potter," and two more for "Lord of the Rings" - which, if following the books, will grow increasingly darker and more morally complex. If the war on terrorism is lengthy, as government officials predict, people might find them less escapist.

But initially, scholars say, moviegoers will probably have a cathartic reaction to the fantasy films. "A lot of adults will be comforted by watching Harry Potter defeat evil" says Greg Metcalf, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland. "He defeats a guy [hiding in] a turban. That will take on a deeper significance it didn't have the first time. I think there will be a catharsis for people that we don't get out of the news."

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