Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Featuring Elijah Wood, Ian Mckellen, Ian Holm, Liv Tyler, etal
Directed by Peter Jackson
“One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
An autobiographical prologue
When I was nine years old, the animated Ralph Barski version of Fellowship of the Ring was set to come to television. My older brother thought it would be prudent
for me to read the books before sitting down to watch it that Sunday.
>From Thursday to Saturday Night, I managed to devour and assimilate The Hobbit, and all three books of the Lord of the Rings, admirably equipped to watch
the animated film. Just as The Martian Chronicles and I, Robot were my entry into Science Fiction, Lord of the Rings was my entry into Fantasy. When I created a D&D campaign, I named the country that the PCs (and my NPCs) were from after my favorite character. Thus, Ragnar, Phocas and Justin of Aragorn.
For all of its faults and shortcomings, I still remember the animated film..and aside from an ill considered animated version of Return of the King, no director has dared to try and tackle the veritable ur-text of modern Fantasy
Until Peter Jackson’s film, which has opened today.
The movie’s opening reminded me, ironically, of a failed attempt at a movie version of another major piece of Fantasy and Science Fiction…Dune. The opening is a prologue, one that is unfortunately necessary for any hope of a non-Tolkien fan to understand just what has happened before. And I admit that it wasn’t quite as bad as one might think. At least its not static images and monolithic blocks of dialogue, like Dune’s early going was. We get to see how the Ring came to that most unlikely of persons, the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins.
And it is then that the movie can begin in earnest.
Summarizing the plot does no justice, for if you are not familiar with the plot in even broad outline, then I have to just wonder just what you are doing reading this. My audience is almost certainly Tolkien-friendly, and in some cases even more so than I. So I shall limit myself to what you are really interested in. What is missing? How is the acting? Does it WORK on screen?
The short answer to the last question is, yes, it works. Oh, I have regarded Tolkien as unfilmable, ultimately, as, say the Amber Chronicles. By this I mean that no film is going to be perfect, because filming everything and leaving nothing out would make the work unwatchable. But for nearly three hours, Jackson does manage to transport you to Middle Earth. You are there in Hobbiton…in The Prancing Pony…in the Mines of Moria. Mise-en-scene is strong and high. Visuals, both CGI and the landscapes are absolutely incredible. I suspect that Jackson perhaps chose New Zealand not only because of the relative inexpensiveness, but because the terrain IS so picturesque, and varied. From the idyllic country Shire, to the fierce Misty Mountains, the terrain is a character in this story. The computer graphics blend in fairly well with the rest of the real world. When the Fellowship sails by the statues of the Kings of Gondor, they look damned good and not at all fake.
But what about the acting? Well, one of the weaknesses of Tolkien, hard to argue against, is the relative paucity of female characters. The movie does try to alleviate this to an extent, but no worries…the Fellowship does not have a tenth female member…it is the same nine as in the novel. The biggest change is to Liv Tyler’s Arwen, conflating her with Glorfindel (the Elf, if you remember, who aids Frodo in those last few crucial miles into Rivendell.). It is she who holds the Nazgul at bay with the transformed river flood, and the sequence is one of the best in the movie. Other than this, however, her role is limited to pledging her love for Strider, aka Aragorn. The other major female role is another small one, given to Cate Blanchett, in the role of Galadriel. Both Elves are filmed in an almost ethereal quality every moment that they are on screen.
To the major characters, then. First we have Elijah Wood as the reluctant hobbit Frodo. The “reluctance but ultimate determination” that runs through Fellowship of the Ring comes through very strongly here. Time and again, Frodo is the archetypal reluctant hero who eventually has to overcome his own resistance in order to do the right thing. The filming of the Hobbits is done very well, when you have Gandalf meet the Hobbits, they really do look just about half his size. Ian McKellen was a good choice for the wizard. Old, his power stored and not easily or lightly invoked, the age of a world in his eyes…but in the times of peace, playful enough to blow smoke rings with Bilbo (played by Ian Holm). The other hobbits get a bit of short shrift. The other characters do dominate the action, and there are a LOT of action sequences for the hobbits to get lost in while the more capable members shine.
Legolas and Gimli, out of those other characters, are next in the undercharacterization department. Gimli does better…the movie does travel to Moria, and we do see him nearly break down seeing the Tomb of Balin. Legolas is not so lucky, and basically is known as “the elf who only uses arrows in the battles.” Camera trickery doesn’t quite work as well with Gimli as the Hobbits…we really don’t see him as too much shorter than, say, Boromir.
Boromir, played by Sean Astin, is a major focus for the later action, as anyone who can recall the plot will realize. I shall reserve something of this until the later part of the review, but while he doesn’t get screen time as much as Vigo Mortensen on the sheer fact that we don’t meet him until Rivendell, Sean Astin makes a very capable Boromir indeed. His love of Gondor comes through quite well, just as in the books.
Strider/Aragorn, played by Vigo Mortensen, does all right although not spectacularly. He gets the romantic piece in the movie, with Arwen, but in that scene, I had the feeling that Liv Tyler was investing a lot more emotions than he was. He does very well in the action sequences, however, and the weight of that does help his piece of the movie.
Elrond does not get much screen time, but his tone seems a lot more stridently anti-human than I remember in the novels. He takes it very personally that Isildur failed to destroy the ring, and we do see in a flashback his failure to do so. Elrond was there, and he still remembers and the simmering resentment shows.
Finally comes Christopher Lee, as Saruman. I expect he will get more screen time in the next movie, but he does pretty well with what he has. His malice in subduing Gandalf, in breeding his improved Orcs is evident…as well as his devotion to Sauron. It remains to be seen if he will emerge as his own “power” in the second movie, as he does in the books.
Finally comes the last question, which I posed first. What’s missing? Tolkien’s epic is far too large to translate word for word. Things HAVE to get lost even in a three hour rendition. (I shudder at the idea of a two hour version of this film, as I do a four).
Tom Bombadil is gone and never mentioned. So, too, the Barrow Wights. The Flight from the Shire goes directly to Bree in the movie, with of course the Nazgul on the heels of the Hobbits. So there is a bit of a slight wonderment of just how the Hobbits made it to the Shire in one piece after so many close calls, especially given their reliance on the stronger characters later–Strider, Arwen, and the Fellowship.
We don’t get to see as much of Bree as in the novels, but we do get Weathertop, and I mentioned the River Rising sequence above (with Arwen instead). Rivendell definitely does look like a place faerie might build and live.
My favorite sequence in the first novel is still here…the failed attempt at the mountain pass. In the movie, however, it makes it more the action of Saruman than the mountain itself which defeats them. Still, I was afraid going in that they would simply have them head into Moria. Moria is well done, and the stop at the tomb where they learn the fate of Balin and his settlers is there in full. The sequence with the Balrog…wow! Lorien is somewhat syncopated…only Frodo has significant interaction with Galadriel once they reach the Elves’ hospitality. Most notably, Sam does NOT get the seeds. I wonder, thinking ahead, how this is going to play out in Return of the King, after the Scouring of the Shire. I’d really be upset if a rabbit is pulled out of the hat at that point.
At last comes the climax, the finale. The problem with Tolkien is that he didn’t set out and in fact didn’t write three novels…he wrote a long one. So how DO you film the end game sequence and make it a dramatic finale? Not without changes. I am not sure I should reveal them, but the end sequence, with Boromir’s Temptation, and the Orc Attack is noticeably different than in the novels. I looked at my copy afterwards to make sure…and yes, it definitely reads differently.
The results, however, are the same. Boromir falls, Merry and Pippin captured, Legolas and Aragorn and Gimli pursuing them, and Sam and Frodo heading east into Mordor. To its credit, perhaps, there is NO “to be continued” at the end of the movie. Peter Jackson does strive mightily to make it a complete movie, but doesn’t quite make it. Really, you couldn’t, but at least he tried. Unlike Harry Potter, the director was far more willing to take liberties and make some changes to try and make it play better on screen. Expanding Arwen’s role was a good thing. I am not sure if I like the end-game sequence at the end of the movie. It has a very different “feel” than the novel.
One last bit. Peter Jackson might have made the use of the Ring a relatively innocuous thing to the wearer. Instead, when we are shown Frodo using it, it is a terrifying, dangerous, perilous thing. The “Ring sight” that the ringbearer sees is a completely different world. Oh, I know that in the novels we see this in the Nazgul on Weathertop sequence, but every time Frodo puts it on, this is shown…and it is made absolutely clear that Sauron KNOWS you when you put on the Ring. The handling of this is one of the best things in the whole movie. The idea that, in changing the perceptions of those around you, you change your own perceptual capabilities into a different spectrum is one I shall have to think about and perhaps steal for my RPG worlds.
Out of Five Popcorn Kernels, I would give LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring 4 and a half. The undercharacterization of the hobbits, and a decidedly action sequence orientation to a book more noted for far more do detract some from the movie. However, unlike, say, Star Wars Episode One, this movie makes me EAGER to see the sequel(s).