The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

New Zealand/USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 178 minutes.

Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, John Rhys-Davies, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Music: Howard Shore (score), Enya (songs)
Cinematographer: Andrew Lesnie
Producers: Peter Jackson, Barrie M. Osborne, Tim Sanders
Director: Peter Jackson


Grade: A Review by Carlo Cavagna

A  great evil threatens the world. A brave hero goes on a quest to defeat it. Sometimes he recovers an invaluable treasure or rescues a fair maiden in the process. It's an archetypal story. The stuff of myths and dreams, it's a story as old as storytelling itself. It's the sort of tale told around campfires by our early ancestors in every culture. When English author J.R.R. Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings, he updated this story for new generations of readers, changing the hero to a young naf named Frodo Baggins and launching the modern fantasy genre.

Tolkein obviously tapped into something. The Lord of the Rings has become a classic of literature that seemingly has been with us for much longer than it actually has. Now, Tolkein's inheritors regularly populate bestseller lists. Stories of humble young nafs who go on quests to save the world have proved to be quite popular. You can read about simple Shea in Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, the only descendant of a great line of heroes. Humble Rand in Robert Jordan's endless Wheel of Time series is destined to be a great wizard. The same is true of Richard in Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule and its sequels. The influence goes beyond the traditional fantasy genre. One can't help but notice the striking similarity Star Wars bears to Tolkein's epic, for example. Tolkein's story has truly permeated popular culture.
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What is original about The Lord of the Rings--what remains original about The Lord of the Rings--is that Frodo does not possess hidden magical talents. He is not unknowingly the heir to a great noble house. Frodo is unremarkable in every way, except one: his strong, courageous heart. Tolkein did not just update ancient myths; he turned them on their head. Frodo is totally unassuming and unskilled--not a hero at all, in the conventional sense of the word. Additionally, Frodo does not journey to recover a magical artifact that can save the world; he journeys to get rid of a magical artifact that can dominate the world. Though the ring is evil, power is itself evil, too. For Tolkein, power is not easily wielded by enlightened kings and heroes to do good, because power corrupts. It is to be shunned if possible and accepted only reluctantly, as the hero Aragorn does.

Though The Lord of the Rings is populated with elves, dwarves, and other entities drawn from the Faerie world of native European traditions, it may surprise some to learn that Tolkein was a conservative Catholic. Strip away the 'pagan' trappings, and the emphasis on humility and self-sacrifice is a dead giveaway. The immortal elves live in a state of grace in their Garden of Eden, while mortal humans have fallen, tainted by power and greed. Mephistophelean Sauron resides in Mordor, deep in the hellish fires of Mount Doom, and his servant Saruman, robed in white, is a fallen angel.

The ring is Sauron's ultimate temptation, offering infinite power. Frodo, a hobbit or "halfling" (i.e., a half-sized man, symbolizing a man without his ego or his evil side), is the only one who can carry the ring safely, because he is utterly without ambition and possesses absolutely no special powers that Sauron can turn to his own ends. Were a great wizard or warrior to take the ring, he would be unable to resist trying to use the ring for good, and be tainted, eventually falling under Sauron's control.

The Lord of the Rings is an enormously entertaining story first and foremost, of course. Combine its escapist fun with Tolkein's marvelous imagination and Frodo's democratic, easy-to-identify-with hero (anyone could be Frodo), and you have your cultural sensation. There are any number of entertaining stories available, though. Many fans probably do not give a moment's thought to the deeper themes and symbols, but The Lord of the Rings' enduring popularity stems also from the mythic archetypes out of which it is constructed and the more modernly-recognizable Christian values with which it is imbued. Frodo reaches for the One RingThey have resonated for generations of readers.

Animator/director Ralph Bakshi adapted The Lord of the Rings in a modestly successful 1978 animated feature film, but it excised the last volume of the trilogy completely, failing to capture the full scope of Tolkein's narrative. Making a novel of the inventiveness, complexity, and sheer length of The Lord of the Rings into a single film is impossible. Adapting it into three films--live action films, no less--is nearly so. To do it, New Line Cinema did the unprecedented. It committed $200 million to the project and filmed all three movies at once (in one 270-day shoot), risking several executives' careers in the process. They and director Peter Jackson are to be applauded for their bravery, and, based on the outcome, rewarded for it, too. The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings is a jaw-droppingly successful film adaptation of the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. It is stunning on every level.

Jackson's Herculean task was to give life to an entirely fictional world of magic and monsters. Jackson chose to shoot the films in his native New Zealand. Resembling an idealized storybook landscape and yet unfamiliar to most viewers, the vibrant, diverse countryside is a perfect Middle Earth. Next, Jackson enlisted veteran Tolkein illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee to help create the sets. The result is that several sets and landscapes (Bilbo's house, the Elven city of Rivendell, and Saruman's tower, for example) mirror the paintings found in many illustrated Tolkein editions, which heightens the impression of accuracy and fidelity.

Jackson's own imagination came into play as well. It is particularly notable in the non-humans--compare the elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, and trolls to Jackson's fantasy sequences in Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. Adding to the realism, Jackson declines to rely fully on computer-generated images, using sophisticated makeup, masks, models, and animatronics for close-up shots. Instead of using real-life dwarves to portray hobbits, Jackson has cast normal-sized humans and altered their height through tricks of the camera and digital shenanigans. (Have no fear, The Fellowship of the Ring is no reprise of Willow.)

Unlike the makers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Jackson also understood that trying to please fans by sticking too faithfully to the novel could be a recipe for disaster, or at least dreariness. Tolkein's first volume itself suffers pacing problems, which Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh (Jackson's wife) and Philippa Boyens have managed to mitigate.

In deference to the difficulty of following a story as involved as The Lord of the Rings, they open the movie with a complete history of the One Ring, instead of explaining it halfway through via flashback during the Council of Elrond, as in the book. They have trimmed the still-lengthy stay in Hobbiton, which is not really relevant to the story other than for establishing an idyllic existence worth fighting for, introducing characters, and providing some closure for Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of the prequel The Hobbit and the original finder of the One Ring. In the hobbits' flight with Aragorn from the Ring Wraiths to Rivendell, they have deleted the elf Glorfindel and replaced him with the elf Arwen, Elron's daughter and Aragorn's love interest. This gives her a substantive role, reduces the bewildering number of characters, and puts a female in the story. (Female?? What's a female?) They have also included the first several pages of the second novel, The Two Towers, to arrive at a more natural stopping point.Ian McKellen as Gandalf

Though he writes about forbidding evils, Tolkein's writing is not particularly gloomy, and describing action is not his strong suit. Jackson & Co. correct all this, drawing out the darkness of the story and awakening its terrors. (The Ring Wraiths and the Balrog are particularly arresting.) They have expanded the fight scenes, and added magical duels between Gandalf and Saruman, all to nail-biting effect. The only thing missing is the Wargs (giant wolves).

These are just a few of the changes, and they are the sorts necessary to any successful adaptation, because film can support fewer lulls and less complexity. Even so, the film has pacing difficulties upon first viewing. It seems a little too stop-and-go. One goes in expecting non-stop action and suspense from such a popular tale of monsters and sorcery, and so the bits in Hobbiton and Rivendell are plodding, especially compared to the edge-of-your-seat thrills of the journey through the Mines of Moria. Combined with the three-hour running time and the bewildering array of Middle Earth names and history, and The Fellowship of the Ring can seem unnecessarily drawn out.

All that changes upon a second viewing. Free from the burden of expectations that comes with a first viewing of such a highly anticipated film, it is possible to luxuriate in the breathtaking vision and craft of each section of the film. The Elvish kingdoms and the Shire are all light and beauty, while Saruman's stronghold (a sort of fantasy-world Death Star) and the Mines of Moria are pure menacing gloom.

The acting is as accomplished as the artistic craft. Jackson and New Line have enlisted an impressive assemblage of A-list actors and unknowns. Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) and Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), possibly the finest male and female actors in the business, dominate the screen whenever they are on it. As Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen sheds the dull sameness that has dogged him from role to role (call it his basic Viggo Mortensen-ish-ness)--here he is suitably heroic and brooding. Sean Bean is equally assured as conflicted Boromir. Horror film vet Christopher Lee (and, like Bean, a former 007 villain) is an ideal choice for Saruman, who must cut the figure of a sorcerer who can legitimately best McKellen's Gandalf. The most difficult choice was Frodo. Jackson selected Elijah Wood (North, The Ice Storm, Deep Impact), who exhibits just the right balance of innocence and grit.

Rounding out the cast of established actors are Sean Astin (the simple hobbit Samwise), Liv Tyler (the beautiful Arwen), Hugo Weaving (the regal Elrond), and John Rhys-Davis (the dwarf Gimli), who is unrecognizable under his makeup and costume. The newcomers include Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the other two hobbits (Pippin and Merry), who are constantly getting the Fellowship into trouble with their thoughtlessness, and Orlando Bloom as the elf archer Legolas. Finally, Sir Ian Holm makes a special appearance as Bilbo Baggins, and it's truly difficult to imagine anyone more hobbit-like than Holm is in this movie.

Unlike virtually every other swords-and-sorcery film made, Jackson has consistently resisted the impulse not to play it straight. Never does he plant his tongue in his cheek and serve up comic relief and anachronistic jokes, as if to say, "We can't take any of this too seriously." Jackson takes it very seriously. That's another in the long list of reasons why The Fellowship of the Ring works so well. The only disappointment is the lack of a satisfying ending. That's because The Fellowship of the Ring not a standalone film, but the first of a three-part miniseries. One can hardly wait for the next two installments to arrive.

Review © January 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2001 New Line Productions, Inc. The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Tolkien Enterprises under license to New Line Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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