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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, directed by Peter Jackson, 2001, 180 min.

It seems miraculous that a movie as masterful, visionary, exciting, entertaining, and dignified as The Fellowship of the Ring should exist in this day and age. Most big budget projects like this one are hammered down into mediocrity by the sheer force of the megadollars of multinational money at risk, offensively nonoffensive pablum as a matter of course and at best, mere competence like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. And, leaving aside problems on the production end of things, adaptations of works with pre-existing fanbases like that of Tolkien are ripe for the process of wildly outrageous expectations followed by rank nitpicking on the part of the biggest fans. Yes, certain elements of The Fellowship of the Ring have been reduced down to action movie gloss, and, yes, complaints have inevitably surfaced. But on the whole, Peter Jackson's first entry in the trilogy that makes up The Lord of the Rings is an achievement of staggering scope, a feat of imagination rich and strange, at once original and faithful. I suspect that this particular movie cannot be judged properly in the absence of its two sequels, but those sequels now have the problem of following a work that already stands, on its own, head and shoulders above the field.

The movie begins with a prologue that covers the history of the One Ring, the ring of power that once belonged to the evil Sauron. The finding of the ring by the hobbit Bilbo is told in Tolkien's book The Hobbit, and the movie also shows that, albeit in an awful rush. The movie proper begins with the arrival of Gandalf, a wizard, in the Shire, home of the hobbits. Hobbits are Tolkien stand-ins for bucolic country life, and so most of the beginning deals with lovely rolling hills, stouthearted hobbits who enjoy life, and lots of ale. However, things turn grim when Gandalf discovers that the magic ring that Bilbo regards as an innocent party trick is in fact the One Ring, and now Sauron wants it back. Gandalf leaves the ring in the hands of Frodo and travels to consult with his colleague, Saruman, but Saruman's motivations have changed, which leaves Gandalf imprisoned. Meanwhile, evil is after Frodo and his friends, but they serendipitously happen to meet Strider, one of Gandalf's friends, along the way. More adventures befall them, and an interlude in Rivendell, home of the elves, where heroes from each of the races band together to form the fellowship of the title. They are on a quest to destroy the ring, but there are many perils along the way, including more evil monsters, temptations within the fellowship, and the minions of Saruman.

My terse plot summary does little to capture the sweep of the movie or the inherent dignity of Tolkien's original work. The movie dispenses with a great deal of the initial plot material, as well as some of the artistic details like songs that give the book its texture. But the screenwriters have labored mightily to shape the story into a logical whole understandable to those who have not read the books, and as for the songs, some are embedded in the soundtrack. Those who have read the books may focus too heavily on things like the absence of Tom Bombabil (a fan favourite) or the fact that the female roles are slightly beefed up. To my mind, this would ignore the fact that so many aspects of the book have been portrayed dead on, like the fight at Balin's tomb or the breaking of the fellowship, and that the book itself is (largely) treated as if it is important, unlike many adaptations with relationships to the source material in name only.

Even better than the story line is The Fellowship of the Ring's portrayal of characters. While each particular actor may not match up exactly the idea of the character in my mind -- Frodo's age for one -- the validity of the casting in each instance is hard to argue with. The two best-cast roles are Gandalf and Legolas, with Sir Ian McKellen as the lovable wizard, stern, powerful, and yet warm and friendly with the hobbits, and Orlando Bloom as the elf Legolas, unmatched with his bow in battle and possessed of an appropriate physical grace. Elijah Wood as Frodo has to carry the bulk of the movie, and he manages to garner our sympathy and keep us involved. Perhaps the only difficulty is differentiating between Aragorn and Boromir (Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean respectively) with their similar testosterone-charged dialogue and matching pseudo-medieval hairstyles.

Another joy of the movie is the loving attention paid to small details. Weapons, clothing, the gardens in Hobbiton, the strewn corpses in Moria, Gandalf's hat, the giant statues on the river... all are self-evidently crafted with great care, worn or used or observed with dignity and consistent naturalness, and generally filmed in passing, as if such an accomplishment were only Tolkien's due. Special effects are also in this category, again and again supporting the story line or character development instead of outshining all else. A good example is the collection of tricks used to make the hobbits seem the appropriate, shorter height. It's only on the second or third viewing that the eye picks out the instances of forced perspective, smaller or larger sets, shorter stand-ins, and actors looking up or down in close-up (a good place to look for these tricks is in the final conversation between Boromir and Frodo). Kudos for such a convincing job on all counts, not just hobbit height, from beginning to end.

Much has been written about the meaning of The Lord of the Rings; Tolkien categorically refused accusations of allegory, and what's left resists most analysis in a slippery manner. As things stand in the movie so far, we have a rousing adventure story, with elements of the dangers of power and greed. Perhaps that's good enough? I suspect that a large part of Tolkien's appeal is his impeccable world-building, the creation of Middle Earth with history, mythology, races, hatreds, heroes, and monsters. Jackson's movie re-creates this meticulously. Many have also said that Tolkien's story boils down to good vs. evil, and so things seem so far in the first movie of the trilogy (I'm very curious to see how Jackson treats the last third of the third book, for those who know how it ends), compellingly, and quite satisfyingly.

The Fellowship of the Ring is a remarkable accomplishment, a fantasy movie that is worth watching (something that has not happened with great frequency in the last 20 or 30 years), an adaptation of a famous novel that regards its source with respect, and a blockbuster to boot. I have high hopes for the subsequent two movies, but not much in the way of expectation for other big budget movies to reach the same type of artistic achievement. There's simply too much personality here!

DVD Note: The Fellowship of the Ring is available in two different versions on DVD. The first version is the exact same as what was released in theatres, on one DVD and accompanied by a second DVD. However, this second DVD is all extras and documentaries that were made before the release of The Fellowship of the Ring so there's no new information and the videos all have a strange and dated tone of hype for a product that is already in home release. The second version of The Fellowship of the Ring is known as the Special Extended DVD Edition, consisting of 4 DVDs. I don't know when I've seen such a profusion of making-of information in such a wide release! The first two DVDs have a half-hour longer version of the movie, split across the two DVDs because of the length of the movie (now at 210 minutes) and all the extra audio information necessary for 4 separate commentary tracks. Theoretically, a fan of the movie could be in for 1050 minutes of viewing time! I have not done so myself, but I have browsed through the commentary tracks to find that the one with the director and writers to be the most interesting. The extra half hour of movie consists mostly of small character interactions, sometimes adding only a line or two per scene. Two large additions are a completely recut beginning, with extended information about hobbits, and a considerably lengthier stay at Lothlorien near the end. For myself, I liked the new beginning and the extra character information, but found that the momentum of the story was killed by the Lothlorien material. Other new scenes include At the Green Dragon, The Passing of the Elves, Gilraen's Memorial, and The Departure of the Fellowship.

The third and fourth DVDs are crammed full of making-of information, labelled The Appendices together and consisting of From Book to Vision and From Vision to Reality. There's too much here to talk about; every aspect of the movie is documented in obsessive detail. My favourite parts were: the segment about how John Howe and Alan Lee were hired for the movie; a lengthy explanation of the methods for creating different heights for the actors; and a fascinating segment about the fight in Balin's Tomb. All throughout the documentaries, the viewer gets a sense of the fantastic dedication on the part of everyone involved, and the consistent determination to make the special effects serve the story. In the end, the Appendices are the story of how to do a movie right, and that's partly what makes it all so fascinating.

The two releases are part of an interesting strategy. The theatrical version of The Fellowship of the Ring was a strong movie, and Peter Jackson himself has said that he was quite happy with it. The Extended Edition feels more like a treat for fans, and it's a peerless treat at that. It comes in a fancy box, with a gorgeously illustrated fold out to hold the DVDs. Also included is a booklet with information on which scenes have been added or changed, and a graphic that details all of the extras in the Appendices. Viewers can tell at a glance which extras seem the most interesting and how it all fits together. I particularly appreciate the effort that went into the organization of all this material; I would put this DVD in the same category as Monsters Inc. for its sense of how convey information helpfully. I ended up with both versions of The Fellowship of the Ring, because I still like the theatrical version but I was also curious to know more about the movie. The marketing strategy might seem cynical, but when the product is this pleasing, it's hard to complain.


First posted: February 1, 2002; Last modified: January 20, 2003

Copyright © 2002 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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