It is so seldom a reality, that it seems almost a foreign concept: a big-budget movie that is good, a combination of hype and quality so rarely seen in modern cinema. It has almost gotten to the point where they are like two opposing magnets, hype and quality, as if one always comes with the sacrifice of the other. Thus, I sit here now, still in disbelief that New Line’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, a $300M project, complete with fast-food marketing deals, was the best damned fantasy film I have seen in, well, as long as I can remember.
Director Peter Jackson, director of Dead Alive (not a bad film, if you are interested) and Heavenly Creatures delivers Tolkien’s twentieth-century masterpiece on the big screen. This movie tells the first part of the History of the Ring–of its origin and the Fellowship. Long ago, a number of magical rings were forged, dispersed to Elves, Dwarves, and Mortal Men. The Dark Lord Sauron forged the One Ring of his own to intensify the evil powers of the others, and to give himself unimaginable powers. About three thousand years ago, he lost the Ring in a battle for the free world of Elves and Men against his forces. The Ring has now found its way into the hands of one of the most unlikely people in Middle-Earth, the Hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood). Unfortunately, Sauron becomes aware of the Ring’s whereabouts, and will utilize the full capabilities of his Dark Forces to hunt down and kill the bearer, and return the Ring to himself, thereby restoring his immense power (the Ring is the source of his power) and enslaving the whole of Middle-Earth. The Ring has the power to draw lust, greed, and desire from nearly anybody around it in order to find its way back onto the finger of Sauron, and it is ascertained that the only effective course of action would be for the bearer, Frodo, to cast the Ring into Mount Doom, where it was forged, though under constant pursuit and danger. Oh, and Frodo is three feet tall and has never ventured outside of his homeland, the Shire.
Jackson makes the realization that books and movies are, in fact, different story mediums that should be treated thus, a concept that the creators of the most recent Harry Potter film failed to grasp. He emphasizes characters and subplots, and cuts others, as he sees fit, and it works. Throughout, he seems most concerned with creating a sense of evil, some sort of dark undertone to the story that is terrifying and foreboding. He makes a motif of the Eye of Sauron, a fiery, prying, treacherous eye that seeks the Ring and sets itself upon the bearer. He also emphasizes the role of Saruman, illustrating in much detail the confrontation between Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), to which Gandalf only refers in the books, and the build-up of Isengard, only implied in the books. In doing so, Jackson gives a more consistent, defined face to the villain, since Sauron is no more fleshed out than George Bush’s “evildoers.” He also gives the audience enough familiarity with background to watch the events at the steps of Orthanc–to take place in The Two Towers (the sequel, coming next Christmas)–without any head-scratching.
That I know the story and am still glued to the screen, waiting to see what peril will next befall the characters, is a tribute to the film’s cinematic quality. Peril is indeed the name of the game here, since the heroes face one after another, only they are exciting, and you find that you actually care quite a bit about the fate of the characters. I remember watching The Mummy Returns, thinking to myself, ‘God, would this guy just fucking kill everyone and end it already?’ Not so here. The thrills do not feel cheap, and they are not overdone to the point of near-farce. Fellowship is just plain dramatic, in every sense of the word. We have our epic battle scenes, sword-play, magnificent settings (if you watched this and did not feel a desire to visit New Zealand, try checking for a pulse), and chanting choirs in the background, backed by violin/brass-heroic-epic type music. The drama becomes really intense at times (the flight from the Shire to Rivendell, the Balrog scene, etc.).
Jackson does a good job of developing most of the important characters. McKellan’s performance as Gandalf is one of the most notable. A wise, powerful wizard, he at one point has to stop for a while to recall his memory, and pokes fun at himself for arriving late to the Shire. Viggo Mortensen gives a very believable performance as the honorable, brave, and trustworthy Aragorn (Strider). John Rhys-Davies gives us the brave, yet proud and brash, Dwarf, Gimli. Wood’s Frodo is interesting–also brave, he is willing to take on whatever dangers may come to pass, even his own demise, yet is by no means an epic hero. This is not much of a surprise, at three feet tall and surrounded by great warriors. Wood’s character is probably the physically weakest member of the Fellowship, but appointed to bear the Ring on which lies the fate of all Middle-Earth. This is essentially the Frodo of the books, and not a bad portrayal. The other Hobbits are entertaining and likeable, as both Tolkien and Jackson intended. As the torn lord Boromir, Sean Bean presents an otherwise well-meaning character corrupted immediately by the Ring and its inherent powers–a vehicle used by Jackson to prove the Ring’s tempting and evil powers. Ian Holm plays Bilbo, another good performance, this time as a loveable Hobbit who is on the verge of becoming consumed by the “addiction” brought about by the ring. Lee’s Saruman, with his stretched, thin face, comes off as nothing less than sinister.
Problems? The movie is three hours long. I was kind of wishing they had thrown in some kind of intermission, 2001: A Space Oddessey-style. I personally did not mind the length. The books themselves are no quick reads–Fellowship is much longer than any seven hundred whatever-page Harry Potter book you could find, actually two books long and with setting descriptions spanning a few pages each. I am sure, though, that some viewers will have trouble stomaching the three hours. I am sure also that a lot of things were unclear to the movie-goer not exposed to Tolkien’s works. When you read the books, you can follow along on the map, aiding your comprehension of setting. All that one could pick up is that they are moving towards this place Mordor, passing a valley, a mountain, and a forest–east or west, who knows? References to the Rohan, Emyn Muil, the Caradhras; every place has a name in Tolkien, but there is no way Jackson could instill all of them upon an uninitiated movie audience. If any of them could tell what Khazad-dûm refers to, I would be quite impressed. One gripe I had was that Jackson did not seem to build adequately on the importance of magnanimity, especially between (Elf) Legolas and Gimli (Dwarves and Elves hate eachother). A scene when the Fellowship enters Lothlórien is left out, one that I always considered to be very important. To compensate, Jackson throws in subtle Tolkien references: a troll statue in the background of the forest, Gandalf’s exclamation of the name of the first chapter–cool stuff like that.
I am still surprised that they did such a really damn good job. I sure am glad that the wait for somebody to make a live action LoTR movie (the books were released sixty-five years ago) was so worth-while (okay, so maybe I did not wait sixty-five years). Makes me want to read Fellowship again. And oh yeah, music and special effects were very well done also.