Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

D: Peter Jackson
S: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen

Mesmerising adaptation of the first of J.R.R. Tolkien's novels in the Lord of the Rings cycle. It follows the adventures of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and companions on the first leg of their dangerous journey, which will take three films to complete. Their quest is to destroy a ring of power which could give the Dark Lord Sauron, its maker, the strength to control the world if he could reclaim it. By a combination of chance and fate the ring has come into the possession of a lowly hobbit (a race of people small in size but big in heart and homely values). Frodo must now brave the perils of the worlds of men, elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, and wizards and take the ring into the homeland of the enemy where it can be unmade in the volcano where it was forged. The road is long and it has only just begun.

The daunting quest taken on by New Zealander Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners) has defeated others. In 1978 Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) crossed traditional animation with more experimental rotoscoping techniques in his adaptation of roughly half of the story. The theory was fine; blending realism and fantasy in order to bring the story to life without being limited by makeup and special effects techniques or slave to the cutesy factor of traditional Disney-style animation. Ambitious and fascinating as it is in its own way, Bakshi's Lord of the Rings was an uncomfortable concoction which never really found a texture of its own. In addition, because it dropped abruptly out of the story half way through, it lacked narrative and thematic coherence and its characters never really developed.

Jackson has attempted to avoid the narrative pitfalls by filming the entire trilogy at once over a mammoth one-year shoot. The Fellowship of the Ring is the first of three releases, to be followed in 2002 by The Two Towers and 2003 by The Return of the King. While on one hand this means we are to be treated to the full scope of the story for the first time on the big screen (a successful 1981 BBC radio dramatisation got through almost everything, but took thirteen hours to do it), it also means that audiences are expected to sit patiently at the end of this one and wait for the story to continue. Saturday Matinee it may be in some respects, but having spent three hours in the company of The Fellowship of the Ring it is frustrating to think that the story has only just really got going.

On a deeper level, the expectation of a continued narrative leaves the individual film without a definite centre. Thematically, The Fellowship of the Ring is a thin and largely unrealised tale of rites of passage. Frodo, initially presented in the idyllic surroundings of The Shire seated under a leafy tree at peace with the world, must take the first steps outside of his door which mark his long journey to an awesome and literally earth-shattering destiny. He has only just begun to take them by the time this film ends. Meanwhile, because of the necessary omission and compression, much of the detail of Tolkien's story and his fictional universe has been lost in translation. This means that much of the pleasures of the book, including its anecdotal asides and greater depth of mythology and characterisation, serve as assumed backstory to a plot which does not, in itself, speak with the eloquence and depth of the original text.

In a sense Jackson was in an impossible position before he began. Like George Lucas as he tried to be true to himself against a massive weight of expectation when he wrote and directed Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Jackson, an avowed lover of the novels, started work on this adaptation in the full knowledge that at least fifty per cent of his audience would have read, known, and loved these books since childhood. In a recent poll conducted by a major UK and Ireland bookstore chain, 'The Lord of the Rings' was voted the greatest novel of the twentieth century. It is not, but then how many times would you re-read Ulysses for fun?

The paradox is that on one hand the audience's familiarity with the story means that they will know exactly what is happening and why, and on the other hand they will want to be surprised and excited by what they see. While on one hand the director can assume they will 'fill in the blanks', on the other he will inevitably offend or upset some people for leaving out or altering detail to suit his personal interpretation.

Of course as with all such situations, the best response is for the director to be respectful of his source and of his audience, but most of all to himself. If Jackson succeeds in giving The Lord of the Rings a coherent cinematic personality derived from his own imagination, then he will succeed where Chris Columbus failed with his extremely respectful and very entertaining but completely passionless adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. On the basis of The Fellowship of the Ring, we would have to conclude that he has. The Fellowship of the Ring is a literally spellbinding bit of big screen movie magic, filled with wonder and terror delivered at a pace which initially shocks but gradually and cumulatively asserts great power. There is a strong sense of directorial vision and an involvement with the characters and stories which allows it to transcend anorak obsessions with fidelity. It is an entertaining adventure film with plenty of incident and many visual highpoints.

Freely adapted from the original story, The Fellowship of the Ring, like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone plays more like a series of excerpts from the novel rather than a complete and whole story in itself. Yet Jackson has invested it with a visual energy which makes the whirlwind tour through the story entirely suitable. The film has the tone of a frightening dream, a mixture of fantasy and nightmare seen from the perspective of a character who barely comprehends the true import of what is happening to him at the time. It may seem an obvious way to approach the story, but with the benefit of sincere performances, a brooding score by Howard Shore, and Jackson's unapologetic determination to inspire a sense of bewilderment and apprehension, it works.

Foremost among Jackson's array of cinematic weaponry is an absolute refusal to allow his camera to sit still. While it threatens to induce nausea, this has the effect of keeping the audience disoriented and intrigued, as if on one of those proverbial roller coaster rides. The natural landscape of New Zealand is a perfect stand-in for Tolkien's middle earth, but inevitably it needed to be pushed a bit further and has been. Each scene locates the action in an evocative environment (benefiting from design consultancy services from two of the most noted Tolkien artists, Alan Lee and John Howe), then proceeds to make it even more mystical with digital tinkery which increases their ethereal qualities. Dizzying tracking shots across these semi-digitised landscapes alternate with tight close ups of the faces of a distinguished supporting cast. Your eyes are drawn to the characters and the settings, yet Jackson keeps the camera on the move in a way which literally suggests epic sweep: a world larger than the characters and yet one in which they live and breathe.

The action which takes place in these locales is equally fluid. By comparison with the relatively stage-bound qualities of the action in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, there is relatively little time for pregnant pauses here. Surprisingly, there isn't much dialogue. Huge swathes of plot and character have been dropped in favour of keeping the film on the move. Though there is some level of expositional banter from time to time, on the whole Jackson has opted to leave the intricacies of how the characters relate to one another and try to figure each other out to the sidelines of the associational. He concentrates on blocking and staging dramatic action throughout, allowing character to emerge through behaviour, if at all.

This approach has its strengths and its weaknesses, also evinced recently in films such as The 13th Warrior. The problem with it is that it puts a great deal of weight on the performers to add depth to the characterisation with facial mannerisms and the few lines of dialogue they have been allowed. Though The Fellowship of the Ring has an impressive cast list, few of them really have the skill to pull it off. Ian McKellen (X-Men, Apt Pupil) is an impressive Gandalf, and the actor manages to work through a number of different emotional registers in the course of the story. He suffers the same way as everyone else though insofar as the camera still doesn't give him a lot of time to interact with others, favouring close ups in cutaway or broad action canvases over intimate encounters.

Part of the difficulty is that the story involves such a number of characters that they cannot all get the development they deserve, and they don't. Curiously, Sean Bean is given the most attention as Boromir, the noble human tempted by the lure of the ring's power. He has the most sustained character arc in the film and benefits enormously from it. Elijah Wood by comparison is locked into a wide-eyed reaction to everything, although some scenes near the end suggest the characterisation will deepen as the story settles down in subsequent episodes. Viggo Mortensen is suitably uncouth looking as Aragorn, but there is no time for the ambiguities necessary to set him up properly. Most of the other characters are given short shrift, although again one presumes parts two and three will allow them to develop. It's no excuse, but it is an explanation. Christopher Lee is ideally cast as the rogue wizard Saruman, as is Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. Ian Holm does his best as Bilbo Baggins (having played Frodo in the BBC radio version), but again suffers from a lack of scenes which allow character dynamics to emerge gradually. As expected, the nine riders are terrific, anonymous spectres who haunt the first half of the film and provide the lurking evil pitted against our heroes with a strong visual presence. Fortunately Jackson also manages to generate sufficient menace through the minions of Saruman once the riders have departed.

The story has been altered, of course. Most of the early part of the book has been trimmed (poor old Tom Bombadil once again fails to make an appearance and Farmer Maggot is just a scythe in a cornfield) and there have been shifts in character and attitude to assist Jackson with his efforts to motor through the plot. The most glaring bit of transformation is the character of Arwen (Liv Tyler), a minor character in the novels (barely seen until 'The Return of the King') moved centre stage here. It is testament to Jackson's sense of vision that he has found a surprisingly good use for her. The revised character actually works, and helps to keep the narrative momentum without losing its heart. Jackson's contractions are generally effective, and though he loses the intricacy, he at least spins a good basic yarn.

On the whole The Fellowship of the Ring is a worthwhile film. It is no masterpiece, but like Spy Kids it has a surprising amount of personality for a big budget mass entertainment. It is technically accomplished, features some stunning designs and digital paintbox effects, and is generally an enthralling evening's entertainment for young and old. That said, the film is actually surprisingly (and refreshingly) dark at times, almost oppressive, in fact. As such it would not suit very young children. For older kids and adults who never grew up though, this is a final jewel in its crown. Jackson is not afraid to attempt to inspire fear and unease, and by and large he achieves it. Of course it makes you wonder about the subsequent entries, as 'The Fellowship of the Ring' is the only one of the novels in which an opportunity for a lighter tone presents itself. The film treads a dangerous line between excessive solemnity and dignified sincerity. It manages not to cross it, but who knows what the future holds?

Fans should not be disappointed, although they may miss some of their favourite bits and pieces and might get testy about certain points. Casual viewers will probably be relatively few and far between as it has been difficult to remain unaffected by the hype and most people must surely have been tempted to pick up a book or two by now. I would hope so, because, inevitably, The Lord of the Rings demands to be read. The Fellowship of the Ring is a very good cinematic interpretation of the first part of the story, but it cannot (and does not try) literally transcribe the book, and so inevitably offers a very different experience.

Roll on The Two Towers.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.

Note: See the addendum review of the Special Extended DVD Edition for DVD details.