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

I remember in the late 1990s when I heard that Peter Jackson was going to be directing the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I was filled with excitement.  My wife had bought me the books a few years before and, despite my grumbling about not caring for books about magic and dragons, it turned out I liked them quite a bit.  Where I was expecting the old stale tropes that had been copied from J. R. R. Tolkien, I realized that the source material also dovetailed with medieval literature I was currently studying in college at the time. 

Not to mention that I was probably one of the few Americans not scratching their heads and going, "Who's Peter Jackson, and why is this being filmed in New Zealand?"  I had been a fan of Jackson's since seeing Dead Alive, which became a cult horror film.  I hunted down the films he did before that and, though Heavenly Creatures was far from what he had previously made, it quickly became an arthouse favorite.  He returned to horror with The Frighteners, which again was a modest but no spectacular success, appealing to people who wanted to see Michael J. Fox in one of his last roles as well as to those of us who knew how great Jackson was.

It was especially the last two movies that made me excited.  Jackson may have had less money to work with, but his homemade mix of digital and practical effects that he used was better than what I was seeing in many Hollywood productions. In this case he was filming all three movies at the same time, which meant we were going to see the whole story no matter how the first movie performed.  He was also being given some decent Hollywood money rather than having to rely on help from New Zealand's government to get the job done.  Then rumors came out about the cast - mainly Ian McKellan, whom I had enjoyed in the strange alternative universe version of Richard III, and Viggo Mortensen, who had memorably played Satan in The Prophecy.  They were people I could see filling the roles easily.

What I saw on the screen amazed me, largely because Jackson got it right.  I have had some arguments over the years about what was left out of the movie and whether enhancing Arwen's part really added anything, but the story was there as well as the fascination one gets experiencing the world of Middle Earth - something that was completely absent in the horrible Ralph Bakshi version we had been stuck with since the 1970s.

Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is celebrating his 111th birthday.  Having lived in the Shire ever since his adventures chronicled in The Hobbit, he has decided it is time to depart and leave his estate, including the ring he took from the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood).  His old friend, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) arrives to both celebrate and assist him.  Before he leaves, though, Gandalf becomes suspicious that the ring he found may be the One Ring, once worn by the dark lord Sauron and used to control the other rings given to the races of Middle Earth.

Eventually his fears are confirmed.  Unfortunately, Sauron learns from Gollum where the ring is, and he sends his Ringwraiths to retrieve it.  Gandalf means to aid Frodo in taking the ring to the Elven city of Rivendell, but is waylaid by his one-time ally Saruman (Christopher Lee), who has decided to serve Sauron.  Frodo is joined by his friend and gardner Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) and friends Peregrine Took (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan), and soon joined by the mysterious Ranger known as Strider (Viggo Mortensen). 

Arriving in Rivendell, it is decided that with Saruman joining forces with Sauron that it is too dangerous to keep the ring there.  Instead, after some argument, Frodo agrees to take it back to Mordor and throw it into Mount Doom, the volcano in which it was forged.  He is joined by his Hobbit friends, Gandalf and Strider, as well as the Wood Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Boromir (Sean Bean), the son of the leader of the city of Gondor.  They are declared by the Rivendell's leader Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to be the Fellowship of the Ring, with Frodo leading the way. 

The way, of course, means many trials, from treacherous mountain passes, mines filled with Orcs (and worse) and a new threat - the Uruk-Hai, an Orc hybrid created by Saruman.  In the end, Frodo must evolve from the naive, comfort-loving Hobbit of his youth and face a number of trials and sorrows.

Although filmed as one long movie, the three different parts came out a year apart, so initial reaction to the ending of The Fellowship of the Ring was a bit negative among those not familiar with the books.  The movie, like the book, is meant to set up the major events that follow, and indeed in many ways the ending subverts classical heroic story telling by bringing a number of threads to an end early - the dividing of the heroes, the redemption and death of the "Judas" character and the uniting of traditional enemies in a common cause.  These are usually elements that wrap up an epic story, but instead here they set the real story into motion. 

Peter Jackson made a number of changes to the books which indeed helped the film to sit well with those who had not read the trilogy in the past or, as the case may be for many, were dragged to it by those who had.  As popular as the novels were bringing this movie to the screen was a gamble; no less than Stanley Kubrick had considered it unfilmable, and the only real attempts had been the animated version and a Soviet television production.  Both fell short for their own reasons, but by the time Jackson decided to take a swing at it there were options that mere practical effects could not do. What they couldn't do, however, is overcome some of Tolkien's narrative stumbles.

Still, the decision to increase the presence of Arwen (Liv Tyler), the Elven love interest of Aragorn / Strider, was controversial.  Glorfindel, the Elf who in the book carries a wounded Frodo away from the Black Riders and into Rivendell, is replaced by Arwen, and the romantic subplot between her and Aragorn is given more time to develop.  The entire trilogy of The Lord of the Rings is notably largely devoid of traditional romantic interests that appear in other legends, concentrating instead on the main characters and their deeds.  It's not as if Tolkien could not write good romantic plots; some of his best appear in The Silmarillion.  Still, mid-20th century writing doesn't always translate well into the 21st, and Arwen, along with being an actual character in the story, was never as intrusive as Tauriel was to follow-up Hobbit trilogy.

Another major change, and one undeniably for the better, was the removal of Tom Bombadil.  In the books it leads to the Hobbit party finding their weapons among haunted graves, rather than having them handed to them by Aragorn, but in order to get to that point we endure an entire pointless character who has no bearing on anything else that happens the rest of the book and, when referred to, is hinted as a remote being even to wizards such as Gandalf.  We get song, we get a Hobbit-eating tree, more song, a visit with the wife, all of which is like slogging through the more repetitive parts of Le Morte d'Arthur.  It may tie in with European pagan mythology, but it doesn't advance the story, and Jackson wisely decided it was more important just to get the Hobbits on to Bree instead of taking a long detour that would lose much of the audience.

It also became apparent, after the release of the DVD, that as great as seeing these movies on a large screen was going to be, we were seeing but a portion of what we were meant to see.  While many special editions and director's cuts add little to nothing to the movies, all three movies in this trilogy can only be appreciated in their full form.  It's rare that one watches a movie that is already pushing three hours and finds that adding another half hour to it improves it in many ways, but that is the case.  The longer running time helps the story flow better.  We also get to see more of the world of Middle Earth.

Between Peter Jackson's direction and Andrew Lesnie's cinematography, everything that isn't a sweeping vista looks like a living painting, from the classical design of Rivendell to the bleak, Escher-like Mines of Moria and the completely alien world that is Lothlorien.  In addition, the battles are filmed in a sweeping motion and with an emotional impact that Game of Thrones tried hard over its eight seasons to emulate and rarely succeeded.  Where massive armies were created by computer simulations, the main battles are actors and stuntman and, save for a cave troll and a Balrog, not random computer generated cartoons.  As for the cave troll and Balrog, they still look amazing almost 20 years later.  Some of the digital effects look their age, but the major ones are still convincing, and many of the others were wisely hidden in shadows the same way you would deal with practical effects that would not look convincing in the full light.  Most of the digital effects were to create the world the events occur in, and it is varied and alive in a way most fantasy worlds are not.

Having not watched this in a number of years I was still amazed at how well this stands up, and it's not even the best part of the trilogy.  It does what it is meant to do: introduce us to the characters that we will be spending quite a long time with, making sure we know what is at stake and investing us in a what is undeniably a number of diverse characters without overwhelming the audience with minor details and unneeded backstory.  The internet was far from its infancy at the time The Fellowship of the Rings came out, and finding out the backstory of even the most insignificant character was only a click away.

If ever this story is remade for the screen again it is difficult to imagine that anyone could play Gandalf better than Ian McKellan, who brings all his experience to gruff but good-hearted wizard who takes it upon himself to help save the world when the rest of his order could care less, or would rather give in to promises of power.  Christopher Lee gets the chance once more before the end of his life to play a classic bad guy, and does it with undeniable glee.  Viggo Mortensen, always a great actor to those who knew who he was, finally got the notice he deserved in the heroic, but undeniably human, Aragorn. 

At the center of the story, of course, is Frodo and Samwise, and Elijah Wood and Sean Astin have that best friend chemistry going from the beginning, even if Sam is always a bit overbearing.  They are unassuming actors to begin with, recognizable faces but not big names that appear in the headlines with their off-screen antics, thus helping them connect in a way that is important - the everyman that becomes the hero and saves the world.  Your average reader or audience member needs to connect with the character's life, even if it is a Hobbit, in order to are about what happens to them in the story.  My only complaint is that Wood is often filmed a bit too glowing and smooth, something that continued throughout the series, making him look a bit like a walking Photoshopped version of himself.

While there has been some effort on the part of clickbait sites and the usual people who try to overanalyze stories (largely to make themselves feel smarter than the authors), as well as by the current trend to dig out nuggets of racism and sexism in everything, actually watching The Fellowship of the Rings again erases many of those concerns.  Many people go by memory and memes when it comes to these movies, but sitting down and experiencing it again has reminded me of the joy I had when I first saw what Peter Jackson had done with this story. 

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Time: 208 minutes
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Sean Bean, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Cait Blanchett
Director: Peter Jackson


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