Once upon a time in the Shire, a wizard filmmaker and Frodo formed
a fellowship and began a great quest to rescue the investors... FILM
By LIAM LACEY
Wednesday, December 19, 2001
With his camera swooping across green meadows,
magenta mountains and computer-generated fantasy
cities and monster-infested mines, Peter Jackson's lavish
adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring covers an atlas's worth of
geography and an encyclopedia-full of details.
Ambitious, handsome and touchingly sincere, the movie,
based on Tolkien's fantasy tale about a cosmic battle
between good and evil, is bound to inspire lots of
analogies, both speciously topical (the Evildoer) and
historic. Think Paradise Lost without the religious stuff, the
Second World War or the pulpy climax to a fat Clive
Barker or Stephen King novel.
In my own case, the folksinger Woody Guthrie came to
mind. In 1942 (about the time Tolkien was in the throes of
populating Middle-earth with hobbits, elves and orcs),
Guthrie was approached by the unions' women's auxiliary
to write a song for them. He took their money and wrote
the following verse with a distinctly non-Tolkien-like brevity:
Oh, the Ladies' Auxiliary
is a good auxiliary.
It's the best auxiliary that you
ever did see.
If you need an auxiliary, see
the Ladies' Auxiliary.
It's the Ladies' Auxiliary.
Likewise, Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring is
a good movie adaptation of the first volume of The Lord of
the Rings, and the best you ever did see. If you need a
movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, it's the one to
If, on the other hand, you've never quite fallen for the
antique charms of Tolkien's three-volume tome about cute
and noble characters on a quest to destroy evil, the movie
is mostly a triumph of theme-park architecture. Though
legions of readers (the hard-core Tolkienite readership is
estimated at around 10 million) will applaud the
faithfulness of the adaptation, stripped of Tolkien's
burbling ornate prose, the plot seems like an adolescent
boy's fantasy dressed up in monumental kitsch: Sexually
chaste, morally simple, a pure-hearted naif and his
improbable allies strike out to overcome evil. Their pointy
ears and hats and other fairy-tale accoutrements suggest
that the fate of the universe is in the hands of a brave little
band of lawn ornaments.
As the parade of crises and incidents unfolds, the effects
aren't breathtaking, but the craft is consistently high. In the
three-hour running time, there are only a few dead spots
(and lots of dead orcs), a few nuggets of delight and acres
of big-screen spectacle.
Given the buildup to The Lord of the Rings, it's
sometimes difficult to separate the heroism of the
characters' quest from that of the "project." Tolkien's
antimodern fable has come to life, of course, because
computer imagery can make it do so. But also because
Jackson and New Line Cinema, a relatively small,
hobbit-like boutique studio, took the risk. The Lord of the
Rings trilogy is the most expensive project in movie
history, with estimates ranging from a low of $270-million
(U.S.) to a final tally of around $400-million (U.S.) for three
movies, shot simultaneously last year, and designed to
come out during each of three consecutive Christmas
seasons. At the end of The Fellowship, there's a
temptation to applaud the movie simply for making its
investors breathe easy: An audience looking for a Star
Wars-like fix, albeit with wands and rings instead of light
sabres, is sure to offer a healthy return.
Reading the books for background is unnecessary. The
introductory voice-over (Cate Blanchett) fills in the story of
the ring's origin, against a vast battle scene reminiscent of
The Mummy Returns. Though lost for many years, the
ring has now resurfaced and the spirit of the dark lord,
Sauron, has marshalled an army to regain the ring, so he
might regain his physical form and dominate the world.
The prologue is followed by the first of many shifts
between the grand overview and the intimate world of the
characters. In the opening scene, we follow a horse and
wagon along a country road as Gandalf the Grey (Ian
McKellen in a pointy cap and long mossy beard) comes to
the Shire to celebrate the hobbit Bilbo's 111th birthday
party. Their meeting, with the very tall Gandalf and the
small, stocky Bilbo, is one of the film's first delights:
Jackson's ability to manipulate proportions so that
extremely large and small characters co-exist seamlessly
in the same frame is charming, as the two Ians (McKellen
and Holm) match avuncular twinkle for twinkle.
The ring is inherited by Bilbo's nephew, Frodo Baggins,
who joins up with an alliance or "fellowship" of different
species (called "races" here), including hobbits, elves,
men, a wizard and a dwarf. In this first book of Tolkien's
story, the fellowship begins its quest to the fiery depths of
Mount Doom to destroy the ring.
Casting is astute. McKellen's humorous, goat-like face
seems a perfect image of wizardry. Here he plays the
Obi-Wan Kenobi role to Elijah Wood's Frodo. Wood,
wearing an almost constant, wide-eyed, solemn, trusting
look, comfortably employs an English accent, the better to
match the rest of the cast.
As he sets out, Frodo finds aid in the form of a band of
unlikely henchmen: a few hobbits from home Shire (Sean
Astin, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan), a dwarf (John
Rhys-Davies), two studly human warriors, the ambitious
Boromir (Sean Bean) and the exiled king Aragorn (Viggo
Mortensen), and the most noble and most Aryan-looking,
the elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom).
The only two female characters who briefly appear are the
opposite of Middle-earthy: Cate Blanchett plays the elf
queen Galadriel in a cowl, with a radiant gaze, like the
Madonna (except when she morphs into an avaricious
demon when struck by ring lust). Liv Tyler appears -- in a
diaphanous shimmer -- as a brave elf princess, speaking
English and Elvish, a language that whishes by in a
susurrus of Celtic sibilants.
Various bad creatures, most notably a Grendel-like,
pathetic but murderous cave troll and the army of swarthy
soldier-demons, try to do them in. The style in the action
scenes is pure Indiana Jones, with a good deal of leaping
across crumbling chasms and the usual wildly
disproportionate rate of enemy kills to allied casualties.
Psychology or dramatic conflict is never really an issue
here. The narrative remains episodic and linear. Across
these varied landscapes, the characters wander with the
plot, stopping occasionally for a hectic battle or a misty
New Zealand, assisted by computer-digital images, does
a knockout job in the starring role of Middle-earth, aided
by Jackson's design team and cinematographer Andrew
Lesnie (who provides good characters with a saintly lustre
about their faces). The computer imagery still often looks
artificial and is eclipsed by the exceptional prop work,
from the pragmatic hobbit huts, to the glittery spirals of
Rivendell, to the digestive tract-like underground mines.
Howard Shore's musical score, though often shamelessly
emotional, is at least less intrusive than John Williams's
work on Harry Potter.
For film buffs, the most interesting thing about The Lord of
the Rings project isn't its budget, but its director, Peter
Jackson. Jackson is a far more lively artist than, for
example, Chris Columbus, whose competence in Harry
Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was an unexpected
surprise. Jackson's computer work in the magic-realist
murder tale, Heavenly Creatures, and the horror comedy,
The Frighteners, established his technical credentials for
this assignment. Jackson has a kind of genius for the
macabre, and there are moments when he fills the screen
with various shades of writhing blue and black that have a
sinister, almost abstract vibrancy.
Here, the evil characters are a bit too familiar. The
sprouting fields of swarthy orcs, the demonic army or
Uruk-Hai warriors (reminiscent of the Kiss army) may
scare young children but they look a lot like Night of the
Living Dead walking corpses. The gumless teeth that
project forward in their mouths become more distracting
than fearful. When Christopher Lee (as the bad,
long-haired wizard Saruman) intones to his troops: "You
do not know the meaning of fear. You do not know the
meaning of pain," one can't help thinking: "And the latest
advancements in orthodontics are quite a reach as well."
The battle sequences, as well as suffering from
repetitiveness, reflect the usual enthusiasm of modern
movie directors for Hitchcock-style Psycho-shower-scene
editing over a more sublime overview. To the filmmakers'
credit, the Grim Reaper-like "Ringwraiths" on their giant
black horses are chilling, with the special-effects creators
once again manipulating proportions of large and small
beings for suspenseful effects.
Throughout, Jackson remains in control of his large
canvas, setting the tone for the next two instalments of the
trilogy: A conservative campaign with few aesthetic
casualties, but no real astonishments. Both director and
the author have emerged with reputations intact. Can
LOTR, the super-duper megamusical, be far behind?
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