It's set to be the biggest film of all time, and is certainly the most eagerly anticipated by fans of the book, but is Fellowship of the Ring any good? Resident Tolkien nerd Hugh Linehan attended the first London press screening to find out
12/12/01: I can't believe it - you've seen it! You've actually seen it. What's it like?" I'm in an Oxford Street department store, shortly after leaving the Fellowship of the Ring screening in Soho, and the shop assistant has spotted the film's publicity brochure under my arm. There's an almost scary edge of hysteria to his voice as he calls over his colleagues, and I'm press-ganged into giving my first review. If I hadn't realised it before, here's evidence that it's pretty weird out there in Tolkien fanland at the moment.
There's been no shortage of advance publicity for The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's much-loved fantasy novel. Special supplements, in- depth profiles, location reports, star interviews - all the usual paraphernalia of the movie hype machine. But, up until this weekend, virtually nobody has been allowed see the actual film.
Even the press screening in London on Saturday morning, just two days before the official world premiére, is held under unprecedented security conditions. Mobile phones and tape recorders are confiscated at the door, and we all submit to a metal detector, much to the disgruntlement of the assembled journalists, who settle grumpily into their seats for the three-hour epic, mumbling that they don't know what all the fuss is about. Do they seriously believe somebody would phone the soundtrack of the film down the line to some web pirate?
Well, yes they do, and they're probably right. On one level, The Fellowship of the Ring is just another big, blockbuster film. On another, though, it's the most eagerly-anticipated literary adaptation of all time-and that's not hype. Legions of Tolkien fanatics around the world are already having sleepless nights over the prospect of seeing their beloved book brought to life on the big screen. Will it fall short of their expectations? Will it be a travesty? Can it possibly match up to their own visualisations of the world of Middle Earth?
With all due respect to Harry Potter fans, the comparisons with Pottermania are some way wide of the mark. Potterites may be fervent in their particular faith, but the bespectacled schoolboy has only been with us for a few years, and The Philosopher's Stone is nothing more than a competent slice of commercial product by ajourneyman director. The Fellowship of the Ring, by contrast, is a book which has enthralled several generations, which is being made by a self- confessed Tolkienophile with an interestingly quirky track record as a director, and which marks the first stage of one of the most ambitious film projects ever undertaken. The next instalment, The Two Towers, will be released next December, and The Return of the King in December 2003. Together, they amount to a to-hour-long adaptation of Tolkien's trilogy.
There is, though, a difficulty with all this. As Jackson himself points out at a press conference later in the day the world is divided into those who have read the book and those who have not, and the question remains as to whether it's possible to make a film which can please both constituencies. "There's a lot said about the fans and how they're going to respond to the film," he says. "But I also felt a very strong responsibility towards audiences who've never read the book. I don't know how it's going to break down, but my guess is that two-thirds of the people who see the movie will not have read the book. My primary responsibility was to create a film that could entertain everybody so it was a kind of a tightrope to walk."
First, then, an admission. This writer is definitively in the "those who have" camp. It's with a slight shudder that I confess to having read the darned thing 11 times between the ages of 12 and 15 (you'll notice I pathetically kept count), and twice since then. I like to feel that I've recovered from the experience but, like lapsed Catholics and reformed Marxist- Leninists, the sacred text is imprinted indelibly on my consciousness. I can still tell you the names of most of the lesser Ents, can recite chunks of Elvish verse, and can draw an extremely detailed map of Middle Earth from memory However, like the definition of a gentleman as a man who can play the accordion but doesn't, I have refrained from any of these activities for many years.
But, somewhere within the blasé film critic who grabs his accustomed aisle seat on Saturday morning, there's a quivering, obsessional adolescent waiting to get out (nothing new there, then). And as the lights dim and the credits roll, that adolescent takes over completely I am swept away Three hours pass like a few minutes. At the end, I just wish I could see the next three hours immediately now, straight away Or, failing that, watch The Fellowship again.
Now, none of this is very healthy I grant you, and it doesn't even necessarily tell you whether The Fellowship of the Ring is any good. But all pious intentions to view the film as an entity in its own right dissolve in the experience of seeing the story brought to life. As it happens, and after a day's reflection, I think it is pretty good: it's remarkably faithful to the structure and narrative arc of Tolkien's book; is very well cast and the visual rendering of Middle Earth through the New Zealand locations is quite wonderful.
There are omissions which hardcore fans may resent, but which make sense in terms of a filmed narrative. More seriously perhaps, there's a kind of foreshortening effect, due to the compression of time; events which in the book take months or even years to unfold are rendered in a few days in the film. It's difficult to see how this could have been avoided, but it does rob the story of some of its epic grandeur Certain sequences, such as those in the inn at Bree or the magical forest of Lothlorien, look as of they were truncated in the editing room.
"We got some wonderful footage that didn't make it into the film, and which will probably show up on the DVD some time next year," says Jackson. "But anyone who has read the book will know there was an enormous amount of detail, of subplot, in some cases characters that we had to leave out. "In my view, in movie adaptations, there's only one thing that really happens, and that's simplification. To make a movie you have to decide on your central plot. In The Fellowship of the Ring the story is really Frodo and the Ring. It changes in the second and third films, but in the first film that was our focus, and any material that didn't relate directly to that had to be looked at."
Tolkien's son and literary executor, Christopher, denied last week that he disapproved of the film, adding that his personal view was that the books "were particularly unsuitable for transformation into a visual dramatic form". It's a reasonable point of view, and there are sequences where the film does become mired in exposition and explanation. But the sense of place is terrific, from the bucolic idyll of the Shire, the home of hobbits where the story begins, through the dangerous wilderness to the refuge of Rivendell (a sort of Elvish Berchtesgaden), on to the snowy peaks of the Misty Mountains and down into the ominous Mines of Moriaa.
And the story is anchored by several strong central performances: Elijah Wood makes a remarkably good fist of what could have been a very wet role, as Frodo, the central hobbit hero; Ian McKellen is a satisfyingly grouchy Gandaif the Grey, the wizard who starts Frodo on his journey; Ian Hoim makes a fine Bilbo Baggins; Christopher Lee is satisfyingly wicked as Gandalf's rival, Saruman; and Viggo Mortensen is impressively rugged as the warrior-king Aragorn.
Mortensen took over in his role from Irish actor Stuart Townsend after two weeks of shooting. "We certainly take full responsibility for that," says Jackson. "I think Stuart is a fantastic actor We tried to cast the film in a way that felt totally authentic to the book. Stuart himself actually auditioned for Frodo, not Aragorn. We liked his screen quality and presence so much that we didn't think he was Frodo, but we thought he would make an interesting Aragorn. Then we just came to realise that it was a classic situation where we'd miscast the role. He was just too young. It's very difficult, very emotional and very upsetting to have to come to a parting of the ways like that. But he himself had said 'you're crazy, I'm not Aragorn', and we said 'you are, you'll be great'. So we have a huge amount of responsibility to take. But I believe in fate, and the day Viggo joined this film, fate played an incredibly kind hand to us." George Lucas has reportedly been sniffy about the technical standards of the New Zealand-based company WETA Digital, which created the big effects set-pieces, such as the scene-setting prologue, with its thousands of orcs swarming across a bloody battlefield. But Lucas, not surprisingly misses the point yes, some sequences, such as those at the wizard Saruman's lair of Isengard, look a little cheesy, but if anything, that works to the film's advantage. The obsessive attention to hi-tech detail which Lucas exemplifies is an aesthetic dead end, as his own recent, sterile efforts show. Here, effects are subordinated, as they should be, to story and character.
One of the impressive things about The Fellowship of the Ring is that it doesn't try to ingratiate itself with its audience by inserting anachronistic contemporary references (with the exception of one, rather good, dwarf-throwing gag). There are some attempts to redress what would nowadays be seen as the improper gender balance of the novel (The Lord of the Rings is not very PC at all) but no real violence has been done to the narrative.
"There's no doubt that Tolkien approached the story in a very English spirit, and we tried to honour that," says Jackson. "Basically, we're a bunch of Kiwi film-makers using American dollars to make an incredibly English story That's the sole reason the world premiere is taking place here in London. It could easily have been in New Zealand or Los Angeles, but we wanted to respect the fact that this is where the story was born.
It's this faithfulness which actually makes The Fellowship of the Ring most interesting as a film - the tyranny of the action movie formula, with its tediously predictable climaxes and pay-offs, is mercifully absent. It will be interesting to see how the two-thirds of the audience Jackson refers to will react to this, and to the fact that the film concludes on an open-ended, "to be continued" note.
"The one thing I'm proud of when I sit down and see the film, is that it doesn't remind me of any other movie I've ever seen," says Jackson. "In this day and age there's an industry pumping out big-budget films, and to me this feels like the biggest independent film ever made. It doesn't feel like a studio film. I'm proud of that, and I think that gives it a special spirit."
Jackson is right. There's an oddness and a quirkiness to The Fellowship of the Ring, along with a peculiar sense of integrity, which is markedly absent from most films of this scale. And you don't have to have read the book umpteen times to get it. Believe me - or I might just start chanting in Elvish again.
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