Why The Fellowship of the Ring is Nifty-Keen

Today, my mother and I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of the movies based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This is what movies are supposed to do.

Great acting, great cinematography, great set design, great writing (both in terms of the original story, obviously, and as an adaptation), and a magnificently epic sweep and scope that few movies have ever been able to attain, though many have aspired, obviously.

It's a real good thing this came out after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. If they had come out in the opposite order, HP would have been buried. Where HP was a competent, well-put-together film that was true to the letter of the source material, Fellowship was a magnificent, near-perfect film that was true to the spirit of the source material.

Plus, of course, the source material is infinitely superior. The book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is, ultimately,a diverting kids' book that is charming and cute and disposable. The Lord of the Rings is, well, somewhat more than that.

While it is true that LOTR embodies every fantasy cliché imaginable by dint of having inspired pretty much all of them, it still works for a number of reasons. One is that the basic themes are classics ones of good versus evil and of the heroes versus the villains. And the characters aren't stereotypes, they're archetypes, a distinction that is lost on far too many people.

HP is, as I said, true to the letter of the book on which it's based, and that was part of its problem. It was so faithful it drained much of the life out of it in an effort to make sure all the parts were there. So many scenes that were unnecessary to the overall plot of this story (though some were apparently important to later books) were left in, others lost their appeal (like the shopping scene, which was drawn out but with none of the novel's sensawunder, or the Quidditch scene, which was an integral part of Harry's development in the novel, but which was the functional equivalent of the pod race scene in The Phantom Menace in the movie).

Peter Jackson and his fellow screenwriters, however, knew to retain the spirit of Tolkien's story while whittling it down to three hours. Even then, it's not perfect. The first half-hour is laden with exposition (most of it from The Hobbit), and some characters (particularly Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf) are given short shrift. Gimli, in particular, comes across as somewhat one-dimensional, his motivations for joining the fellowship less clear than the others. He still has a certain bizarre dignity, but that's mainly due to John Rhys-Davies's portrayal. (Never thought I'd say this about a man of his girth, but he was born to play a dwarf.) Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan are similarly shortchanged as Peregrin and Meriadoc, but that has a very good chance of changing in later films.

Actually, the casting was near perfect. Ian McKellen has played two popular literature icons in a row--Magneto and now Gandalf--and has perfectly embodied them both. The man has yet to turn in a wrong performance lately, whether in X-Men, Fellowship, Apt Pupil, or Richard III. (The only other person I can envision playing Gandalf, to be honest, is fellow X-Men star Patrick Stewart.) Elijah Wood is a better Frodo than I could have imagined, as he straddles between the sedentary tradition of hobbit-dom and the thirst for adventure that comes from being the nephew of Bilbo Baggins. Ian Holm is excellent (and I would have loved to have seen him play Bilbo in The Hobbit twenty years ago) as the aged hero who has lost his way. (Holm did right what Chow-Yun Fat mostly did wrong in a vaguely similar role Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) Sean Astin nailed Samwise to a T, Cate Blanchett is a Tolkien elf, and having Christopher Lee play Saruman should get some kind of inspired-casting award.

There are a couple of missteps. Hugo Weaving is as dull and lifeless as Elrond as he was as Smith in The Matrix. Sean Bean is about twice the actor Viggo Mortensen is, so I really wish they'd switched roles, since Bean's Boromir dies in Fellowship and Mortensen's Aragorn is in all three. Having said that, Boromir's betrayal is telegraphed far more here than in the book, not to good effect, and that's at least partly Bean's fault.

One fascinating change is a direct result of when this film was released. The role of Arwen was expanded--partly taking a bit of backstory between Arwen and Aragorn out of the appendix and into the front story, partly because the story was in rather desperate need of at least one strong female character, the lack of which would have been conspicuous in the post-Buffy/Xena age. Liv Tyler does a fine job as Arwen, too, but she must have a fantastic agent. She's only on camera for about half a second, is about the eighth-most important character in the film at best, yet she gets third billing behind Wood and McKellen. Go fig'.

New Zealand was the perfect place to film this. As anyone who watched Xena or Hercules knows, it is a lush, almost magical landscape, and it made the transition to Middle Earth perfectly. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie deserves a huge chunk of credit for his work in making each section look distinctive: the primary colors of the Shire, the washed-out glory of Rivendell and Lothlorien, the eerie darkness of the mine.

(That's another way that Fellowship is superior to HP: both have a battle with a CGI troll, but Fellowship's has a better troll and more convincing interaction between the CGI and the people.)

The movie's full of nice touches. The one that impressed me the most is the fact that people get dirty. As the days progress, they get dirt under their fingernails, streaks of mud on their faces, and their hair gets all mussed up. There are dozens of closeups of Frodo holding the ring and, depending on where and when he is in the storyline, sometimes that hand is filthy. It's a welcome change from the usual, where everyone stays made-up and clean with perfect hair all the time.

The thing this movie does best, though, is show Frodo as a hero. Far too many stories that involve one person responsible for saving the world--particularly movies--have the hero being constantly told that he (it's always a he) is to be the hero, the victor, the messiah, the one, whatever, but the hero never actually makes the journey to being a hero, he simply miraculously comes through at the end. This was a notable problem with The Matrix (where Keanu Reeves was told he was "the One" but never believed it or did anything to earn it), with Harry Potter (where Harry was confused by it and didn't really do anything to earn it, either, just played along and got lucky), with The Last Temptation of Christ (where Jesus actively tried to reject his calling as Messiah), and so many others.

It's not a problem here. It would have been very easy to, when abridging the novel for film length, to simplify things by having Gandalf and Elrond and Galadriel just tell Frodo to be the hero. But they don't do that. In fact, they give him every chance to get out of it. But Frodo does what needs to be done by his own choice (most notably when he volunteers to take the ring to Mordor, even after the others have agreed that they can't ask more of Frodo than they already have). We see him become a hero, rather than having other characters shove the notion down our throats without any onscreen evidence to support it.

Finally, any Babylon 5 fan should see this movie for the same reason why every Star Wars fan should see The Hidden Fortress--to see a bit of primary source material. Just as much of George Lucas's movie was derived (by Lucas's own admission) from the Kurosawa film, so was a lot of J. Michael Straczynski's five-year arc (again, by JMS's own admission) inspired by Tolkien. (Note, e.g., the similarities in the names of the places where Balrog and the Shadows come from, and between Sheridan's Z'ha'dum plunge and Gandalf's.)

This is a truly great movie. I'm only sorry we have to wait a year for the next one.

[First posted on sff.people.krad at SFF.net on 21 December 2001.]


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