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Friday 21 December 2001

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Directed by Peter Jackson
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien
Starring Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Marton Csokas, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, and Elijah Wood

Reviewed by John Shirley

There's a price to be paid for a great adaptation, from book to the screen — and I don't mean the three hundred million the three LotR pictures cost. We find ourselves trading our personal experience of the literary work for the cinematic version, at least to some extent. I'm a PG Wodehouse fan — whenever I read of Bertie and Jeeves now I picture Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, for I have savored every minute of their superb adaptations of the Jeeves stories. That handsome young man who put the cocked hat on for A&E is now Hornblower in my mind forever. My wife Micky — and no one could have anticipated this movie more eagerly without being an egregious nerd (they know who they are) — remarked on it: After the film, we'll see Ian McKellen as Gandalf, when we read the books; we'll tend to imagine Elijah Wood as Frodo. By the time the film trilogy is done we'll see a computer-animation as Gollum — and I always thought computer-animating Gollum was a mistake.

Even if we manage to fire up the Mt Dooms of our imaginations and forge anew our own personal Frodos and Gandalfs, the overall shape and emphases selected by the talented Peter Jackson will tend to color our interpretation of the books when we revisit them. And that's a price to pay indeed. It can't be helped: It's impossible to make a film of a significant literary work without a muscularly interpretive point of view. It's like selecting a view of the Taj Mahal; no one view does it justice. You can't see a grand edifice from every angle at once... but you can come closer in literature, where your view is more from within. Somehow our understanding of a tale in literature is more of the essence than a film can usually be; it is rooted more deeply in the point of view that illuminates the author's meaning. Ultimately this cinematic trilogy cannot be Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, even though it does bring us the Tolkien spirit admirably intact; good as this film is, it's still just Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.

Well we could do far worse. It could've been awful. The original studio Jackson dealt with, Miramax/Disney, wanted to shoot all three books as one movie, and not a terribly long movie either. They'd probably have cast Big Movie Stars. Tom Cruise as Aragorn. Robin Williams as Bilbo. Are you shuddering yet? The speeches by Boromir and others, either right out of Tolkien or nearly, would've been cut — but they're the heart of this film's integrity. Lucky for us, Peter Jackson told them to kiss his New Zealander arse.

I have said all along that the difference between a good Hollywood film and a bad one is two-fold: the script and the leadership. The leadership demands a strong script and then sees it through, fighting off the Studio Idiots who want to insert movie stars and "something more like Harry Potter," say, in the story. You need a director with vision and the character to insist on the film as it should be. You can thank exactly that for the fact that The Fellowship of the Ring is a meaningful, affectionate, skillfully wrought film. Oh, I think it could have had another six months of production. Jackson's effects and sets are very good, but Lucas has shown us that computer animation can look even realer than this; that miniatures can look bigger than this, and Tolkien asks for perfection from us. Are the fight scenes a bit too chaotic? For me they are: I like to follow a fight with less effort. But that cave troll! He may be unconsciously a little too modeled on that Star Wars creature that Luke tricked in Jabba the Hut's gladiatorial pit, but by God Jackson's troll seems truly dangerous — unlike the one in the Harry Potter film. I mean, if we're going to compare trolls. This expertise in the evocation of nightmarish danger is no surprise: Peter Jackson cut his teeth in horror films, and if the horrific elements of LotR are perhaps just a little too "horror show", it's only natural. And the horror-genre moments are fully offset by the grandness, the sense of scale and history that Jackson has conjured: the fondly homey detailing of Hobbiton; the steely swarming of the armies; the imperially imposing stone statues of ancient kings flanking the river; the perspective from the top of Saruman's dark tower with Gandalf's leap of faith onto the lordly eagle; the temple-like confines of Moria.

Jackson set out to do exactly what Tolkien fans hoped he'd do — to bring the story to the screen with its theme and flavor and scope all recognizably and honorably Tolkien. The reverential script by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson reproduces the voice of Middle Earth in dialogue, without being so faithful the average bright viewer would have trouble following it. (They clearly worked hard on Elvish — no one knows what it really sounds like, but if they can make the daughter of the lead singer of Aerosmith speak this version with agreeable conviction, you know they put in the time.) Jackson does well to engage in his fairly long voice-over prologue, setting up the backstory of the great conflict, the one-ring, giving us a real sense of Tolkienesque scope. Perhaps Sauron, before shedding his body, does look a bit too much like a merchandisable action figure, but in context it works.

One real accomplishment in Jackson's The Fellowship of the Rings is the clear dramatization of the power of the One Ring. Magical artifacts in fantasy films tend to look like props with battery powered glamour, and we have to stretch our willingness to suspend disbelief to buy into them. Harry Potter's Sorcerer's Stone, in the Chris Columbus film, looked like a lump of plastic and they failed to make it seem truly significant. But the One Ring from the first seems charged with sinister power — and it's the reactions of the actors to the ring, the staging of its appearances, that do this, more than its occasional special effects. Here Tolkien's theme emerges quite alive in the film: temptation to evil is a burden, and a challenge; the spirit grows strong when it bears temptation consciously and yet resists its call. When we give in, we grow "thin, stretched out" as Bilbo admitted he'd become. The ring is "precious," and a thing of gold, symbol of all avarice — but also of desire itself. Desire has its place, but unconquered it unseats us and we become its beast of burden, the donkey to its gold-maddened prospector. When its power has become too great we must enter the realm of darkness and suffer the fires of our passage there to destroy it and restore the balance — as a drug addict must suffer withdrawal. All this comes through in the film, like a magical gold ring shining in a hobbit's soiled hand.

And when Bilbo puts the ring on, he sees the world differently: he sees it revealed as a place of spiritual energies, with darkness underscored by the ring. This too seems to evoke Tolkien's subtext: though we're grittily caught up in this world, we are always within another, greater one.

No more resonant and believable Gandalf than Ian McKellan could be imagined; he seems really in a sorcerous trance at Bilbo's fire, he seems truly to be evoking the "secret fire" when he shows his sheer sorcerous being to Bilbo, and when he drives back the Balrog; he seems truly human when he delights in the hobbits. If Elijah Wood is less than a brilliant actor, he seems perfectly cast as Frodo — he'd have to be a bad actor indeed to spoil the effect of that perfect face and those astounding eyes. And he's not bad. Ian Holm is splendid, thoroughly nuanced as Bilbo. Liv Tyler has worked hard, obviously, and is surprisingly effective as Aragorn's elvish love, Arwen, daughter of Elrond. And again — Peter Jackson makes full use of her delicious features. Thank God they didn't go with a pretty movie star for Aragorn — this Viggo Mortenson fellow has real character. He truly looks like he'd be willing to gut you for the sake of his kingdom. Christopher Lee shows us a majestic Shakespearean depth as Saruman — he seems to bring something classically Faustian to it, you can almost imagine Goethe nodding in approval. Cate Blanchett seems authentically transported as Galadriel, the Lady of Lorien; her purely-physical acting evokes other worlds.

The film might've benefited from a use of carefully selected classical music, or a non-film-professional composer — Tolkien deserves the extra artistic depth. Still, Howard Shore's score is able and does exactly what it should do — it's rather predictable in that, but also quite satisfying. And at least we didn't get the wildly over-rated John Williams.

There are aspects of the tale that are touched on, but not quite realized in the film. Do we really feel Gimli's anguish, in Moria, as much as in the book? Do we really understand what Arwen is giving up for Aragorn? Still, Jackson succeeds. Too many modern film makers have forgotten how to find the drama, the meaning for people that ties us into the story, and instead they show us scenes that they assume will engage us only because they're full of fiery emotion and conflict. But we somehow don't care. Jackson, though, has made us care. We care that Boromir feels his nation crumbling, we understand how his weakness could drive him mad for the ring; we feel Bilbo's temptation and begin to feel the weight of Frodo's burden. Jackson has succeeded where so many other Big Film-makers have failed — and it was probably his respect for the source material that made his success possible. This is a four star film — and the term four stars means something more, this time. Great actors, fine director, damned good writers, and powerful source material: that makes four stars.

Picture them in an elvish crown.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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