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Monday 9 December 2002

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring — Special Edition DVD
(With 30 minutes of footage not found in the theatrical release or the first DVD)
Directed by Peter Jackson

Reviewed by John Shirley


When I was a boy just out of grade school, I found a thickly rolled sheet of window shade material that looked to me like "an ancient scroll." I used a Japanese ink brush to inscribe symbols on it from The Lord of the Rings, and snatches of the book. I reverenced this scroll, telling my mother it was like my religion — this shocked her, but I only meant it was a better place, a metaphysical state I could go to, to escape this world, and isnít that what religion promises? I put the Ballantine Books poster on my bedroom wall and peopled it with my imaginings of Middle-Earth. I spent hours in a nearby woods carpeted in moss, a grove very quiet and misty, and to myself and my friends this was "Mirkwood." A few years later when it became apparent that hippies were into LotR, I began to lose interest; I was a proud "freak," at that point, and we looked down on hippies. But I would secretly re-read the books when I was ill, and feeling abandoned. And I tried to imagine how the story would ideally play out as a movie. This allegory, like a great, intricately grown oak, its Oxford-cultivated roots in Beowulf and Viking mythology — to make it come alive in moving, vivid imagery, seemed another kind of sacred quest. It seemed an obscenity to make a Hollywood film of it, yet I yearned for it to be a movie of some kind. But it should be something that fans of all kinds would recognize in a very personal sort of way — it should be in natural, organic affinity with the Middle-Earth we carried in our nerdy little hearts.

The first installment of Peter Jacksonís movie, in the theatrical release, seemed a sincere attempt to re-create the Middle-Earth that fans of the books shared. Often he succeeded in making us believe we were in Middle-Earth. Gandalf seemed like Gandalf, Frodo like Frodo, the Shire like the Shire, Rivendell like Rivendell. But the film seemed top-heavy with heroic action, fight scenes that had almost a Hong Kong flavor, and monsters, quite a number of monsters, in scenes using every trick Jackson had learned from his long experience as a horror film director. The film worked, but it seemed truncated, just a little choppy, and certain very characteristic Tolkien events were missing — and their absence felt. The elves were given short shrift. What of Gimliís feelings for Galadriel? What of the Fellowshipís ritualistic taking leave of the Elves? What of Tom Bombadil? The dialogue was too often lost in dramatic whispering — some great lines hissed away. You canít expect the entire book in the movie, but these felt like missing essential-Tolkien elements. The film worked... but it worked like an unfinished painting by a great artist, some near-masterpiece by Titian only two-thirds painted...

The Special Edition DVD — the second Fellowship DVD — with thirty minutes of additional scenes offered not as out-takes but seamlessly integrated into the movie, brings the painting up to three-fourths complete. Lines are connected, the colors of character daubed in, nuances and shadows inflected, and now weíre even closer to Tolkienís vision. That lonesome 12-year-old boy in me is more satisfied this time. This version includes quite a bit more about the hobbits, and the Shire — a fuller sense of their golden pastoral ease: a self contained fantasy version of lower-middle-class rural Britain. It includes an early sight of Wood Elves, ethereally marching to the Grey Havens, their glimmering parade enchanting Samwise. It brings us Gandalf incanting in the language of Mordor so as to drive away the influences that snuffle around the ring; it includes new scenes with Aragorn, setting up his uncertainty about his royal destiny and his love for his Elvish lady. It shows the Fellowship first setting out together, a moment that quivers with fate. There are more scenes in Moria, wonderful new images of Lothlorien, and perhaps most important this DVD includes a scene in which Galadriel gives her gifts to the Fellowship, the magic rope, a magic bow, and three shining hairs off her head for the smitten Gimli. It still does not explain, however, how Aragorn, as Strider, knows of Frodoís quest, when he meets him at the inn, or how Gandalf mysteriously gets his staff back after Saruman takes it from him. Some of the monster-movie gimmickry, like that cheater scene with the Nazgul slashing at empty beds in the inn, and Samís near-drowning (Frodoís arm apparently thirty feet long to pull him from the deep water) still seems contrived. And beautiful lines from Tolkien are sometimes not articulated as clearly as they could be — though all the acting is very fine. Even so... Even so we still grieve for Gandalf, weíre still moved by Boromirís remorse, still touched by Sam, still deeply sympathetic to Frodoís burden. Even scenes familiar from the theatrical release yield up new delights, on a second and third viewing. And it all works better this time around — the horror/action excesses are balanced out by the addition of numerous Tolkienesque moments. This "edition" feels even more like Tolkien.

There is of course a host of special features here, but nothing much more than in the first DVD. Myself, I donít like to know how they did it, really. Iíd rather not know that those ruins at Weathertop were actually styrofoam...

Peter Jackson claims the film was all along shot with the intention of not including all this new footage in the theatrical release — that it was always planned for the DVD. I suspect thatís only half true. A lot of this new material — especially moments that flesh out characterization — feels like it was designed to be part of the theatrical feature. Some of it was probably cut for length. Indeed, I and the other three people watching the DVD were collectively baffled — just shaking our heads with bafflement — as to why all this material was omitted. Some of these new bits were quite brief but wouldíve helped the continuity and character development of the original film enormously. Was it all about DVD marketing, really? Thatís sad, if itís the case.

Iíve heard there will be yet a third version of Fellowship with a full hour of missing material worked in, to be released when all three films are out on special edition DVDs. If this is so, perhaps weíll see the true film of The Fellowship of the Ring at last. Weíll see the painting completed...


John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released 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 www.darkecho.com/johnshirley.

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