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The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)
Director: Peter Jackson
review by Duncan Lawie
The running time for The Fellowship Of The Ring seems long, but it flies by - and is considerably shorter than attempting to repeat the whole of the book. Instead it has taken the book's jigsaw of revelation and interpretation and recast it on time's arrow. As a result, several thousand years of backstory are thrown before the audience in the opening minutes. Putting the history here works well: it suggests the power of the tale to come; it provides an early opportunity to show off the special effects; and it results in a simpler narrative arc for the movie. From swathes of history and great battles we are plummeted into the gentle pastoral of the book's opening chapters. This section includes scenes from the book grudgingly, in a curtailed manner and also chops whole chapters out of the book. Bilbo's birthday party was meant as a reintroduction for readers of The Hobbit. The film needs it to introduce the hobbits, and to emphasise the difference between their nature and that of Gandalf. The next chapters of the book cover the hobbit's adventures as they are chased from the Shire and pass through Tom Bombadil's domain, showing a gradual darkening of tone - a realisation that adventures are not all as jolly as Bilbo's journey with the dwarves in The Hobbit. Old Tom Bombadil is largely unaffected - and ineffective - in the War of the Ring so without the need for transition from children's story to adult book, he is an unsurprising loss. (Co-incidentally, almost every adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings has lost this awkward character.)
The move from foundation building to plot progress really occurs as the hobbits depart from Bree in company with Strider. However, Frodo and his companions are almost treated as baggage by Strider - and later by Arwen. Whilst the 'adults' are built up into heroes, the halflings are saved from the Black Riders with little action on their own part. This is a frustrating approach when it is the essence of the book that at this point Frodo proves to have within him the doughty character required of a Ring bearer. It is more difficult to complain of the small increase in Arwen's role - perhaps Tolkien fans can be grateful that the change has been has slight as it is.
Meanwhile, Gandalf is rushing about all over the place, and so journeys that spanned decades in the book look almost like shuttle diplomacy here. Gandalf's activities provide an opportunity for this production to give a glimpse of Gondor and to spend time in the tower of Isengard, both of which are central to the next movie. The beauty of Isengard is displayed, and the destruction of its arbours and gardens parallels the change of Saruman's character. The off stage argument between Gandalf and Saruman is turned into a great magical battle. This is distinctly at odds as almost no active magic is present in the book, where the power for good inheres rather than adheres and evil is a turning away from simplicity and rightness of action to a pursuit of power for its own sake. Of course, one could argue that this principle is the difference between Tolkien's vision of fantasy and that of the vast majority of his imitators. The idea that magic is a learnable skill like mathematics or a repeatable technology like electricity has created such a gulf that the motion picture shorthand for magical power is a battle with staves. Nevertheless, Gandalf duly makes his way to Rivendell in time for the Council of Elrond.
Even so, we have barely started book two. Since Gandalf's adventures and the History of the Ring have already been related, the Council can briefly introduce the additional members of the party of Nine Walkers who are to take the Ring south. There is a clever visual moment where all nine are arranged as for a group photograph. The physical types of man, dwarf, elf and hobbit are displayed and their variations in dimension are made clear for anyone who hasn't been paying attention. Soon, the group are off over fantastic countryside. The lands of Middle-earth are wonderfully realised throughout the film, though so much has been made of the filming being in New Zealand that occasionally I found myself trying to recognise locations. This could have become chronic if the long journey south had been made much of but the party soon reaches the Misty Mountains. Here, the decision to turn back from the pass is made Frodo's alone, which is not in the book and which seems like an attempt to rebalance the removal of will the character suffered between Bree and Rivendell.
The next set piece is Moria, where the doors look just as they do in the book, as does the tomb of Balin son of Fundin. Throughout, the film cleaves to the actual images in Tolkien's work. The lettering on the Ring is drawn into the book: it is displayed identically in the film and in the promotional material. An image of the map from The Hobbit can be seen on Bilbo's table early in the piece, and the other documents retain Tolkien's lettering or appropriate variations thereon. There is also a clear love of books as physical objects in the film: Frodo leafs through Bilbo's book in Rivendell and the great volume in Moria descries the demise of the dwarves by its very state. The very pronunciation of place names demonstrates the time that voice coaches have spent reading Tolkien's appendices whilst most of the accents in the book sound to my ear just as they should. Alongside the 'Harry Potter' movie, there seems to be new starlight twinkling on the British accent in film land. A more unfortunate comparison to Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone also appears in Moria - the trolls look almost identical! However, the Balrog is a grand success. Very little seems to have been made of Gimli, though when Moria should be the set piece that reveals his character.
Lothlorien feels a little perfunctory - and far too Gothic for my taste. Lothlorien, surely, should feel more like winter or spring than autumn - sunny, cool and fresh with leaves budding and flowers blossoming. This film's vision of the elves seems too dark in general. Whilst elves may have a taste for the night, I have always envisioned their nights as light and airy, filled with stars and singing. The scene with Galadriel's mirror is odd - only Frodo gets to look into it and what he sees is a somewhat broken combination of what both he and Sam see in the book. Yet, when Frodo offers the Ring to the Lady Galadriel a simple page of the book is gloriously transformed into an object lesson on the ultimate danger that the Ring holds. From this point on every viewer must surely understand why there is no good use of this thing of power.
Despite the running time, the film is already into the final scenes. The Fellowship heads downriver, clearly re-provisioned offstage with their new cloaks fastened by wrought clasps. It is in these final minutes that the book is broken again. Just as the movie has Frodo relying on Strider to get him to Rivendell, we now find the two in discussion on the way forward. Instead of Frodo wrestling with his conscience and the enemy then disappearing to take the burden on himself, he consults with Strider on the breaking of the Fellowship. Rather than sneaking off, with only Sam having the wits to guess his choice, Frodo's escape is aided by the other hobbits. The action is also allowed to roll on into the next book a little, displaying Boromir's end and the decision by Strider to follow the orcs who have captured Merry and Pippin. This is understandable from a filmic perspective: the future may be grim but the remaining mobile members of the party have clear goals for the next movie.
For the viewer, the next action seems likely to be to turn - or return - to the books. Waiting a whole year for the next part is an unnecessary burden for those willing to read and Tolkien's own words remain the primal text. It is only here that the rich language and interplay of words can truly be appreciated. Like many other readers, I feared that the voice of Tolkien would be lost in a cinematic production, overwhelmed by special effects. Instead, the overall vision of the film is fairly faithful, guided by the book but taking its own path where it must. The emphasis on Strider seems too great, but that may be a response to my own closer identification with the hobbits than the humans in the book. The movie of The Fellowship Of The Ring is a decent translation of the text and an entertaining film that can stand on its own feet.
tZ The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Rings - another review
tZ There And Back Again: the Animated Tolkien, and beyond - retro article
tZ The Lord Of The Rings: Official Movie Guide - book review
tZ Genre Greats - Lord Of The Wingnuts: Peter Jackson - filmmaker profile
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