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Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

  lord of the ring
Elijah Wood performs his version of the Immaculate Reception.

© 2001, New Line
All Rights Reserved

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (IMDb listing) is a very good movie. Good enough, overall, to satisfy all but the most hopeful expectations of the fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and good enough to please someone who never heard of Hobbits before they bought their ticket. It is an exceptionally well crafted movie. Well crafted enough to earn more than one Oscar. It is a well acted movie, and more to the point, it is constructed so that acting matters. Director Peter Jackson avoids the kind of pit that George Lucas has fallen into, where the actors merely provide foreground for special-effects wizardry. It is well written enough to be accessible to the uninitiated, as well as satisfying to the hard-core, and considering the place of the material in the cultural landscape, the achievement of that particular feat should not be underpraised.

But I can't join the chorus of people saying "LOTR" is a great movie. It does not achieve greatness, mainly because it never reaches quite that high.

Tolkien's trilogy is an epic, both in its scale and in its purpose, which is to say that, surface appearances to the contrary, the story isn't about a magic ring, magical people, or even a magical world. It is a story about the nature of good and evil, and the nature of mankind in that context. As in all epics, many of the characters are of enormous, heroic proportions. Unlike most epics, many of the important, central characters are small, ordinary people who are swept unwillingly into the great events of their times. Alfred Hitchcock may be widely credited with popularizing this movie motif, but Hobbits were the ordinary-man-as-hero invention of Tolkien before Hitchcock picked up his first camera.

Jackson employs cinematography and settings that say "old-style Hollywood epic," but unfortunately, he employs a script that says "standard, contemporary action-adventure formula." He completes the formula in a method that is alternately stylish and stunning, but he allows the venerable tale of the Fellowship to be captured by the modern formula for an action-adventure thriller all the same. In the process, many of Tolkien's epic heroes are reduced to action figures, and the Hobbits, Hitchcockian ordinary men, out of place in this formula, are mostly dealt with by making them part of the background, and reducing them, with the exception of Frodo, to incidental characters.

Much has been made of the missing scenes from the book, but the scope of this undertaking was not reduced by the elimination of those scenes. Rather, it is in the interpretation of the remaining material that the film consciously eschews richness and depth of story and character for the more visually appealing, but ultimately less satisfying trappings of the modern action thriller.

Let's begin with the characters, where the sense of diminishment is most evident. The early buzz is all in favor of the wonderful acting of Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, but after that, the praise for the acting falls off dramatically, because after that, the need for acting also falls off dramatically. Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett do star turns in their roles of Arwen and Galadriel, respectively. They rivet the attention when they are on screen, which is, alas, all too briefly. Christopher Lee gives us an excellent evil wizard, but we knew he would do that before the cameras ever rolled.

The problem is this: there are seven other members of the Fellowship, all of whom have their tales unfold with as much care and importance in the books as the tales of Gandalf and Frodo. But the standard action-adventure formulas require, at maximum, two strong leads for the audience to identify with. In furtherance of this formula, everyone else has been reduced to the role of action figure, sidekick, or comic relief. Aragorn and Boromir, presented as fairly standard modern action heroes, have had their characters' backgrounds and motivations reduced to one or two dramatic points. Their strength of character is less apparent than their strength of arms. Aragorn, at least, is allowed some scenes in which the foundation of his future importance is laid down, and when Gandalf is off screen, Aragorn is even allowed to display leadership. But at all other times, Aragorn is a follower, subservient to Gandalf, and serving the Fellowship more as hired muscle than as an epically heroic king-in-exile.

Still, Aragorn and Boromir fare much better than the remaining five members of the Fellowship. Legolas is a standard sidekick--Tonto or Robin. He is there to display impressive archery skills and utter lines which are the Middle-Earth equivalent of "I got a bad feeling about this one, Sarge".

The roles of the Hobbits Merry and Pippen have been reduced to exclusively comic relief. In the Shire scenes, these two Hobbits are introduced by inventing childish capers that were not in the book, and which would have been rather beneath them, even at their naive beginnings. Frodo is portrayed as picking them up more or less as stragglers, and though they were at Bilbo's party, it's not at all clear what relationship, if any, they might have had with Frodo. In further sharp contrast to their written characters, Merry and Pippin never show signs of growing in character, or even of understanding the nature of their undertaking. Indeed, their comic capers continue, quite jarringly, even as they are fighting for their lives in Moria.

When these two are captured by Orcs at the end of this movie, going to their rescue is nearly an afterthought for Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and Gimli seems more impressed with the opportunity to kill enemies than help friends. These two Hobbits have been treated with so little consequence to that point, it's possible to wonder why we're supposed to care, other than the deus ex machina requirement to follow the formula: the action hero always goes to the rescue of the helpless victims kidnapped by the bad guy. Readers familiar with the material will find their memories filling in the gaps and missing motivations, but viewers who haven't read the books aren't going to see anything other than standard Hollywood action formulas in play. Ultimately, the two young Hobbits are to become knights in the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan, but that is likely to be a jarring character transition in the subsequent films, as the foundation for that transformation of character in these young Hobbits has been entirely eliminated in this translation of the first book.

Gimli and Sam Gamgee fare little better in the strictures of the action formula, also finding their primary use as comic foils. Happily for fans of their characters, both are given more serious character moments, and Sean Astin, as Sam Gamgee makes much of those which he is given. John Rhys-Davies, as Gimli, is all but unrecognizable beneath his prosthetics. Nevertheless, the veteran character actor comes through with an arguably perfect portrayal of the irascible dwarf.

Jackson's saving grace is that diminishing the bulk of the Fellowship's characters is not a mere oversight, but serves a purpose in the furtherance of the formula he has chosen for the movie. For its limitations, it is a formula that works very well. One important tool in service of this formula is the MacGuffin: an object of value that motivates the activity of all the characters in the story, such as the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon or the Lost Ark. In the Ring of Power, Jackson has been handed perhaps the greatest MacGuffin in the history of cinema, and he clearly knows it.

Beyond all possible expectation, Jackson has made the One Ring into an even larger, more menacing presence on screen than in the written story. The Ring has been elevated to the status of a character. It has a personal history, a temperament, a motive and a voice. It is a living, evil presence, dwelling amongst the story's heroes, alternately tempting and betraying them. Only Gandalf and Frodo get more screen time, and more lines, than the Ring. Elevating the Ring to character status is a dramatic device that succeeds very well in drawing the viewing audience into the on-screen dilemma of the characters, encouraging them to empathize, to the greatest degree possible, with their struggle with their lust for the Ring, and the seduction of evil power.

The other formulaic purpose served by spending less time fleshing out the characters is that more screen time is available for displaying impressive cinematography and heart pounding action sequences. This film is blessed with an abundance of both. This is not a bad thing. A movie is a visual medium, and an epic adventure novel is a kind of story where the actions of the characters define both themselves and the story they serve. A movie can be excellent, even brilliant, while relying primarily on action and visual narrative, rather than expository dialogue to tell the story. But it's a difficult way to tell a story without leaving the audience behind.

I very much enjoyed the result, but I'm inclined to believe that the reactions of the non-Tolkienites, when (or if) they make it to the theaters, will be less enthusiastic. Though they were not fatal from my vantage, I can see the flaws. There is a great deal of time spent panning the scenery, lingering on the details of sets, and flying over the landscape in helicopter shots. Fans of Tolkien will savor these altogether satisfying moments of simply visualizing Middle-Earth and admiring the results. Fans of movies will possibly be annoyed that so much screen time is being wasted in self-indulgent navel-gazing at the art of moviecraft. Reasonable people of either persuasion might be moved to wonder if that screen time couldn't have been better spent creating more three-dimensional characters for the story.

Similar differences of opinion might arise with respect to the numerous slow-motion glamour shots of both heroes and villains, and the somewhat lengthy feel of some of the special-effects driven scenes. Many, many precious screen moments are indulged in such activities. By the end of the movie, these kinds of visual hooks feel over-indulged. There are many minutes of screen time that could arguably have been put to better use.

Jackson's creation is a visually striking, perhaps even definitive screen depiction of the world of Middle Earth. It is also, arguably, a definitive realization of the characters of Gandalf the Wizard and Frodo Baggins. All of Middle Earth's fanciful denizens, from elves and dwarves, to orcs, cave trolls and balrogs become as real as any movie character can ever be. The combat and action sequences are everything that anyone could hope for (except, it seems, those who were inappropriately hoping for an aping of the action/combat stylings of "Matrix" or "Crouching Tiger"), even in an age when Hollywood turns out heart-stopping action sequences by the gross, and Jackson doesn't forget that these sequences must serve to advance the story, not merely impress the viewer and sell the popcorn. Beyond that, however, Jackson has included only just enough of Tolkien's broad story and rich characterizations as will fit into the service of the modern action film formula. As such, it is perhaps a Tolkien for our times, but in the future, if another director wishes to attempt the definitive screen rendition of Tolkien, the room to do it is still there. For that, "LOTR" is still a very good movie, and one I would recommend to anyone.

Filmfodder Grade: B+

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