January 2002: Review: Lord of the Rings

Pay attention, Hollywood. This is how you make an epic.

There are so many ways that The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in the epic Lord of the Rings series, could have failed. Tolkien fans or no, let's admit that archetypal characters and esoteric settings have a hard time winning over a general audience, and that when it came to believable dialogue, Tolkien was not exactly a master. The plot of Lord of the Rings frequently feels contrived, and is definitely episodic in nature, as though Tolkien came to a pausing place in his narrative and then had no idea what to do next.

But Tolkien also had the power of archetypes, of mythology, at his command, and this is what makes his classic trilogy, well, a classic. When it comes to the film adaptation, it is the stellar cast's ability to breathe life into their characters, under the direction of Peter Jackson, that wins the day.

The story itself has become so stereotypical, because of the host of imitators Tolkien's work spawned, that I'm not spoiling it for you by revealing the plot. Lord of the Rings tells of a most unlikely personage, chosen to take an object of fantastic power (the One Ring) to the one place where it can be destroyed, which also happens to be within reach of Sauron, the Ring's maker, who desperately wants it back. As that unlikely personage, Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins will win your heart from the moment he steps on-screen, coming to greet the wizard Gandalf (played by Ian McKellen, who so suits this role that it's impossible to imagine anyone else even attempting it) as he enters the idyllic Shire, home of the short, merry, and pragmatic hobbits. As hobbits go-based on Tolkien's description and on the casting of Sam, Pippin, and Merry, Frodo's three hobbit companions on his quest-Wood seems almost too pretty for the role. But as the character around whom the entire quest turns, he works, instantly winning the audience's empathy.

The rest of the casting is inspired as well. Between this and his role in Episode II, Christopher Lee is ending his career on a high note no matter what he does after this; he makes a perfect Saruman, the Darth Vader of this story who's tempted to the dark side as he becomes convinced that good cannot win. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel is as queenly and remote as she was during the final scenes of Elizabeth; again, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. And Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn fills out this most archetypal and least detailed of roles incredibly well; he's downright frightening when he approaches Frodo and the others in Bree, and downright kingly when he makes his farewells, first to Frodo, then the striken Boromir, at the end.

All of the characters are made real, and that is this film's true achievement. There were so many ways Fellowship could have gone wrong. To begin with, there's the voiceover, usually a bad sign in any film. Here it's a kind of summary of the events in The Hobbit which lead to the finding of the Ring, with other significant details. A lot of information is given; wisely, Jackson puts these lines into the mouth of Galadriel, and Blanchett's measured delivery makes a whole host of names, places, and facts comprehensible, whether you've read Tolkien or not. The voiceover also begins with the screen utterly black, so that you have time to get used to it before you're also expected to pay attention to what's happening onscreen. It seems like a minor detail, but it's precisely this attention to detail that makes Lord of the Rings work.

Consider, for instance, the large volume of special effects. There's more CGI in this film than you can shake a stick at, but the filmmakers were very careful to avoid allowing it to overshadow the characters. Take as an example Gandalf's confrontation with the Balrog, in one of the film's climactic moments (because of Fellowship's episodic construction, there are many such moments). The Balrog is an impressive piece of work, with roaring flames, billowing smoke, and an appropriately demonic appearance; he'd be right at home in Hell. Yet the camera does not linger on this creature at the expense of Gandalf, who is, of course, the more relevant element. Everything about the way this film is shot concentrates your attention on the human actors, and much of it, too, is shot from hobbit's-eye view. This means that, while the disparity in heights between the characters is distracting at first (since you know that Ian Holm, as Bilbo Baggins, isn't that much shorter than McKellen), you soon forget it. The halflings are real, more real than anyone else in the film, including the humans. And while their height is a special effect as well, this too is something to which you soon grow accustomed. In fact, I have only one quibble with the special effects throughout this entire film, which, by the way, runs close to three hours: the moment at which Frodo offers Galadriel the Ring. Blanchett is an accomplished enough actor to terrify us without the aid of special effects; it's the one time in the film that they're overdone, to the point of overwhelming the characters on-screen.

But that's the only one. Even Aragorn's duel with a CGI beastie towards the very end is so convincing that the audience at the screening I attended burst into applause at the end of it. I haven't heard an audience do that at a film since the rooftop hand-to-hand between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Purists will find little with which to quibble. Arwen's role is expanded, necessarily so I think. Much of her significance is never explained even in Tolkien's novel; you have to read the appendices and other background material to find out why her and Aragorn's pairing is so important. Some things, like the hobbits' adventures with Tom Bombadil, are removed entirely; some things, like Bilbo's birthday party, are somewhat abbreviated; some things, like Gandalf's faceoff with Saruman, are dramatized instead of merely being related later. While one could argue whether such changes would have improved the novel, they definitely suit the film. Some cuts and changes were certainly necessary; as I mentioned before, this film is nearly three hours long as is.

But you needn't be a Tolkien fan, or even a fantasy fan, to follow the plot and enjoy the film. Everything you need to know is spelled out, but not in a way that talks down to the audience; the characters, and the world they inhabit, are so convincing that you wind up believing in them in spite of yourself. There's no winking at the camera, no isn't-this-silly mugging between the actors. They are totally immersed in this story; so, therefore, are you.

Nor is this a film for children, despite the fantasy trappings; the notion that fantasy stories are children's stories is an unfortunate assumption. The goblins and orcs are genuinely scary, though most children probably see worse things on their Playstations. What really hinders enjoyment among the younger set is the complexity of the plot. Yes, a great deal is explained, but not in a way that kids under ten or so are going to understand. The seven-year-old seated next to me was hopelessly confused before the voiceover concluded, and if you accept that you're going to have to explain the plot to your child while the movie's playing, do the rest of us a favor and wait for the DVD.

Yes, Lord of the Rings is a fantasy epic, and it is totally unashamed, unabashed, and entirely lacking in cynicism concerning that fact. While there is humor here, and irony, and bitterness, it all occurs entirely within the context of the story. And the episodic structure, not to mention the profusion of characters, places, and creatures, is easily borne by the mythological underpinnings of the story. Jackson and company have made the tropes of myth, epic, and fantasy work for them, instead of the other way around. What emerges is an absolute humdinger of a film, and my only regret is that I have to wait an entire year to see The Two Towers. The ending of Fellowship rivals that of The Empire Strikes Back as one of the biggest cliffhangers in film history, and never mind that I've read the trilogy several times and know what's going to happen. Yet another of this film's many achievements is that, while the people and events are entirely familiar to those of us who've read the books, at the same time they're made brand new by the scope of Jackson's vision. I don't care that I already know what happens in The Two Towers. I want to see it. Now.

But since I can't, I'll settle for seeing Fellowship again.