The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

2001, New Line. Directed by Peter Jackson. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee. Voice of Gollum: Andy Serkis.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?A+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +3
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-III

Content advisory: Some depictions of intense and sometimes bloody battle violence; scenes of menace and grotesquerie involving orcs and goblins and other “fell creatures.”

By Steven D. Greydanus

There can be no more fitting tribute to Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring than to apply to it the words with which C. S. Lewis acclaimed the original book when Tolkien first wrote it: "Here are beauties that pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a [film] that will break your heart."

J. R. R. Tolkien’s wildly popular epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings has been repeatedly hailed in surveys as the greatest book of the 20th century — over the sour objections of snarky literati unjustly deriding it as "escapist" and "adolescent," damning it for its unconcealed lack of interest in such things as introspective character exploration, sex, and, in short, everything that the literati have decided is important and must be dealt with in any literary work that they are going to take seriously.

This peevish critical Tolkien-bashing has been cheerfully and solidly rebutted by more appreciative critics and scholars, among them Tolkien’s successor at Oxford, philologist T. A. Shippey (J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century). Other recent works have focused on the significance of Tolkien’s world as a work of serious mythopoeia and religious imagination (for example, Joseph Pearce’s J. R. R. Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration).

"If someone dislikes it," poet and literary critic W. H. Auden once declared of Tolkien’s epic saga, "I shall never trust their literary judgment about anything again."

I feel exactly the same way about the first of Jackson’s three films, one of the grandest, most joyous, most resonant, most richly satisfying films in years, a film that is an absolute must-see for both Tolkien fans and newcomers alike. (One caveat: Younger audiences may find the intense battle sequences and scary creatures more overwhelming on the big screen than on the printed page. Somewhere from ten to thirteen is probably a fair cutoff age.)

The outlines of the tale are well known. In a land called Middle-earth, in a quiet rural backwater known as the Shire, inhabited by simple, comfort-loving creatures known as Hobbits, a hobbit named Frodo Baggins learns from the wizard Gandalf that an heirloom inherited from Frodo’s uncle Bilbo is in fact an awesome instrument of evil: the great One Ring, forged in ages past by the Dark Lord Sauron, who is even now seeking to reclaim it and harness its power to enslave the world.

Pursued by terrifying servants of Sauron, Frodo and his loyal gardener Sam Gamgee flee the Shire bearing the Ring, making their way to the comparative safety of the Elven stronghold at Rivendell. There the hobbits take part in a great council, which determines that the Ring must be destroyed. Unfortunately, this can only be done in the subterranean fires beneath Mount Doom in Sauron’s dark land, where it was first made.

Like Tolkien’s book, Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring vividly conveys a sense of a great event ripped from a larger historical continuity, as rife in complexity and persuasive detail as our own world. Seldom if ever has the ancient theme of good versus evil been given mythic shape with such conviction and imaginative force. In fact, never before has this sort of epic mythopoeic adventure been successfully treated in a major film. Only Star Wars came close, transposing the melodic structures of myth and fairy tale into the register of science fiction.

The Fellowship of the Ring is a pure representative of the genre. In this film, an unbroken string of mediocre to terrible "fantasy" movies (Legend, Willow, Dragonslayer, etc.) has finally been broken. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Fellowship of the Ring is unprecedented in its class; it is the uncontestable Citizen Kane of its genre, and may well be the first of one of the most noteworthy film series of all time.

The film also has a specificity and moral depth lacking in Star Wars. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, once described The Lord of the Rings as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work"; and already in this first film it’s possible to see the religious significance of the books carrying over into the film. (For more on this, see the article "Faith and Fantasy".)

Jackson and his team achieve this level of credibility and specificity in part by not approaching their subject as a "fantasy" movie. Like Tolkien’s books, Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring has the weight of epic historical drama; one takes it at least as seriously as Braveheart or Gladiator. Yet it’s also more entertaining and more fun than either of those. Virtuoso moviemaking at every level, it combines eye-swimming production design, vanishingly invisible special effects, screenplay adaptation both faithful and inventive, masterful combat sequences, and cinematography as lush and soaring as the subject matter itself.

What unites all these disparate elements is the creative visions of Tolkien and Jackson. Jackson never gets lost in his set pieces or special effects, but bends them confidently and surely to the service of the story. And the story is fundamentally Tolkien’s story: a story of glory past and evil encroaching, of humble and homely goodness pressed to extreme acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, of loyalty and betrayal, fortitude and weakness, beauty and horror, tragedy and loss.

These themes are of course not unique to Tolkien’s books — or to Jackson’s film — but they have here a tangibility often lacking elsewhere. In this story, when homely goodness is threatened by encroaching evil, it’s not some generically idyllic community being threatened, but Hobbiton in the Shire, with its round painted doors and well-kept holes in the ground, where the cheerfully unassuming inhabitants puff pipe-weed, eat six meals a day, and frown on anything smacking of adventure or discomfort. All of this is gorgeously realized by Jackson, who brings us to a Shire redolent in pastoral charm and rural beauty — a Shire we can actually care about for its own sake, as opposed to a mere obligatory target for the villains to threaten.

Likewise, when evil does come for the hobbits, it’s not some vague or amorphous threat, but the Black Riders, the Nazgûl, whose very appearance evokes all the terrors of the Grim Reaper and Darth Vader and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Like a young child terrified of the winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz or the Sleestak in "Land of the Lost," we can’t help feeling as we watch the Black Riders that there are terrors before which resistance is futile and flight seems the only sane response. (Fans of Peter Jackson may be reminded of the dreadful hooded phantom in The Frighteners.)

This specificity runs through the whole film, from the infinitely elaborate, gracefully wrought Elven ornamentation of Rivendell to the endless rows of towering Dwarven columns in the Mines of Moria. The dark lands of Mordor and Isengard, too, are frighteningly real in their blasted barrenness. Jackson’s Middle-earth is as rich in variety and invention of visual detail and as credible in architectural authenticity as Star Wars: Episode I, but with a greater sense of cultural rootedness.

Although The Fellowship of the Ring is by its nature not an "actor’s film," the casting and performances enhance the production, and are for the most part excellent. Among the hobbits, Elijah Wood makes an oddly young and almost elven-looking Frodo, but he plays the part with such conviction that it’s all but impossible not to accept him in the role. (Frodo’s meant to be about 50, but the production stresses the hobbits’ childlike aspects and apparently slower rate of aging.)

Frodo’s hobbit companions — Sean Astin as Samwise, Billy Boyd as Pippin, and Dominic Monaghan as Merry — are equally at home in their furry feet, particularly Astin, who brings a total lack of affectation to loyal Sam. And Ian Holm, who once voiced Frodo for a BBC radio production of The Lord of the Rings, is spot-on as the aging Bilbo.

More impressive than the hobbits’ performances is the sheer fact that they look like hobbits, standing (like the Dwarves) scarcely more than waist-high to Elves and Wizards and Men — a technical feat ranks among the film’s stunning achievements. The actors playing these parts are all ordinary-sized, yet the illusion of size differences, and particularly the artlessly natural interactions — the clasped shoulders, the embraces, and so forth — are so persuasive that you quickly stop seeing it as an effect and simply accept it as reality. How it’s done, I don’t exactly know — and, frankly, I don’t want to.

The Wizards are exactly as you always imagined them. Ian McKellen (last seen as Magneto in X-Men) bears a great burden as Jackson’s Gandalf, and his performance is a triumph; while veteran horror actor Christopher Lee — who originally hoped to be cast as Gandalf — is McKellen’s equal as Saruman the White.

Much pre-release fan concern centered around the portrayal of the ethereal Elves. In Orlando Bloom (Black Hawk Down), the film has an ideal Legolas Greenleaf. Legolas is indeed so quintessentially elven that he makes some of the other Elves look like posers (Haldir, for example). Fortunately Bloom has far more screentime than any other Elf, and he gracefully carries the weight of his entire race on his shoulders. I was about ready to believe he actually had elvish blood in him (even the name Bloom could be kin to Greenleaf!).

Some thought Liv Tyler (Armageddon) an unlikely choice for the Elven princess Arwen, but Tyler acquits herself admirably. On the other hand, Cate Blanchett’s acclaimed performance as the title queen in Elizabeth might have made her seem an obvious choice for Galadriel, the Elf Queen of Lothlórien, but it took me awhile to accept her in the role. (I would have preferred the more elven-looking Nicole Kidman; but of course she was busy making Moulin Rouge! and The Others.) Finally, Hugo Weaving (The Matrix’s Agent Smith) is surprisingly apt as Elrond, the elvish master of Rivendell.

For the Dwarves, John Rhys-Davies (best known from the Indiana Jones movies) makes an ideal, delightful Gimli, fierce and hardy. I don’t know how they gave "Sallah" a Dwarf’s diminutive yet sturdy dimensions — but I applaud them for doing so. My only Gimli-related complaint is that the film cruelly omits the dwarf’s most memorable scenes in the first book: namely, those between him and the Lady who unexpectedly wins his devotion. This omission might be partially mitigated by scenes in subsequent films showing Gimli’s fierce loyalty to his Lady; but nothing can replace the first book’s classic exchange about a strand of her hair. (Perhaps the DVD release will restore these lost scenes; certainly they seem to have been shot, judging from the foreshadowing.)

That leaves the Men. As Strider the Ranger, or Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen (Crimson Tide) for me labored under the formidable burden of not being Liam Neeson, who’s been Aragorn in my mind ever since I saw him in Rob Roy. Mortensen nails Strider’s physicality, his toughness and valor, and his sense of his own legacy as Isildur’s heir: yet I got nothing of the majesty and authority that Aragorn could suddenly manifest. If it’s possible to put it this way, Mortensen seemed to me a better Strider than an Aragorn. Perhaps the later films will reveal the character’s kingly side. On the other hand, Sean Bean (Don’t Say a Word; GoldenEye) is dead-on as Boromir, noble but flawed.

It’s possible to find fault about other things in the film. The Council at Rivendell gets short shrift, for example, with inadequate debate about the fate of the ring (the film never asks nor answers questions such as: Why not throw the ring in the sea?). Lothlórien, too, is insufficiently established as a land where "no shadow lies."

I mention these points, but I will not dwell on them. To do so would be ungracious. Peter Jackson took on a monumental task with enormous responsibility with this project; and he has delivered with transcendent brilliance. The Fellowship of the Ring is a stunning achievement for which I will ever be grateful. I can’t wait to see it again.

Extended Edition Notes

Mere weeks before the December release of The Two Towers, the second installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, comes a lavish four-disc "expanded" special-edition DVD rerelease of The Fellowship of the Ring featuring a recut version of the film that includes a half-hour of content trimmed from the theatrical release, no fewer than four audio commentaries, and two additional disks crammed with supplemental features, including interviews with the cast and crew and much behind-the-scenes footage of the work that went into the production.

Besides this four-disc set, there’s also a five-disc "Collector’s Gift Set" with a National Geographic documentary on the making of the film as well as merchandising paraphernalia (collectible figures, trading cards, etc.). (Not being a fan of tie-in paraphernalia, I might almost have paid extra not to have this junk, but to each his own.)

For the new expanded edition of the film, Jackson didn’t simply splice in some thirty minutes of additional footage, but reworked the film to incorporate the restored material as effectively as possible, even including new musical material written and recorded by composer Howard Shore for the new version.

The result is a genuinely new edition of the film that includes, among other things, a more lingering look at Hobbiton of the Shire and Bilbo’s last days at Bag End, new insights into Aragorn’s character and psyche, and — most importantly — the much-anticipated sequence in which the Fellowship receives gifts from Galadriel as they leave Lothlórien. There is also new footage in the battle sequences (though the expanded edition is still rated "PG-13" — not "R" as was previously predicted in some reports).

Far from feeling padded, the new version of the film actually improves on sequences that felt rushed or incomplete in the trimmed theatrical version. Given the richness of the source material, there’s virtually no fat even in the deleted scenes, and Jackson’s economy of storytelling remains very much in evidence. Some of these newly restored scenes add so much to the film that you wonder how Jackson was able to cut them in the first place. Of course a four-hour theatrical release would have been prohibitive, but still the choices of what to cut and what to retain must have been agonizing.

The new material begins with Jackson’s own prologue to the trilogy, which briefly clarifies further the Ring’s back-story, and how it passed from Isildur, who captured it from Sauron, to Gollum. Then there’s a nod to Tolkien’s prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, "Concerning Hobbits," here presented as a prologue to Bilbo’s book about the adventure related in The Hobbit. This delightful prologue, as well as other new footage set in the Shire, enhances the film’s depiction of the rustic pastoral charms of life in the Shire, a way of life that Gandalf, like Tolkien himself, so much loved and wished to preserve and protect. The Sackville-Bagginses, Bilbo’s disgruntled relations, figure in these new early scenes, and there’s a scene set in a Hobbiton pub.

The character of Aragorn comes across notably better in the expanded edition, which includes new material on Aragorn leading the hobbits from Bree to Rivendell and a scene in Rivendell at the grave of Aragorn’s mother. In these scenes we learn more of the self-doubts that led Aragorn to walk away from the throne of Gondor, and the reforging of Narsil (the "blade that was broken") is alluded to, though apparently transposed to a later chapter of the story.

The most significant expansions taken place in the part of the story most glaringly abbreviated in the theatrical release, Lothlórien. Expanded material encompasses more on the journey to the forest itself (including an establishing shot of the forest from a distance, but not a memorable debate about who would or wouldn’t be blindfolded for the trip) and more of Galadriel, especially in the gift-giving sequence.

This sequence, in which Galadriel appears much warmer and gentler than in earlier scenes (in which she was oddly aloof and ominous), substantially improves the movie’s depiction of her character. And Gimli of course declares his devotion to Galadriel, a moment that’s not as touching and heartfelt as I had hoped, but is an improvement nonetheless.

With two discs of supplemental material and four commentary tracks, you’ll probably never get to all the bonus material, but so what? Whatever you’re interested in is covered here — special effects, costuming and prosthetics, interviews, music, you name it.

The extended edition set comes in a classy box case with an antique-book-cover style design and a distressed-finish appearance, so that on a bookshelf it might almost appear to be an old hardcover edition of Tolkien’s original story. I can’t wait to have all three matching boxes together on my shelf.

Tags: All Things Tolkien, Aragorn Complex, Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings, Action, Adventure, Fantasy, War

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