Greatest Show on Middle Earth
It’s been 30 years since I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive follow-up to The Hobbit, but Peter Jackson’s colossal screen adaptation of the first third of the novel makes it feel like only yesterday. Some details are a bit off from the way I imagined them – in particular, I saw Tolkien’s race of ground-dwelling small folk, the hobbits themselves, as generally hairier and more burly. But many things in the film are just as I imagined them. More still are even better.
The secret of Tolkien’s success is that his story is both simple and complex. A young hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood from The Faculty) inherits a magic ring from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm from eXistenZ). The family’s wizard friend Gandalf (Ian McKellen from X-Men) determines that this is not just any magic ring, but an incredibly evil and powerful one forged by the sorcerer Sauron (Sala Baker) thousands of years ago. Sauron used it to nearly conquer the world before losing it. Now, Sauron’s forces are mounting again, having seduced head wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee from Sleepy Hollow) over to the Dark Side, and his demonic warriors are searching for his ring. Frodo seems to be one of the few with the moral stamina to resist the ring’s dark influence, and a fellowship of nine warriors is formed to take him to the fiery pits of Mount Doom – the only place where the ring can be destroyed. The catch is: Mount Doom is located right in the middle of Sauron’s kingdom of Mordor.
Despite the amount of press this project has received, there will always be some in the audience that will be disappointed by the end of Fellowship of the Ring, just as there were for the cliffhanger element of The Empire Strikes Back. Despite the author’s protests, Tolkein’s publisher split the novel into three books, and so it has remained ever since. So be forewarned yet again: this is the first act of a trilogy, which ends with various characters vowing to continue in the next exciting chapter.
And exciting it will be. Peter Jackson’s genius truly flowers with this film, his first adaptation of a novel. Here, he shows us how well he understands the strengths and weaknesses of the two mediums. Left out of the film is much of Tolkien’s meticulous depth of detail in creating his imaginary world, from transcribing the lengthy poetry of the elves to telling us what the hobbits ate for “second breakfast”. However, he more than makes up for it by keeping the story intact and concentrating on the sound and vision of film language.
Backing him up is a great cast, and the acting is uniformly excellent throughout. Many of the characters are much more rounded out on film than they ever were in print, particularly Lee’s Saruman and Viggo Mortenson as the exiled king Aragorn. Cate Blanchett, as the elf queen Galadriel, expertly balances elements of sacrament and horror. The cast, with Jackson, makes Gandalf, Aragorn, and the elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) into thrilling superheroes, and the band of hobbits become the heart of the story. On film, the action scenes come to life with exciting choreography and f/x.
We live in an age in which computers have made great special effects much more commonplace, but here, the intelligence and creativity shown in the use of those f/x stands out. Subtly, CGI and stagecraft are used to make the hobbit actors three feet tall, and the elf characters thinner and more ethereal – see Sean Astin as Sam, shrunk to a stature we haven’t seen him at since The Goonies. More spectacularly, a horde of monsters is brought into the battle. Pretty much every shot in the film has been manipulated digitally, but while you’re watching it you can simply accept its every wonder as real.
Jackson has given us something great and rare – a faithful and worthy adaptation of one of the world’s most beloved works of literature. He makes its three hour running time feel like 60 minutes, retaining the book’s warm humor and sense of wonder, while bringing it a fresh depth of emotion and thrilling action. The only thing lacking is a better sense of place – Jackson should include more views of Tolkien’s Middle Earth maps in the sequels.
I often judge a film on how soon I’d like to see it again. As the end credits rolled on Fellowship of the Ring, I was ready to stay for a second showing.