The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Movie critics have always had a tough time distinguishing between film and literature – one wouldn’t think it should be so difficult. The last part of 2001 offered the interesting comparison of two movies that were adapted from very popular, superficially similar novels. What’s strange is that time and again reviewers praised “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for its rigid adherence to the book, while at the same time criticizing “The Fellowship of the Ring” for its faithfulness to its own source. (Tellingly, most reviewers seem to have actually read “Harry Potter”, while many confess they can’t get through “The Lord of the Rings.” This has resulted in many sloppy factual errors in their reviews, which is also a hallmark of modern criticism.) Unfortunately, these critics miss the point entirely – although literacy enhances our enjoyment of other art forms, those forms must ultimately stand alone for consideration on their own merits.

J.R.R. Tolkien was opposed to the idea of having his novels filmed. His reluctance is understandable, given that the public (and critics) will invariably fixate on either the written or the visual as the definitive version of a story. His son, Christopher, recently said “My own position is that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is particularly unsuitable for transformation into visual dramatic form.” That’s a defensible statement – “The Lord of the Rings” originated from and luxuriates in language itself. Tolkien’s love of etymology drove his creation of the worlds, creatures, languages, poems and songs that fill his novels (it’s the critics who don’t understand this that can’t finish the books.) “The Lord of the Rings” does contain the seed of a great movie though, and the concept is practically irresistible: The Quest, not to gain treasure, but to destroy it. The opposing sides are good versus evil, and the good is never far from slipping into evil. Peter Jackson used to say that he wanted to make a movie someday that was “just like ‘The Lord of the Rings.’” He meant that he wanted to work on the same broad canvas, with the same elemental themes as those books. With “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Jackson has accomplished exactly that.

If “The Fellowship of the Ring” had been filmed 40 years ago, it would have been shot on 70mm film stock, like David Lean’s epics “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Zhivago” – for this film recalls the sense of scale those earlier epics evoked more clearly than anything else filmmakers are attempting today. Like George Lucas’ “Star Wars”, Jackson also filters and pays homage to pulp images from genre pictures of decades past. In fact, modern audiences are more likely to think Jackson is lifting his material directly from Lucas, without realizing the common source they share. “Star Wars” was partly a send-up of those sources, however – a post-modern interpretation. “The Fellowship of the Ring” plays it straight, with a wide-eyed sense of wonder mirrored by its central characters, and the lack of irony might be unsettling to some in the audience. What is amazing is how well Jackson is able to take these well-traveled themes and elements and to fashion something that seems absolutely fresh and new.

Rarely have special effects been used to such good effect in a movie. The best word to describe them is “organic”, because they arise from the story and feel absolutely appropriate to the scene they enhance. They aren’t showy, although incredible artistry was necessary to create them – they feel like they’re part of the world that’s being depicted. Jackson’s camera captures innumerable moments that define the appeal fantasy holds for the young – it swoops from impossibly high towers to hellish underground caverns in uninterrupted tracking shots, describing a never-before-seen world of unimaginable scope. Underground palace halls and immense turreted castles are exaggerated in a way that seems exactly right – they come out of images locked in our subconscious. My heart leapt into my throat several times simply for joy in the images: a wall of water that becomes the shape of galloping horses; an underground hall dimly seen from above, with thousands of creatures scurrying down hundreds of pillars; a country party with astounding fireworks. Jackson takes his story from Tolkien, but his pictures are gloriously his own.

Unfortunately, for all of its success with the camera, the movie falls short in its sound design. Everything that was new and original in terms of visuals is old and LOUD when it comes to the audio. Something terrible happened when the new digital sound formats were introduced in the mid-1990s – subtlety disappeared and sound engineers believed the audience had to FEEL the sound as opposed to hearing it. This isn’t simply a matter of asking the projectionist to turn the volume down – if they do, the audience misses the dialog. The continuous blaring sound wears the viewer down – we should feel enthralled and uplifted by what we’re seeing, but what we’re hearing makes us exhausted. The music doesn’t help – it’s a standard, pretty orchestration, but it’s in practically every scene, and it insists on a reaction. The film would have been better served by easing off on the soundtrack and letting the visuals breathe a bit.

Even at three hours, the film doesn’t feel too long. Characters are defined precisely, even though they must first function as icons. The Quest as a metaphor demands “types” for its characters – the evil ring must be destroyed by someone who is pure and uncorrupted, else it will consume them. (Tolkien was a Christian, and his books are filled with Christian imagery, though rarely does it exist as merely self-referential iconography, which is the norm in most modern use. The symbolism is recognizably Christian, but it has purpose in the story and serves the metaphor as well, because it recognizes the truth behind the symbols.) The actors play their parts in full service to the metaphor, but they emerge as individuals as well. (I’ve heard grumbling about the fact that one of the warriors kisses an elven princess – this wasn’t in the book, and is therefore unnecessary. I’d argue that it is necessary. First, because the kiss enriches the emotional palate of the film. Second, because it would be a crime to let Liv Tyler’s lips go unkissed, looking as good as they do here – another “organic” special effect, I suppose.) Particularly, Ian McKellan both embodies and re-defines what a fantasy wizard should be. Elijah Wood takes a part that’s written as whiny and ineffective, and makes himself the wide-eyed channel for our wonder as we experience this new world. Viggo Mortensen reclaims the dashing prince role from too many tongue-in-cheek postmodern heroes.

With the exception of the rotten sound, Jackson has come almost all the way to a masterpiece here. There are quibbles – although there’s little blood and gore, the monsters too often look like they’ve come from the set of a splatter picture (Jackson has worked mostly on exploitation-type horror movies until recently.) There might be one battle too many – there was a sense of déjà vu in the final half-hour. The bad guys, for as numerous and powerful as they are, can never seem to shoot straight, and always let the good guys out of their grasp even when they overtake them and outnumber them 100-1. (This is a genre requirement, I know. And Jackson is always working a step beyond realism – he likes exaggeration, and uses it well. I just wish the inventiveness that is so apparent elsewhere could be put to better use in these instances.) Quibbles aside, “The Fellowship of the Ring” remains an impressive achievement. For its sense of scope and imagination, of a new world being revealed, and for the wonder it imparts to the audience, as well as for its refreshing lack of cynicism, it should be applauded.

February 2002