The Fellowship of the Ring
With the Hobbit films having run their course, and 10 years having passed since The Lord of the Rings wrapped up its home video run, the time seems right to revisit my reviews of the Rings films. We start this week with my original review of the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Peter Jackson’s Vision of Middle-earth
The director of The Fellowship of the Ring has walked a very fine line between faithfulness to J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision and placing upon that vision his own unique stamp; and he has managed to do it, for the most part, consummately. Alternately rushed and elegiac, perfunctory and moving, Jackson’s film version of the novel manages to portray the key elements that make Middle-earth a fantasy reader’s preferred destination. At the same time, Jackson has lifted some of the lesser themes from the novel into the foreground, presenting some new spiritual ideas to his audience for consideration.
First and foremost, the story remains one of the tension between Free Will and Providence. The best of Gandalf’s words from the book remain intact, if condensed mostly into one speech to Frodo at the crossroads in Moria, reminding Frodo (and the audience) that, first, there are other hands than our own guiding our fate; and second, that it remains up to us to decide what to do with the time that we have.
But the first of the elements that makes this uniquely Jackson’s picture, and one that works very well, is the emphasis on the temptation of The Ring. Gandalf, Bilbo, Boromir, Galadriel, Aragorn and even Elrond (partly through the Prologue) are all given extended, lingering chances to ponder the significance of the chance at unrestrained power. While most of these encounters occur in the book as well, the opportunities that are added (Boromir at the Red Horn Pass and Aragorn at Amon Hen) and the time devoted by Jackson to the other encounters makes it clear that personal response to temptation is one issue with which he hopes to confront his audience.
The second element dominates the closing moments of the film, though it is foreshadowed in the extended treatment of Gandalf’s visit with Saruman. For Jackson, it doesn’t seem enough that Tolkien’s heroes go on motivated by the conviction of things not seen (the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1, one with which Tolkien seems utterly content). Instead, the characters can only go on by knowing precisely where they are headed, and why. For instance, Pippin and Merry no longer play an unwitting part in protecting Sam and Frodo; instead, knowing that Frodo is leaving the Fellowship, they deliberately draw the fire of the Orcs. Likewise, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli do not go in pursuit of the two Hobbits having to guess at Sam and Frodo’s fate; they know. I doubt that Tolkien would have been enthused at this change. In his vision, acceptance of not knowing was precisely part of properly understanding the relation of Free Will and Providence.
The third element comes at the very end of the film, as Sam sinks into the waters of Anduin, reaching out for help. To this point (the exception being very brief sequences in the Shire), Jackson’s film has been exceedingly dark. Even in Rivendell it is fall, and the colors are muted; and most of the truncated Lórien sequence takes place in twilight. Why? Where is the light? Jackson answers with a vision straight from Michelangelo: the vision of the hand of Man reaching out to God for Salvation, coming in the form—here—of the hand of another Hobbit assisted by a bright Light. It’s an audacious addition to Tolkien’s vision, and it works!
Visualization from the Printed Page to the Screen
A (mostly) live-action film has been in the minds of many a fan since the days of the first Star Wars movie. The ability of cinema technology to blend live-action sequences with CGI and other special effects has finally made the film presentation of even the most fantastic images a reality. So how does TFOTR score? Excellent, in most ways. The art direction in general is fabulous (well, it kind of had to be, didn’t it?), and certain locations (the Shire, Rivendell and the Argonath, as examples) are terrifically realized. Overall, though, the world of Middle-earth seemed a little greasier and dirty than I had imagined it.
Expanded Roles for Some Characters…
It’s natural that some details of the plot and characters should change in order to make the transition from book to screen. In past efforts, as in the present, it has been obvious that you just can’t pack all those characters into the available screen time. So what do you do? Obviously a lot have to go (like Tom Bombadil!) and others must be presented as composites. But what’s up with the expanded roles for Arwen and Elrond? In the book, they surface only in Rivendell, while in the movie, they explicitly become significant players in the drama. Why? Presuming that expanded roles weren’t the price to pay to get the actors Jackson wanted, it’s pretty easy to account for Liv Tyler’s presence. With the second movie still a year away, you can’t really wait until the second movie for Éowyn to appear as the series’ primary romance interest. A viable love interest must appear early to give the movie a strong, young, attractive female character, making the stand-alone-film formula work. Regarding Elrond, his newly-visualized (Prologue) warrior status (though true to the novel) will presumably just simplify things, obviating the need to account for his sons Elladan and Elrohir.
…And Reduced Roles for Others
Tom Bombadil is not the only character MIA. There are myriad others. But, as with other adaptations, Bombadil’s absence is the most significant, and troublesome. Does he disappear simply because, like the rest of us, Jackson has no clue what Bombadil is to represent? Certainly, Tolkien spent a great number of words on Bombadil for a reason, and it could only have been to clarify things spiritual: for instance, that there are powers in the world over which things material (and even magical) have no power. Do these spiritual implications come through strongly enough in the movie without Bombadil? Do they need to? Jackson seems to have substituted magically-powered females and wizard-duels for the role intended for Bombadil. Why do Elrond and Celeborn seem so, uh, reserved in comparison to their female counterparts?
It’s certainly a pleasure to see many familiar faces from around the world cropping up in wonderful and delightful ways. After The Matrix, for instance, it’s great to see Hugo Weaving get a turn at ancient nobility as Elrond. Likewise, it’s absolute genius to cast Ian Holm as Bilbo. And while other international favorites such as Christopher Lee, Ian McKellan and Cate Blanchett contribute in major roles, I’ll go out on a limb here and nominate Sean Astin as the casting coup of the series, and the heart of the film. Ever since Rudy, Astin has deserved a shot at anchoring a major film, and here he shines.
The Bottom Line
Though it’s clear that this is a darker—and scarier—vision of Middle-earth than comes across on the printed page, obviously, the film succeeds as terrific entertainment for adolescents and adults, and will no doubt sate the appetite of Tolkien addicts at least for a few months. Box-office records will fall, and fall mightily. But what about the entire series? Will it become flabby and perfunctory, like the Star Wars series? Or will it actually build momentum, and end with as satisfying a conclusion as the novels?