The first film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy had a tall order to fill. It had to establish the complex fantasy universe of Middle Earth and the peoples who inhabit it, while putting the story of the Ring into motion and accomplish this in the amount of time you could reasonably expect an audience to sit still for a movie. It probably would have been no problem to make a ten-hour film out of the first book alone.
Director Peter Jackson and his writing team of Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens pulled this off masterfully. The first film is still the favorite of the three films for many, but that’s true of the first film of many trilogies. I think this might have something to do with Fellowship being the film that introduces the audience to the world of Middle Earth. We always look most fondly on our first time, don’t we?
The visual aspect of the first film is a genuine treat for the eyes. Great care has been taken in giving each part of Middle Earth its own distinct look. The Shire is warm and inviting while Isengard is cold and foreboding. The blending of live action, computer imagery, and large miniatures is mostly seamless.
But all the pretty pictures in the world won’t do much for this kind of film if your cast isn’t up to the considerable challenge of acting in an environment that is often only half-there until post-production is finished. The casting the trilogy is first rate down the line.
Ian McKellan brings off the role of Gandalf with the perfect combination of whimsy and authority. It’s not easy to be taken seriously while wearing a big floppy wizard hat but McKellan makes you see the character exactly as the others in the film do. Elijah Wood so completely inhabits the role of Frodo Baggins that he will have to work hard to shake people’s identification of him with Hobbits. Viggo Mortensen, who stepped into the role of Aragorn at the last moment, is equal parts steely and sensitive as the reluctant warrior who seems to be at war with his own destiny. Sean Bean‘s Boromir is a rich portrait of flawed nobility.
Many were skeptical of Liv Tyler as the Elf Arwen, but visually she is perfect for the role and successfully gives the impression of being a few hundred years older than she looks. Some might quibble with such a minor character in the books being elevated to such importance in the movie version, but Arwen serves well in the role of giving voice to the noble side of Aragorn’s inner conflict. Hugo Weaving is quite good as Lord Elrond but he’s so identified with The Matrix that I half expected him to say, “Bring forth the ring, Mr. Anderson.”
Finally, how can you go wrong with casting horror movie legend Christopher Lee in the key role of Saruman the White? The actor (and the production’s self-appointed Tolkein scholar) is just the kind of a iconic figure need for this role, an actor who could stand toe-to-toe with Ian McKellan and look like he belonged in Middle Earth. After Christopher Lee, the list of actors who could pull that off was awfully short.
It’s rare enough that a studio would, as New Line did in this case, practically bet their entire existence as a business on three films. They obviously had a great deal of faith in Peter Jackson’s vision and that faith was justified.
The film never drags despite its three-and-a-half hour length and makes the story accessible to those who have never read the work of J. R. R. Tolkien (like me). I can’t comment on how close Jackson and company got to the original source material but the fantasy universe that seems like a richly imagined and cohesive whole.
The trilogy begins in the pastoral Shire, home of the Hobbits, a race of tiny people who live life at their own quite laid-back pace. As recounted in the novel The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) stole a ring from a creature known as Gollum. As Bilbo turns 111 years old (and doesn’t look a day over 60), his friend Gandalf, a wizard, discovers that the ring is the legendary One Ring, forged by the dark lord Sauron for his last attempt to dominate all of Middle Earth three thousand years earlier. Sauron needs the ring to regain his physical form and reconquer the world. It falls on Bilbo’s nephew Frodo to spirit the ring out of the shire before Sauron’s agents can find it there.
In Rivendell, home of the immortal Elves, Frodo learns that the ring must be destroyed and that entails taking it back into Mordor, Sauron’s home turf, and dropping it into Mt. Doom, the volcano in which it was originally forged. To help Frodo accomplish this rather tall order, he is joined by “fellowship” of eight companions. Aside from Gandalf, there is Aragorn, a nomadic “Ranger,” but also the sole surviving heir to a long forgotten line of kings. Boromir, who represents Gondor, the nation closest to Mordor, wants the ring to help his father defend their capital. Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), is a Dwarf with a deep distrust of Elves while Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is an Elf with a thinly-veiled contempt for Dwarves. Also along is Sam (Sean Astin), Frodo’s close and loyal friend, and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), two Hobbits who, at first, seem to dramatically lower the collective IQ of the fellowship.
The fellowship’s path leads them through some genuinely eye-popping locations, such as the vast mines of Moria, whose Dwarf population has been sharply downsized by a recent visit from the orcs, Sauron’s foot soldiers. Also on the itinerary is Lothlorien, an ethereal lair for another branch of the Elves, and their queen, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). However, for its visual flair and attention to detail, it’s still hard to top the Shire. The Hobbiton of the movies was a warm and welcoming place and, later in the trilogy, you can easily understand the Hobbit characters longing to return home.
One notable aspect of the overall look of this trilogy is how successfully the production team made it seem as if the characters existed in a world that has been lived in for thousands of years. Every where you look, there are ruins and other reminders of bygone eras and civilizations that have long since fallen. While Jackson and company can’t provide the level of textual richness that Tolkein’s originally work had, they can provide visual cues that suggest the depth of the source material.
Fellowship of the Ring set a high standard for the next two installments to meet but it also filled me with a great deal of confidence that they could pull it off.
I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.