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

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Rings True

(Best of 2001)

[100% free of comparisons to Harry Potter!]

A quick LOTR quiz:

  • Who is Isildur’s heir?
  • What meal comes between breakfast and elevenses?
  • Who said, “Orcs: I hate these guys”?

Okay, the last one’s a trick question: That line will be uttered by Crow T. Robot on the alternate-universe incarnation of Mystery Science Theater 3000, on which Joel and the bots are not only still hurling snark at bad movies that richly deserve it but are also taking on the most marvelous pillars of fannish obsession, the Star Warses and the Wizard of Ozes and the like. They do this because this is how fans recognize the very foundations of fandom: by drawing in references to all the many things we love that have a bit of those pillars in them. Is there a little Frodo Baggins in Indiana Jones (who, for the uninitiated, said, “Nazis: I hate these guys”)? Sure there is. Is there a lot of Frodo in Luke Skywalker or The Stand‘s Stu Redman? You bet.

So, just as any science-fictional or fantastical movie hero facing seemingly insurmountable odds may be encouraged along with a hearty “Use the Force, Luke,” Luke himself may be heard to say, out of the mouths of a fannish audience, that he’s “not in Kansas anymore” at an appropriate moment. There’s nothing snide in pulling a Mystery Science Theater on a beloved film: it’s a tribute to its enduring wonderfulness and to the prototypicalness that allows it to endure.

Peter Jackson’s visualization of the first book of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, surely will inspire such hushed commentary from the geek peanut gallery, because that’s what geeks do: it’s one of the very things that defines us as geeks, the eternal interconnecting of everything we love. And LOTR: FOTR will earn such instant approval — that comfortable greeting we give to old friends — because although this may be a new film, Jackson has adapted this very beloved pillar of fandom so perfectly that it feels like we’ve known it forever.

Other critics have already dragged out the $10 words to describe this film — some of the ones I’d chose myself are “seductive,” “masterful,” “majestic,” and “elegant” — and you must believe what they say because they say True Things. But the one thing that strikes me most about LOTR: FOTR, besides its seductively masterful and majestic elegance, is simply how utterly right it is. Books have been adapted well before, and will be again, but Jackson has gone more than a step beyond merely casting it flawlessly and sticking a camera on that cast as they speak words out of a novel. Movies very rarely — maybe never — capture the voice of an author, and its generally assumed that it isn’t really possible to do so, that prose and film are too different as mediums to allow for the intact translation from the one to the other. But Jackson has done it. I don’t pretend to know how. But there’s never a moment in all the three short hours of this film that rings false, nary a piece of dialogue about ancient evils or eleventy-first birthdays that sounds like it’s coming out of the mouth of anyone having anything to do with a Renaissance Festival. Not even the bits in Elvish. Not even the bits in Elvish spoken by Liv Tyler.

It’s almost impossible to describe the feeling of seeing a beloved book brought to life so faultlessly — it’s easy when they get it wrong, and it’s fun to tear a film like that apart and moan about how this bit was absurd and that one was completely miscast. For this, there are no words. It’s as if Jackson (who adapted Tolkien’s book with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) reached right into the depth of my imagination and transferred what he found there to the screen. It’s a little scary, like something out of The Matrix: how’d he know precisely what Bag End, Bilbo Baggins’ (Ian Holm: From Hell, Bless the Child) house, looks like? Jackson clearly drew on Tolkien’s own illustrations, but still… From the fires of the evil Mount Doom to the pleasant, rolling green hills of the Shire (“New Zealand is Middle Earth!”), every scrap of landscape gave me chills: I’ve been there in my mind already, and here it is, come to life (book me on the next flight Down Under).

The nine Black Riders — the Ring Wraiths who were once men and are now mere shadows of beings, who seek the One Ring of Power — and their oily black steeds: perfect. Jackson captures how viscerally, elementally frightening they are by showing us the fear they inspire in ordinary mortal beings: the man who hides and squeezes his eyes shut, hoping against hope that the Rider passing him by will do so without noticing him. (Add the preternatural screams of the wraiths, and stir.) And what happens when some poor soul puts that Ring of Power on his finger and lets it begin to worm its evil way into his heart? If a sick feeling in your stomach could be depicted visually, this maelstrom of evil Jackson presents to us would be it.

But the happy things are perfect, too. Every lovely, round, jolly hobbit face, including the third cute hobbit child on the left in the party scene, are, unquestionably, hobbity. Elijah Wood (The Faculty, Deep Impact) is, simply, beautiful as Frodo Baggins, down to his dirty fingernails (how Jackson made the 5-foot-7-ish Wood look utterly convincingly 3-foot-hobbitish is beyond my understanding of special effects). Of course, the happy things are here to be tainted by darkness. Wood understands the particular anguish of someone who’s known only cheerful, earthy hedonism (easygoing hobbits love the good life) thrust into danger beyond his comprehension, never more so than when he comes under physical attack from forces of evil — his heartrending screams of genuine terror and pain seem to encompass much more than mere physical injury but also a despair against the psychic affront to his sensibilities. This kind of thing is not supposed to happen to a nice hobbit.

Which makes Jackson’s Lord of the Rings so much more relevant that he could have imagined back when he first began the project. The innocence and comfort of Frodo and his people is shattered by a sudden encroachment of evil, from quarters entirely unexpected — the lovely Shire could be destroyed forever if the Ring were to fall into the hands of a corrupt enemy. But we don’t choose the times we live in, Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen: X-Men, Apt Pupil) reminds Frodo when the hobbit wishes he’d never been burdened with the Ring, which only he can destroy. We don’t chose except what to do with ourselves in troubled times.

Frodo’s predicament feels like ours, today, which is probably why I felt quite out of breath by the end of the film, like I’d run with Frodo halfway across the Shire, through the dire Mines of Moria, and into evil Mordor. If The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring seems like a dream come true, it’s partly because it reflects our own collective nightmare at the moment. Combine that with the pure perfection of the adaptation from Tolkien, and this is a film to sear its way into your imagination… if it wasn’t already there.

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