“Keep your nose out of trouble and no trouble will come to you”
Published in 1955, The Lord of the Rings would soon prove to be J.R.R. Tolkien‘s masterwork. It took him twelve years to complete, a project that began as a sequel to The Hobbit before morphing into its own adventure steeped in dark mythology as contained by The Silmarillion—a book he had hoped to publish alongside its account of the One Ring’s return from Gollum’s possession in the Misty Mountain and Bilbo Baggins’ pocket in the Shire. The hugely influential fantasy tome would eventually be adapted in animated form by Ralph Bakshi in 1978, this medium supplying the only hope of doing the material justice at that time. I remember watching it (and Rankin/Bass‘ The Hobbit) as a child, awaiting the rest of the tale that never came.
In all honesty this is where my knowledge/interest of Tolkien stopped until New Line Cinema announced they would be releasing a live action trilogy from director Peter Jackson with one film bowing in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Suddenly everyone was in a tizzy about the potential of Middle-earth being brought to life half a century after the author put it to page. So I bought the books—finishing The Hobbit as prologue early and The Fellowship of the Ring literally an hour before driving to watch it on the big screen. This was the impact these films had before any footage was seen. Their promise became a cultural phenomenon, the notion all three were to be filmed at once an ambitious undertaking that could fail easier than succeed.
But to me it didn’t matter. If nothing else this cinematic epic was the kick in the pants to read one of literature’s finest works of fiction. I had no ingrained nostalgic affinity to the material, no lofty expectations to conjure heightened emotions either way about Jackson ruining a legacy or somehow doing it justice. So when I sat in the theater and noticed what was changed due to having just read it for the first time (namely the absence of Glorfindel and Tom Bombadil), I didn’t fret. The novel is dense and alterations are imperative when shifting to a visual medium short on time (if the extended edition running 228-minutes can be labeled “short”). Some parts aren’t necessary to plot and compressing others only helps clarity.
I say all this to introduce the extreme amount of pressure put upon Jackson and company. The simple fact that the other two parts were assured to arrive afterwards took a little off (Bakshi never stopped regretting the studio’s decision to remove “Part One” from the title of his film and thus anger audience members who thought they’d be seeing the full story), but a story translated into thirty-eight languages that had been adored for fifty years isn’t going to be without some biased and demanding critics. But somehow it worked. Fellowship met with critical and financial success. It introduced Hollywood to Weta Workshop, turned New Zealand into a tourist attraction as Middle-earth’s surrogate, and vaulted its director and actors to the A-list. This gamble struck gold.
And it comes down to a studio providing time and resources to do the source material justice (Miramax was originally slated to distribute in the late nineties, the budget causing them to demand an ill-fit bastardized one-movie adaptation) and a creative team in Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens with passion for Tolkien and the individual artistry to know what was important and what wasn’t. They saw the tale as split in half—one plot thread following Frodo Baggins’ (Elijah Wood) journey to Mordor to destroy the One Ring and another on the Northern Ranger known as Strider (Viggo Mortensen) meant to protect him. The former was ring-bearer, the pure soul able to stave off its corruptible powers. The latter a hero destined to lead good over evil.
To watch The Fellowship of the Ring today—a decade and a half later—is to see how meticulously crafted it was. There’s nightmare-inducing darkness in the danger looming as Sauron returns centuries after it was believed he was defeated. There’s the fire and brimstone, malicious orc army, and reality that elf, dwarf, and man don’t have the strength to wield indestructible power without falling prey to whims steeped in greed. But we also quickly learn about the peaceful joy of those living an insular life far away from such perils. To see the greenery and laughter of The Shire is to see hope. These are the happy citizens being fought for miles away in far-off kingdoms; defenseless innocents portraying an ideal that war either protects or erases.
We become swept away by the mythology as prologue sets the stage for the Ring’s power and the introduction of a wizard (Ian McKellen‘s Gandalf the Grey) amongst Hobbits exposes their safety as threatened. So much is packed into this first sequence whether the hold of the Ring on Bilbo (Ian Holm), the sense of wonder pulling his nephew Frodo beyond the boundaries of his home, and the fear carried by Gandalf due to his knowing that he’s asked too much of them both. While the journey begins without full transparency—a party of two (Frodo and Sean Astin as his friend Samwise Gamgee) doubling once the former’s cousins (Dominic Monaghan‘s Merry and Billy Boyd‘s Pippin) join as a result of youthful exuberance—the stakes are soon revealed.
In come blood-soaked Ringwraiths known as Nazgûl, nine men corrupted by Sauron who forever search for the Ring. Strider arrives shrouded in mystery, a hiccup in Gandalf’s plan (a meet-up with his order’s leader Saruman, as played by Christopher Lee) preventing him from leading introductions that would explain the ranger’s status as friend. Then come the Rivendell elves in Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) followed by Silvan Elves in Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Celeborn (Marton Csokas). And of course there’s also a representative of the three protagonist species meant to assist the Hobbits, Gandalf, and Strider as the titular “fellowship”: man (Sean Bean‘s Boromir of Gondor), elf (Orlando Bloom‘s Legolas of the Woodland Realm), and dwarf (John Rhys-Davies‘ Gimli, warrior son of the Lonely Mountain’s Glóin).
This film may be the first of three, but it never feels incomplete. It helps that there’s the threat of casualty from the get-go after an ill-advised trick of Bilbo’s activates the Nazgûl, serving as a GPS to Hobbiton. The power of the Ring is manifested by brilliant performances both in those affected being viscerally aggressive in possessiveness and ravaged by guilt-filled shame in the clarity of what it made them do. The evil running rampant near Mordor as orcs and trolls are bred and trained is explicitly over-the-top, their participation as hideous villains one-dimensional so we may revel in their deaths and know them as unwavering in their bloodlust. And adding something as scary as the Balrog shows that not everyone will survive to this chapter’s end.
Every facet of the production is impeccable from the sets and props to Howard Shore‘s iconic score to the use of practical effects with in-camera and blocking trickery meant to distort our perception of scale (Hobbits are called halflings for a reason, their stature half that of men). So the film has therefore aged extreme well with few instances of obvious artifice (much like Jurassic Park, a necessary precursor allowing this adaptation to even be considered feasible). If nothing else Jackson ensured that his Middle Earth feels authentic down to the tiniest of details so it may consume our undivided attention for three-plus hours. The action, emotion, and humor allow it to fly by, its complex plot enhanced by foreshadowing, honest depictions of cause and effect, and pathos.
I’m not sure anyone could watch Fellowship and not be satisfied by the experience and excited for more. While it sets up so much still to come, it also ends its main thrust—or at least sees it through to its inevitable evolution of intent. This film is full of exposition, but it’s always delivered through action rather than in-action. We understand the Nazgûl and Sauron because we watch them in all their menacing glory. We understand the threat the Ring holds by witnessing the reactions of those to which Frodo would easily relinquish his responsibility. And we fully comprehend the stakes as far as this fight being about extinction. Sacrifice looms large either by death or isolation. Innocents are made warriors. Selfishness is expunged. Heroes are born.