2001 Film Reviews
by Dr. Bob Blackwood

“The Fellowship of the Ring”: Faithful and Fast Moving
By Bob Blackwood

Director Peter Jackson (“Heavenly Creatures,” 1994, and “Meet the Feebles,” 1989) has taken on one of the largest jobs in motion picture history in re-creating the three novels of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as three long films, to be released approximately 12 months apart--on Dec. 19, 2001, in 2002, and in 2003, respectively.   Production costs are estimated from $270- $300 million.

Tolkien’s book is probably the most read fantasy novel of the twentieth century.  Way back in 1968, it had an estimated 50 million readers.  A very large pre-sold audience is one of the reasons why “Harry Potter” made over $90 million in its first weekend alone.

Tolkien (1892-1973), a scholar of Old and Middle English, wrote three very dense novels with a great many supporting details as well as whimsical elements.  He included touches similar to those you find when reading “Beowulf,” the Nordic sagas and the Irish epic “The Sorrows of Deirdre.”  He uses Anglo Saxon usage (calling the ring “Isildur’s bane”), Old Norse and other languages.

 In the film, Jackson also used some Celtic symbols on Bilbo’s door and Celtic music at Bilbo’s birthday party sequence.   And, in the film, the theme music of the black riders sounded a bit like the Medieval Latin of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

In any case, no other modern author has been able to match Tolkien’s density—such as the history behind each of the characters, their extended families and their ancestors--and also keep the novel moving with an intriguing plot.  One noted failure in my mind, though it is still sells well, is Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, which often fuses attention to visual description to a lack of action or resolution.

Just as Tolkien entranced readers with his tale, so too does it look like Jackson has a good chance of mesmerizing his viewers with his three-picture cycle, filmed in a record 274-day, 15-month shoot.  The fact that it was shot all at once and was conceived as a three-picture cycle should keep it from “sequelitis.”

If, however, you are one of the few who like to argue that Coppola’s “Godfather Two” is really better than “The Godfather,” I wish you good luck in trying to find any other sequel that merits serious attention.

Of course, certain shifts in emphasis and changes were made from Tolkien’s work, which I’ll get into later, but I had to admire the way Jackson structured his film.  For example, you may remember the very awkward opening of one of the versions of David Lynch’s “Dune,” 1984, which had Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan blankly staring into the camera in an attempt to relate a very complicated history of almost unrelated elements.

In contrast to “Dune,” the offscreen voice of Cate Blanchett (“Bandits,” 2001, and “Elizabeth,” 1998) opens the first film in the series, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” by narrating the history of the rings for about five minutes with effective images appearing onscreen.   Thus, right away, the viewer learns that the possession of “One ring to rule them all” will lead to control over all the beings of Middle Earth.  The evil sorcerer Sauron will triumph unless brave beings place the ring beyond his reach.

Other needed narration is usually done in the dialog by the classically trained voice of Ian McKellen (“X-Men,” 2000,  “Gods and Monsters,” 1998), who somehow seamlessly blends the narration into the plot-necessitated dialog.   Jackson and his production team made other good choices in actors.

Elijah Wood (“The Faculty,” 1998, and “The Ice Storm,” 1997) as Frodo, the ring-bearer, has a wide-eyed, milk white visage framed by black hair that gives an appropriate feeling of naiveté early in the film.  This feeling soon disappears as the burden of carrying the ring of power weighs upon him.  Though a young man, 19-20, he makes the older Frodo believable.

In contrast, the oldest hobbit actor, 29-30-year-old Sean Astin (“Bulworth,” 1998, and “Rudy,” 1993), as the earthy Sam Gangee, appears quite youthful.

Thanks to such special effects as forced perspective, bluescreen, moving platforms and other camera tricks, the hobbits all appear quite short and the humans tall.  For example, Ian Holm, as Bilbo Baggins, is quite petite in a delightful turn with Ian McKellen in Bilbo’s tiny hobbit hermitage.  Yet, in another sequence, Holm also creates one of the most frightening moments in the film.

Viggo Mortensen (“28 Days,” 2000, and “A Walk on the Moon,” 1999), as Strider/Aragorn, is a well-rounded actor, but, in “Fellowship,” his physical presence dominates.  He is the sword-swinger who really protects Frodo, though Sean Bean (“Ronin,” 1998, and “Anna Karenina,” 1997), as Boromir, provides some competition for the swashbuckler spotlight.

Allegedly, Mortensen had his front teeth knocked out in a fight scene, but he insisted that they Superglue his teeth back in his mouth.  Mortensen just wanted to keep on shooting the sequence.  With a practical attitude like that, Mortensen’s already illustrious career can only flower.

Jackson took the liberty to put in physical evidence of Strider’s love for the Elf Princess Arwen, played by Liv Tyler (“Dr. T & the Women,” 1999, and “Armageddon,” 1998), through a passionate kiss.  Jackson also created a scene for Arwen to perform some heroics, just a step shy of Xena, Warrior Princess.  Rumor is that she loved her elf ears too.

I can only say to those fans that resist all changes to Tolkien’s text, that Strider’s love was alluded to, though not dramatized, in the novel.   Jackson just fleshed out the character a bit.  If Tolkien were writing today, his women characters would probably have been a bit more outgoing.

Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, the Lady of the Wood, has both a regal quality, that we saw her display as the queen in “Elizabeth,” as well as a radiance, due to good costuming and lighting.  I would have liked more details on the fellowship’s stay in Galadriel’s enchanted wood, but at least it was not cut out entirely, as was the story of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry.  True, Bombadil’s story was a sidetrack from the main plot, but it was sidetracks like that one that give texture to Tolkien’s tale.

As for the other members of the fellowship, John Rhys-Davies (“Dune 2000,” 1998) as Gimli the Dwarf, figures in some of the early comic relief, but his axe finally chops down some orcs in the Mines of Moria.  He grows in significance.

The hobbits played by Billy Boyd (“Urban Ghost Story,” 1998), as Pippin Took, and Dominic Monaghan (Monsignor Renard,” 1999), as Merry Brandybuck, do most of the pratfalls.  I really could not tell them apart, but, in any case, I could not tell Tolkien’s characters apart either until the last book.

Legolas, the young elf warrior, played by Orlando Bloom (“Wilde,” 1997), almost steals the show in the action scenes with his superb archery and willingness to jump on anything, anywhere.  I particularly enjoyed seeing Legolas walking atop the snow in the mountain pass while the human Strider has to plow through the snow.  It was just a quick shot, but I appreciated the acknowledgement to Tolkien’s elf lore.

As Saruman, Christopher Lee (“Sleepy Hollow,” 1999) adds to his Dracula persona the vileness of a sorcerer who has leagued himself with Sauron.  It is necessary in a tale where Sauron is largely unseen that the visible villains be really nasty.  Lee has the stature and the experience for this role.  When he creates the giant Uruk-hai orcs, it is just a bit reminiscent of Frankenstein.

Saruman’s Uruk-hai orcs with war-painted faces, running through the forest to find the members of the Fellowship paddling their elf canoes on the river, fill the bill for real ugly, brutal monsters.  They also reminded me of the nearly demonic Hurons, at least those created by white filmmakers, in various versions of Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”  It is too bad, however, that, after Boromir’s wounding, Jackson has Boromir apologize to Strider for not recognizing his royal birth.  It is a falsely sentimental touch that detracts from the proud character of Boromir.

In conclusion, the pace of the film increases as it rolls on.   I hope that you will enjoy it too, and, like me, anticipate next year’s release of “The Two Towers.”  It may be as much fun as the next occasion when old friends gather together with you to talk while enjoying a mug of brown ale and seedcakes.