The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Rings
When you're lucky,
the film adaptation of a beloved book doesn't suck too much. Occasionally,
you might even think that it was pretty good; at least you recognized
its source. Only rarely does a filmmaker create an adaptation that stands
well enough on its own that the book doesn't matter.
managed to fall somewhere in between, so fans of Harry Potter were pleased
and able to put their effigies away until next year. But with Lord
of the Rings, director Peter Jackson has hit one out of the ballpark.
From the first
moment of the prologue, you can feel that this is on target. It neatly
explains the history of The Ring, in only slightly portentous tones.
Jackson throws in just enough reference to the events of The Hobbit
so the unfamiliar won't be left behind. And then he gives us The Shire.
Granted, it would be
impossible to match every reader's vision of Tolkien's world, but Jackson
comes close. All of it is logical, functional, and purposely not too showy.
Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) makes a low-key entrance, and the filmmaker's
wizardry of depicting the Hobbits unfolds slowly. Several minutes go by
before the size difference between McKellen and his digitally altered
co-stars becomes apparent. By that time, the characters have come to matter
more than the effects.
Of course, adventure
must follow soon. When aged Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) pulls a
vanishing act in front of his kin, Gandalf worries that the little fellow
has become too dependent upon his magic ring. After snapping at Gandalf,
even Bilbo has to admit that it exerts a strange pull.
From the prologue
the viewer knows that this ring has the power to destroy the world,
and in a strange way, it has the will to do so itself. But even Gandalf
has no understanding of this at first; after researching the ring, he
realizes that dark forces are gathering, and Bilbo's heir Frodo (Elijah
Wood) has become stuck in the middle of them.
When the story
demands, we get introduced to a variety of different races, all wondrous
but handled matter-of-factly. Man, of course, seems to dominate this
Middle Earth, but elves and dwarves still wield power. Only the hobbits
have no particular desire for anything beyond their backyards, and therefore
make the only close to trusted keepers of the ring.
A council of the
races decides that the ring must be destroyed by casting it into the
fires of Mount Doom, where the dark lord Sauron originally forged it.
To that end, a fellowship forms, of four hobbits, two men, an elf, a
dwarf, and Gandalf.
In their way stand
hordes of orcs, trolls, Urk-harai, and the dreaded Nazgul, nine human
kings twisted by the power of the ring thousands of years before.
If all this has
an air of familiarity, it's because modern fantasy has been paying homage
(or outright ripping off) Tolkien's work for at least thirty years.
Its mythos has seeped into our culture. And only now has film been able
to capture it.
And Jackson has
bought more into the mythos than being a slave to its literary source.
Great chunks of the book's story are gone, but he has woven the remaining
pieces together in a seamless narrative. Even in a truncated form, it
still runs almost three hours. And it flies by in a blink.
Once Jackson charms
the audience with the opening in The Shire, the pace never falters.
Though the characters take time for respite, a dread urgency hangs over
their every move. There is no safe time to get up to use the bathroom.
At times it gets
dizzying, with no time to really stop and admire how cool it all is.
Wonders run across the screen, but only in service to the story. The
special effects team has done some remarkable work here, but only where
needed. When elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) calls upon water horses
to protect Frodo from the Nazgul, the CGI work exposes big summer movies
such as The Mummy series for the hollow exercises they are. The
effects are here for us to believe, not to cheer. (Though it's nice
when it works out both ways.)
If any fault can
be found, it would be in the inconsistency among accents. Some hobbits
speak with a faint Scottish burr, some with an Irish lilt. In the lead,
American actor Wood plays a soft British accent that closely matches
Holm's real one. But which would be right?
The performances in general fit this film perfectly. McKellen strikes
the perfect balance between warmth and steel, and his few scenes with
Christopher Lee as Saruman the White are rare examples of "grand" acting
done well. As the mysterious Strider/Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen quietly
makes himself a movie star, burning with a self-imposed shame while
still alight with decency.
Carrying the bulk
of the film, all the hobbits do well, with a surprisingly moving performance
from Sean Astin (The Goonies) as Frodo's loyal friend Sam. The
two former child actors have made the difficult transition to adulthood
without becoming jokes. Wood still has the large dewy eyes that made
him popular in his adolescence, but even as a kid, he was good. He's
only gotten better.
Though the movie
does have a cliffhanger dictated by the book's structure, it still feels
satisfying on its own. The only disappointment is that the film does
not end with a teaser for The Two Towers. You will leave this
film full, but wanting more. And that's a rare trick indeed.
What's It Worth? $10