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.

Chris Columbus 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?

It's nitpicking. 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

Derek McCaw

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