I cannot remember the first time I read the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. I know I was very young, and I remember getting worn paperback copies from the local library's children's section. In that library, I remember a mural on the wall of Frodo and Sam's descent into Mordor from the tower of Cirith Ungol. I also remember my 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teacher, Dale Shewalter, would read to his class from the Lord of the Rings during our after-lunch storytime, although by this time I was already familiar with the story. I was of course immediately engrossed from the very first, and I have been ever since. The impact of these books on me is similar to the effect they had on John Reilly, but at a younger age.
I still maintain that Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings is the best book of the twentieth century. Even accounting for the many who found their way to Wicca instead of Tolkien's beloved Catholicism. These books are gifts that keep on giving, and will repay the reader no matter how many times you return to them.
Reviewed by John J. Reilly
Full Disclosure: Regular visitors to this site will know that I rarely review films, and in fact I rarely go to the cinema. This film, though, had to be an exception. "The Lord of the Rings" is one of the two books that influenced me most profoundly. I first read it thirty years ago in high school, entirely by accident and with no idea what I was letting myself in for. The trilogy dissolved my positivist intolerance for fantasy, but it also had the paradoxical effect of opening history and languages to me. I have memorized the details of the book. I often cite it like scripture. People like me want to see the trilogy set out fair and square, with no contradictions. Nonetheless, I can be reasonable on the subject. Really I can.
Now for the review.
I saw "The Fellowship of the Rings" on the Saturday afternoon after it premiered here in New Jersey. That meant the whole afternoon: three hours worth. It's one of those movies that you walk out of wondering who is president now.
In a way, the film is like David Lynch's adaptation of "Dune." Neither film is so much a freestanding story as an illustration of a book. The difference is that Jackson succeeded where Lynch failed. The "Fellowship" sets are perfect. That is exactly what Hobbiton looked like. Jackson got Isengard down to the last bitter spire. I had always known that elvish civilization favored Bavarian Art Nouveau. Now the Platonic ideal has been put on film.
The casting is fine, too. Elijah Wood perhaps looks a bit too much like an anime figure even without makeup, but his Frodo makes the movie. I don't know how they did it, but they made the hobbits look believably 3'6" in the same frames as the normal-sized characters. Special mention much be made of how they turned that great Welsh windbag, John Rhys-Davies, into a plausible five-foot-nothing Gimli the Dwarf. When Boromir (Sean Bean) offers to help Gimli cross a chasm by tossing him, Gimli fixes him with a ferocious stare and says: "Nobody tosses a dwarf!" Except for the occasional remarks about the effects of the hobbits' pipeweed, that is one of the few deliberately funny lines. This is probably just as well: a lesser director could have turned the film into "Time Bandits."
The morning of the day I saw the film, I heard Ian McKellen on National Public Radio express the earnest hope that he will not become "Gandalf" for the rest of his career. Be that as it may, he did Gandalf as I had always thought of the character, down to the accent. Christopher Lee, who plays the turncoat wizard Saruman, is 79, and might reasonably be expected not to have many more parts remaining to him. However, if he is remembered for his turn as Saruman, he will have little to complain of. He could become a bedtime children's boogey to rival Mad Baggins himself.
The burden the film bears is the vast amount of exposition the story requires. The film starts with a brief history of the Ring. "Brief" here means that it is no longer than an episode of the "Simpsons" without the commercials. Episodes from the book are necessarily excised. I, for one, particularly missed the adventure in the Old Forest. Further exposition is inserted at odd points in the story. To this end, Elrond gets one of Saruman's speeches. (Hugo Weaving's Elrond, incidentally, is almost as scary as Saruman. All elves look like they take cosmetic belladonna.) Some characters are missing, too, even when the incidents in which they appeared remain. Frankly, I do not regret the substitution of Arwen Elvenstar, played by Liv Tyler, for Glorfindel in the incident at the Rivendell Ford.
Still it is not enough. There is a discernible plot once the Hobbits get to Rivendell, but anyone who has not read the books is going to be confused about who these people are and why they are doing these alarming things. There is conversation in Elvish (Sindarin, presumably) interpreted by subtitles, but the film does nothing to excite the interest in history and language that Tolkien is famous for. The film has no way to convey the scale of Middle Earth. For all we can tell, Minas Tirith and Isengard are a few days' ride from Hobbiton. Still, we should remember that the work of establishing the context of the trilogy has been completed. The next two films can be almost pure action and still be perfectly faithful to the trilogy.
There is one essential way in which the movie fails the trilogy. People unfamiliar with the books have been asking, "What does a fantasy written fifty years ago have to say to the 21st century?" To that there are two answers.
The first is that, despite Tolkien's attempts to distance himself from an autobiographical interpretation of the trilogy, the fact is that the books are clearly informed by the experience of the world wars, particularly that of a British junior officer in the First World War. Like Tolkien as a young man, Frodo takes part in a nightmare crisis that he cannot escape and that neither he nor his world seems likely to survive. The first half of the 20th century will not be the last time people face such a crisis. The film captures Frodo's desperation constrained by duty very well.
The second answer is the trilogy's implicit model of history. In every age, evil takes another form. It can be defeated, and history allows some generations a holiday. However, we should not be surprised when the Shadow grows menacing again. It is hard to imagine a message more relevant to 2001. Nevertheless, I do not think that Jackson quite delivers it. The books make plain that the Quest of the Ring is just one chapter in the long struggle against the Shadow. That sense of historical depth may be beyond the ability of any film to communicate.
The flipside to this criticism is that the movie does things the books can't. You may not have given much thought to the ways that orcs can enter a dwarvish hall, but Jackson has. The cinematography of the green New Zealand landscape looks like the Celtic collective unconscious. (There is dreamy Celtic music throughout.) Most of the monsters may be derivative from other films, but if so, the selection is commendable. The balrog seems to be related to the amplified Id in "Forbidden Planet," to take one example. The ordinary orcs look rather like Evil's dimwitted legions in "Time Bandits," for another. The extraordinary orcs, the Uruk Hai, look to me like the deeply intimidating alien hunter in, I believe, "Predator." There are original horrors, of course, not least of which is Sauron's Eye.
"The Fellowship of the Ring" is not "Harry Potter." The fight scenes are not cartoonish. Rather the opposite: they seem to have been set up by someone who had paid close attention to "Saving Private Ryan." Parents with very small children should think twice about taking them to a film with so many realistic decapitations and dismemberments. Everyone else, though, should go to see this film instantly. It will make you a better person.
And what was the other book I mentioned at the beginning of this review that influenced me so profoundly? That book was "The Decline of the West," by Oswald Spengler, which I also read in high school. I have not heard that anyone is thinking about turning it into a movie. If you are, please contact me. I have some ideas about the exposition.