Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

[Over the last few months I've been reviewing some of the more noteworthy releases of the decade in preparation for a best of the decade list. In some cases, I've been watching films for the first time and gauging them against established favorites, and for those older films I'm revisiting them to see how I still feel about them and whether they would indeed remain on any list of the films that most affected me. As The Lord of the Rings trilogy had a great deal of impact on my formative years, so, as I have never known the touch of a woman nor gone outside since we built that bomb shelter for Y2K, I have decided to run through the extended versions of the trilogy to decide if one or all of them still catch my fancy. Be excited.]

In 1995, Peter Jackson, Kiwi horror/comedy maestro, approached American studios with the idea of adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, wondering why no one else seemed to care about the beloved fantasy epic. It was a fair point: at the time, Tolkien's work had only found its way on-screen with a generally well-received 1978 cartoon and a Rankin-Bass version of Return of the King that featured, among other things, singing goblins (oy). That Jackson ultimately secured the keys to what would seem a sure-fire hit only demonstrates how little the studios cared about Middle-Earth and its inhabitants: at the time, Jackson's only critical hit was the coming-of-age thriller Heavenly Creatures, a lovely film that introduced the world to Kate Winslet but hardly gave the impression that the creator of Braindead and The Frighteners was ready for his shot at the big time. Miramax decided to give him a two-picture deal to tell the story of the three books, and was later urged to cut it down into one. Understandably upset, Jackson took his two scripts and some test footage around town until he got to New Line Cinema CEO Robert Shaye, who, in one of life's little moments, asked why they were making two films when there were three books.

Therefore, The Lord of the Rings has "labor of love" etched in every frame, its synchronous production of all three chapters bewildering in its innovation and the work ethic it required. You can see it when the prologue, depicting and swiftly summarizing the the history of Middle-Earth and the One Ring, gives way to the lush shots of the Shire, enhanced by the extended version with Bilbo's (the always entertaining Ian Holm) loving voiceover describing this quaint little community for little people, all of whom have big feet and big stomachs and green thumbs. Jackson moves his camera through this hilly, mole-like suburb with a wistfulness befitting a Cameron Crowe film. Looking back, Jackson so marvelously and lovingly captures the Shire that it's actually a comedown when Gandalf (Ian McKellen, who spends all of his time in this idyllic location chewing the scenery to test if he's actually there or on a set) rides into town and starts setting off fireworks like a jackass.

I wonder if there is any point in plot summary, even as the basis of further analysis and not as a means to its own end: the books are the highest selling work of fiction of all time, and the films made a cubic ass-ton of cash, so why waste everyone's time with a recap? There's a Ring, it's bad, time to go on a hike to a volcano. Boom. What makes Fellowship, compared to its grander sequels, interesting is not its plot but its impressive evocation of another world. With on-location shooting around New Zealand, Fellowship naturally anchors itself in reality, but Jackson and his design team craft beautiful sets that fit in so perfectly with the landscapes one might easily assume them to be genuine relics, and that all the behind-the-scenes features revealing them to be nothing more than foam and plastic are filthy lies.

The primary joy of the extended edition of the film, happily treated with severity by Jackson and not as a simple DVD gimmick with sloppily reinserted deleted scenes, is that the added footage allows us to roam this world a bit longer, through foggy, grimy marshes and impossibly green and inviting meadows and craggy, treacherous mountains. It also abets (though not entirely) one of the major problems of the film, indeed the entire franchise: a loose grasp on temporal relations. Many complained about the films' lengths, but Jackson powers through The Lord of the Rings. When Gandalf returns to the Shire to warn Frodo (Elijah Wood) of the impending danger of the Ringwraiths, what in the book was the passage of decades is presented as maybe a week or two, a month tops. The longer cut allows us to see Aragorn leading the Hobbits from Bree to Weathertop, and the simple addition of a single scene adds so much more entertainment value because we're stopping occasionally so see the sights instead of being stuck on the Middle Earth bus tour that was the theatrical version.

Not until the characters reach Rivendell and the larger arc of the trilogy is forged does the story mesh with the visual splendor in an entertaining way. Compared to the fractured perspectives of the sequels, Fellowship plays as an ensemble piece, allowing us to spend yet more time with the backgrounds before the sequels personalized the story. A number of the actors, chiefly those playing the Hobbits and Orlando Bloom, don't have full grasps on their characters yet, but working within a group dynamic allows them to soften their weaknesses, and even McKellen dampens his OTT theatrics and turns Gandalf into an interesting team player instead of a demigod who cannot relate or be related to any of the other characters -- this might explain why the character so rarely used his supposedly powerful magic over the course of the three films.

In retrospect, it's easy to see that Jackson was out of his element with the scope required for the story. His direction in the battle sequences is overwhelming and viscerally disjointed (at least in this installment, which lacks the epic action pieces of its successors), but occasionally he carries that frantic style into the calmer moments, haphazardly editing from one action to another that is linked to the previous one but entirely separate from the last scene, traveling impossible distance for what is meant to be a quick cut. When Frodo announces among the squabbling Elves, Dwarves and Men that he will take the Ring to Mordor, he can barely be heard over the din, yet Jackson immediately cuts to a close-up of Gandalf wearily closing his eyes with regret and turning as the crowd silences to face his wee chum. The wizard was shouting alongside the rest a split-second earlier, and for him to immediately become calm and somber is such a jarring example of bad editing that it continues to baffle me each time I visit these films. That brings us nicely to another problem: the endless close-ups. Jackson must have spent his free time in pre-production vegging with Eisenstein's filmography because he adds so many emotional counterpoints of close-up reactions to nearly every action that I expected an open political message to pour out of these characters' mouths.

He overcomes these shortcomings, however, out of sheer enthusiasm. He has a steady grasp of Tolkien's themes -- environmental concerns, distrust and xenophobia, the typical battle between good and evil -- and he's smart enough to recognize that, when shooting in a country like New Zealand, one need not ignore the scenery. Furthermore, some of his visual choices, such as the distorted haze that blurs the screen when Frodo wears the Ring, are wonderful touches. He also perfectly captures the inexplicable lure of the Ring, though I find it somewhat amusing to watch the film now and find a certain link between the Ring's, a suggestive object (especially when pierced with a finger), maddening effect on people and the equally hysterical reactions that the sexual metaphor of Twilight extracts from its characters*. As for the design, well, do I really need to explain the magnificent costume and makeup? The Orcs and Uruk-hai look absolutely perfect, all oily skin and twisted visages and gnarly teeth. The Elves, illuminated with an aura and donned in light clothing, resemble angels and inspire a serene calm even when engaged in battle. The only one who doesn't look the part, hilariously enough, is Orlando Bloom. My only complaint regarding the costumes is that the outfits look too pristine here, too clean despite the rough journey through various terrains, but that would fortunately change later.

When I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring back in 2001, I was 12 years old, unconcerned with technique or acting and caring only for that most dubious of adaptive goals: faithfulness. I had read the books for the first time in anticipation of the release and loved them, and like the fool that I was I just wanted this Peter Jackson fellow to put all of the novel's good stuff in the movie. And while I loved the film, I bemoaned the lack of Tom Bombadil , a character I didn't even fully understand, all the while missing how Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens made much subtler changes to the main characters that proved vastly more important and distinctive. He, Walsh and Boyens give a reasonable motive to Boromir where his character originally received a rounded appraisal only in the final volume, while Sam (Sean Astin) is slowly reshaped into a model of loyalty and Platonic love, a change that would become evident over the next two films. Of greatest interest is Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen ), altered from a consummate hero into a sort of Christ figure (or more so, at least), technically human but something else entirely, filled with self-doubt but ultimately committed to his destiny. The only unwelcome change involves the simplification of Gimli (Jonathan Rhys-Davies) and Legolas , who scarcely have anything to do save lob semi-racist digs at each other, insofar as insulting fictional species constitutes "racism."

So, while my enjoyment of the film has been tempered by the realization of its shortcomings, to say nothing of some dated special effects -- I wouldn't call them weak, but it's easy to discern the real actors from the CG models even in the waves of clashing armies, and green-screen backgrounds are identifiable from natural backdrops -- it's also been enhanced by how much more I appreciate the beauty and passion of the project. Jackson establishes a dialectic with this film, between personal, emotionally identifiable intimacy and epic storytelling, that would define the franchise. Fellowship, as the first of the franchise and thus the one that must introduce and establish the characters, swings more to the "personal" side of the balance, its endless close-ups stressing the importance of the group even as I try to crane around their big heads to see all the pretty stuff behind them. Howard Shore understands Fellowship's more subdued focus, and his excellent score, while properly boisterous and swelling at times, is often reserved and trusts the visuals to impart the film's beauty without imposing an overbearing score. So, while the film's lost some of its luster, I have to admit that I still find it a glorious, all-encompassing fantasy world that remains ever so inviting and enjoyable; here is a film that makes me care even about locations we do not see, places with long-winded titles that crumbled long ago and took some piece of this expertly defined world with them forever.

*Forgive me for comparing The Lord of the Rings to Twilight.


  1. Oh man, I've been wanting to do a marathon of these bad boys for ages now. It's been too long. This is still my favorite entry in the trilogy and the only one I saw more than once in the theater (I think I saw it three times actually - what a nerd). Good review, man. I need to follow suit one of these days.

  2. Yep. Ditto. Virtue of its linear narrative, Fellowship manages to hit hardest on character and theme, and generally be the most rounded film of the three, tho Return packs superior emotional firepower (it makes me tear up on 5 separate occasions).

    I think Sean Bean's contribution as Boromir is a vital part of the film's brilliance. His arc (along with Frodo's) gives the film a complete-ness the others will lack.

    The technical criticisms you point out are fair game. Personally, I didn't find the close-ups obtrusive. And as for the Gandalf goof, Jackson nails the emotional and dramatic beats in the scene, so I didn't mind overlooking how it made no sense.

    Also: not sure I understand yr Twilight point... (and HOW DARE YOU!)

  3. The Twilight thing wasn't in anyway a real point of criticism. I just kind of chuckled to myself because, when I was a high school freshman, we had to do these asinine team-building-like exercises to fit into high school (as if by then all of the freshmen weren't already fairly well acquainted and that the real issue was adjusting to the older kids, but never mind). One day we did charades and I had to portray LOTR, which led to an embarrassing incident in which I kept desperately placing my finger through a circle as the others laughed and laughed. So now I can't not think about that when I watch the films, and I extrapolated the childish innuendo of that into a larger application of the Ring as an object of sexual terror mainly because I thought it was funny to me. It has no real point which is why I just kind of dumped it and ran.