A few months ago, during NPI’s retrospective on the Aughts, I looked back at the ten best films of the last decade. One noticeable and unacknowledged omission was the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was one of the most commercially successful and critically beloved franchises of the Aughts. Indeed, it may even be the defining film phenomenon of the last decade (it’d certainly be a better choice than fucking Avatar). I’d love to say that there was a well-thought out and sophisticated reason for leaving the films out, but the only real reason was that I had yet to see any of the movies. So to rectify this oversight, I thought I’d revisit the films in order, and see if they really deserve the acclaim and attention they received.
I should preface my review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by explaining that I’ve never read Tolkien’s novels and have only a passing understanding of the story going in. Luckily, there’s an eight-minute prologue at the beginning of Peter Jackson’s epic that provides us with a nice, if lengthy, backstory. The truth is that for Tolkien’s epic story, rich enough to fill three very long movies, eight minutes seems about necessary to fill you in on everything.
You see, a long, long time ago (but, presumably, in a galaxy only a moderate distance away), rings that controlled the universe were distributed among the creatures of Middle-Earth: Three were given to the Elves, seven were given to the dwarves, and nine were given to mankind, the last of whom “desire power above all else.” All of that becomes immediately irrelevant, however, because the Dark Lord Sauron has rendered all other rings obsolete with his own One Ring, a force of near omnipotent power. Eventually, an alliance of men and Elves succeeds in separating Sauron from the Ring, but only after a long struggle and countless deaths. Even worse, the Ring’s promise of power corrupts anyone who possesses it, and Prince Isildor, who defeated Sauron, refuses to destroy the Ring.
All of this is provides mere exposition, but the exposition is impressively rendered, given the scope and size of the story. Jackson doesn’t skimp on these parts of the story, and the visuals of the opening sequence lay important groundwork for the breadth and magnitude of the story.
As is so often the case with fantasy stories so epic in scope, though, the main story begins in the humblest of locations, specifically Hobbiton in Shire. This is like beginning a story about the fate of the galaxy on Tatooine, or starting the story of God’s only corporeal incarnation in Bethlehem. The only inhabitants of Hobbiton are the hobbits, a famously simple species of Tolkien’s universe. The Extended Edition of the film gives the Hobbits a more in-depth treatment, but suffice to say that they are not big players in the politics of Middle-Earth.
A lot has already been said about Peter Jackson’s treatment of the hobbits, and it is deserving of all of the praise. For one, there is the impressive visual element that comes from conveying their distinctive appearance (pointed ears, an extremely diminutive stature, giant hairy feet) in relation to that of the rest of Tolkien’s species. Watching it now, I couldn’t help but think of James Cameron’s work in the creation of his world in Avatar. Jackson’s film is not quite as ambitious, but it’s pretty close, and Jackson is always mindful of the story he’s telling. He gives a vibrant sense of Hobbiton in a relatively short amount of time, which is integral to the story—the humble roots of the Hobbits is one of the story’s recurring themes.
Jackson conveys the festivity and contentedness of the hobbits primarily at the 111th birthday of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), a party which essentially comes off as your average small-town gathering. Unbeknownst to the rest of the hobbits, though, is the fact that Bilbo has, essentially by happenstance, come into possession of the One Ring. In fact, Bilbo himself seems unaware of the Ring’s significance; he knows it is “precious,” and uses it to turn himself invisible in front of everyone at his party, but he doesn’t know the Ring’s history.
Also unaware, at least at first, is Bilbo’s friend Gandalf the Wizard. Gandalf is wary of the Ring, and cautions Bilbo against using it, but he too does not seem to grasp its uniqueness. In fact, probably the worst part of the movie comes when Gandalf leaves Bilbo to research the Ring. In Tolkien’s book, evidently, it takes Gandalf 17 years to discover that this is the One Ring; Jackson condenses this time into a couple of hours. A discovery that apparently took considerable effort looks, in Jackson’s movie, like it was cleared up by a quick trip to the library. It’s a noticeably awkward interruption in the movie.
Eventually, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), Bilbo’s distant relative and adopted charge, is left with the unenviable task of taking the Ring out of Shire. This is where things start to get a little confusing: It’s never explained, for example, why Frodo is any more equipped to take the Ring than Bilbo or Gandalf. It’s also unclear why the Ring, after being locked in Bilbo’s drawer for several decades, is now in so much immediate peril that it needs to be removed from Shire. Suddenly Sauron is regaining power and sending Ringwraiths, his servants of the Ring, to hunt it down, but it’s not really explained where hes been all this time or why the Dark Lord is suddenly growing in power.
The heart of the story, though, is Frodo, who accepts his role as the Ring-bearer reluctantly but prudently. Joining Frodo is his friend Sam (Sean Astin), who is perhaps even more provincial than usual for a hobbit—at one point in their journey Sam stops Frodo and says, “One more step and I’ll be the farthest I’ve ever been from home”—but is unshakably loyal to Frodo. Early in their journey, they stumble on two more mischievous hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who join them on their quest, although none of them—save Frodo—is really aware of the importance of their journey; the rest seem to be along for the ride.
The band of unassuming characters thrust into a task of great magnitude is a traditional mark of a fantasy epic, but Jackson doesn’t hide from it. It feels a little predicable and formulaic, but Jackson does a good job of delving into all four characters, so they don’t feel like bland, stock characters. Some scenes feel a little generic, like one in which the hobbits wander into a mysterious bar, but Jackson has done such a job of laying groundwork, by giving us the details of the world at large and the hobbits’ own home, that it doesn’t slow down the movie or make the whole story feel redundant.
Originally, the plan was for this merry band of hobbits to reconnect with Gandalf in Bree—another region of Middle-Earth—but Gandalf gets held up. Gandalf has left Shire to tell the chief of his “Order,” the wise Wizard Saruman, about the Ring. Saruman, however, is revealed to be under the influence of the Dark Lord himself and, after a brief dual with Gandalf, imprisons the other Wizard.
Movies like this—fantasies, epics, adventure stories—often are only as good as their villain. Think of how important Darth Vader, Voldemort, the White Witch, and even the Wicked Witch of the West all were to their respective films/franchises. As far as villains go, Saruman is somewhat lacking, but we’ll have to do with him since Sauron* himself is pretty much absent from this film. For one, Saruman’s motivations are simple and silly. As soon as Gandalf tells him about the Ring and the threats to it, Saruman concludes that Sauron’s victory is inevitable and allies with him. This may be a prudent decision, but it’s awfully cowardly, not to mention morally nihilistic and utterly uninteresting.
*Also, if you’re going to have a villain and then a deputy villain, Mr. Tolkien, can you try and make their names a little more distinct? It’s a tad confusing otherwise.
Neither are Saruman’s methods very compelling. Saruman forges an army of Orcs—a race of creatures reminiscent of the Putty Patrollers in their interchangeability and the ease with which they are defeated—to help him fulfill his quest. There are some stunning shots of Saruman’s dark lair and the actual creation of this army, but it all seems like a lot of work for nothing. We’re talking about four hobbits here—it seems like a giant army is a misallocation of your resources.
Gandalf eventually does escape from Saruman’s clutches, but not in time for his rendezvous with Frodo. Instead, Frodo and his friends are met by a foreboding stranger called Stryder (Viggo Mortensen), who turns out to actually be Aragorn, a descendant of Prince Isildor. Aragorn helps shepherd Frodo and friends to Rivendell, where the Fellowship of the Ring is actually formed. The Fellowship, arising after much debate over what to do with the Ring, consists of the four hobbits—Frodo having realized that he is meant to carry the Ring, the other three out of loyalty to Frodo—Aragorn, Gandalf, as well as Gimli (a dwarf), Legolas (an Elf), and Boromir (a man who wants to use the Ring against Sauron in spite of its corruptive history). Together this Fellowship is to take the Ring to Mordor, the land where Sauron is strongest, and throw it into Mount Doom, the only place it can be destroyed.
The creation of the Fellowship represents a turning point in the film, but the Fellowship itself doesn’t last long. Discord among the races of men, Elves, and dwarves leads to distrust and disagreement. When Gimli advises that the Fellowship seek safety from a storm (sent by Saruman which, along with several other ambiguities, raises the question of what these “Wizards” can and cannot do—if Saruman can send a storm to obstruct the Fellowship, why doesn’t he just have a bolt of lightning strike them all?) by traveling through a set of Mines, they end up trapped and chased down by Orcs and a demon. The Fellowship is only saved by a famous act of martyrdom by Gandalf.
In addition to this discord, the power of the Ring is just too tempting for anyone but Frodo. When the Fellowship is hiding in the Elven realm of Lothlorien, the wise Elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) tells him that it his destiny—and his alone—to destroy the Ring. Soon after, Boromir tries to take it from Frodo, and Frodo realizes that he must abandon the Fellowship.
With all the discussion of the mythology behind The Lord of the Rings, I was actually surprised how little of the film is devoted to that. Jackson seems less concerned with explaining the details of the Elves, the different rings, or the details of wizardry. This can obviously be a detriment, causing confusion about certain plot points. The trip to Lothlorien, for example, feels tangential because the role of Elves hasn’t really been mentioned since the opening exposition. Overall, though, de-emphasizing the mythology probably enhances the film, grounding it in the characters and the story instead of the complicated details.
For all of the impressive visual artistry of Peter Jackson’s film, the crux of the story is Frodo and how well he embodies the classic archetype of a simple man entrusted with a grave destiny. The most touching moment in the entire film is not Gandalf’s death or any other grand battle (and man, there are a LOT of grand battles), but near the end, when Frodo has told Aragorn that he intends to flee and leaves the rest of the Fellowship behind. He has to row across a large ocean, and his small boat, combined with a hobbit’s already small stature, is framed well against the large expanse he has to cover. At that moment, Sam appears to see Frodo take off, and runs out into the water, refusing to leave him alone. “I made a promise, and I intend to keep it,” he tells Frodo.
This is what separates Jackson’s film from, say, Avatar. Instead of having special effects and deep mythology provide the backdrop for broad, thinly drawn characters and a clichéd story, The Lord of the Rings is able to populate its deep, rich world with a cast of characters that is just as deep and rich. There are flaws in the movie—points where the plot gets sidetracked, where the mythology becomes ambiguous, where the morality seems stunted and archaic—but more often the film combines a refined technical craftsmanship and beautiful aesthetic with powerful storytelling.