Director Peter Jackson’s long-anticipated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings faces a daunting challenge: convincing its core audience that it ever should have been made. The Lord of the Rings, after all, is the sine qua non of true adolescent fantasy geekdom, the work that launched a million pizza-fueled high school Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. Fantasy geeks, unfortunately—even recovering, since-grown-up fantasy geeks—get insanely protective of source material. They write angry letters about the casting of film adaptations and lobby against interpretations that they consider unfaithful. They certainly wouldn’t submit to the notion that a film version could surpass their own experience visiting Middle-Earth.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy created the lexicon and sensibility that has inspired two generations of geek culture. It’s a landmark work of fantasy fiction. And it’s simply god-awful to slog through, as ponderous and deadly serious as it is seminal. There, it needed to be said—Tolkien worked so hard to create an epic, internally consistent mythology for Middle-Earth that he didn’t bother to write it well.
If ever a tale pleaded to be dragged kicking and screaming from the page to a theatrical screen, it’s The Lord of the Rings. Give it to any remotely competent filmmaker to render Tolkien’s stodgy prose visually, and you’d have a fine piece of entertainment. Give it to Peter Jackson—the twisted visionary behind The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures—and you’ve got something so spectacular in scope that you remember what it’s like to wait breathlessly for a blockbuster that was worth the breathless wait.
The Fellowship of the Ring—the first installment in both Tolkien’s and Jackson’s trilogies—strikes a remarkable balance between operatic computer-generated grandeur and smaller character moments, even if it takes some time to catch fire. A thorough, efficient prologue introduces crucial background elements—how a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) once found a ring during an adventure, and that ring’s history as a source of incredible power for an evil entity called Lord Sauron. The One Ring comes into the possession of Bilbo’s scion Frodo (Elijah Wood), who soon learns that he has also inherited an awesome responsibility. Too dangerous to be left intact, the ring must be taken to its origin point in Lord Sauron’s realm of Mordor to be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom (never let it be said that Tolkien avoided archetypically-named geography).
To that end, representatives of Middle-Earth’s races band together to accompany Frodo on a journey to rid their land of the ring. Led by the powerful wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), they include Frodo’s hobbit friends Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), as well as the mysterious Ranger known as Strider (Viggo Mortensen). With elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf king Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and human warrior Boromir (Sean Bean) rounding out the crew, they set off on their dangerous quest.
From its opening moments, The Fellowship of the Ring makes it clear that its goal is nothing less than a cinematic representation of the Apocalypse. Augmented by riveting computer effects, the battle scenes in Fellowship deliver a jaw-dropping sense of scale—this is fate-of-the-world warfare brilliantly rendered. Armies of orcs scuttle down stone pillars, rampage over scarred wastelands and turn the caverns beneath the fortress of the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) into a hive of horrors. Bands of heroes in fantasy films generally feel like they’re just fighting another bunch of bad guys. The Fellowship at times seems to be faced with Evil itself split into thousands of hissing, sword-swinging pieces.
To Jackson’s immense credit, he gives plenty of time to the evil inside as well. The tempting lure of the One Ring was always a background element in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, but here the twisted face of naked power-lust gets a cold, hard look. For all their meticulous attention to detail, Tolkien’s stories generally lacked passion—there were so many characters to keep track of that personalities were sketched only in the broadest terms. Jackson and his cast endow the principals with real feeling, lending the story a more personal sense of consequence and moral struggle to complement the monumental warfare.
It was perhaps inevitable that, with so much ground to cover, The Fellowship of the Ring would occasionally feel somewhat hurried. As breathtaking as the production design renders the various locations—the hobbit village of The Shire, the elfin city of Rivendell, the creepy mines of Moria—it sometimes seems as though Jackson is only giving you enough time to look around for a moment before he has to grab your arm and pull you along to the next narrative touchstone. For over an hour, Fellowship sports the dangerous signs of over-fidelity to plot that hampered Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
But to his everlasting credit, Peter Jackson knew better. He knew the purists might scream bloody murder if he left Tom Bombadil out of Fellowship, but he did it anyway. He looked at a revered text and attempted not to paste its pages onto the screen, but to turn it into a wondrous and resonant film experience. The fantasy geeks will always have their Lord of the Rings. Jackson has taken the stories’ primal appeal and made it sing in a way a stolid Oxford professor never could.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (PG-13) HHH1/2 Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen.