How do you make one of the most detailed, lengthy, and popular novels of all time into a full blown feature film while faithfully sticking to every beloved detail contained within it? The answer is, you don't. Instead, you make a film that sticks as closely to it's source material as possible while staying within the necessary boundaries of filmmaking. Peter Jackson has created the impossible dream, that dream is Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But this review isn't a rant about how wonderful the books are. Unlike some fat bastard reviewers, I'm aware that I am a FILM CRITIC not a member in the Ebert... erů Oprah Book of the Month club. Still, I love these books. It's impossible not to be influenced by them at least in some way, for better or for worst. Yet, in the end, the only important question is whether or not Lord of the Rings succeeds as a film.
Directed by Peter Jackson, Fellowship of the Ring, is the first film in a series of three, collectively entitled, Lord of the Rings. Based on a series of novels of the same name by famed fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings is the story of an all powerful ring and the struggle of a noble few to breaksit and its master's dark power. If you've read the books, you know just what a simplistic and dumbed down explanation that is. Lord of the Rings is much more than a bunch of furry footed creatures and wizards running about with swords and using silly medieval catch phrases. It's a journey of spirit and darkness unlike any other. Director Peter Jackson has re-created a world so full of history, detail, and affection, that it far surpasses the work of any other. The impossible dream of Tolkien fans has come true, and the beauty, majesty, and genius of Tolkien's world is at last fully realized.
Despite being populated with wizards, elves, dwarfs, and trolls, Lord of the Rings has more in common with epic films like Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments than it does with the comparatively small-scale mild adventurism that is the likes of Harry Potter. Fellowship bites down hard and achieves a beautifully broad and dramatic scale, balancing the mind-boggling beauty of Tolkien's Middle Earth with the majesty and history of its characters.
This is a film of contrast and familiarity. Contrast it its landscapes, from the comfortable, sweetly beautiful landscapes of Hobbiton, to the dark and disturbing dangers of deeply delved Moria, to the majestic, breathtaking tree homes of Lothlorien and the elves. Familiarity in it's characters, brought together by the fickle scales of fate, desperately balancing their lives against evil for the greater good. It's also a movie about struggle and determination, as the smallest and meekest of creatures enters a world far beyond their experience.
There is more here than just good directing, more than just good story telling, more than just good filmmaking. To put it simply there is a LOVE for THIS material and a LOVE for what these people are doing. Most of this cast are virtual unknowns, yet to a man (or elf), they carry themselves, one and all, like veteran actors. There's a fire in their step, a twinkle in their eyes, and flash in those little glimpses at just the right moments. These people ARE these characters, and most of all they enjoy being them.
Sean Bean, a man whom almost no one has heard of, delivers such a mind blowing bit of acting as the tortured soldier Boromir. You FEEL his need to help his people, he oozes conflict and angst, all the while blazing false bravado and charm. Boromir COULD have come off as a turd. After all, he stoops to depths one doesn't expect from a hero. In his final moments, Bean so successfully captures the spirit of the man, a man driven by love for his people, a man beaten down by battle and struggle, that we easily identify with him and love him, mistakes and all.
Ian McKellan is the consummate thespian. Born to play Gandalf, his intensity DRIVES the film. Gandalf is the catalyst for everything. McKellan himself is magic. How can a man so old still be so spry? Like McKellan, Ian part deux, Ian Holm, puts his classical training to good use in portraying the surprisingly engaging Bilbo Baggins, the one-hundred eleven year old original owner of the Ring of power.
Of the Hobbits, I can only say this: If I walked past Elijah Wood, or Sean Astin on the street tomorrow, I'd quite likely be shocked to discover they are not in fact three feet tall. It's incomprehensible how Jackson's team could have possibly delivered such realistic effects. Wood, Astin, Boyd, and Monaghan as Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry are so perfectly re-sized, that even KNOWING that Elijah Wood is in fact not three feet tall, makes it impossible to believe that these people are in fact any other size. That's not just good razzle-dazzle, that's damn fine acting as well. But beyond their diminutiveness, all the Hobbits fit so perfectly into their assigned roles, it's difficult NOT to buy into their Hobbitesc world. Wood in particular, manages to capture the quiet strength of Frodo, while playing off the determined tenacity of Sean Astin's Sam.
But for the ladies, it's Orlando Bloom's arrow slinging elf that steals the show. Poised, graceful, and powerful, Legolas (Bloom) dances through battle with all the charm and otherworldly grace one would expect from an elf. Tolkien's elves aren't a bunch of pointy eared midgets, they are tall, proud, delicate people with an intense inner power. Bloom embodies all of that and more. He's not just a pair of Spocklike ears.
Then there's Liv, whose much-advertised role boils down to only a few minutes. Yet in those few precious ticks of the clock, she stands bravely on the screen to command those moments, and steal your heart. She doesn't overshadow the film, she doesn't steal scenes, she just lights up her lines with the quiet energy of an ethereal being. Whiny fans fear not, Liv does Arwen justice.
Unlike other fantasy films, where the heroes spend most of their time running to and fro from various monsters in the bushes, Lord of the Rings delivers REAL moments of terror and dread. Not from some artificial rubber monster, but from a sense of REAL evil and danger and imminent destruction that permeates the scenes. The best part is, that not all of that comes from dark lords and big name baddies alone. Even the good guys can scare the shit out of you, as the evil One Ring works its power to twist and destroy everyone around it. Jackson crafts that heart wrenching tension so perfectly, that it's nearly impossible not to buy into it.
FOTR is not an absolutely perfect film. There are a couple of moments where things get a bit awkward, as Jackson struggles to come to grips with his need to watch the clock and indulge Tokien's exquisitely detailed fantasy. Only, those are so quickly forgotten as viewers become lost in a bevy of character interaction and luscious storytelling, that they almost make no difference at all.
Peter Jackson and his cast are the stuff of legends. How can I, how can any of us live until we see the next installment?