CONTAINS POSSIBLE SPOILERS
JRR Tolkien’s staggering trilogy The Lord of the Rings is my favourite novel of all time. To call it the literary equivalent of the (original) Star Wars trilogy if anything undersells it, as much of Star Wars is inspired by it. When I heard Peter Jackson was going to make films of my `precious’ books I was nervous to say the least. How could he possibly succeed?
Then, in December 2001, I breathed an immense sigh of relief combined with an almighty gasp of delighted surprise. The first film in the trilogy not only lived up to expectations, it surpassed them. If anything, the film was better than the book. I say this simply because cinema is my preferred artistic medium. What Peter Jackson did was not merely film the book (as was the case with the first two Harry Potter films) but instead translated it into cinema. Jackson emphasised what was cinematically potent, reinvented a number of sequences and trimmed a few others with the apparent motto `show don’t tell’, which is of course what great cinema does.
The resultant adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring is an unmitigated masterpiece. A dynamic, epic, beautiful and sweeping work that knocks the socks of anything in the fantasy genre since Star Wars in 1977. It is nothing less than criminal that it didn’t win the Oscar for best picture.
The deceptively simple plot can be summed up in one phrase: `evil ring must be destroyed’. For this to happen, representatives of all races in Middle Earth – Humans, Hobbits, Elves, Dwarfs etc – must unite against the forces of evil led by the Dark Lord Sauron who wants to regain the great Ring to rule and cover all the world in darkness.
The complicated backstory is brilliantly rendered in a splendid prologue outlining the history of the Ring and how it came to be in the hands of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, takes up the quest to destroy the Ring with the help of wizard Gandalf and a fellowship representing the other races in Middle Earth.
The ensuing adventure is so full of excitement, adventure, humour, irony, melancholy, terror and tragedy that it really is impossible to describe the emotions of the story in a few words. Although the plot deals specifically with the timeless theme of good versus evil, it also encompasses complex issues such as immortality, temptation, and growing up. There have been several misguided attempts at pinning Tolkien’s work down in allegorical terms, most recently to the post September 11th war against terrorism. To do this is to miss the point. Tolkien himself claimed his work was neither allegorical or topical. It was instead intended to be a `fake history’ or mythology for England and Europe, rooted deeply in his Christian beliefs.
The casting in the film is impeccable. Sir Ian McKellen simply is Gandalf, Elijah Wood excels as Frodo, Viggo Mortensen is superbly rugged as hushed-up-King Aragorn, Ian Holm makes a tragic and moving Bilbo, Sean Bean is wonderful as Boromir – a man gradually seduced by the evil of the Ring, and Christopher Lee is great as turncoat wizard Saruman to name just a few.
The cinematography is staggeringly beautiful, making great use of breathtaking New Zealand locations. The special effects and production design are groundbreaking. Editing and sound are both first-rate.
Finally, Howard Shore’s magnificent music score deserves a special mention, the best I’ve heard of its type this side of Star Wars. Not only does he manage to create a sweeping work similar to a full-blown opera, but he manages to incorporate Elvish poems and songs that were an frequent feature of the novel unable to be included elsewhere.
The extended edition of the film is an interesting alternative edit, with new bits and pieces which are all good (especially for fans of the book), but to be honest it doesn’t matter which version you see. The film’s staggering attention to detail, its unswerving conviction and its brisk pace (not a duff moment in its entire running time) make this quite simply one third of the greatest fantasy film ever made.