Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, and John Rhys-Davies in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)


(director/writer: Peter Jackson; screenwriters: based on the book by J. R. R. Tolkien /Fran Walsh/ Philippa Boyens; cinematographer: Andrew Lesnie; editor: John Gilbert; music: Howard Shore; cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Viggo Mortensen (Strider/Aragorn), Sean Astin (Sam), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Billy Boyd (Pippin), Dominic Monaghan (Merry), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Sean Bean (Boromir), Ian Holm (Bilbo), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Lawrence Makoare (Lurtz), Craig Parker (Haldir), Marton Csokas (Celeborn); Runtime: 180; New Line Cinema; 2001)
This is a cult book from yesterday that makes a popular film for today.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Fellowship” feels like every other “good versus evil” big-budget epic of $90m plus that has ever been filmed, including “Star Wars.” However New Zealand director Peter Jackson (“Heavenly Creatures“) does a good job of adapting J. R. R. Tolkien’s first part of his trilogy, the 1,000-page three volume set published between July 1954-October 1955, “The Lord Of The Rings,” by clarifying the story (an invented myth about an heroic quest–the theme of doing good for the world, somewhat, borrowed from the Finnish epic Kaleva) as simply and as eloquently as he could and by the magnificent visual scope of the film and excellent use of computer graphics, and by offering a robust and faithful rendition which should gratify the devoted readers of the popular novel and at the same time offer an accessible presentation to those new to the book.

Unfortunately, it is a three hour film that grows wearisome after a while, as too many plot points are repeatedly explained and one battle begins to look like another (with the Orcs, Ringwraiths, and Uruk-Hai) and after one cliffhanger scene after another it begins to take on the B-movie look of a serial adventure shown back in the days of double-features during Saturday matinees. Nevertheless this version of Tolkien, co-scripted by Jackson and Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, comes off as an elegant visual action venture and the filmmakers should be congratulated for the results because this is a difficult book to put on film. It was tried in a 1978 animation by Ralph Bakshi, and that venture did not fare well.

Ian McKellen gracefully plays the magical Gandalf, the lanky good wizard garbed with a tall pointed hat and a long grey beard and who is a towering friend to the Baggins family living in the Shire. Gandalf drops in to visit his diminutive Hobbit writer friend Bilbo (Ian Holm-he’s reduced to an imaginary Hobbit height of three feet, as are all the Hobbits) on his 111th birthday celebration, as Bilbo promises to turn over the most powerful magical ring in the Middle Earth for safekeeping to the innocent Hobbit who has now grown to be a trustworthy young man, his adopted nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood), but there’s needed some additional coaxing from Gandalf before Bilbo reluctantly yields the magical Ring and retires to an elvish hideaway. Frodo knows nothing about the One Ring and its evil powers over any other force in Middle Earth. It was forged by the malevolent Sauron on Mount Doom in Mordor as a source of dark power to control the world, but was lost in battle and disappeared for a few centuries until it’s retrieved by the improbable, Bilbo Baggins.

The plot revolves around the need for the potent evil Ring, which can only be destroyed in the place it was created, being brought back to that treacherous place by Frodo as the Ringbearer with the help of his loyal friend Sam (Sean Astin) and frolicsome buddies Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). They leave their beloved Shire for the first time with only that important mission in mind; they get help along the way from the magic of Gandalf and from the “human” warriors, the heroic swordsman Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the conflicted Boromir (Sean Bean), who wavers about destroying the Ring, and the Elf archer Legolas (Bloom) and the fiery Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies).

The main obstacle along the way for Frodo the Ringbearer and his eight Fellowship guardians comes from a renegade wizard who has been overtaken by Sauron’s evil, Saruman (Christopher Lee), the mentor of Gandalf, who gathers his fearsome fighting monsters into an army who go to battle in order to capture the Ring. There are constant dangers from the relentless Dark Riders, various types of evil swordsmen, and all the natural dangers encountered along the way. The earnest Ringbearer and his bold companions keep going on despite these dangers, realizing the evil that will befall civilization if the Ring gets back into the wrong hands.

After battle an injured Frodo receives needed help from the magical Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) and in the Elvish settlement of Rivendell, the princess’ astute father Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) will offer their wisdom and comfort for all of the Fellowship members.

The Ring itself is a tremendous temptation even for those who are good but imagine what they can do with its powers, as some humans contemplate taking it for themselves.

Before reaching Mordon, the Fellowship must cross the deadly Mines of Moria, which is a cavernous tomb strewn with corpses where they are forced to fight their way out of its dark recesses with the fierce subhuman Orcs and one vengeful giant Orc. The film ends in Mordon with a nonending, the way action serial chapters used to in order to get the viewer excited about the next chapter.

Tolkien meant for his mythological writings, voraciously read by the true believers of the novel, to look at a world other than our own, a fictionalized world with a different language and mythology and lore (there were no hidden religious messages). Each battle was perceived as a step ahead in Frodo’s evolutionary scale and a way to fulfill enlightenment without looking back to the safe place he ventured from. Tolkien was after something else in his writings from what faces America today in its fight against terrorism, though it is hard not to relate the film to these recent events.

Tolkien was an Oxford scholar who was interested in ancient languages and was dismayed that the English people lost the oral stories of the fifth century Anglo-Saxons, who conquered England and gave the country its traditions and language and identity. When he wrote the book in 1939, England was under attack by the evil forces of Nazism. For him it became a question of the small people (ordinary people) being asked to exhibit courage to stop the world evil. His myth was rooted in reality, as he asked if we could undo the evil with a quest just like his beloved and good-hearted Hobbits did.

It was an enjoyable but exhaustive spectacle to take in, a chance for today’s adults to look at what many teenagers and hippies were reading back in the counterculture days of the 1960s. This film had a rousing musical score by Howard Shore and was directed with a deft passion and an ear for comedy by Jackson, and it also benefited by having great actors like Ian McKellen and Ian Holm give the film some needed colorful characterizations between all the animated battles. Tolkien was not much for giving women much to do in his stories, as in this film the talented women actresses, Tylet and Blanchett, are wasted in small roles.

This is a cult book from yesterday that makes a popular film for today, one worthy of an Oscar nomination as Best Film (this one is much more literate than Gladiator or Braveheart, recent award winners–not that I think this is really the best pic of the year but, at least, it is the kind of film Hollywood could be proud of).

This is the first installment in this trilogy, as there will be “Lord of the Rings” features released the next two Christmases, with all three films directed by Peter Jackson.