Tolkien, J.R.R. (film, 2001). The Fellowship of the Ring. Los Angeles: New Line.

Reviewed 22 December 2001

Gandalf visits his old friend Saruman for advice on the ring Trufen of The Lord of the Rings will be very much split by this film. Many will praise the way it evokes the spirit of the trilogy; many others will castigate the liberties taken with some of the plot and character elements. I look at it somewhat differently: the film is Beef Wellington, while the books are Chateaubriand. They're both made of premium cuts of meat, but the differences in preparation and accompaniments make for rather different dining experiences.

As is typical with Beef Wellington, this film has a very nice visual presentation. Sorry, carnivores, but the elegance of Beef Wellington is a lot more visually attractive than a huge hunk of meat. The director, cinematographer, and editor have done an exceptional and faithful job in creating an explicit vision from Tolkien's rather spare and generalized descriptions of the surroundings. The New Zealand countryside is both familiar enough and exotic enough to make one believe that it really is Middle Earth. The depictions of Isengard and Moria deserve special commendation for their hidden brooding darkness. The Balrog and the inner viewpoint of the ringwearer also deserve special commendation. Some day, someone is going to beat into the heads of directors and authors that small-force combat is much shorter, sharper, and nastier than ever shown on screen, but I suppose one can't have everything.

The soundtrack is a large potential pitfall that director Peter Jackson avoided, in contrast to Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. The score is generally acceptable, if slightly too loud, and has a sense of lightness and variety all too uncommon in contemporary film scores. The vocal track is well done, and the background is there, but not obtrusive. Although the soundtrack was far from optimal, it served the purpose of supporting the visual experience without overwhelming it.

The acting was, in general, fairly good. Sir Ian McKellen did an excellent job as Gandalf, and Liv Tyler did surprisingly well as Arwen (in Arwen's greatly expanded role). Cate Blanchett turned in her usual seemingly understated but nonetheless dominant performance. However—and, as regular readers know, there's always a however in a Savage Review—most of the remaining roles, including the critical roles of Frodo and Sam, were merely competent. Too often, one has the sense that many of the actors are watching an offstage assistant director for timing their next lines. Sadly, Frodo is particularly prone to this. I believe that this problem is behind Roger Ebert's less than gushing review of the film. Although he complains that the film takes too much focus from the hobbits, I think he has allowed the relative strengths of the individual performances to overshadow the adaptations of plot and character.

Gimli, Merry, and Pippin in MoriaAnd now, to the two most common failures in film adaptations of novels, both of which were pleasantly minimized. Although major plot elements were hacked out completely, the choices of what to remove were sound. For example, I barely missed Tom Bombadil, the barrow wights, and the period between Bilbo's party and Frodo's departure. (Tom Bombadil struck me as a junkie long before I read Bored of the Rings, and that just didn't fit.) The increase in Arwen's role is, if anything, an improvement on her status as a pedestal-borne unattainable object of Aragorn's affections, particularly since Glorfindel (who carries Frodo to the Last Homely House in the book) does not again appear. This exposes the major weakness of The Lord of the Rings—the treatment (or lack thereof) of romantic relations—without rubbing one's nose in it.

We should all be thankful that Peter Jackson put his foot down on the running time. A shorter film would have undermined the development of nonviewpoint characters, which is often the fatal flaw of film adaptations of novels. Instead, we were allowed to see Gandalf enter as a slightly eccentric old man; we were allowed to see Elrond in the first place, who almost certainly would have been cut by a typical Hollywood director; for all of the problems with the acting, there was an adequate opportunity to develop Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir. Further, the film did not feel three hours long (as do most Hollywood "romantic comedies," despite their typical 92-minute running time). But he could only do so because there was enough story to support this longer film. The length did not come from yet more cool battle scenes, lingering shots on titillating scenes of adolescent romance (even if it involves middle-aged putzes), or "As you know, Bob" lectures to ensure that the audience knows what the characters do, but from the complex underlying narrative. Even had virtually everything else been Hollywood average, this would have been enough to make this film stand out as good.

Overall rating: 3 stars
Very Good
. This is an adequate or better adaptation of what is undoubtedly the weakest book in LOTR. Although many liberties have been taken with material in the interest of getting it on screen at a reasonable length, those liberties do not significantly detract from the underlying story. Anyone who expects absolute faithfulness in adapting a quarter-million-word novel to the screen has no conception of the realities of film. Or fantasies, for that matter.

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