Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s classic soars despite its flaws
There’s a very obvious problem when transferring any book to the big screen, namely that some of us may already have seen it.
It’s not that the story holds no surprises (save for the occasional controversies that surround the fate of characters like Hannibal Lecter); it’s just that many of us have already read the book, and thus we’ve already directed our own version of the story. We’ve already seen it in our mind’s eye.
And this is the problem that plagues The Fellowship of The Ring. You’ll see a lot of reviews here proclaiming it as nothing short of the second coming of cinema, and a few that dare to knock its serious shortcomings. Let me clear this up right now.
The first issue that many may raise is that this is not a faithful adaptation of the book. Quite right. While taking pains to ensure that they stayed faithful to the novel, Jackson et al. have simply not been able to lift their screenplay directly from its pages without a few necessary changes. There is a great deal of mindfulness in the film about the portion of the audience (and it will be large) unfamiliar with the novels.
Accordingly, a great deal more emphasis has been placed upon pacing and storytelling more appropriate to a classic film narrative. Hence we need to see Gandalf’s protracted bid to escape the clutches of Isenguard interspersed with the Hobbits’ journey to Rivendell. It simply isn’t appropriate to expect an audience to bear with the Hobbits’ journey, no matter how good the actors are or how enthralling the story is, for upwards of an hour without constant reminders of the film’s other protagonists OR the threat of the evil they face. Having Gandalf just turn up at Rivendell and tell his story via CGI-filled flashbacks simply wouldn’t have had the necessary effect.
Second, there’s the omission and reworking of characters. Yes, it was sad that Ralph Bakshi, who made a 1977 adaptation of the first two books of the trilogy, felt his animation didn’t need Tom Bombadill. Given that Bombadill features strongly in Tolkien’s other works, this has to be frowned upon by the diehard fanatics. But introducing diverting but ultimately pointless episodes into the list of the challenges the Hobbits face is hardly going to keep you riveted to your seat, is it? I mean, a man who stops the Hobbits being eaten, very slowly, by a tree with his power of song would seem quite frankly ludicrous in this day and age. The film is already stretching the audience’s suspension of disbelief as far as it can go. Hence the chaff of Bombadill is cut. He isn’t relevant to the rest of the story, so he can be done without. It’s sad for Tolkien fans for him not to be there, but there’s only so much celluloid available, even with a film this long.
And yes, Arwen Undomiel never saved Frodo from the Dark Riders, but please, remember your girlfriend needs to have something to sink her teeth into as well, not just midgets and men with beards looking mean or scared as they fight monsters. So, for gender representation and a bid to prevent half the potential market (please remember that like all film, this is a product to be packaged and sold), her character gets a drastic overhaul. Go sister!
There are numerous other issues relevant to the faithfulness of the adaptation from novel to screenplay but please, let’s be content with what we’ve got here. It’s a hard task to do all this well and Jackson, along with the rest of the boys and girls at Wingnut and WETA, should be commended for what they have achieved.
That said, there are some definite flaws in the film, even those that can’t be overlooked by justifying the need to relate to the popcorn-and-nachos audience.
First, we’ve got the Fellowship itself. Now, Merry and Pippin, while not really being established as Frodo’s friends and thus not having the same kind of bond with him as they do in the novel, are moderately well integrated. However, at the arrival of Boromir, Gimili, and Legolas, we just get left in the dark. None of these three characters, all representing important races, cultures, and locations of the world of Middle Earth are given no more than token arrival-shots to introduce them, and little or no backstory as to how they came to be where they are or why they feel compelled to join Frodo’s quest. Offering their various weapons is noble, and it sounds fantastic in the trailer, but when we finally get down to it we just don’t know who they are or what they’re about. Accordingly we don’t ever really have time to care about any of these three, save for Legolas, whose fighting proficiency alone makes him stand out. Sadly, Sean Bean is allowed little more than to switch from foreboding bad guy to friendly companion and back again (thus betraying his character’s ultimate fate from the first time he opens his mouth), and John Rhys Davis is left with little more to do than scowl and look short. It doesn’t help that both these characters seem to get a pretty raw deal for screen time, especially Gimli, who is barely in the film at all. We won’t even begin to go into the seemingly superficial relationship we see between Sam and Frodo.
All of this is indeed a shame. The film’s greatest strength after its story are its strong characters. However, whereas in the book they have the space to develop and flesh themselves out, here they have little more to do than look in awe at Gandalf, perhaps not with a humble air so much as a wonder that he’s being allowed to soak up all the screen time.
And yes, what you’ve heard is true; the fight sequences are shockingly bad. Well, perhaps that is an overstatement. The fight sequences aren’t exactly bad; they’re riddled with good ideas and clever moves, but the camerawork and editing are so erratic that you’ll have a hard time picking out anything to inspire awe or respect. The problem here is that the benchmarks for onscreen fighting have all been established nowadays by The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, and The Phantom Menace, and all of these films use lengthy shots to allow us to soak up the imaginative fight choreography, rather than have us crane our necks and dart about the screen with our eyeballs trying to glimpse it like a rare bird or nipple-flash at a premiere.
Now, these again are only a few of the problems. There’s the geography of Middle Earth, some ropey special effects moments, and the clumsy ending to deal with. But you can read the books and see the film for yourself; I’ve already typed enough about all that here.
BUT now that I’ve just spent the main chunk of this review telling you about the shortcomings of The Fellowship of the Rings as both a movie and an adaptation, let me tell you, it is good, exceptionally good.
There is no denying that the storyline itself, acting, effects, props, sets, and so on are all spot on. Visually the film is a triumph, and WETA has now without question moved ahead of Industrial Light and Magic in terms of industry-leading special effects. There are bags of style to proceedings, with some sequences displaying the sheer amount of vision of the whole team to bring somewhat vague sections of the novel to life.
All parts are played to perfection, with the casting some of the best and most appropriate seen in years. None of this who’s-hot-and-who’s-not Jerry Bruckheimer trash; it’s a case of the best possible person for the part at every stage of the film. We’ll give particular credit to Sir Ian Mckellan, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, and Elijah Wood here. No doubt they’ve had scores of favourable and loving reviews already, but these performances truly are worth mentioning once again.
Fellowship of the Ring in many respects sets a new standard for other epics to live up to, a fact especially noticeable in 2001, when finding even five decent mainstream films was virtually impossible. Yes, it does take perseverance. No, it’s not entirely faithful to Tolkien’s work. And there are some serious flaws. Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that no matter when this film had been released, it would have outshone its competitors.