There is a special pleasure to watching film adaptations of material deemed too rich, complicated or controversial to bring to the big screen. For years, J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, occupied such space. That is, until New Zealand director Peter Jackson, with the help of groundbreaking CGI, crafted a set of three movies that didn’t just provide us with a fine adaptation of Tolkien’s trilogy, it provided us with perhaps the best possible adaption we could ever hope for. It is not a perfect rendition of Tolkien’s written word, but it is the perfect screen version. And while audiences would have to wait several years to be able to make that assessment of the entire film saga, they had more than enough to render and early judgement with its first chapter, The Fellowship of the Ring.
The story begins in the fantasy realm of Middle Earth, long after a cataclysmic war pitting the nations of Man and Elf against the forces of evil led by the dark Lord Sauron. Empowered by his magic ring, Sauron was all but unstoppable, until his ring was cut from his hand, and he was defeated…but not destroyed. As his ring slipped from owner to owner across the ages, it remained lost for many years until the hobbit Bilbo Baggins finds it while on a great adventure in his younger days. He keeps the ring on him for decades before he gives it to his nephew Frodo, and before long, their mutual friend Gandalf the wizard realizes what this magic ring really is, and he begins a secret mission to destroy it before Sauron recaptures it and returns to his full power. But Sauron’s agents are on to Frodo, and so begins an epic chase across Middle Earth as a fellowship of heroes forms to protect Frodo, and must fight the elements, the will of Sauron and even each other to try to fulfill a quest that none of them can afford to fail. For Sauron’s power is ascending. His armies of darkness are bursting forth from the sinister realm of Mordor. And the threadbare nations of Man and Elf are slow to accept the great struggle that descends upon them…
When adapting any source material as beloved and as influential as this, some fans are bound to be disappointed by the result. But Fellowship of the Ring succeeds wildly, and in no small part by drawing from the strong visual tradition established by nearly 70 years of interpretation by countless artists. (Especially the work of those artists who illustrated Tolkien during a Lord of the Rings Renaissance in the 1970s, which set the tone for much of modern fantasy.) Tolkien himself didn’t go into great detail into how his world looked, but anybody who read the books has an idea of what they think Middle Earth looks like, and Jackson managed to tap into the collective understanding of existing Lord of the Rings fans to deliver a movie that looked and felt familiar, even if it was not.
Jackson also dotes on his action sequences, which are lengthy and plentiful, delivering the kind of experience perhaps more familiar to those raised on the fantasy role-playing games inspired by LOTR than by LOTR itself. For some, all the action spectacle is a distraction; the battle scene in Moria lasts nearly eight pulse-pounding minutes, but took just 750 words on the page. Clearly, there’s a difference in narrative priorities there.
Still, Fellowship artfully captures the high points of this first volume of Tolkien’s saga: the birthday party in the Shire, the flight of the Hobbits to Bree, the Council of Rivendell, the mines of Moria and Gandalf’s unforgettable last stand, the visit with Galadriel, and Boromir’s betrayal…and redemption.
All of these present a masterful pacing as this story layers introduction upon introduction to the uninitiated in an endless line of new characters, further world detail, and the crushing knowledge that the discovery of this ring, the rise of Sauron, and the doom of Middle Earth are all at hand. As thrilling as this chapter is, this is the slow-moving one. And yet, it delivers a drama that leaves us breathless as we see that Frodo’s first leg of his journey might very well be his last, and the Fellowship meant to see him through this quest will prove far more fragile than imagined. A good portion of that is thanks to pitch-perfect performances by the entire cast, adeptly cast…even those few characters created just for this version. Anyone who says Ian McKellen was not born to play Gandalf must never have read his lines aloud when reading Tolkien’s novel.
Perhaps the greatest drama we find here is not the growing presence of Sauron and his various minions, but the inability for the heroes of this world to work together. We see it in this movie’s moment of truth, when at a special council to determine how to destroy the Ring, everyone argues instead of collaborating, and poor Frodo can see that this kind of infighting is precisely what the Ring wants. Amid the shouting, he announces that he will take the ring and cast it into the fires of Mount Doom. At first, none hear him, for they are yelling too loudly, so Frodo says it once more: I will take it. And that’s when it happens, in a shot as brief as it is sublime: Gandalf’s reaction, a mixture of relief and sorrow. Relief, that the only person who could be entrusted to this quest has volunteered for it. Sorrow, that Frodo has no idea what he just signed up for. In that moment, Gandalf silently mourns his dear friend, for whether this quest succeeds or fails, Frodo Baggins will never be the same. As good as the following two chapters of this saga are (and they are spectacular) neither of them capture such magnificent poignancy as this. Very few movies ever have. Or ever will.