The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Reluctant to see this film in Spanish, I waited until August 2002 to get it on DVD.

I can recommend it:

If you don't fall into either of these categories, it probably won't suit you.

If you haven't read the book, you'll get a rather superficial idea of it from the film: like all films of books, it has to be heavily abbreviated and simplified to fit into a few hours. Also note that this film is merely the first third of the story: to get the rest of the story, you have to watch two more films (or read the book).

Good points

The film was made in New Zealand, a good choice because it has roughly the right climate, with plenty of varied and unspoilt landscape that's well suited to representing Middle Earth.

The special effects are done competently by modern standards and are therefore quite impressive.

Much effort has been put into props, costumes, makeup, etc., and it pays off. The swords are real. The sets are mostly convincing.

Although details have been tampered with, on the whole the original story survives, in abbreviated form.

There are good performances from all members of the Fellowship. I think Merry and Pippin are wrongly interpreted (see below), but that's presumably the director's fault and not the actors'.

Bad points

Tampering with the story

Although a decision was evidently made to stick to the broad lines of the original story, the scriptwriters were given licence not only to abbreviate (which was necessary) but also to rewrite details. This they did liberally, even though their alterations seem to me generally unnecessary and sometimes damaging.

The worst example I've noticed is the breakup of the Fellowship. In the book, Frodo wanders off secretly after his encounter with Boromir, and only Sam guesses where he's gone; then the others find themselves under attack by orcs and have no time to think of Frodo for a while.

In the film, Frodo consults with Aragorn, who allows him to go, and then quickly persuades the others not to follow. This is totally unconvincing and totally unnecessary.

Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli were given the very important task of protecting the ringbearer, who'd already shown that he needed plenty of protecting. I doubt that anything would persuade them to abandon their duty and go chasing after Merry and Pippin. In the book, they did so only because they'd lost Frodo and they could think of nothing better to do.

A lesser irritation is the perilous tottering stairway on the route out of Moria. This isn't in the book; it was invented presumably for extra drama, which it duly provides; but it's totally silly. No-one in his right mind would go to such immense trouble to build such ridiculous structures. The dwarves were down-to-earth, sensible people with plenty of construction experience, and would have found a better engineering solution to the problem -- probably by cutting the stairs into the sides of the chasm, rather than by building those towering, precarious pillars.

Elf problems

It is really difficult for a human to represent a Tolkien elf convincingly. They're human-like enough that gross add-ons won't do the job, but they should be subtly non-human and also beautiful, graceful, and impressive.

Hugo Weaving is miscast as Elrond. He speaks his lines adequately, but he has neither the looks nor the presence of an elf lord. The other male elves generally look like businessmen in drag, except for Orlando Bloom as Legolas, who makes a creditable attempt at looking and moving like an elf.

Cate Blanchett as Galadriel is not quite beautiful enough (who is?), but she's attractive and serene and almost looks the part. Unfortunately she seems to have been directed to speak her lines very slowly, and she can't manage to make it sound natural. Something should have been done about this; her lines as delivered just sound hammy.

Liv Tyler as Arwen comes over pleasant but not very bright in the background material on Disc 2. However, she gives a good performance, in a role largely invented for the film: in the book, Arwen exists but remains more in the background. The main problem is that Tyler looks American even in costume. This shouldn't really matter -- elves might have looked American for all we know -- but subjectively an American in Middle Earth seems to me about as out of place as a digital watch. Of course, there are other Americans, Australians, etc., in the cast, but they're generally less noticeable as such.

The final problem with the elves is that there aren't enough of them. Rivendell and Lothlorien seem almost deserted. The film-makers were able to whip up hordes of computer-generated characters for the battle scenes, but populating elf settlements seems to have been beyond them. Couldn't they at least have paid a few extras to wander around?

Hobbit problems

I think Tolkien intended the hobbits to resemble the rural society of his own youth in central England at the beginning of the 20th century. England was at that time highly structured by class, and even rural society would have contained everything from landed gentry to peasants, tramps, and beggars.

In the book, Sam Gamgee is pure yokel, but Frodo, Merry, and Pippin come from wealthy, upper-class families, their ways of speech are accordingly different, and Sam treats them as superiors.

However, Peter Jackson, the director of the film, is a New Zealander who seems to see the hobbits as a homogeneous society of yokels. Thus Merry and Pippin, in particular, are transformed from polite, well-spoken young hobbits into a pair of gormless rustic layabouts, like a cross between the Wurzels and the Sex Pistols.

This is not a major problem with the film, but as usual I think they'd have done better to follow the book. Tolkien did know what he was doing.

Elijah Wood plays Frodo well, though he's too young for the part. In the book, Frodo is fifty years old when he begins his journey; because of the Ring's influence, he looks “just out of his tweens”, but that hobbit expression means “in his mid-thirties”. He's not supposed to look twenty.

Furthermore, at the beginning he looks rather out of place among the other hobbits, a city kid trying to act like a yokel.

The scriptwriters have rather unkindly deprived him of several of his early displays of courage. In the book, he strikes at a Ringwraith with his sword on Weathertop, and then gets across the ford by himself on Glorfindel's horse, where he shouts his defiance at the Ringwraiths before they're overcome by the waters. In the film, he throws away his sword on Weathertop, and gets carried over the ford by Arwen as an almost-unconscious bundle.

Orc problems

The orcs are well done and quite successful creations. My only criticism is that Tolkien probably had in mind the sort of repulsiveness that could be achieved by some humans without special makeup. I doubt that he really intended them to be quite as repulsive as they are in the film. But this is a minor quibble.

See also

The Encyclopedia of Arda

The Quintessential Lord of the Rings

Written in August 2002