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Lordy Lordy: The Fellowship of the Ring

01/01/2002. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy The Fellowship of the Ring in the USA - or Buy The Fellowship of the Ring in the UK

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Three hours of what may be just about the best fantasy film ever made tells the story of J. R. R. Tolkien's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. Intelligent and visually beautiful, Peter Jackson's first film of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is an instant classic and quite possibly this generation's GONE WITH THE WIND.

Rating: 10 (0 to 10), +4 (-4 to +4)

Years ago, there were animated versions of parts of J. R. R. Tolkein's THE LORD OF THE RINGS made for television, and Ralph Bakshi made one for theatrical release.

None was very satisfying. But the technology of creating images on the screen has advanced a very great deal since that time. Today, if you can visualize it, it probably can be put on a screen. How difficult a task is it to make a definitive version of Tolkien's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING?

Two tasks are necessary.

The novel is already intelligent. What is needed is a way to abridge the very long story down to a screenplay without sacrificing the spirit or the intelligence. Also, for years Middle Earth has been beautifully visualized in the paintings of the Brothers Hildebrandt.

Theirs have become as much the classic images of Middle Earth as the John Tenniel's illustrations have become the classic images of Lewis Carroll's fantasy world. What is required in making a film version is to have every frame of the film look like a Hildebrandt illustration.

Both are impressive tasks that require a lot of hard work, but neither is insuperably difficult. Peter Jackson saw that both tasks could be done and the result would be one terrific film. We have that film now, and it delivers a heavy load of adventure, spectacle, and beauty, three hours with too many delights to list, all for the price of a standard film ticket.

Ironically, the filmmakers have to contend with how well-known and respected the original story is. Indeed, my wife can list a multitude of small variations from the book. They are of the sort "When Frodo escaped by boat he was invisible and Sam saw only what looked like an empty boat. The film has him visible."

And people who love the story do pick up on changes to the story like that. But nobody criticizes THE GUNS OF NAVARONE for what are far greater variations from its source novel. Indeed, few criticize even THE TEN COMMANDMENTS so much for liberties taken with its so- well-loved source material.

Dramatically, the biggest problem of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is the classic one going back to the first publication of the story. THE LORD OF THE RINGS was one mammoth novel that the publisher arbitrarily decided had to be split into three pieces, published at six-month intervals.

It is a story without an ending since Tolkien intended only a chapter break at that point. The film has the same mid-stride ending. Peter Jackson has promised his films will be released at twelve-month intervals to catch three Christmases.

The anticipation for that second part is already building. The public's keenness of the first film, based on rumors and the trailer, has been very great. Now that the public has seen a much bigger sample of what Jackson can do with the story, the expectancy for the second film will probably be much greater.

By the time the third film is ready to be released the phenomenon will probably be stronger than the STAR WARS phenomenon. George Lucas pointed the way to what computer effects could do for the fantasy film with his STAR WARS films.

But he has had to write his own material and he is no Tolkien, so none of his films have been as well-realized as THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. As few viewers will need to be told, the story is of a ring that holds absolute power. But the power it represents seduces and corrupts absolutely the person who wears the ring.

A great and wise wizard, Gandalf the Grey (played by Ian McKellen), knows the power and the seduction of the ring. So he does not want to possess the ring himself but asks an innocent, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), to take the ring and carry it where it can be safely destroyed.

Thus Frodo begins a dangerous trek through Middle Earth, a magical world created by Tolkien with accents of British and Germanic folklore. Jackson moves the story right along as there is much territory to be covered, literally and figuratively, in a story that is rushed to be told in a three-hour film.

Along the way the filmmaker gives us one beautiful scene after another. He needed a wide variety of shooting locations, but with a little help from computer enhancement, he managed to create the settings he needed all in his visually diverse homeland of New Zealand.

But the plot is still complex. Those unfamiliar with the story of THE LORD OF THE RINGS can expect to be lost by the background and history sequences which move fast and violently in the first part of the film. But the viewer is not lost for long. The world soon simplifies to the travelers, their allies, and their enemies.

Throughout the film familiar faces appear. Christopher Lee shows up here, Cate Blanchett there, but no single actor dominates the film. Not even Elijah Wood, who plays the main character, dominates. Actors seem to have been chosen because they were right in the part, not because their names would sell tickets.

Nobody will think of this as a Liv Tyler film or a Sean Bean film. If it is anybody's film, it is that of forty-year-old Peter Jackson. Jackson has shown continuous improvement since his 1987 feature film debut with the aptly named BAD TASTE. My advice to him would be not to try to improve at this point.

If he makes three LORD OF THE RINGS films of consistent quality that play like a single film, he will have a great artistic and financial success. His series will be the standard and the benchmark of fantasy on film. If, like George Lucas did, he falls into the trap of trying to outdo himself each outing he will end up with mismatched and less satisfying pieces.

He has an excellent start. I admit that I am partial to the fantastic on film, but I rate THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING a rare full score of 10 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +4 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2001 Mark R. Leeper

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