102 – Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Watching Lord of the Rings is at once a mesmerizing and fascinating experience. Even if you’ve never read any of the books, the story is woven in such a delicious, viewer-friendly manner that even the most curmudgeonly of us will appreciate the tale.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (actually four books, if you include the prequel The Hobbit) tells the tale of the quest to return an all-powerful (and all-evil) ring to the fire from whence it was forged in an effort to destroy it forever.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s books are very rich with detail, particularly with historical detail. The world of Middle earth is populated by all sorts of creatures, and man is not yet the dominating species. In Tolkien’s world, sorcery, might, and pastoral settings all exist together, albeit not always in perfect harmony.

The first several minutes of the 178-minute movie (subtitled The Fellowship of the Ring, the title of the first book in the series) describes the terrible history of the One Ring. If someone had not read the books, it might be difficult for them to comprehend the story; thankfully, the startling special effects and brisk storytelling make it all worthwhile and informative.

In short, here’s how the tale unfolds. Back in the old days, the ultimate evil being Sauron forged a series of powerful rings. Some he gave to the Elvish race (known for their wisdom). Some he gave to Men. Some he gave to Dwarves (known for their strength and courage). But there was one Ring that was designed to bind all of the others together, to be as strong as all the others combined. With this ring, one could rule all of Middle Earth. But the evil Sauron was defeated by Men, and his hand (well, the hand of his physical being) was chopped off; a Man recovered the Ring, but fell prey to its power. The Ring eventually sunk to the bottom of a river, where it was recovered by an eerie creature named Gollum, who also fell prey to its allure. And from this creature, the tiny Hobbit Bilbo Baggins acquired the Ring, not knowing its power and keeping it to himself for 60 years. Bilbo gives the Ring to his nephew, Frodo Baggins.

When the Ring’s existence is confirmed, a meeting involving all of the creatures of Middle Earth is convened in the Elvish home of Elron, the lord of the Elves. It is decided that the Ring must be returned to the peak of Mount Doom, where it must then be cast into the fires that made it (and where it can be unmade). Frodo volunteers for the horrible task, and representatives from each of the major species in Middle Earth are assembled to aid him in his quest: Aragorn and Boromir from the land of Men; Leglolas the Elf; Gimli the Dwarf; Gandalf the wizard; and the Hobbits, Frodo, Samwise, Peregrin, and Merry. These nine are chosen to travel the great distance to the land of evil, and cast the ring back.

Quite a daunting task, isn’t it? And while all of this is going on, the evil of Sauron is aware that the Ring exists, and he is preparing his armies for his own quest – recover the Ring at all costs.

Luckily, the good guys have some all-stars on their side. Gandalf (played very memorably by Ian McKellen) is more than just a circus magician – he’s one of the most powerful wizards in history (that’s not common knowledge at the outset, at least not to the naive Hobbits, but it’s apparent rather quickly). Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is more than a mere Ranger, he’s also of noble blood, and has the courage of a thousand lions. These two leaders are the soul and minds of the Fellowship. But the story’s focus is on the tiny Ringbearer, Frodo. You see, carrying this ring isn’t quite the same as, for example, carrying a wedding ring up the aisle to the about-to-be-wed. Frodo is drawn to the ring but still has such amazing inner strength that he can stick to his mission. He knows its power, and as he gets closer and closer to Mount Doom the pressure of carrying the jewelry is absolutely overwhelming. It’s as if you or I walked around the office carrying a Volkswagen.

Besides the story, there are two other intangible stars at work here: the special effects and the makeup/costumery. There’s one particular scene in which Gandalf rides a giant bird (an eagle, perhaps) to safety. My mind immediately assumed this could happen; but upon reflection I believe that this was wizardry of another time, another example of the magnificence of special effects. Some of the scenes are absolutely jaw-dropping. The Fellowship must travel through the Mines of Moria; they tackle the precipice of a giant snow-covered mountain; they hike over marshes and through forests. And at no point does one think that all of this is make-believe.

Another asset is the cinematography. Gandalf is a human, although a tall one in the books. The Hobbits are halflings, or little people – they’re much smaller than humans. Their homes are smaller, and Gandalf has to duck to enter. But side by side, Gandalf and Bilbo look exactly as they should – Gandalf perhaps six feet tall, and Bilbo perhaps four. Not bad when you consider both roles are played by grown men (Bilbo is played by Ian Bannen)!

And the acting! Mortensen as Aragon! John Rhys-Davies as Gimli the Dwarf! The great Christopher Lee as Saruman the White, a fellow wizard of Gandalf! Sean Bean as Boromir!

And the actresses are even better. Liv Tyler as Arwen the elf and Cate Blanchett as the Lady Galadriel are absolutely stunning. These are not just beautiful women playing ethereal roles; their screen presence is off the charts.

The only downside to the acting is Elijah Wood as Frodo. Throughout the movie, he looked like a deer caught in headlights, constantly stunned and shocked. Wood’s never been a particularly good actor, and his limitations are unfortunately readily amplified by this major role. But he’s not horribly miscast, either. Most of the time, the action in the movie is so intense you forget what a dull performance he’s turning in.

I’ve read all of the books, so of course I knew what to expect here. The friend I went to the movie with had not read the books, so I asked her if she found it boring, uninteresting, or confusing. She answered in the negative, surprising considering the length of the film. But here’s something you can expect, if you’ve not read these wonderful books. There are three books, of course, and the other two movies have been filmed already. The ending of this film does not tie everything up neatly (as the first book did not). The filmmakers faced a very difficult task in ending the movie, and they chose to stick with the book’s ending (which I certainly will not reveal here). But please, if you watch this film, realize there are two more to come, and that the ending of this is also the beginning to the next one.

There are plenty of intense scenes in the movie, probably too intense for very young kids. This is NOT a children’s story (the books certainly weren’t, either), although it’s one that can be enjoyed by all. If I had kids, I would be reading these books to them as often as possible. This is epic storytelling at its absolute best. There is never a slow moment in the movie (or the books). The movie is a masterpiece, one of the finest examples of moviemaking we’ve seen in a long, long time.

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: 9.5

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