When a reviewer makes specific comments about plot elements in a book or a movie, it is common internet convention to say, “Spoilers ahead!” I cannot think of a single movie made in recent years for which that warning has been less necessary. J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings is the cornerstone of modern fantasy, the trilogy that most readers of fantasy under sixty either cut their teeth on or discovered as an already well-established and well-weathered feature on the landscape of fantasy fiction. For years in my family, a favorite road trip game has been, “If they ever made a movie out of the The Lord of the Rings, who would be the best actor for each part?”
Hence, when Peter Jackson announced some years back that he was taking on the project of bringing The Lord of the Rings to the screen, thousands of Tolkien devotees (and that was just on the Internet) sat up and took notice, alternately approving of or fuming over every casting choice, having knock-down, drag-out battles over elf ears — pointed or not? – -and sending in petitions to keep Tom Bombadil in the story and to prevent Arwen from becoming Xena, Warrior Princess. All of this to say that, when I showed up at the theater on Wednesday, December 19, for opening night, a large number of those waiting had purchased their tickets online in advance. Also, similar to the opening night crowd for Harry Potter, almost everyone there already knew how the story would turn out.
For anyone reading this review who doesn’t know the story, the basic plot is very simple. There is a magic ring, a ring made by Sauron, a terrible dark lord, long ago. This ring was taken from Sauron in battle, breaking his domination over Middle Earth. But the ring was lost after the battle, and only found centuries later by Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit. Bilbo had no idea what he had found, but the ring knew what it was. It called to the spirit of Sauron, and began trying to make its way back to him. Fortunately for all concerned, the hobbit Bilbo had for a friend a wise wizard named Gandalf, who first suspected and then proved that Bilbo’s magic ring was in fact the One Ring, Sauron’s most powerful weapon. Gandalf knew that something must be done to keep the Ring out of Sauron’s hands. All of the peoples of Middle Earth, elves, men, dwarves, and hobbits, had a stake in the outcome of the desperate quest to remove the Ring from Sauron’s reach forever. Thus, when Bilbo gave the Ring to his nephew, Frodo, representatives from each race stepped forward to help Frodo in his quest, forming the Fellowship of the Ring.
Obviously, there is a great deal more to the story than this. Tolkien was a master of setting, creating a rich, layered, historied world that draws readers in. He was also a philologist, filling his story with invented languages that sing from the pages. Finally, he created compelling characters, people whose lives take on three-dimensionality. Elijah Wood, the actor who plays Frodo in the movie, has said that he felt as though he were playing a person who was an actual historical figure, someone who had really lived. For more on the story from the perspective of the makers of the movie, see the link to the official movie Web site below. Otherwise, be warned: “Spoilers ahead!”
As director and one of the writers of the screenplay, Peter Jackson worked very hard to remain faithful to Tolkien’s massive epic, while working within the restrictions of a limited number of screen hours. He has, over all, succeeded admirably. The movie flows smoothly, and the plot progression seems as inevitable as it does in Tolkien’s luminous prose. But, as closely watching fans will undoubtedly notice, Jackson did indeed make several changes to Tolkien’s story. How important those changes are — and how glaring the omissions — will vary depending on which ardent Tolkien fan is asked. Tom Bombadil was indeed left out of the movie entirely. However, considering that he plays a short part in the over-all plot, I can understand Jackson’s decision to compress the storyline by omitting him. The character of Arwen represents a more controversial change. Under Tolkien’s pen, Arwen is only a flat, symbolic character. Jackson has made her more central to the story, focusing on the love between her and Aragorn and giving her a key role to play in the rescue of Frodo from the Black Riders. This particular ardent fan was furious when it was Arwen (played well, admittedly, by Liv Tyler), not Elrond and Gandalf, who called down the white horses in the river at Rivendell to overwhelm the Black Riders; and when one of Frodo’s best lines, his defiant “By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!” was dropped. Doubtless other fans minded this not at all, and shook their heads over Lothlorien…Another significant change, which I both shook my head over as a Tolkien purist and admired for its artistic effect, was the expansion of the role of Saruman as the villain. Perhaps because he makes a more graspable villian than a bodiless eye, Saruman almost plays a larger part in Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring than Sauron himself. Dressed in white, played with Arctic beauty by Christopher Lee, Saruman becomes progressively more despicable, first attempting to turn Gandalf to the side of Sauron, and then bending his will to win the Ring for himself. Jackson uses the destruction of Isengard, Saruman’s fastness, to represent Saruman’s descent into evil with graphic clarity. When Gandalf rides there at the beginning of the movie, Isengard is a beautiful park, with huge trees and white roads laid out symmetrically. Throughout the course of the movie, the trees are felled and the earth is destroyed by mines and fire. In the end, it is no more than a black, noisome pit. Saruman even more horribly remains beautiful and white-clothed, while his fortress becomes ever fouler and darker.
A perfect foil for Saruman, Galadriel as played by Cate Blanchett is at once majestic and weird — in the oldest sense of that word. When Frodo offers her the Ring and she turns it away, she actually seems to physically diminish. When I watched this scene, I clenched my fists and felt proud of her. She makes a choice none of us are offered, and yet we can believe in her choice, that it is a real choice. That is one thing that this movie emphasizes — all of the strong, wise characters are truly tempted by the power of the Ring and dare not touch it. Only Frodo has no thought of using it to rule.
Frodo, Under Jackson’s direction, Elijah Wood shows Frodo’s pain well. Too well. They let the viewer look out through his eyes. When he is wounded by the Black Rider’s knife, he comes visibly close to turning into a wraith before Elrond cures him. When he wakes up in bed in Rivendell, his lips are grey, his skin almost the color of the sheets. Throughout the rest of the movie, the viewer can see in his face how bearing the Ring is changing him and stripping away so much of him forever, how in the end, he will be almost transparent, like clear glass.
In conveying Bilbo’s lust for the ring, Ian Holm is remarkable. I knew he would be, but knowing and seeing are two different things. When he reaches for the ring again, seeing it around Frodo’s neck at Rivendell, his face contorts into a Gollum-like mask. (At that scene, the audience I was watching the movie with gasped in one voice.) Then he breaks, and cries, and Frodo puts a hand on his shoulder.
When casting for this movie began, the role of Gandalf was one of the most rumor-laden and disputed. Would it be Patrick Stewart? many fans hoped and urged. Sean Connery? Ian McKellan makes Gandalf live. He catches the balance between Gandalf’s wizardly power and his irascibility and sense of humor. He also conveys clearly Gandalf’s deep love and affection for the hobbits. When Gandalf is setting off the fireworks at Bilbo’s birthday party (splendid fireworks, incidentally), there is a delighted twinkle in his eye. When he sits, frustrated and angry, before the doors of Moria, having failed with all his spells to open them, the audience can fully understand why the rest of the company is carefully giving him a wide berth. And finally, when he stands on the bridge in Moria and defies the Balrog, the fear and resolution in his face are palpable. I myself have read that particular scene more than a dozen times in the course of my life, but in the theater I still cried so hard when Gandalf fell that I could hardly see.
As Boromir, Sean Bean is magnificent. I have been reading The Lord of the Rings for twenty-four years, and have never liked Boromir. Seeing him in this movie brought me to love him. Bean makes his motivations clear and understandable. His final scene was masterfully filmed. The arrows of the orcs hit him, one after the other, and he staggers under them, but through sheer force of will he continues to fight, to protect Pippin and Merry. His descent over the falls in the boat in the end is exactly how I have always pictured it in my mind.
Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom, is also wonderful. I can understand completely why he has his own fan club. A friend remarked, “It was just too fabulous when he fired off two arrows at once.” To which I replied, “Yes. But actually, even more so when an orc charged into him, inches away from his face, and he got an exasperated expression and grabbed an arrow in his fist and stabbed the thing in the throat.”
More than one of my fellow movie-goers commented with laughter on how odd it was to see Hugo Weaving as Elrond after seeing him as the villianous computer program in The Matrix. I kept expecting to hear him to say, “Mr. Anderson.” However, in the historical scenes, the battles with Sauron, he is fantastic. Just fantastic.
The dark creatures are believably horrendous. For all of its magnificently choreographed fight scenes, the movie has remarkably little gore, but it easily earns its “PG-13” rating. As noted above, Saruman is horrifying. The orcs are gruesome, the Balrog terrifying, and the Uruk Hai — but I won’t give that surprise away! But overall, more than anything, the hissing of the Black Riders — “Baggins…. Shire” — and their shrieks of rage send shudders through the viewer.
I cannot say enough good things about the sets. Long-time Tolkien artists Alan Lee and John Howe were excellent choices for overseeing this aspect of the film. It is clear that Tolkien’s own drawings were consulted and followed whenever possible; for example, the gates of Moria could have been taken straight out of my old paperback version of The Fellowship of the Ring. I read in an interview with Peter Jackson that the set of Hobbiton was built a year before shooting began, to let natural vegetation grow around the constructed hobbit holes and make everything seem more real. That sort of care is evident in all of the created settings. I didn’t think it was possible, but at every turn, from Bree to the flets of Lothlorien to the Argonauth, I kept thinking, “Yes, this is just as it should be.” And, of course, the natural beauty of the sharp mountains of New Zealand needs no help whatsoever!
And the language. Ahhh, to hear Elvish spoken, clearly, fluently, easily. So wonderful…
Lastly, given that this is The Green Man Review, I must definitely mention the music. Howard Shore has composed a musical backdrop that has a sweeping grandeur and solemn romanticism fully in keeping with the epic nature of the story. I purchased the soundtrack weeks before I saw the movie, and I must warn that it does not play well on its own. However, it seamlessly melds with the natural beauty of the setting and the compelling gravity of the story. The two songs composed and performed by Enya in her distinctive style are as lovely and poignant as one might expect.
It seems to me that this movie has a depth that so many other “epic” movies miss because of the deep love that all the people working on it had for the story. Even if fans don’t agree with elements of it, or are bitterly disappointed at parts, the way I was with the scene at the ford, I think that most will still not be able to hack the movie to bits, because the respect and reverence for Tolkien’s work are so evident. It could be said that this is a movie that lovers of Tolkien will fully enjoy because it was made by Tolkien-lovers. So many people, from actors to the makers of the smallest props (such as the lovely earthenware mugs on the table at Bag End), saw this as their chance to use their work, their best art, to say, “Frodo Lives!”
Certainly, the audience who saw the movie with me was both respectful and responsive. A favorite moment was Gimli’s “Ha! No one TOSSES a dwarf!” Everyone in the theatre laughed and clapped at that. And later, when Aragorn walloped off the head of a particularly nasty orc, people cheered. It was delightful to leave afterward and see people standing around in groups outside the theatre, talking about it, waving their hands in the air. A few “hobbits” walked by, and an elf. But we were all from Middle Earth in that moment.