FOTR review from a Tolkien scholar.
Friday night here in Toronto, I had the privilege of watching Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Alliance Atlantis, the film’s distributor in Canada, kindly invited me to the press preview screening. Given the enormous challenge Peter Jackson and his team faced, we should commend them for a wonderful piece of film-making.
To convey the vast and mythic scope of Tolkien’s masterpiece in a three-hour film would have made most directors (and studios) recoil in dread. Yet Jackson and the other talented individuals have set out to present the greatness of “The Lord of the Rings”. The film is magnificent visually. For instance, the opening draws on the history of the One Ring from various parts of the book and, with grandeur, dramatizes the essential information and establishes the serious epic tone. Throughout the entire film, we see key aspects of Tolkien’s “sub-creation,” his invented history and world. There are the necessary points, such as the wretched background of Gollum, and the more obscure, such as the origin of the different races of orcs.
The flim also portrays effectively the idyllic pastoral life of the hobbits. Jackson seems equally at home in the deep, dark dungoens of Isengard or in the light, lovely land of Lothlorien. (If the film doesn’t win the awards for art direction and cinematography, a fix must be in.) There is a vivid blend of actual landscape, animation, and computer generated graphics. Readers will always have their own unique visions of the Middle-earth realms. Jackson and his great crew of artists, artisans, and crafts people created a spectacle that does reflect the essence of Tolkien’s masterpiece.
Another strong feature is the sound. The score never seems to dominate the action or dialogue, but rather nicely augments the scenes. When the music is silent, the breathing, grunts, and clash of weapons heighten the tension. The ballads by Enya sound lovely. Many of us in the cinema stayed throughout the closing credits mainly to enjoy the music.
The acting, overall, was polished and genuine. Elijah Wood’s Frodo appeared vulnerable and frightened, while still displaying inner fortitude. Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf was indeed majestic. Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, and Cate Blanchett also performed well. All the actors appeared committed to their roles and endeavoured to bring out the best in them.
The pace of the film is brisk. As a Tolkien scholar, I would have preferred more reflective and poignant moments. When Gandalf convinces Bilbo to give up the Ring is in the film, and it’s very moving. Other scenes, such as those with Gandalf and Frodo, or Aragorn and the hobbits, or Gimli and Legolas are quite abbreviated, which may impinge on character development. I’m sure it was agonizingly difficult for the screenwriters to cut and condense so much of Tolkien’s great text. Perhaps some of the action sequences could have been trimmed and more time given for calm reflection. A number of key moments do appear, such as Gandalf’s words to Frodo about having pity for Gollum. The Saruman subplot receives significant screen time, with some added spectacular scenes, yet the time in Rivendell and Lothlorien was briefer than I would have wished.
Further, many Tolkien fans and scholars might object to the alterations and additions to the author’s text. They would understand that screenwriters must edit and paraphrase the book’s dialogue and scenes, especially with a work as rich and extensive as Tolkien’s. Perhaps the writers were concerned that some of Tolkien’s wordings might seem too archaic or formal to a general movie audience, one that hasn’t read the books and doesn’t know (or appreciate) the august nature of works like the Anglo-Saxon “Beowulf” or the Old Norse “Poetic Edda”.
For many Tolkien enthuasists, “The Lord of the Rings is like a sacred text: you modify it at your peril. It remains to be seen if some changed scenes, such as the attack of the Ringwraiths at the edge of Rivendell or the Gandalf and Saruman confrontation, will upset Tolkien fans. When Tolkien’s own wordings essentially remain, such as in the Gandalf and Balrog battle or in the Aragorn and Boromir scene near the end, they come across exceedingly well.
In the final analysis, anyone can find flaws and quibbles with any film, great or otherwise. Given the monumental task of bringing to the screen Tolkien’s vast epic masterpiece, New Line Cinema and Peter Jackson have done an amazing and admirable feat. The film does display the lofty and serious tone of the books of “The Lord of the Rings” and honours its subject matter. Some people may quarrel with certain scene changes and dialogue choices. Still, the look, the feel, the overall impression is Tolkienian. And for that, this Tolkien admirer is grateful.
Daniel Timmons, Ph.D.
Daniel Timmons is the producer, writer, and director of “The Legacy of _The Lord of the Rings_,” a forthcoming literary documentary. See Scripts and Scribes.com for details.
Posted in Old Special Reports on December 9, 2001 by Tehanu