The Fellowship of the Ring redeems the whole rotten year. The first installment in New Zealander Peter Jackson’s ambitious filming of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (next year we get The Two Towers; the year after that, The Return of the King) is something of a miracle: the art, craft and commerce of film all at their very best. I think there’s room for honest debate whether Tolkien’s trilogy is great literature (I go back and forth myself), but there’s no doubt in my mind that The Fellowship of the Ring is a great movie.
Is there anyone who doesn’t know that Tolkien’s story tells of the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his quest—with an alliance of hobbits, men, elves and dwarves—to destroy the One Ring of Power in the fires of Mount Doom, so that the Dark Lord Sauron may not use it to conquer the free peoples of Middle-earth? Good. Tolkien’s story has been filmed before. Animator Ralph Bakshi did the first half of the trilogy in 1978 before his money ran out; the result was so dismal that not only was it never completed, but Bakshi’s career was effectively destroyed.
Jackson and his co-writers Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens get things exactly right. They understand the principle expounded by David O. Selznick years ago: it’s not possible to film an entire book, but it is possible—indeed, it’s essential—to give the impression of having done so. As a result, some characters and scenes are cut (so long Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, Farmer Maggott; sorry there wasn’t room for you) while others (like innkeeper Barliman Butterbur of the Prancing Pony) are reduced to walk-ons. Also, this first film in their trilogy laps over a few pages into The Two Towers, sensibly including the battle with the monstrous Orcs that takes place off-stage, as it were, between the books.
Jackson and his production designer Grant Major profit from Tolkien’s mad compulsion to describe in detail every pebble in the road, every blade of grass, and every shade of rose and magenta on every passing cloud. The Middle-earth they conjure up out of computer graphics, miniatures and the natural wonders of New Zealand is exactly as Tolkien imagined it, and the trilogy’s millions of fans will surely see their own imaginations, as well as Tolkien’s, brought beautifully to life.
At the same time, Jackson moves the story with headlong grandeur, from the opening prologue that tells the provenance of the several Rings (delicately spoken by Cate Blanchett as the Elf Queen Galadriel), to the climactic battle and sundering of the Fellowship, when Frodo and his servant Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) strike out on their own. It’s been a long time since a three-hour movie flew by on such light and sure wings.
The casting, all the way down the line, is inspired. True, some of the roles were no-brainers: Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf, Ian Holm as Frodo’s uncle Bilbo, John Rhys-Davies as the dwarf Gimli. But who would ever have thought of Elijah Wood as Frodo, Sean Astin as Sam or Viggo Mortensen as the ranger Aragorn? Yet all of them, along with newcomers Billy Boyd as Pippin Took and Dominic Monaghan as Merry Brandybuck, are just as we imagine them from reading the books.
Wood and Mortensen especially—given the arcs of their characters over the trilogy, and if they keep on as they have begun—may be working on two of the greatest performances ever put on film. Elijah Wood was a gifted child actor only a few years ago, but he hasn’t outgrown his talent. In fact, he has a real star quality here that he’s only suggested before; with all the magic and special effects (and all the first-rate actors crowding the set around him), The Fellowship of the Ring is still a movie about him—the reluctant hero chosen for a task he cannot shirk.
Peter Jackson has accomplished one of the most difficult tasks, producing a film of a much-beloved book that not only satisfies readers but succeeds as a movie in its own right. It enchants and enthralls.