lotr

  • Year: 2001
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen

Alright, here we go. It’s finally time to take a look at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s been years since I’ve watched these (and this is my first time watching the extended cuts), so we’ll begin with…

My Original Thoughts on Fellowship

Although I perhaps have a smaller number of issues with The Two Towers, The Fellowship of the Ring is the one of the three I’ve always tolerated the most. I had plenty of things I could point to that were wrong, but I always at least enjoyed the atmosphere and the scenes of the fellowship interacting with each other. If memory serves, the two actors named Sean (Astin and Bean) were the stand-outs.

My Thoughts Today

As with Bakshi’s film, Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring begins with a prologue regarding the history of the one ring, narrated here by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). Tolkien’s book starts with some information on hobbits and begins with Bilbo preparing for his party, not going into the ring’s history until Gandalf explains it in the next chapter, but I find that both work for their medium. The film starts out with a bang, drawing you right in, while the book builds the everyday world first, only revealing the true evil of the ring once we care about the world it exists in.

I like Peter Jackson’s prologue for the most part, although I slightly prefer the wry narrator in Bakshi’s. Mordor looks appropriately threatening, and we feel the weight of the Last Alliance of Men and Elves. My biggest issue is Sauron himself.

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He’s just a suit of armor! That’s not menacing or creepy… at least not any more than a run-of-the-mill killer. This is the guy enslaving all of Middle-earth under his power? He should be an evil genius, not a killing machine. Also, when Isildur takes the ring from his finger, Sauron explodes! Seriously.

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Yes, he lost his physical form when Isildur took the ring from him, but this feels like a video game.

We are simply told that the ring came to Gollum long after Isildur’s death, wisely saving Gollum’s backstory for the prologue of The Return of the King . We see Bilbo (Ian Holm) taking the ring in a scene that The Hobbit-haters hope will never be re-edited, and we’re in The Shire.

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We see a bit more of The Shire in the extended cut, which goes a long way. If you start on the quest before making us care about what is being saved, who cares? At least show Hobbits enjoying life.

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We get a bit more Bilbo in the extended cut as well, mirroring the way Bilbo seems like the protagonist of the book in the first chapter. Ian Holm does a very nice job as Bilbo, glad to see his old friend Gandalf (Ian McKellen) after so many years. He goes a bit over-the-top in regards to the ring, where a little subtlety may have worked better, but it’s still a well-rounded performance in just a few scenes.

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We get to meet all four hobbits who will go on the journey, of course with the most focus on Frodo (Elijah Wood). I’ve never had strong feelings towards his performance one way or another, honestly. On one hand, he is too young. I know that Peter Jackson’s film compresses the timeline, and I know that the ring slows down your aging…but he’s 33 when the story begins.

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Wood was only 20 when the film came out, and his youth shows. However, he pours his heart into it and really delivers on the emotional moments. Maybe I have more of an issue with the way the character is written here than the portrayal (You’ll soon see this will be a theme.).

Samwise Gamgee is played by Sean Astin, who nails the rural, hardworking and caring parts of the character perfectly. We’ll get more of these in the later films, but his loyalty is undying from the word “Go.” It is immensely better than the oafish Sam of Bakshi’s film and the goofy one of Rankin/Bass, but it’s just a great performance regardless.

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Finally, we have Pippin and Pippin.

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No that’s not a typo. This movie has no character remotely resembling the Merry of the book, but rather just two Pippins. Barely Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are entirely interchangeable characters, getting into childish schemes like setting off Gandalf’s fireworks. There’s even a cheesy sitcom-cut to them washing dishes after being caught by Gandalf.

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The Pippin of the book was immature and a bit silly, and while he was never this dumb, I understand running with him as a bit of comic relief. This portrayal of Merry is nearly as angering as Michael Bolton’s “Dock of the Bay.”  It’s such despicable character assassination that Oliver Stone probably blamed it on a homosexual conspiracy (That’s the real ending of JFK, not kidding). Merry in the book is portrayed as the smartest of the four hobbits, the one who knows The Shire better than the rest. He’s actually very hard on himself, feeling a bit like luggage before helping defeat the Witch-king, and he is fairly sarcastic and quippy. Again, I don’t think it’s Dominic Monaghan’s fault, because he’s probably doing what the writers wanted. I just cannot stand what the writers wanted.

There is a lot to cover in the first half of this movie especially, and I’ve spoken in length about the excised Bombadil chapters here. However, that doesn’t excuse the really bizarre editing style that exists throughout the first half of this film. What’s with all the close-ups, especially on Gandalf?

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Look, I still feel that McKellen’s performance is a bit hammy at times when he’s trying to be the powerful wizard, but I’m starting to think the editing is equally to blame.

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Things happen really fast in the first half of the movie, even with the extended scenes and the chapters that were cut, and there doesn’t feel like there’s much room to breathe. BOOM. We’re leaving Hobbiton. BOOM we’re outrunning the ring-wraiths out of the Shire. BOOM we’re in Bree. It takes less than 45 minutes to get from Hobbiton to Rivendell, and this is the extended cut!

There are great moments here, sure, like Frodo and Sam seeing the elves passing through the Shire on their way to the Grey Havens…

elves

Or the first encounter with a ring-wraith…

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But atmosphere is often sacrificed for simply getting from Point A to Point B. When the hobbits meet Aragorn (known as Strider then) at the Prancing Pony, there should be some mystery as to whose side he’s on. We get the disorienting feel of Bree just fine, but give us some time to develop the feel more. Also, we get Merry and Pippin getting into more trouble, with Pippin just giving out Frodo’s real name to a random bar patron.

I’ve had issue with Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in the past… but I don’t blame the actor as much anymore. Giving him an arc is fine, but giving him the arc of “Should I become king or not?” is kind of silly. We know what he will decide, even if we haven’t read the book, so it’s just being long-winded and makes him look like, after all these years, he still isn’t ready for responsibility. I mean, maybe if they made him an Animal House-type character who just refused to settle down it could work… if it was a screwball comedy. However, he’s just somber all the time, so why does he have such an issue with responsibility? I understand his doubt to lead the Fellowship after Gandalf’s death, and I got that in the book and in Bakshi’s film, but his overall doubt towards responsibility doesn’t really work.

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I’ll criticize the performance a bit though, because I don’t believe there’s a kingly man hiding under there. With John Hurt, you could tell he was both able to survive in the wild, but also had an air of dignity and strength about him. With Mortensen, I only see the ranger.

When they get to Weathertop, we get a fairly effective sequence where Frodo is stabbed, even if it doesn’t hurt as much as it did in the Bakshi film.

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Isn’t it weird that the stabbing was more effective in the cartoon? However, it’s still an imposing scene and we feel the darkness surrounding Frodo. Wood plays Frodo as a bit helpless throughout, but it’s understandable here. The next few days on the road to Rivendell are handled quickly, with Arwen (Liv Tyler) coming, picking up Frodo, and crossing the river and causing a flood to stop the wraiths.

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In this rushed 40-minute sequence, we also see Gandalf visiting Saruman and getting imprisoned in the Tower of Orthanc.

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Christopher Lee lends his deep voice and imposing demeanor to Saruman, and it’s one of the best things about the film. Lee actually wanted to play Gandalf (which would also have been great) but he was deemed too old. There’s a small change to Saruman’s character here, in that while the book Saruman really only wanted to have the ring for himself and had no plans to be a servant of Sauron, this one fully aligns with him.

Instead of simply locking Gandalf in prison, Saruman has a wizard’s battle with him, throwing each other across the room. It’s more dramatic, I guess, so I won’t make fun of it too much. It’s just a tad overblown.

 sarum

Gandalf is eventually saved by the eagles, though, and everyone is reunited at Rivendell.

rivendell

As I’ve said before, each volume of The Lord of the Rings is divided into two books, and the second book of Fellowship begins with Frodo awaking in Rivendell, although the movie is not yet at its halfway point. However, from this point on, The Fellowship of the Ring feels like an entirely different film. It comes into its own and, while not perfect, is really truly wonderful.

So what changes? Well, for one, that abysmal editing is cut way back on, giving the scenes much more room to breathe. I mean, just look at the beauty of Rivendell.

council

I love the contrast of Rivendell’s beauty against the ugliness of the quest ahead. We see that, should the ring return to Sauron, even places like Rivendell will not stand. Hugo Weaving seemed a really odd choice at the time for Elrond, but sometimes weird casting choices like this really work. He’s not the first person you’d think of as an elf, but Elrond is half-man too, remember. Elrond is fascinating, because this duality leads him to be both ageless and world-weary, and I get both of these from Weaving. I think he’s really underrated.

elrond

Honestly, even though we have moments with every member of the Fellowship, the second half of this film could easily be subtitled Boromir. From the moment Sean Bean rides up to the council of Elrond, he steals practically every scene he is in. Honestly, this is the one time in any version of The Lord of the Rings where I feel someone actually improves on the character from the book.

sean bean

In the book, Boromir has characterization sure, but he is basically just the Steward of Gondor who falls prey to the ring. He quickly realizes he is wrong, but soon after, he is killed by orcs while defending Merry and Pippin. It’s a basic fall-and-redemption, but we see little of the heights he fell from.

Here, we see Boromir’s initial desire to use the ring, but it feels more selfless than in the book, even if it’s essentially the same motivation. He wants to help his people of Gondor defeat the forces of evil, but we sense a goodness in him. Bean’s Boromir is incredibly kind to the hobbits, whether it’s teaching them sword-fighting

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Or trying to give them time to grieve after Gandalf’s death.

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He’s a good fighter, but he also has an air of nobility about him… something missing from Aragorn’s characterization. It makes me wonder if Bean would have been a better Aragorn. Boromir is understandably at odds with Aragorn, but it’s never cliched and there isn’t a sarcastic “Yes, your majesty” moment, thankfully. They just have different outlooks and these clash a bit.

Boromir also has what is among my favorite line-deliveries in all of film. When the Fellowship is being attacked in the mines of Moria, Boromir looks out at the enemy before slamming the door and dryly tells Aragorn, “They have a cave troll.” I just love the ironic way Sean Bean says it, because it is with the same slight annoyance one could complain about having too much sauce on pizza. It cracks me up every time.

The battle sequence in Moria, slightly annoying cave troll and all, is really effective. While Peter Jackson can tend to throw in battle scenes for no reason and drag them out endlessly, this one has a purpose and feels real. It takes multiple members of the Fellowship to take down one cave troll. It may look a bit silly, but I like that it’s not just another easy enemy to take down.

troll

The nine heroes defeat a few enemies, find a chance to escape and run and run until they’re surrounded on all sides by orcs. The only thing that gets them out is the Balrog showing up.

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As many forced battle scenes as there are in these and the Hobbit films, this one is really handled well. They’re genuinely all doomed until a greater evil appears. We don’t just see nine heroes taking on 2000 orcs or something.

The Balrog sequence looks great to this day, but it shows off one of my issue’s with McKellen’s performance. When he tries to show power, he just sounds like a confused old man.

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When I read the “You shall not pass” lines in the book, I don’t hear them as shouting, but rather as a cool confidence. This is exactly how William Squire delivered them in Bakshi’s film, and how I imagine John Huston would have too (Okay, he never did, but I still hear it clearly).

Speaking of over-the-top, let’s talk about Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

GAL

I love the look and feel of the Lothlorien scenes, but the Mirror of Galadriel scene has some serious issues. First, only Frodo goes and looks into it, not Sam. In the book, this served as Sam’s surefire moment of never turning back, as he saw what was to come in the Shire and considered leaving, but ultimately focused on the quest at hand. I might let this go, if it wasn’t for the scene where Frodo offers Galadriel the ring. Instead of acknowledging the temptation but rejecting it, she does this stupid heavy metal growl and threatens Frodo.

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Something being over-the-top doesn’t automatically make it more dramatic or scary. It often just makes it look stupid. Cate Blanchett is a great actress, but this was just a weird directing choice that didn’t work. Since she only has a few scenes in this movie (besides the opening narration), it sadly leaves a mark.

Upon leaving Lothlorien, the Fellowship sails down the river Anduin in what is one of my favorite moments in all of the film. As rushed as the first half of this film is, here we’re just soaking up the gorgeous score and the stone statues of the kings of old.

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When Aragorn knows it is time for the Fellowship to choose its course, he lets Frodo have some time to think it over. Boromir comes to Frodo and sympathetically—and then not so sympathetically—tries to take the ring.

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The second half of this film plays like a Shakespearean tragedy with Boromir’s character, and here we see his fall complete. He is now under the ring’s grasp enough that he would harm Frodo to get it. However, he almost immediately sees the error of his ways when Frodo escapes.

At this point in the book, Frodo goes on his way in the boat (joined soon by Sam), but we get a final scene with Aragorn here too.

aragorn

This is probably Viggo Mortensen’s best scene in the whole movie, saying that he would have gone with Frodo all the way to Mordor, but ultimately understanding the power of the ring is too strong and that Frodo must depart. The goodbye is cut short when Aragorn sees Frodo’s sword glowing blue, signaling that orcs are nearby.

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) do play a part in this film, but they are fairly secondary characters until The Two Towers. They are both great fighters, and they do some damage in the battle sequences, but especially in regards to Legolas, we see very little. The final battle sequence is fine, but it’s not at as harrowing as the one in Moria. We do feel a bit like Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are just playing a video game some of the time. That said, Boromir’s death protecting Merry and Pippin is absolutely heartwrenching.

Adding a bit of The Two Towers in the ending makes perfect sense. We don’t want to have Boromir in five minutes of the second film only for him to be bumped off. This completes his arc and sets up the remaining characters’ for the next film. Merry and Pippin are taken by the Uruk-Hai, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are off to find them, and Frodo and Sam have gone to Mordor… if Frodo can actually get in the boat.

Seriously, Frodo just stands there, RING IN HIS OPEN PALM, debating whether to go.

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Come on man, show some resolve. Get in the boat and go. How many times do you have to decide?

We end with Frodo and Sam continuing their journey on foot, the fires of Mordor crackling in the distance.

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Enya’s elegiac “May It Be” ends the film with beautiful poignancy. The ending point really works well, wrapping up the story of the Fellowship proper and preparing us for the journeys to come.

So have I been too hard on this movie in the past? Ehhhhh…. maybe? The first half is really a mess, but once they get to Rivendell, it really is a great film and yes, even a great adaptation. It still has issues, but they feel small in comparison to the brilliant moments, brought to you mainly but not exclusively by Sean Bean. Let’s get to the final score.

Adaptation (38/50 Points)

The second half is brilliant. The first half is hit-or-miss, very often miss.

Cast (18/25 Points)

Sean Bean is brilliant in his tragic portrayal of Boromir. I could go all day, but I probably already have. I suppose some of my problems lay more in the way characters are written than the way they are performed, but it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Experience (21/25 Points)

I have to dock some points for the bizarre editing in the film’s first half, but beyond that, it looks, feels and sounds amazing, and it almost all holds up. Top notch stuff.

FINAL SCORE: 77%

The second half of this movie is so good that it makes me want to bump the score up higher, but then I remember how rushed the first half is (even in the extended cut). It’s almost like two movies, or a movie that takes way too long to get good. It’s the one I’ve always been the least harsh on, and we’ll see if it stays that way.

Next week, I’m going to take a look at another adaptation snub, and in two weeks I’ll be reviewing The Two Towers.

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2 thoughts on “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

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