A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 188 – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – September 4th, 2010

When I was a child my father would read to me at night before bed. He had a fondness for high fantasy and so did I, but I was also a technically advanced reader and so it wasn’t much worth reading me shorter books because I got frustrated hearing them read aloud. I could read them so much faster to myself. So he read me longer things. Dense books. He read me his favorites. He read me Tolkien. I have vivid memories of listening to him read while I imagined the world he was describing and the people and creatures in it. I honestly don’t remember how long it took to get through The Lord of the Rings. But I loved hearing him read it. Reading it myself has never been the same.

When these movies were in production I hid out from them a good deal. I knew they were making them, but I’d seen bits of the Bakshi rotoscoped version and wasn’t impressed, so I was wary. After all, look at the books. When I mentioned above that they’re dense, I wasn’t joking. They are packed full of worldbuilding, backstory, as much detail as you could want and more. Not only do the main characters have piles of description but so do the secondaries and the tertiaries and everyone else. These are books with volumes of additional history to support them. The idea of packing everything in the books into a trilogy of movies that could be watched in theaters? It seemed laughable. Until I saw this for the first time.

This movie has a difficult task. If it hadn’t managed to set the stage, everything else would have been dimmed. It all begins with a prologue, describing the history of the ring and how it was forged by Sauron, claimed by Isildur, lost and reclaimed by Gollum, then lost again and taken by Bilbo Baggins. The prologue has to give us enough information so we know the stakes, understand the danger, and also the scale of the world we’re in. But it’s a narrated prologue. It could have been awkward, but it’s not. So by the time we meet Bilbo himself and are drawn into the land of the Hobbits, we know the world enough to want to follow. Or at least I do.

I feel like if I try and summarize the story it won’t be a summary, it will be the entire review. There’s a lot of story here. But I’m going to try. You see, there’s this ring. The One Ring. And it’s been imbued with the horrible and vast power of its creator, Sauron, who wants to rule all Middle Earth. The ring eventually corrupts those who possess it and now it’s in the hands of a Hobbit, Frodo Baggins (Bilbo’s nephew). A wizard named Gandalf, long a friend of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo, realizes the nature of the ring and sends Frodo off on a quest to destroy it. And so to make a very long story short, Frodo leaves the peace and idyll of his home, the Shire, and embarks on a journey across Middle Earth, to the fiery volcano that is Mount Doom in Mordor. Along the way he picks up companions. Humans, other Hobbits, a Dwarf and an Elf. And Gandalf. There are, of course, specifics. Battles, betrayals, enemies. There are the Nazgul, wraiths who hunt Frodo for the ring. There are the Orcs, amassing in armies for the enemy. But those are things best left to the books or the movies to show.

This movie ranks up in my top five book-to-movie adaptations. I could count all three in the trilogy but I’d have to make it a top ten to fit in some non-Lord of the Rings films. Also, while I love all three, I have to give extra credit to the first one for making me believe in the others. There are beautiful visuals, amazing effects, powerful performances, and most of all a sense of the grandeur and wonder of the world of Middle Earth, and the peril it is in at the time of the plot. I’ve mentioned before that I have a sad love of things whose times have passed. And perhaps this story is at the root of it. Having heard it so early in my life, maybe that’s where it started, because this story is rife with the idea of the passing of an age. The Elves are leaving Middle Earth, the Dwarves of Moria are wiped out, Men are rising and yet also ushering in an age far different than the one that Middle Earth has been in. In the books it’s made clear that this is the end of the Third Age. The Fourth Age is what comes after. And this movie takes that and makes it a part of everything we see without spelling it out. It’s a beautiful example of showing instead of telling and uses the eventual breaking of the fellowship to great effect.

I cannot praise the care that went into making this movie enough. I don’t want to start reviewing the “making of” material, but even without watching it all you can tell how much attention to detail went into the film. Looking at the size differences for Gandalf, the Hobbits, Gimli, the Elves, the Men, you know it required a lot of playing with perspective, sets built in different scales, little people as scale doubles, lots of detail. And it’s pulled off amazingly. I never once question the size differences. And that’s how it is for me for every bit of the movie’s visuals. They all look amazing. The miniatures don’t look mini (and really, in comparison to most miniatures, they’re not), the sets don’t look like sets. The landscape of New Zealand is gorgeous and everything built for the movie fits right into it as if it was always there. And then there are the performances, which are all brilliant. And the score. I’ll probably talk more about the score in one of the other reviews, but there are moments in this one that bring me to tears whenever I hear them. Everything comes together to make an impressive emotional impact.

I honestly don’t give a shit what anyone says about these movies. I don’t care what the Tolkien nuts say, or the fantasy fans, or professional critics. They can bitch and moan about what was removed and elided and glossed over and they can nitpick characterization and motivation all they want. I can’t. I simply cannot bring myself to do it. Because I love this movie. I love the whole trilogy, to be honest, but I’ll get to the others tomorrow and Monday. But this one, oh, it packs quite a punch to me. Watching it, I feel like I’m back in my bedroom, seven years old and my eyes are closed as my father says “Oh, and they sing a song. Do you want me to try and sing?” and I say no, because I know he doesn’t like to sing, so he reads the words of the song instead and I can see everything he’s describing. And this is it.

September 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

September 4, 2010

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings

In the nerdish circles I inhabit there are people who have strong opinions about these movies. People who denigrate them as a crass popularization of Tokien’s masterwork. They point to the liberties that Peter Jackson took in adapting the books to the screen (and I’m sure I’ll talk at length about some of the more radical changes tomorrow when we review The Two Towers.) I am not amongst those people. From the very first I have been absolutely enthralled by these films.

Back in 2001 when this movie first came out Amanda and I started a three year quest. We took every friend and relative to see these movies as Christmas gifts. We took her father (whose knowledge and memory of the books is legendary in her family) and her mother. We took her brother, my brother and my sisters. We took our mothers and our friends. We went ourselves to midnight shows and sat in almost empty theaters. In the end we each saw this movie, and its sequels, probably about twelve or thirteen times each in the theaters during their first runs.

As such, watching this tonight, it is like a homecoming. This movie starts after the prologue which sets the tone and introduces the epic scale of the story with Gandalf the Grey riding on his cart into Hobbiton, surrounded by the rural beauty of this simple land. After nine years and with every frame of the movie carved into my memory I see it very much from his point of view. Arriving here once again in the peace and tranquility of the Shire I feel like I’m arriving back at a place I had almost forgotten. It’s been far too long since I was last here, in Middle Earth.

What Peter Jackson has done here, and what I love so very much about this movie in particular in the trilogy, is take the world that Tolkein created (forged from the trenches of World War I and his love of epic Nordic poems such as the Kalevala) and bring it to life on the screen. More than the story itself, more than the perfect casting for absolutely every character, it is the way that Middle Earth is brought to the screen that amazes me. The verdant fields of the Shire, the wasted land of Mordor, the ancient grace of Rivendell and Lothlorien… these are places that had existed only in illustrations or imaginations until Jackson and his army of talented artists brought them to life. It is the world itself that is my favorite character.

I’m pleased to see, it having been several years since I last watched this movie, that it has hardly aged at all. Naturally, since the world of Middle Earth is not our world, there is nothing in the costumes or setting or even the hairstyles that dates the film. Everything on the screen has been created specifically for this one purpose. The only thing that might have aged are the special effects, but happily they have not. Peter Jackson chose exactly the right time to make these films – just when the technology had reached the level where anything that a director can imagine can be brought to vivid life on the screen (if sufficient funds and time are available.) There is not a moment in this movie that requires suspension of disbelief. There are no seams that I can see or flaws in the numerous complex effects used. I can actually believe that Peter just took a camera crew to Middle Earth and found races of little people to work alongside his human sized actors. Even after watching all the special features and making of documentaries and listening to all four commentary tracks and going to see the traveling Lord of the Rings movie exhibit at the museum so that I know every trick and effect was accomplished I still feel like I’m really there. That’s a pretty significant achievement.

Another thing that stands the test of time and instantly throws me back into those darkened theaters where I first witnessed this world. From the very first, when the screen is still dark and before even the narration of Galadriel has begun there is the music. The first of many great themes that Howard Shore brought forth and entwined together to support the astounding visuals. Howard uses the languages and words of Tolkien’s creation to weave a kind of spell. They drive the action, the beauty, the emotion, the power.

I am ensorcelled by these movies. They may not be one hundred percent faithful to the books, but they are a major accomplishment and by far the greatest fantasy films yet made. They fill me with awe and wonder, and they take me to another world – one that has long been only within my own imagination and dreams. A world that it is a great pleasure to visit once again this weekend.

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Related reading:

There are many works throughout the internets that were inspired by these movies. Here are my two favorites:

DM of the Rings uses stills from the movies to tell the tale as it would be if Lord of the Rings were a D&D campaign. It’s great stuff, since so much of what Gary Gygax used for inspiration in the creation of D&D came from Tolkien.

The Very Secret Diaries tells the story behind the story from the POV of the characters in the movie – with a fairly tongue in cheek and not-altogether-SFW bent.

September 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment