The good, the bad, and the Ring: Re-evaluating Middle Earth – The Fellowship of the Ring
WITH the final Hobbit film, The Battle of Five Armies, coming to cinema screens in December – no doubt to assembled choruses of internet viscosity – we at SCM decided to take a long look back at Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth anthology, tracing a path through both his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Much like the feature on Star Wars a couple of months back, our writers will be weighing up the pros and cons of each film in the series, shovelling on the reverence or, indeed, the vehemence. Kicking us off – The Fellowship of the Ring.
Tom Jennings: I don’t think I’ve ever made it a secret that I dislike JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books; I’ve always been more of a Hobbit man. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the culmination of Tolkien’s vision for Middle Earth, it has fantastic world-building and a, potentially, fantastic story. The problem lies in the way in which Tolkien told that story. The characters are one-dimensional, the writing overly-explanatory and the whole thing is essentially a vehicle to showcase Tolkien’s made up languages.
So we have a trilogy of books with very thin characterisation and a story that is much better suited to a HBO adaptation than the silver screen. What Peter Jackson and the production team did is nothing less than astounding that they made this thing work. They started storyboarding the films as early as 1997 and the way they decided to portray Middle Earth was more of a historically realistic place, less fantastical like we’d seen in Conan the Barbarian or other films of the fantasy genre. This was a bold move that paid off.
This is something that Fellowship does well when compared to the other films. It sets up the normal life of the Shire, tucked away from all the violence and war that the rest of Middle Earth suffers from; this quickly starts contrasting that with the wider world. The first scene we have is of a huge battle which threads into The Ring’s journey from Isildur to Gollum then to Bilbo where we eventually see The Shire for the first time.
The peacefulness of Frodo’s world is slowly infected with the darkness that is amassing in Middle Earth when the Black Riders are dispatched to get back The One Ring. It is no coincidence that, once the Hobbits leave The Shire, the colours in the film become much more muted, even after meeting Strider/Aragorn. The only time the colours become as expressive as they are in The Shire is when Frodo hallucinates Arwen arriving to save him, wearing a pure white gown and softly lit from behind.
But it’s not just the cinematography that soars. Howard Shore’s score to this film is the perfect accompaniment to the visual spectacle. It’s hard to imagine such perfect pieces of music that capture the feeling and tone of the film. The visual effects are still stunning today and perfectly blend costumed actors with CGI counterparts. The Balrog of Morgoth is still an absolutely terrifying beast and you can feel Gandalf’s fear when placed in front of the creature on-screen. What else can be said about the actors that hasn’t already been said by critics? Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and all of the actors are absolutely brilliant in their roles. They portray these characters with such depth and reverence.
It’s a perfect example of what a good adaptation should be. Jackson and his team took out the unnecessaries (Tom Bombadil), compressed the storyline enough so that the basics were there and then took the story in different enough directions to still be interesting but also stay true to the source material. It speaks volumes that Fellowship has the least amount of additional scenes in the extended editions. The story that was told in Fellowship was so clear and concise that nothing else really needed to be added. These films are the starting point for many people wanting to get into the works of Tolkien but not sure if they’ll enjoy the books. It started here with Fellowship of the Ring and has stood the tests of time for 13 years.
Andrew Simpson: Upon taking the con side of Fellowship of the Ring, I knew I was in for a difficult task. However, there are a few gripes to note from the beloved Jackson-Tolkien adventure that started it all.
At the start of the film, we are met with an overly long setting of the scene. It could be argued that this was helpful for those unfamiliar with the series, much like myself when I first saw the film many years ago. However, looking back, I find it longwinded, more focused on developing peripheral background than a strong introduction to the exciting adventure into the Tolkien world this should have been.
By contrast, the well-known Star Wars opening crawls have a distinct opening salvo to set the scene seem to work much better before plummeting you into the action. However, this opening scene is swiftly followed by the Shire scenes which, again, albeit humorous in places, were rather cliché and leave something to be desired. It’s not till we finally get on the road that I start to be drawn into the film.
I’ve always found Frodo to be a desperately wooden character (no pun intended). I have the upmost respect for Elijah Wood but the character’s portrayal never really did much for me. Additionally with Sam, there was much to be desired. I found myself drawn into the other characters much more easily and was able to invest more with them.
If we take the other end of the spectrum, Christopher Lee’s Saruman is a character that I shall never forget in a hurry; his sheer presence and magnetism stands out on screen. The hobbits, however, often got lost on screen and that wasn’t due to their size.
My other contention is the sheer length of the film – it just goes on and on. As I said before, we open up with overwhelming backstory, but it doesn’t stop there. Everything’s drawn out and developed (which for the diehard Tolkien fans might be great), so much so that you find yourself drifting out of the film and thereby come quite disconnected from it as everything is explained in such exorbitant detail that we just don’t really care about it. It shows me that there is something lacking in the film; films of this length can work, but the fact that this is noticeably long just shows that there is little sense of energy or progress within the film.
Jackson in some ways did come up short in translating the full mythological, fantastical, and downright entertainment effect that Tolkien created within the novels. The notable lengthiness of the film seems to lose its way and fails to draw the viewer fully into the world as it goes on and on and on. My bottom line here, having focussed completely on the negative, is that the film is something to still admire, with some incredible scenes. It’s also one of the most well-shot films ever made. That doesn’t mean you have to like it.