The trivia and lore surrounding the making of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy are almost as expansive as Tolkien’s mythology itself. The sheer love and passion with which the filmmakers approached the epic trilogy are reason alone to name it the most meticulously made motion picture series of the decade and to safely book its place among the top films of all time. Considering then that “The Fellowship of the Ring” is merely an (albeit three hour long) opening act, the bar is set very high indeed. Because from the moment that Galadriel’s voice comes drifting out of the dark, whispering in elvish, we are drawn into a fantasy world unlike anything seen before: Forget Star Wars, forget Harry Potter, forget that cutesy 1978 animated version. This is serious, hardcore fantasy, a world rooted as firmly in the reality of a European dark age long forgotten as in its very faithful adaption of the source material. This is the one Middle Earth to rule them all.
In the mid-nineties Peter Jackson was a director best known for extremely gory and disturbing splatter horror pictures, from his home-grown “Bad Taste” to “Braindead” and “The Frighteners”. Definitely not a household name, and most definitely not the guy Hollywood would choose to direct a blockbuster franchise like “Lord of the Rings”. But then, Hollywood can’t really take credit for this franchise because it was born and bred in New Zealand by Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. After a financial fiasco at Miramax which would have seen the trilogy made as a single movie, Jackson was able to find another suitor for his mammoth undertaking in New Line Cinema, a division of Warner Bros. who thankfully agreed to provide the budget for three full films. Beginning principal photography in late 1999, it was perhaps the greatest shoot ever, three films being shot back-to-back over 274 days with often as many as six or seven units all filming in different places across the two islands which had been cast as the principal character, namely Middle Earth. Had this been attempted in Hollywood, the project would surely have been doomed from the start.
What is extremely significant is that in between all the statistics and the action, Jackson manages to keep a firm grip on both characters and plot, never loosing sight of the human elements within the story, something that can only come from knowing the text inside-out, being truly passionate about the subject and the hallmark of a very talented director. Because at heart, “Lord of the Rings” is a story of very simple values: friendship, courage in the face of overwhelming odds and the destruction of nature. The plot, just in case you’ve been living on Mars or in Mordor, concerns a Hobbit by the name of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who inherits a magical ring from his old uncle Bilbo. However when the wizard Gandalf (played by the venerable Sir Ian McKellen) discovers that this is in fact the One Ring which was created millennia ago by the dark lord Sauron to rule all of Middle Earth, Frodo along with some Hobbit friends sets out on an epic quest to destroy the ring and thus evil once and for all. He is accompanied by a fellowship of actors extremely respected in their fields but (at the time) largely unknown in Hollywood – Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Sean Bean – and also some new talent – Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd – all of which combine for some absolutely fantastic character acting.
And for those that might have feared that their vision of the beloved novel might be torn to pieces, those fears soon evaporated with almost every corner of fantasy fandom praising the adaption. Tom Bombadil gripes aside (seriously, he would have been totally out of place in the film), any changes that have been made are entirely justified: The romance between Aragorn and Arwen is given actual screen-time, the threat of Saruman is made real and present early on, and in general the narrative flows much more freely than in the novel. Some newcomers might well wonder at some of the plot turns but thankfully things like combining Rivendell and Lothlorien were avoided. While it might have made sense from a classic plot point of view, never does the story suffer from it. And very importantly we feel like we’re in these places, thanks largely to Andrew Lesnie’s soaring (and Oscar winning) cinematography. Enjoying the best of both worlds between location and visual effects wizardry, the camera swoops effortlessly through Isengard and Moria. Just as it should be, no one visual effect jumps out of the screen shouting look at me! They’re incredibly impressive but never obtrusive, the Moria sequence perhaps the best example of live-action, miniature photography and CG mixed flawlessly into one thrilling sequence. We do feel that this is the highlight of the action and the actual ending of the film is a bit on the small side in comparison. But it should also be noted that “The Lord of the Rings” is one long story, not three individual books, and is meant to be viewed as such. So the conclusion at Amon-Hen is the perfect set-up to lead us into “The Two Towers”.
Canadian composer Howard Shore may too have been an odd choice to many in the industry as he was known largely for his horror scores (“Silence of the Lambs”, “Se7en”) and David Cronenberg collaborations. However Shore spent several years thoroughly researching the text for his music, visiting the sets in New Zealand and eventually recording with the London Philharmonic, a huge choir and several speciality instruments. The results is perhaps on of the greatest achievements in film music ever (so much so that a book has been written about it!): An approach that is thematically interesting and consistent over the three films. Like the films it’s an approach to fantasy scoring rooted in real music and avoiding many of the clichés so often to be found in regular writing in the genre. It can certainly compare with John Williams’ “Star Wars” for scale and depth. “The Fellowship of the Ring” serves very much as the firm ground on which Shore can build his themes, the development of the main Fellowship theme (nine notes, one for each character) clearly traceable throughout the film. Even themes that would only come to full statements in “The Return of the King” such as the Gondor theme can already be heard, completely formed, at the council of Elrond when Boromir speaks. What is also fabulous is that the score has found some mainstream following. Two versions of the score exist, the regular album release which seems to focus more on Enya’s contribution to the film (which in reality is minimal) and an expanded, four disc set titled “The Complete Recordings” which presents all the music in the film in full. It’s an expensive treat but a treat it most certainly is and is well worth shelling out for.
Graced with 13 Oscar noms and four wins (including one for the score), “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the opening chapter of the most remarkable film story of the 2000s and one of the greatest trilogies in history. Never before has something as grand as this been attempted and probably it will never be attempted again. It gained instant following from millions of fans, critical praise and made quite a taking at the 2001 box office – almost as much as the film that was supposed to be the film of the year, namely “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. Simply put, it’s a masterpiece in every department from story-telling to acting to costume and visual effects. And it remains my favourite film of all time!
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