The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

(Peter Jackson, USA, 2001)


I came to the first film in the Lord of the Rings series unencumbered with any history as a J.R.R. Tolkien reader. I also made it a point to avoid the promotional coverage that effortlessly blanketed all media over a long period of months, often to the point of obliterating mention of movies of lesser budget – a category that includes most movies made in the world.

Although it takes the better part of an hour to lay out basic preliminary information, establish its tone and style and finally set the epic story in motion, The Fellowship of the Ring is an essentially enjoyable blockbuster. Yet I admired it from a distance, mainly for its truly Herculean co-ordination of elements rather than for any genuinely lovable characters or stirring themes.

Screen adaptations of sprawling literary works have to make bold, often controversial decisions about what material to omit. Director Peter Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens gamble on a familiar trade-off. They merely sketch the elements of Tolkien’s imagined world – giving rise, for example, to a breathless and not especially helpful "background" introduction – and reach as quickly as possible for a narrative through-line.

Even so, plot is not the strongest point of The Fellowship of the Ring. Most of the film is devoted to one long, as yet unfinished journey. Along the way, at regular intervals, the young, chosen Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his merry men must fight various creatures in assorted landscapes.

The intrigue built into this situation is minimal. Much that, presumably, happens in later instalments is solemnly forecast – such as the growing internal dissolution of the team, and the role that will one day be played by the fearsome, slithering Gollum (Andy Serkis).

It will come as no surprise to faithful fans of director Jackson (Bad Taste [1987], Heavenly Creatures [1994]) that the scenes which come most vividly alive are those devoted to dark, horrific apparitions. He has a harder time convincing us that he is sincerely interested in conveying the sunnier values of whimsy, sentimentality and heroism. (For which he tends to substitute "glamour" lighting on luminous faces.) One can only dream of the more fully-rounded film that John Boorman almost made (with Tolkien’s blessing) in 1970 – elements of which he later filtered into Zardoz (1973) and Excalibur (1981).

Jackson does, however, succeed in finding an overall style that coheres the multitude of spectacular, state-of-the-art, special effects process. Instead of using a traditional, analytical style that cuts the world of Middle-Earth into fragments and recomposes them into a whole, he opts for an astonishingly fluid continuum. Time and again, the film moves, in an unbroken sweep, from its smallest elements (such as a bug or the palm of a hand) to its largest vistas. The result is often breathtaking.

For many viewers, the closest comparison that this film version of Lord of the Rings will have to survive is with George Lucas’ Star Wars series. There are many similarities. Just as Star Wars is based around a divine Force, so Jackson’s film is based around the seductive power exerted by the special ring that Frodo wears around his neck.

It would be impossible to find another movie so single-mindedly or obsessively concentrated on a malign temptation. There is only a sole moment – when a speech is made to the effect that "some of the living deserve death but some of the dead deserve life" – when a more complex, ethical vision is hinted at, perhaps to find expression in advanced stages of the storyline.

For the time being, however, in this first instalment, Jackson can only do his best to vary the repetitive ritual of each character, in turn, approaching the ring with an outstretched hand and going momentarily berserk under its sway. The out-of-body ordeal undergone by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) is undoubtedly the spookiest moment of this sort. In general, Jackson’s casting tends to be odd rather than either apt or bold. (This will continue with Jack Black in King Kong [2005].)

Galadriel’s cameo brings us to the curious place of sexuality and gender in the Tolkien/Jackson universe. For the most part, The Fellowship of the Ring is a jolly boys’-own affair, structured (like Star Wars) around a wise father figure, Gandalf (a splendid Ian McKellen). Women figure little – although Liv Tyler as Arwen claims the single most thrilling scene, a horseback chase.

It is impossible, however, for any storyteller to conjure an entire imaginary world without taking sexuality into account. In the best British tradition, sex is thus thoroughly displaced. Driven under the surface of the story, it emerges in odd manifestations – like the eerily blond, effeminate men ruled over by Galadriel.

Ultimately, Jackson leaves us in no doubt as to his deepest interpretation, conscious or unconscious, of the tale. In one of the film’s most striking and intense images, the all-powerful ring is drawn magically towards the slit of an omniscient evil eye. Symbolically, this primal fusion of phallus and vagina seems to spell only chaos and doom – a cheery message indeed for family audiences at Christmas time.

MORE Jackson: Braindead, The Frighteners

© Adrian Martin December 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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