As I eagerly await the next installment in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series of movies, I want to revisit what was my personal introduction to the famed Lord of the Rings story and setting. I hope you enjoy my sharing my thoughts on my first glimpse of Middle-earth.
Over a decade ago, director Peter Jackson introduced film lovers to his portrayal of J.R.R. Tolkien’s renowned fantasy setting of Middle-earth and of the epic struggle of good versus evil that took place within it. While Jackson’s attempt to adapt The Lord of the Rings novels to film was not the first, his trilogy of films went on to make tons of money at the box office and to collectively win a huge number of Academy Awards as well. But every story has a beginning, and ours begins in fire. The Fellowship of the Ring still holds up after that decade as an excellent watch, but what makes it so great? And where could it (or, perhaps, its source material) potentially have used improvement, as we look forward to Jackson’s second film in The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug?
History became legend. Legend became myth.
In the beginning, great rings of power were forged, within them the strength and will to govern each of their intended races, these being Dwarves, Elves, and Men. There was also a last ring, forged in secret by the dark lord Sauron, in the dark volcanic land of Mordor. This ring existed for the purpose of controlling all of the others, as we are told in succinct narration, shortly before we watch Sauron crushing the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. The Fellowship of the Ring opens furiously, with an epic battle scene immediately showcasing hundreds if not thousands of monstrous warriors known as Orcs, whom a coalition of free peoples resist with skill and discipline against award-winning music from Howard Shore. Their victory is short-lived, for after Sauron imposingly enters the battlefield, with the audio cutting to silence or near it, his inhumane strength smashes into the heroes and sends them flying with simple weapon blows.
One of these heroes, the pinned Isildur, slices off Sauron’s ring finger with a lucky hit. What’s left of the finger disintegrates, as does the rest of Sauron, and Isildur has this one chance to destroy the evil ring forever.
He does not.
He nurtures it and claims it for himself; the ring magnifies his own internal corruption and then leads him to his demise. The film then quickly recaps a number of subsequent events dealing with the fate of the Ring and its series of owners; several of these events were explained in more detail in 2012′s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but this movie does a more than adequate job of explaining necessary story elements to viewers unfamiliar with the books.
Even in its opening minutes, The Fellowship of the Ring establishes Middle-earth as a place of startling variety, taking us as viewers from the gloomy lands of Mordor to the idyllic and pastoral land of the Shire.
A Hobbit–halfling, essentially–named Frodo Baggins is reclining against a tree when he notes and chases after the nearby presence of the mysterious old man known as Gandalf, riding in a carriage. Even though this trilogy of films is more than accessible to newcomers to the series, Frodo’s happy “reunion” scene with Gandalf does a great job of immediately establishing familiarity between the two individuals as they give a friendly embrace while beautiful music swells.
Frodo’s older relative Bilbo is having a birthday, and this being the Shire–a land of its own time, where people farm and market and mingle in peace and safety–the community is very close-knit, and everyone comes out to get involved. The Shire’s thoroughly innocent zeitgeist serves as a delightful contrast from the movie’s exciting but grim opening, but even though the Shire is getting ready to throw Bilbo a huge party, the film doesn’t just idly wait for these events to occur. It takes the time to establish Gandalf’s powerful supernatural abilities a little at a time, first in a sideways manner: various Hobbit children run to see the old man, which some of the adults find suspicious.
It is here that Gandalf first lets on that there’s more to him than just his pointy hat and funny robes, as he allows the children to enjoy fireworks that just don’t seem quite ordinary. Bilbo, meanwhile, is stressed out by his simplistic life and his sometimes annoying neighbors, and he yearns to go on one last great adventure, for which Gandalf discovers the plans while inside Bilbo’s home, Bag End. The two are established as being familiar with one another the same way Frodo was, but while the two smoke their pipe-weed, Gandalf reveals just a bit more of his abilities by blowing the smoke into the form of a ship, which is as impressive for the special-effects artists as it is for the wizard.
Bilbo’s nighttime party begins as the movie itself largely did–with a bang (this time, of a simple firework)–and what follows is an impressively arranged scene of dozens of extras dancing and enjoying one another’s company. The birthday boy tells a group of Hobbit children a rather not-for-children story about his meeting with a group of trolls, and two more Hobbits, Meriadoc (“Merry”) Brandybuck and Peregrin (“Pippin”) Took, goof around with another of Gandalf’s fireworks, which swiftly changes the mood of Bilbo’s party from a delight to a nightmare. The film’s shifts in mood never feel abrupt or unnecessary, and excepting some inconsistencies to explain later, the story generally maintains strong control over how it wants the audience to feel.
Bilbo’s involvement in his own party is something of a ruse. He has a secret in his pocket, hidden from the eyes of the Shire and the viewers, and his sudden and literal disappearance continues a chain of history-defining events. Bilbo’s frivolous use of powerful magic does not appeal to Gandalf, and magic in itself is not heavily present throughout Tolkien’s universe as we see in this film. It exists in the form of power, for individuals to crave and to be potentially corrupted by, but it can also be used for simple purposes such as with Gandalf’s smoke-boat. While the story doesn’t necessarily assign a “good” or “bad” handle to magic, the film is very careful in how much it reveals to the audience. Many of the movie’s best special effects call to mind some of those in the first Star Wars film, where there are no flashes or sparkles on the screen, and it is this self-limitation that allows this movie to reveal the capabilities of its characters only as much as it needs to, which constantly adds to the mystery instead of creating sudden and unwelcome moments of, “He can do that?”
In hindsight, with regard to the One Ring, it is unclear why the Ring gives its master Sauron unthinkable physical strength but doesn’t make him invisible (see also the Ring of Gyges), while for a number of its other bearers, it does the opposite. (It also has life-extending abilities, at cost.) In any case, while magic in itself does not necessarily represent temptation or evil in Tolkien’s universe, this ring certainly does. It is this ring, held by Bilbo, that allowed him to vanish from his party, and since Bilbo plans to go on an adventure, it is this ring that Gandalf wants Bilbo to leave behind for Frodo.
Bilbo treasures his possession like a drug addict, turning from a kind man into someone frightening (and showing quite a lot of acting range in the process). His demeanor steadily goes downhill as he tries to keep his precious ring for himself, resulting in a rare outburst of anger from Gandalf, which instantly has Bilbo in tears and regret. This could have been a cheesy scene if not for the excellent music from Shore. Bilbo leaves the ring behind and goes off on his adventure; Gandalf attempts to touch the One Ring and, for his trouble, gets a startling split-second view of the burning phenomenon known as the Eye of Sauron.
While Gandalf and Frodo, now returning, are quickly trying to piece together what’s going on, the misshapen creature Gollum is being tortured in a gruesome manner (even seeing the equipment itself is creepy), screaming in pain the current location and holder of the One Ring. Evil horsemen known as the Black Riders are quickly sent out, with Sauron maintaining a worldly presence through his ring and regaining his strength for another assault on the Free Peoples. It’s clear that the One Ring cannot stay in the Shire, lest it be discovered and its owner killed. Gandalf sends Frodo away to the town of Bree, and Frodo is eventually joined by a number of other Hobbits, these being Samwise Gamgee–first and foremost a loyal friend–as well as Merry and Pippin from earlier.
The shadow in the east
Sauron is building an army through Saruman, a contemporary of Gandalf’s who sees no option but to join with the dark lord. Sauron traps Gandalf within his tower, and a magical fight endures, which needs no zaps or bursts of energy to look like a brutal and believable portrayal of violence. Meanwhile, the four Hobbits narrowly escape to Bree from being trapped and chased by one of Sauron’s Black Riders, with Frodo’s willpower struggling under the influence of the Ring (anyone who’s ever faced an addiction or difficult habit or known someone who has will be able to relate, which gives the story’s core conflict real poignancy); by this time in the movie, a real-life hour has passed, but since this film is so long, the story is effectively just beginning. There has, however, already been plenty of action and excitement up to this point, which keeps restoring a sense of relevance in the various events, no matter how small, serious, or silly.
The story brings in an enigmatic Ranger, a wilds-roamer, who watches Frodo but is not entirely sure of him or his friends. “Strider,” or Aragorn, is introduced in a way that makes his intentions difficult for an unfamiliar audience to guess, and this happens multiple times throughout the film; as with Gandalf’s magic, this adds to a continual sense of mystery and even a question of trustworthiness, which culminates in a powerful action scene that develops Aragorn’s character yet leads to another emergency, further speeding the pace of the film. (There’s also a comparatively minor environmental subplot, neither subtle nor overstated, which is expressed more directly later in the series.) Another character is introduced in a mysterious manner similar to Aragorn’s before quickly lending aid to the needy travelers, who travel as one to the Elven community of Rivendell. It’s still a gorgeous sight after all these years and after receiving a slightly different look in last year’s Hobbit film. It still needs rails so all the Elves don’t fall to their deaths, though.
As one story ends, with certain individuals of the party mistakenly believing that their journey is over, another begins, with members of the various Free Peoples deciding what to do with the Ring. A Man named Boromir wants to turn it against Sauron, though it cannot be subdued by any except for its original master and creator. (On another note, some of the dialogue pertaining to the good-versus-evil setup or to topics like romance can seem kind of cheesy or drawn out, but the sincere acting and excellent surrounding production values, including the scenery and music, redeem this dialogue and keep the movie’s atmosphere stable.) A Dwarf named Gimli tries to attack the Ring, which shatters his ax. He is bitter against Elves, for reasons explained in An Unexpected Journey–one of the few areas where this film doesn’t take time to explain itself and may be assuming familiarity with the books–and it falls to Frodo to take up the responsibility for the Ring upon his own shoulders, however small they happen to be. Frodo’s courage unites the angry squabblers, and hence the Fellowship of the Ring is assembled of nine diverse individuals. The music lilts, and the movie has to do a mad pacing dash to not give the impression that it’s ending.
The plot begins anew, and new threats arise.
While Gandalf and Gimli debate over whether to enter a destination of Gimli’s choosing (he has relatives there, but the wizard knows there’s more to the story), Gandalf notably forsakes his position as de facto leader of the party to let the rightful Ring-Bearer decide where to go. The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, at times didn’t feel like the starring character in his own film, and while it was indeed interesting watching a story being told from the point of view of a character who in some ways wasn’t the “main hero,” it is also refreshing to see Frodo given this display of respect, whether necessary or not. (There’s also a neat detail of the Elf Legolas walking lightly on top of snow that causes other characters’ feet to sink.)
Following are multiple scenes of atmosphere build-up and tension, punctuated by big reveals and dangerous encounters, which makes the movie at times feel like Alien but done over and over, each time better than the last. While hardly the most impressive or menacing thing Frodo and company come across, Gollum has been trailing the party for days after having been set loose. Frodo wants to kill Gollum, while Gandalf wants to show mercy. There is a beautiful theme of humanizing one’s enemies, but in a case that may simply be an issue with the source material, it’s not put into practice as consistently as I would have liked, as there’s no opportunity given, whether toward or by the heroes, to extend this kind of mercy to the various Orcs and goblins that populate Middle-earth. This is my biggest problem with the story overall, as questions given to Frodo about his authority and power over life and death don’t seem to go very well with lines from other individuals like, “Let us hunt some Orc.” In fairness, The Lord of the Rings’ proposed solution to its problems does not always lie in simple strength of arms, something that is brought up in one of the later films.
A mourning sequence from Gimli creates a remembrance of a character we’ve never met that still manages to hold meaning, and the emotion from a hero who to this point has sometimes been something of a source of comic relief is pitch-perfect. The action scenes that follow are quickly cut and furiously paced while remaining consistently understandable. Several gigantic monsters in particular, each in separate encounters, all look totally believable, as if each has a real sense of weight and presence in the movie, and I find myself wishing I had viewed these scenes on a much larger screen. During large parts of some of these action sequences, there’s no music, which allows the excellent sound work for the weapons and the fighting to show through.
The movie’s treatment of magic reaches its high point here, with Gandalf harnessing incredible abilities against an equally incredible opponent, and while this isn’t the first time the film has used actual visual effects and not just implied abilities to help establish its fantasy setting (this also brings to mind a nice scene early on where some fire-lit inscriptions can be seen, mirrored, on Frodo’s face), it does demonstrate how the movie’s careful use of spectacle results in a huge payoff. Slow motion is also used, though it’s more effective during dramatic scenes in my opinion than in simply being used for combat.
When all other lights go out
The film isn’t done with its skillful use of mystery, or with its demonstration of some really creepy abilities, or with its effective use of drama. The Fellowship endures one tragedy after another, such that its fate starts to feel like the story of the wonderful Seven Samurai, but in reverse. It’s impressive to see one character fight off a large number of enemies even when he’s clearly heavily wounded, shortly before a monster is dismembered and decapitated in another character’s emotional outburst, and it’s somewhat heartbreaking to see another character leave the group (but not the quest) due to learning the hard way that certain people can’t be trusted.
With a powerful display of friendship, the story sets up for The Two Towers to be told from multiple points of view instead of a largely unified one, and the movie ends with beautiful music that chooses to be peaceful, looking forward to a hopeful future, as opposed to being “epic” or exciting by dwelling on the achievements of the past. And three hours later, this story, despite some confusions at points, is at the least as powerful as it ever was.
Conclusion: The time that is given to you
The Fellowship of the Ring has endured and perhaps matured over the past ten-plus years, such that it stands to be a classic in its medium, just as its source material is and may well continue to be. Peter Jackson’s start to the series is a no-nonsense affair that marries complex yet understandable storytelling with pacing that has been polished to a shine. The hours go by fast, but the memories don’t; the story is a rich tale of likable heroes against interesting and sometimes even sympathetic villains, and that tale is very much worth the retelling.
This post was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.