From the Greatest Book of the Century
J.R.R. Tolkien’s wildly popular epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings has been repeatedly hailed in surveys as the greatest book of the 20th century — over the sour objections of snarky literati unjustly deriding it as “escapist” and “adolescent,” damning it for its unconcealed lack of interest in such things as introspective character exploration, sex, and, in short, everything that the literati have decided is important and must be dealt with in any literary work that they are going to take seriously.
This peevish critical Tolkien-bashing has been cheerfully and solidly rebutted by more appreciative critics and scholars, among them Tolkien’s successor at Oxford, philologist T. A. Shippey (J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century). Other recent works have focused on the significance of Tolkien’s world as a work of serious mythopoeia and religious imagination (for example, Joseph Pearce’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration).
“If someone dislikes it,” poet and literary critic W. H. Auden once declared of Tolkien’s epic saga, “I shall never trust their literary judgment about anything again.”
I feel exactly the same way about the first of Jackson’s three films, one of the grandest, most joyous, most resonant, most richly satisfying films in years, a film that is an absolute must-see for both Tolkien fans and newcomers alike. (One caveat: Younger audiences may find the intense battle sequences and scary creatures more overwhelming on the big screen than on the printed page. Somewhere from ten to thirteen is probably a fair cutoff age.)
Like Tolkien’s book, Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring vividly conveys a sense of a great event ripped from a larger historical continuity, as rife in complexity and persuasive detail as our own world. Seldom if ever has the ancient theme of good versus evil been given mythic shape with such conviction and imaginative force. In fact, never before has this sort of epic mythopoeic adventure been successfully treated in a major film. Only Star Wars came close, transposing the melodic structures of myth and fairy tale into the register of science fiction.
In this large ensemble cast, the casting and performances are generally excellent. Elijah Wood makes an oddly young and almost elven-looking Frodo, but he plays the part with such conviction that it’s all but impossible not to accept him in the role. (Frodo’s meant to be about 50, but the production stresses the Hobbits’ childlike aspects and apparently slower rate of aging.) His Hobbit companions — Sean Astin as Samwise, Billy Boyd as Pippin, and Dominic Monaghan as Merry — are equally at home in their furry feet: particularly Astin, who brings a total lack of affectation to loyal Sam. And Ian Holm, who once voiced Frodo for a BBC radio production of The Lord of the Rings, is spot-on as the aging Bilbo.
The Wizards are exactly as you always imagined them. Ian McKellen (last seen as Magneto in X-Men) bears a great burden as Jackson’s Gandalf, and his performance is a triumph; while veteran horror actor Christopher Lee — who originally hoped to be cast as Gandalf — is McKellen’s equal as Saruman the White.
Much pre-release fan concern centered around the portrayal of the ethereal Elves. In Orlando Bloom (Black Hawk Down), the film has an ideal Legolas Greenleaf. Legolas is indeed so quintessentially elven that he makes some of the other Elves look like posers (Haldir, for example). Fortunately Bloom has far more screentime than any other Elf, and he gracefully carries the weight of his entire race on his shoulders. I was about ready to believe he actually had elvish blood in him (even the name Bloom could be kin to Greenleaf!).
Some thought Liv Tyler (Armageddon) an unlikely choice for the Elven princess Arwen, but Tyler acquits herself admirably. On the other hand, Cate Blanchett’s acclaimed performance as the title queen in Elizabeth might have made her seem an obvious choice for Galadriel, the Elf Queen of Lothlórien, but it took me awhile to accept her in the role. (I would have preferred the more elven-looking Nicole Kidman; but of course she was busy making Moulin Rouge! and The Others.) Finally, Hugo Weaving (The Matrix’s Agent Smith) is surprisingly apt as Elrond, the elvish master of Rivendell.
For the Dwarves, John Rhys-Davies (best known from the Indiana Jones movies) makes an ideal, delightful Gimli, fierce and hardy. I don’t know how they gave “Sallah” a Dwarf’s diminutive yet sturdy dimensions — but I applaud them for doing so. My only Gimli-related complaint is that the film cruelly omits the dwarf’s most memorable scenes in the first book: namely, those between him and the Lady who unexpectedly wins his devotion. This omission might be partially mitigated by scenes in subsequent films showing Gimli’s fierce loyalty to his Lady; but nothing can replace the first book’s classic exchange about a strand of her hair.
That leaves the Men. As Strider the Ranger, or Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen (Crimson Tide) for me labored under the formidable burden of not being Liam Neeson, who’s been Aragorn in my mind ever since I saw him in Rob Roy. Mortensen nails Strider’s physicality, his toughness and valor, and his sense of his own legacy as Isildur’s heir: yet I got nothing of the majesty and authority that Aragorn could suddenly manifest. If it’s possible to put it this way, Mortensen seemed to me a better Strider than an Aragorn. Perhaps the later films will reveal the character’s kingly side. On the other hand, Sean Bean (Don’t Say a Word; GoldenEye) is dead-on as Boromir, noble but flawed.
Virtuoso Moviemaking at Every Level
Yet The Fellowship of the Ring not only has a specificity and moral depth lacking in Star Wars, it’s also a pure representative of its genre. In this film, an unbroken string of mediocre to terrible “fantasy” movies (Legend, Willow, Dragonslayer, etc.) has finally been broken. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Fellowship of the Ring is unprecedented in its class; it is the uncontestable Citizen Kane of its genre, and may well be the first of one of the most noteworthy film series of all time.
Jackson and his team achieve this level of credibility in part by not approaching their subject as “fantasy.” Like Tolkien’s books, Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring has the weight of epic historical drama; one takes it more seriously than Braveheart or Gladiator. Yet it’s also more entertaining and more fun than either of those. Virtuoso moviemaking at every level, it combines eye-swimming production design, vanishingly invisible special effects, screenplay adaptation both faithful and inventive, masterful combat sequences, and cinematography as lush and soaring as the subject matter itself.
What unites all these disparate elements is the creative visions of Tolkien and Jackson. Jackson never gets lost in his set pieces or special effects, but bends them confidently and surely to the service of the story. And the story is fundamentally Tolkien’s story: a story of glory past and evil encroaching, of humble and homely goodness pressed to extreme acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, of loyalty and betrayal, fortitude and weakness, beauty and horror, tragedy and loss.
These themes are of course not unique to Tolkien’s books — or to Jackson’s film — but they have here a tangibility often lacking elsewhere. In this story, when homely goodness is threatened by encroaching evil, it’s not some generically idyllic community being threatened, but Hobbiton in the Shire, with its round painted doors and well-kept holes in the ground, where the cheerfully unassuming inhabitants puff pipe-weed, eat six meals a day, and frown on anything smacking of adventure or discomfort. All of this is gorgeously realized by Jackson, who brings us to a Shire redolent in pastoral charm and rural beauty — a Shire we can actually care about for its own sake, as opposed to a mere obligatory target for the villains to threaten.
Likewise, when evil does come for the Hobbits, it’s not some vague or amorphous threat, but the Black Riders, the Nazgûl, whose very appearance evokes all the terrors of the Grim Reaper and Darth Vader and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Like a young child terrified of the winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz or the Sleestak in Land of the Lost, we can’t help feeling as we watch the Black Riders that there are terrors before which resistance is futile and flight seems the only sane response. (Fans of Peter Jackson may be reminded of the dreadful hooded phantom in The Frighteners.)
This specificity runs through the whole film, from the infinitely elaborate, gracefully wrought Elven ornamentation of Rivendell to the endless rows of towering Dwarven columns in the Mines of Moria. The dark lands of Mordor and Isengard, too, are frighteningly real in their blasted barrenness. Jackson’s Middle-Earth is as rich in variety and invention of visual detail and as credible in architectural authenticity as Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, but with a greater sense of cultural rootedness.
One of the film’s most extraordinary achievements is in its realization of the races of Hobbits and Dwarves, which stand scarcely more than waist-high to Elves and Wizards and Men. The actors playing these parts are all ordinary-sized, yet the illusion of size differences, and particularly the artlessly natural interactions — the clasped shoulders, the embraces, and so forth — are so persuasive that you quickly stop seeing it as an effect and simply accept it as reality.
Right in the beginning, there’s a scene in which Frodo (Elijah Wood) leaps from a hedge onto the wagon of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and embraces him, looking for all the world like a creature half the other’s height. Their direct interaction is so bold and striking that it’s like the filmmakers are daring you to look for seams, just to get it out of the way and then go on with the story. How it’s done, I don’t exactly know — and, frankly, I don’t want to.
A Fundamentally Religious & Catholic Work
J.R.R. Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” By this he meant not that Catholic faith or teachings were explicitly incorporated into the fabric of Middle-Earth, but rather that the imagery and themes were shaped by his sensibilities and beliefs as a Roman Catholic.
Other factors in Tolkien’s life also came into play: his love of languages; his early youth in a Shire-like pre-industrial Warwickshire; his love of trees and nature generally, and dislike of engines and machines; and his experiences in World War I, where he encountered plain rural Englishmen performing everyday acts of great heroism.
But it was Tolkien’s deeply held Catholic faith that most profoundly shaped his work. The pervasive sense of tragedy and loss even in the midst of victory reflects the author’s belief in the fallenness of the world (“I’m… a Roman Catholic,” he once wrote to a friend, “and so I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a long defeat”). Yet he also saw evil as a corruption and distortion of prior and fundamental goodness — thus for example the orcs were bred in parody of the Elves, while Gollum is a withered Hobbit — and believed in the inevitable final triumph of incorruptible goodness.
In the books, Tolkien’s Elven poetry echoes the rhythms of the liturgy; the praises sung of Elbereth and Galadriel resonate with Marian hymnody and devotion; and the “waybread” or lembas of the Elves, which strengthens the will, has eucharistic overtones. The passion of Christ, too, is dimly reflected in the sufferings of Frodo carrying a burden of evil on behalf of the whole world, and also in the fate of one character who sacrifices himself on behalf of his friends, followed in the next book by an unmistakably christological plot development.
Those religiously influenced themes most inextricably bound up in Tolkien’s story have carried over into this first film, and will undoubtedly be further developed in the sequels. Others, alas, have been omitted, at least from the first film: There is no Elven poetry; no lembas; no Gimli singing his Lady’s praises. But Frodo’s long via dolorosa begins in this film, and the scene in which a character dies a Christ-like death is one of the strongest in the film. Both of these themes will continue in the next films.
It’s possible to find fault about other things in the film. The Council at Rivendell gets short shrift, for example, with inadequate debate about the fate of the ring (the film never asks nor answers questions such as: Why not throw the ring in the sea?). Lothlórien, too, is insufficiently established as a land where “no shadow lies.”
I mention these points, but I will not dwell on them. To do so would be ungracious. Peter Jackson took on a monumental task with enormous responsibility with this project; and he has delivered with transcendent brilliance. The Fellowship of the Ring is a stunning achievement for which I will ever be grateful. I can’t wait to see it again.
2001, New Line. Directed by Peter Jackson. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee. Voice of Gollum: Andy Serkis.
US Conference of Catholic Bishops: Rating not yet available.
Some depictions of intense and sometimes bloody battle violence; scenes of menace and grotesquerie involving orcs and goblins and other “fell creatures.”
Overall Recommendability: A+ (Highly Recommended)
Artistic & Entertainment Value: 4 stars (out of four) – Superior
Appropriate Audience: Teens & up
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Steven D. Greydanus does film criticism for a variety of media. He is the webmaster of the Decent Films Guide website.
(c) 2001 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.