Genius often has an air of madness about it, and that was certainly the case with J.R.R. Tolkien. His 1,000-plus-page mythopoeic odyssey, “The Lord of the Rings” — which chronicled an epic quest of light against dark in a land of medieval myth — was no mere story unto itself: It also came with a prequel (“The Hobbit”), 100 pages of appendixes, detailed maps of its universe (Middle Earth) and a few millennia of recorded history and legends in the bible-like tome “The Silmarillion.” Oh, and did I mention the four invented languages: Dwarvish, Adunaic, and high and low Elvish? And an entire runic alphabet for Elvish?
One wonders where Tolkien, an Oxford don, actually found time to grade papers. Yet, it was this dedication to — some would say, obsession with — an imaginary world and his ability to render it in such stupefying detail that has made “The Lord of the Rings” such a widely loved work. With Tolkien, you could feel another 10 pages breathing beneath each one you actually read.
Given the breadth and scope of Tolkien’s fantasy epic, it was long considered madness to try and film it. It’s fitting, then, that the man who rose to the challenge was New Zealand director Peter Jackson, whose best film to date was a haunting look at encroaching insanity, “Heavenly Creatures.” Jackson was mad enough to risk a 274-day shoot with more than 26,000 extras and a budget close to $300 million to film all three books of the Ring Trilogy in succession. And this despite the fact that the biggest budgeted film he’d worked on until then had been about one-hundredth of that sum.
Remarkably, Jackson has succeeded on almost all counts. His first film in the Ring Trilogy, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (the next two await release over the next two years), is infused with the same passion for detail as the book, totally immersing the viewer into a separate world. His goal is awe and wonder and mythic resonance — not camp silliness or cheap thrills (although the thrills, when they come, are truly spectacular).
It becomes clear just how well Jackson has done his job when you realize how many things look exactly how you imagined them when reading the books, from the hissing, fish-eyed Gollum to the faceless, hooded Nazgul. But what is truly impressive is when you realize how many things are better: The hollow, pounding sound of distant but approaching menace in the skeleton-strewn Mines of Moria, and the unbearable tension as a barred door is about to burst open with Lord-knows-what on the other side. Ditto for the shadowy, displaced netherworld that Frodo enters every time he puts on the Ring (with the voice of Sauron hissing at him like the satanic subliminal messages on a heavy metal album).
In bringing this world to life, Jackson’s dedication has been no less than Tolkien’s. He planted shrubbery on the location of The Shire a full year before shooting began, so it would be properly integrated into the landscape. He had four adult actors playing the Hobbits, so he had them shrunk down to child-size via computer graphics or trick photography for every scene they’re in. And yes, he had entire dialogues — between Viggo Mortensen’s brooding Aragorn and Liv Tyler’s ethereal Arwen — played entirely in Elvish, with subtitles.
As we’ve seen time and time again with directors such as George Lucas or Tim Burton, technophilic obsession with detail usually comes at the expense of the story and, especially, the performances.
Jackson’s covered on the script: No Hollywood committee got its hands on it, and it largely (and wisely, given the legion of Hobbit fans) sticks to Tolkien’s original.
There are two major elisions. One involves upgrading Liv Tyler’s Amazonian elf Arwen to a major character. It’s she, rather than the male Glorfindel (of the novel) who gets to rescue Frodo from a tight spot. This is, if anything, a change for the better, as women are almost entirely absent in Tolkien’s books. The other major change involves a quick cut to the chase, with the Hobbits’ escape from The Shire condensed considerably. Gone are Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Wights, while Hobbits Merry and Pippin see their roles reduced to comic relief.
The performances are, by and large, not embarrassing, something rather rare in the fantasy genre. Actors often seem stiff and awkward in these situations, not knowing how to seriously play people from an imaginary place and time. (The next “Star Wars” episode looks like it will be the nadir.) But Jackson sets the right tone, one of taking this world seriously, and the cast respond by embracing their archetypes unreservedly.
Everyone comes through strong — with the possible exception of the Elves, who seem a touch too limpid — but the standouts are clear. Christopher Lee flashes that old Dracula menace in his eyes as the conniving wizard Saruman the White, who pragmatically allies with the dark side. Sean Bean betrays some tragic confusion as Boromir, who’s torn between supporting this seemingly suicidal quest or trying to use the ring’s powers to defend his people. And, of course, little Elijah Wood is the perfect Frodo, the wide-eyed ring-bearer who is swept away by a particularly heavy destiny.
It’s Gandalf who tells him, “We cannot choose the age we live in. All we can do is decide what to do with the time that is given us,” a line with impact that resonates beyond fiction. As delivered by Ian McKellen, it takes on a sage, Zen-master edge, imbued with the weight of bitter experience. It’s McKellen, with a voice that truly could summon forth the spirits, who provides the film with depth and gravitas. His is a mesmerizing performance, with Gandalf at times looking like the aged, weary man who knows his time is getting short, and then, like a cat, suddenly revealing a flash of vigor and ferocity, the fire that still burns within. Subtract this performance and you could lop one star off this review.
What should have been lopped off is the soundtrack: Howard Shore’s use of fey pan pipes and pseudo-Gregorian chant is cliched enough, but the orchestral score, yet another John Williams/”Star Wars” clone, was a big mistake. While every other element of the film strives to pull you in deeper into this world of magic and mystery, Shore’s music, steeped in contemporary Hollywoodisms, keeps reminding you that it’s just another movie.
Occasionally, the special effects strike the same wrong note: When a magically-conjured wall of water swoops down and engulfs the Nazgul, the illusion breaks again. We’ve seen that CG-effect before, and within the last six months, too, in “The Mummy Returns.”
But such lapses are the exception, as most of the film is truly astounding. Its deft mix of actual, panoramic New Zealand locations and lovingly rendered CGI sets keeps you guessing as to what’s real and what’s not. To Jackson’s credit, you often can’t tell. Look deep into the images — they retain their clarity and texture, unlike, say, the fuzzy Colosseum crowds of “Gladiator.” Certain shots — like when the camera swoops off the top of Saruman’s obelisk Orthanc, and plunges some 60 stories or so down into the fiery forges of the Orcs’ lair — will leave you reeling.
But it’s not all roller-coaster style either: The film’s prologue establishes the background Ring lore, from the Battle of Mount Doom to Bilbo’s theft of the Ring from Gollum, in a highly artistic montage. Storytelling, imagery, mood and music all sync into one totally compelling whole.
With swords-and-sorcery films, the stink of otaku superficiality (see “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Xena” and heaps of paperbacks with covers of neckless swordsmen and princesses in chains) is usually enough to make discerning viewers steer clear. “Lord of the Rings,” though, deserves to be considered apart from the heap of poor imitators Tolkien’s universe has spawned. The achievement of Jackson’s visual splendor is clear enough, but he has also, subtly, insisted upon the relevance of the myth.
Thus he gives us the Elves, at one with nature and its spirits, while showing the Orcs, pure evil, strip-mining Isengard as they build their own little military-industrial complex. Mankind lies somewhere in-between and, as represented by Boromir and the late King Isildur, is all too fallible. Not entirely coincidentally, Frodo’s quest into the heart of darkness mirrors that of Willard in “Apocalypse Now”: Is it possible to defeat the evil without, while not succumbing to the evil within? We have two more films to find out, and for once, the sequels promise to be as good if not better.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Rating: * * * *
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 178 minutes
The Hobbits, a race of little people given to comfort and quiet lives, reside in The Shire, a pastoral idyll of Middle Earth, far removed from the dark land of Mordor to the East. There resides Sauron, a disembodied spirit — once an all-powerful sorcerer — who seeks the missing One Ring that will allow him to rise again to dominance.
Young hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) doesn’t know it yet, but the Ring that he receives from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) as a going-away present destines him for a world of trouble. Although the Ring allows its wearer to become invisible, it has a few drawbacks. Aside from nine extremely nasty wraiths — the Nazgul — who are forever searching for it, the Ring has a darkening effect on the soul of its wearer.
Bilbo’s old comrade in arms, the aged wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), gets wind of trouble brewing and advises Frodo to flee. This Frodo does, and along the way he picks up a small band of fellow travelers: a few Hobbit friends, dwarf warrior Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), elf bowman Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a mysterious wanderer known as Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and a prince of the kingdom of Gondor, Boromir (Sean Bean).
Upon counsel of Elvish leader Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the group decides to sneak into Mordor and destroy the Ring once and for all by plunging it into the fires of volcanic Mount Doom. Thus begins a journey fraught with peril and death, and even worse: undeath.