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Dissecting the Classics – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

November 17, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
'The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring' Image Credit: New Line Cinema

Last Monday was my 29th birthday, a celebration that had an unfortunate damper on it due to the passing of comic book legend Stan Lee. While it’s hardly surprising, it is something I couldn’t allow to pass without comment. Many have said their piece far more eloquently than I have, but I felt it prudent to share the most prominent memory I have: a roundtable discussion with other creators that played at the end of VHS copies of X-Men, the 1994 animated series. The first four episodes were a constant in my house, but it’s those conversations with Stan that I remember most – the way he spoke with conviction about how the X-Men weren’t just superheroes, they were symbols of an idea: that we are all people, we all share this planet, and we all have to be open and embracing of each other if we are ever going to evolve. That really stuck with me as a kid, and growing up I’ve realized how much that idea defines my moral center. I know I’m not the only one with that kind of story. So, thank you Stan Lee. Thank you for making my life a little bit better and for contributing entertainment and valuable messages to millions of people who have gotten to read, watch, and create in your universe.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings

Wide Release Date: December 19, 2001
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson
Produced By: Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh & Tim Sanders
Cinematography By: Andrew Lesnie
Edited By: John Gilbert
Music By: Howard Shore
Production Company: WingNut Films, The Saul Zaentz Company
Distributed By: New Line Cinema
Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins
Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey
Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn
Sean Bean as Boromir

What Do We All Know?

The Lord of the Rings is the greatest big budget Hollywood film trilogy ever made. That’s a bold statement, and I acknowledge that, but I also firmly believe it to be true. It’s something I had always planned to cover, but felt I needed a lot of practice to really cover them. And here we are, looking at the first of three movies, the one that is the most consistently good. Yes, I know Return of the King got all those Oscars, but it’s a movie of highs and lows, which we’ll get to in detail in a couple of weeks. The Fellowship of the Ring, though? It’s a remarkably consistent film that still holds up as a great piece of filmmaking today, almost two decades later. (Two decades, holy shit…)

And really, it kind of had to be. It’s easy to forget this now, where the films are ubiquitous pop culture landmarks that are as important to 21st century filmmaking as J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels were to the fantasy genre, but there was no guarantee that all three films were even going to be replaced in theaters. If Fellowship had failed to meet financial expectations, the other two films would have been DVD releases, left to devout fans and film geeks and maybe destined to become cult classics. Fortunately, the film exceeded commercial and critical expectations, and the series got to become generational touchstones that defined an era in film. So, with that unquestioned success as testament to the film’s greatness, let’s take a look at why The Fellowship of the Ring is a classic.

What Went Right?

It probably sounds trite to answer that question with “Everything”, but in this case it might actually be appropriate. Murphy’s Law was inverted with these movies – everything that could go wrong, went right. Peter Jackson, for all of his flaws as shown in other movies (the Hobbit films in particular), was the director most suited to adapting these books. The production design was second to none, with a shoot in the stunning geography of New Zealand, incredibly intricate sets, brilliant costume design and groundbreaking visual effects that made Middle Earth feel real and tactile. The screenwriters and editors worked to make the story flow as smoothly and briskly as possible, excising plot points where need be and capably recreating Tolkien’s style for additional dialogue. And everything was enhanced by the stunning cinematography of Andrew Lesnie and then further elevated by Howard Shore’s music, which is the best film score in history, by my reckoning. The mixing of all of these elements is what makes the series so special – it’s not just an example of great directing or great writing or great acting, but an example of an amazing team of movie artists coming together to create something special, ambitious and perhaps irreplicable.

Something else that goes right is in the casting department. While several members of the cast have gone on to have successful careers, the casting agents wisely avoided big movie stars in order to help with immersion, choosing unknowns and established character actors of stage and screen for the ensemble. Elijah Wood is perfect as the young, innocent Frodo. Sean Astin’s take on the devoted and humorous Sam gives the Elijah a great performer to work off of. Viggo Mortensen captures the danger, doubt and hidden mobility of Aragorn, Sean Bean is uncannily well suited to the easily corrupted Boromir, and the script gets the most out of Liv Tyler’s limited skillset as a memorable Arwen. I’ll talk more about Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies next time, but they are memorable here as well. So are Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan as Pippin and Merry respectively, though they will merit further exploration later on. Cate Blanchett is obviously good as Galadriel, she always is, but her opening narration and her one big scene later on are huge highlights of the movie. Hugo Weaving is his usual commanding self as the elf lore Elrond, and while I know he wanted to be Gandalf, the late Christopher Lee was the best possible choice for the wizard Saruman.

And of course that brings us to Gandalf. While I am often somewhat dismissive of the acting in LotR as more “good than great”, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is something special. We already knew this guy had a presence after seeing him as Magneto in X-Men, but he is even more suited to this wise, kind, mysterious, and downright imposing grandfather figure he is asked to play here. Sir Ian is amazing in quieter moments, doing incredible acting just with his lips and eyebrows, but he’s just as incredible when he needs to be loud and commanding. I know “You Shall Not Pass!” is a meme now, but watch that scene and listen to what McKellen has to say, and marvel at how he made Tolkien’s word salad feel organic and believable. He is the MVP of the series and this first movie is when we get to see him at his most dynamic and interesting. McKellen deserved his Best Supporting Actor nomination and then some.

So, great cast, solid director, amazing production design, legendary music. Plenty of praise to go around, but the reason it all works is that all of this hard work is in service of bringing Tolkien’s epic adventure to life. The Lord of the Rings is one of the rare instances of a story being gripping enough that I don’t need complex characters, stellar performances or even great dialogue to be hooked. The One Ring is an urgent, pressing disaster and destroying it is something I want to see happen because the acting, cinematography, editing, music and prop design all do their best to make the Ring a character in its own right and its corrupting influence is the crux of the movie. Boromir’s corruption would feel almost contrived, but we’ve already seen Gandalf and Galadriel (two beacons of almost absolute goodness) struggle with the temptation, and we know what could happen to Frodo because we’ve seen it happen to Bilbo. Seeing Boromir succumb to that temptation before ultimately redeeming himself by heroically protecting the hobbits from orcs until his death is a great final act for this first chapter.

Unsurprisingly, in a movie this sprawling and this good, I have a lot of praise to throw around. I love the opening stretch in the Shire, up to Bilbo leaving. It almost feels like its own movie, and showcases impressive practical effects in order to make the size difference between Gandalf and the hobbits convincing. The Nazgul are terrifying and make a great first act threat as Aragorn leads the halflings to Rivendell – the fake out of them murdering the hobbits in their sleep is a great piece of editing and once the Witch King stabs Frodo there is a ton of tension. The Mines of Moria similarly feels like its own mini-movie, and showcases two fantastic CGI characters in the Cave Troll and Balrog, who probably gives this film its most iconic scene. All and all, this movie accomplishes a lot in three hours and moves at a positively brisk pace. Despite the three hour runtime, I was rarely bored watching this film, which is not something I can say about The Two Towers, but that’s a discussion for next week.

And yet, with all of the hard work put into making this a great film, I would feel remiss not to mention what I consider a major outside factor in why these movies were so successful. Sometimes fate thrusts importance upon a film, and in the case of Fellowship, I think that coming out just a couple of months after 9/11 happened and being as successful as it was says something about the film and what it meant to us. The film is about encroaching darkness and omnipresent evil, but finding the hope in these situations by putting aside petty differences in order to achieve a common goal. That’s always going to be a powerful message, granted, but it perfectly captured the mood of where our country was at in that moment. I don’t remember much about the first viewing in the theatre, but I do remember Gandalf and Frodo in Moria about how all who see such dark times wish they didn’t live to see them, but have to decide what to do with the time they are given. While it was far from intentional, it was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment and I don’t think I’m the only one. As a country, we needed the escapism that Lord of the Rings provided, but we also needed a way to process our feelings in a safe environment and I do think LotR provided that. It’s hard to prove this theory, but I strongly feel that it’s at least part of the reason these films captured the imagination of far more than just bookworms.

What Went Wrong?

I always try to analyze a film based on its own merit and not by how perfectly it adapts the source material. I think Fellowship fares better than the other two films on that front though, and I absolutely agree with the decision to cut Tom Bombadil out of the story entirely. Because Tom Bombadil sucks. But while Peter Jackson and crew are usually judicious about what they cut from the books, what they add can sometimes be a mixed bag. Some of it is necessary – Tolkien was not an author known for his complex interesting characters and if we were going to follow Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli for nine hours of movie time in the early 2000s they were going to need some retooling.

But while Aragorn’s guilt over Isildur’s failing mostly works as new character depth, something that does not work for me is the increased focus on the romantic drama between him and Arwen. This only gets worse in subsequent movies, and while I respect Jackson’s decision to make Arwen a more important and present character… she’s just not that interesting and Liv Tyler really doesn’t have any chemistry with Viggo Mortensen. It rings as a hollow attempt to placate mass audiences who expect at least one romantic subplot, but it’s really weak.

And In Summary…

The Fellowship of the Ring is definitely a successful film. It was our first introduction to a proper cinematic Middle Earth, it establishes the important story beats and characters, delivers enough spectacle and adventure to be quality escapism, and makes us want to see where the story goes next. It also holds up very well as a consistently good movie with a few things that are genuinely great moments. We’ve got two more to go, but suffice to say that The Fellowship is completely deserving of its status as a modern classic and I loved revisiting it.

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