December 17, 2001
The New York Premiere
I am probably not the ideal person to review Peter
Jacksons Fellowship of the Ring. As someone who deals with Tolkiens
works on an almost daily basis, both as a scholar and a sub-creator, my instinct is to
analyze how individual elements of plot, character and dialogue are dramatized and
visualizedrather than to deliver a simple "thumbs up" or "thumbs
down" on the film as a whole. But since I had the honor of attending the New York
benefit premiere last Thursday, I might as well register some of my initial reactions.
First off (to allay any doubts), let me confirm what
virtually everyone else who has seen and commented on it has been saying: this is a
powerful film. Its engaging, enjoyable and at times quite moving. Jackson & Co.
have captured the underlying essence of the story. Interestingly, though, they accomplish
this in spite of the fact that their screenplay is noticeably less faithful to the
book in terms of dialogue and detail than was Peter Beagles adaptation for the 1978
Bakshi film. Also surprisingly (to continue the comparison of the two films), the pace in
many scenes of FotR seemed to me to be far more breakneck than the Bakshi LotR. For
instance, Jackson speeds us through Bree and Weathertop so quickly that if you go out for
popcorn (not that anyone will) you are likely to find yourself already in Rivendell when
you return. (In part, of course, due to the more extensive coverage of the Shire at the
beginning of the film.) Another big surprise for me were the absolutely stellar
performances of Dom Monaghan and Billy Boyd as Merry and Pippin. Being a long-time fan of
both Ians, I was expecting Gandalf and Bilbo to steal the showand, to be sure, they
both did an excellent job. But were I to dole out Oscars for best supporting actors, they
would go to the Hobbits. I cant wait to see them in TT and RotK, where they will
undoubtedly have more to say and do.
OK, how about some specific likes and dislikes for the
purist, considering FotR not just as a film but as an adaptation of Tolkiens book?
- I didnt care much for the intro. Too much information
too fast. (Sure, Im familiar with all of it, but I can well imagine a first-timer
getting lost.) The computer-animated armies of the Last Alliance look like just that:
- The same criticism cannot be made of the treatment of the
Hobbit size differential. Ian McKellen got it right when he said that the effects are
successful because Jacksons cinematography does not try to draw attention to them
for their own sake. Kudos for Jackson and Weta!
- The Saruman strand of the story is exceptionally well-crafted
in that Jackson repeatedly brings us back to "meanwhile, in Isengard
throughout the film. This allows us to see the development of Saruman as a villain and the
gradual transformation of Isengard into a place of death and destruction (among other
things, foreshadowing the cause of the Ents wrath against Saruman in TT).
- The treatment of Saruman himself is a bit more cavalier. I
would have liked to have seen more dialogue between Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen.
Instead we are treated to a Matrix-like wizard battle. Sure, I can appreciate the dramatic
need to show that Gandalf, though a powerful wizard, really was trapped in Isengard under
duress. But this was a bit much for my taste.
- Included in the film are three scenes from the book in which
Tolkien described a dramatic change in appearance of a character as perceived by another
character (Gandalfs momentary menacing of Bilbo at Bag-End, Frodos vision of
Bilbo as Gollum in Rivendell, and Galadriels epiphany before Frodo in Lothlorien as
she envisions herself as the bearer of the One Ring). In my opinion, Jackson relies too
much on special effects to achieve these scenes, rather than on lighting, camera angle,
and the ability of the actors. Could have been done better. As Tolkien often said, fantasy
is most potent when it is pictured in the mind, not beheld with the eye.
- On Weathertop, Aragorn takes on all five Ringwraiths with
sword as well as torch. To put it mildly, he kicks their butts. This left me with the
impression that the Nazgul really arent all that powerful or terrifying. Viggo
certainly shows no fear of them. Nor does Jackson (at least in the scenes that made it to
this version) show Aragorn doing many "Ranger things." (For example, he tells
Sam to find the athelas.)
- It is now time to pop the bubble of indignation that has been
brewing over "Arwen, Warrior Princess." Yes, she brandishes her Elven cutlass at
the Ford of Bruinen, but she doesnt use it. Liv Tyler does an entirely satisfactory
job with the script and role that were given to her. The plot changes do not violate the
fundamental motives and themes Arwen embodies in Tolkiens story. They are a
necessary mechanism for establishing the character without lengthening the film. (Just as
Peter Beagles script utilized the same space to establish Legolas.)
- One item that is beyond the reproach of the most ardent purist
is the authentic Sindarin (and, in places, Quenya) dialogue that was devised for the
characters by noted Tolkienian linguist David Salo. It was a delight to listen to and a
potent dramatic device for adding depth to the characters. (Liv is at her best when
delivering her lines in Elvish.)
- Hands down, Elrond is the coolest looking Elf in the movie.
Hugo Weavings interpretation of the character, on the other hand, is a bit
hot-headed and "human" for my taste. He also has some rather scornful words for
Aragorn. It is not clear from the film that he is Aragorns foster-father and that a
"life of exile" was something he himself (in the books) imposed upon Aragorn.
- Perhaps one of the greatest defects of the film plotwise is
its omission of the matter of the Three Elven Rings. Since Elrond is never given an
opportunity to speculate on the fate of the Three, and Nenya makes no appearance in the
Mirror of Galadriel scene, it is difficult to understand why the Elves view the prospect
of the Ones destruction with so much anxiety. Galadriels line "You are
the footstep of doom to us, Frodo" is retained, but never explained.
- A similar lacuna of plot exposition was the build-up for the
Balrog. Despite some added on foreshadowing about "what the Dwarves awoke," I
still came away from the Bridge of Khazad-dum without a sense of what the Balrog was doing
there in the first place.
- What did I think about the Balrog itself? A fine piece of
computer animation. But Ive never been much moved by things I know have no solid
- One deviation from the book I found particularly effective was
Jacksons moving of the key exchange between Frodo and Gandalf concerning Gollum
("The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.") from Bag-End to Moria. The
dialogue is set just at the point at which Gollums presence is first observed. This
heightens the tension of Frodos originally hypothetical scenario (that Bilbo should
have killed Gollum) because now Gollum is a real and present danger.
- Prior to his heroic death, it is very easy to dislike
Tolkiens Boromir (or at least regard him as rather stuck up). One of the greatest
triumphs of Jacksons screenplay (for my experience as a viewer) was its effort to
get inside Boromirs head and heart, and to offer him a much more sympathetic
picture. This is accomplished by altering his sharing of the vision of the
"choice" offered him silently by Galadriel into a poignant realization of the
hopelessness of Gondors cause without something like the Ring to aid him. Oscar
- The events of "The Breaking of the Fellowship" are
much altered in their sequence and interrelationships. The effect, however, is a salutary
one, because it endows the outcome with a greater sense of climax necessary to make a
conclusion to the film. Essentially, the vantage point of Tolkiens reader, who is
able to discern the import of the events because s/he witnesses them all, is granted to
the characters themselves, who in the book have to go on guesswork (except, of course,
Frodo and Sams knowledge about Boromirs death, which is denied them).
These are just some of the things in store for you next
Wednesday. If my review has leaned towards criticism rather than complement, that is only
because the just praise of this film need not be repeated ad nauseum. The movie will speak