December 17, 2001

The New York Premiere
Chris Seeman

I am probably not the ideal person to review Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring. As someone who deals with Tolkien’s 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 visualized—rather 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. It’s 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 Beagle’s 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 show—and, 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 can’t 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 Tolkien’s book?

  • I didn’t care much for the intro. Too much information too fast. (Sure, I’m 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: computer-animated armies.
  • 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 Jackson’s 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 (Gandalf’s momentary menacing of Bilbo at Bag-End, Frodo’s vision of Bilbo as Gollum in Rivendell, and Galadriel’s 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 aren’t 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 doesn’t 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 Tolkien’s story. They are a necessary mechanism for establishing the character without lengthening the film. (Just as Peter Beagle’s 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 Weaving’s 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 Aragorn’s 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 One’s destruction with so much anxiety. Galadriel’s 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 I’ve never been much moved by things I know have no solid existence.
  • One deviation from the book I found particularly effective was Jackson’s 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 Gollum’s presence is first observed. This heightens the tension of Frodo’s 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 Tolkien’s Boromir (or at least regard him as rather stuck up). One of the greatest triumphs of Jackson’s screenplay (for my experience as a viewer) was its effort to get inside Boromir’s 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 Gondor’s cause without something like the Ring to aid him. Oscar material.
  • 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 Tolkien’s 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 Sam’s knowledge about Boromir’s 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 for itself.