This article appeared in Issue 24 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Based on the first part of what has been called one of the most important pieces of Twentieth-century literature, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is probably the most highly-anticipated film of 2001. Though the books of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy have been previously adapted for the silver screen in the past, such as the animated production of "The Fellowship of the Ring" from 1973, they typically have been disappointing efforts, particularly for J.R.R. Tolkien's legion of fans. Now, New Zealand-born filmmaker Peter Jackson ("The Frighteners") throws his hat into the ring with his ambitious "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, a $300 million production with all three films being shot back-to-back and being released over a three-year period, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" this year. Thankfully, not only does Jackson get it right, but he has also crafted one of the finest films of the year, one that will easily appeal to all audiences.
For those unfamiliar with the book, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" revolves around Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood of "Deep Impact"), a hobbit who lives a relatively peaceful life in the village of Bag End... that is, until fate and extraordinary circumstances send him on an important quest. In a beautifully-conceived prologue, it is revealed that in the distant past, the Dark Lord Sauron forged a ring with which he could rule Middle Earth. However, even though Sauron was defeated by an alliance of the humans, elves, and dwarves, the ring was never destroyed, allowing Sauron to survive and slowly recuperate over several millennia. After about 3000 years, the ring came into the possession of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm of "The Sweet Hereafter"), who kept it for sixty years.
However, the ring holds a dark power, and it soon begins to exert its evil influence on Bilbo. Under the advice of his long-time wizard friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen of "X-Men"), the ring falls to Bilbo's young heir Frodo, who must destroy it by casting it into the fires where it was forged, atop Mt. Doom in the dark land of Mordor. Unfortunately, not only must Frodo avoid Sauron's soldiers, who are scouring Middle Earth for the ring, but he must also avoid the corrupting influence of the ring on both himself and those around him.
At first, Frodo is joined by Gandalf, his best friend Sam (Sean Astin of "Bulworth"), and cousins Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). However, it soon becomes apparent that destroying the ring is the responsibility of all of Middle Earth, and so a 'Fellowship of the Ring' is formed, with the addition of humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson of "28 Days") and Boromir (Sean Bean of "Ronin"), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who also appears in "Black Hawk Down" this season), and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davis of "Indiana Jones" fame). And so this party of nine sets out on a difficult journey to Mt. Doom, where they must not only contend with the evil forces of Sauron, but also divisions within the fellowship that threaten to tear it apart.
A mythic quest, magic spells, elves, a dark lord of evil... true, these elements are nothing new, as they have been seen before in countless other fantasy stories, as recently as "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", as well as other genres, such as the "Star Wars" trilogy. However, it was the literary works of Tolkien, such as the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, that gave birth to the modern fantasy genre, giving it mainstream respectability and influencing a countless number of writers who would follow in his footsteps (even strongly influencing other genres, as evidenced by the numerous "Lord of the Rings" references found in the science fiction series "Babylon 5") . Tolkien, a major scholar of Old and Middle English at Oxford University, had a passion for languages and a keen understanding of mythology and lore, and during the Thirties and Forties, he channeled his energies into what would eventually become the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Drawing inspiration from ancient lore and age-old themes, Tolkien crafted an entire world on paper, with its own history, culture, and languages, crafting a literary masterpiece of unmatched richness and unparalleled depth. Like the recent "Harry Potter" phenomenon, "Lord of the Rings" achieved cult status first in the United Kingdom, and it would not be until the 1950s that it would reach the shores of the United States and achieve a similar standing.
As a film, "The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" is an astounding achievement. Jackson, who has great respect and admiration for the material, has crafted a rousing action-adventure that, despite its three-hour running time, never feels long or bloated. With the lush natural settings of New Zealand, breathtaking matte work, and the judicious use of CGI, the film transports the audience to Middle Earth, a world filled with wonder and spectacle. Some of the standout sequences include the opening battle scene that sets the stage for the story, Frodo's mountaintop run-in with a band of Ring Wraiths, the underground city of Moria and a run-in with the Balrog fire demon, and the climactic battle between the fellowship and an army of orcs. Yet despite such grand and epic sequences, the film's heart wisely stays close to Frodo's coming of age, and his gradual understanding of the heavy responsibility that has been thrust upon him.
To bring the characters to life, Jackson has banded together an all-star cast. As Frodo, Wood imbues the character with the right balance of innocence, vulnerability, and conviction, reflecting the transformation that the young hobbit undergoes during the course of the film. Holm is also quite good as the elderly Bilbo, who yearns to do so much with the little remaining time that he has, while Astin is likable as Frodo's ever-loyal sidekick. McKellan brings a stately presence to the production with his portrayal of Gandalf, while Mortensen conveys the honor and dignity of Aragorn. Among the supporting cast, standout performances include a sinister Christopher Lee ("Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones") as the fallen wizard Saruman, Hugo Weaving ("The Matrix") as the elf leader Elrond, Liv Tyler ("Armageddon") as Mortenson's love interest Arwen, and Cate Blanchett ("Bandits") as the beautiful Galadriel.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is a fantastic start to a film trilogy, and if the next two installments "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" are of its equal (or better), "Lord of the Rings" may even end up eclipsing the popularity of "Star Wars" and "The Godfather". With its stirring story, rousing action set pieces, strong performances, and unparalleled spectacle, this "Ring" may very well rule them all. Tolkien fans, your long-awaited day of reckoning has truly arrived!