The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Posted by Joel Copling on December 13, 2014

There was a time when J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and its subsequent "Lord of the Rings" sequel trilogy ("The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers," and "The Return of the King") were thought to be unfilmable. The closest the medium of cinema came to getting a motion-picture version of the longer tale was a passable 1978 animated film that only covered half of the trilogy (all of the first installment and a sizable portion of the second), which was then followed by an animated miniseries (unseen by me) from the producing team who also managed an under-appreciated version of "The Hobbit" in 1977. And so it was with great trepidation that co-writer/director Peter Jackson--then remembered as the guy who built a career on corny gore-fests--took on the daunting challenge of adapting all three films into cinematic works. It took roughly three years to complete, and the effort was entirely, mind-bogglingly worth it.

With 2001's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, working from that first novel, make epic-length filmmaking look easy. This is as rousing as cinematic spectacle gets, steeped in grand battle sequences that work alongside and complement the aching, human drama that makes up the film's core. We have the hero, upon whose shoulders the great burden of destroying a dark and powerful object is placed; he is Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a stout, hairy-footed hobbit of the Shire, one of the many realms in Middle Earth. We have the powerful figure of authority in whom we and the characters place trust and allegiance; he is Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a wizard of seemingly unlimited, almost-angelic power.

We have the central narrative hook, which is the forging and disappearance of the Ring of Power, a small, gold band created by the Dark Lord Sauron, who was destroyed when he parted company with the Ring and now exists in the form of a great slit of an eye wreathed in flame; Saruman (Christopher Lee) is another of the great wizards and who, Gandalf discovers nearly to his doom, has shifted allegiance to Sauron. We have the merry, diverse band of followers who accompany Frodo on his mission to destroy the Ring of Power: three other hobbits named Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boyd), and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), two men named Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), an elf named Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and a dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies).

The film follows a sort of road-movie formula, with eventful stops along the way. Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie are in top form here, capturing the shorelines, mountaintops, and country-lanes of New Zealand as if the country was really a fantasy world (The production design, too, is precise and top-notch, from the Shire itself to the graceful elegance of the Elvish Lothlorien and Rivendell, in which Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving appear as two ancient elves). Action sequences are magnificently staged and edited, from an encounter with the Nazgul, cloaked and hooded figures neither dead nor alive, to an extended setpiece involving dozens of Orcs (hideous soldiers in Saruman's employ), a cave troll of the impressive and intimidating sort, and the Balrog, a fiery demon with whom Gandalf has a most memorable encounter toward the end of the film's hefty but justified three-hour length.

It would be all for naught if the film had no emotional core and relied on only the spectacle to eke itself through to success, but all of the characters have nuances and motives and histories and regrets. Frodo lives in the care of his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm), who found the Ring of Power in Gollum's (Andy Serkis) cave and has delayed physical aging (The film opens on his 111th, or "eleventy-first," birthday) and developed a dangerous addiction to the Ring as a result; it's a tragic transformation, whose effects start to carry over to Frodo like a virus before long. Gandalf, as terrifically played by an Oscar-nominated McKellen, is haunted and troubled by the dark probabilities making themselves known. Even Aragorn and Boromir are given their own insecurities--the former with his destiny as heir to the throne of Gondor and his romance as a mortal man with immortal elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), the latter with his imminent rise in Gondor's political sphere (Bean is particularly effective as the lure of the Ring of Power proves rather strong with him, too).

And while the other hobbits, the elf (Bloom is likely the weakest of a strong cast, but the effect is cushioned by his comparably shorter screen time and lightness of dialogue), and the dwarf are mostly there for comic relief, a strength of this adaptation is establishing a thorough-enough emotional backbone and context that the characters feel lived-in and genuine. That's the most significant element of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," but this is a movie with a multitude of strengths, passion exuding from every image, sequence, and narrative development. Viewing it now, 13 years following its release, it is every bit--possibly slightly more--the groundbreaking benchmark in Hollywood filmmaking for which it has been remembered.

Film Information

Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf the Grey), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise "Sam" Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Billy Boyd (Peregrin "Pippin" Took), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck), Orlando Bloom (Legolas Greenleaf), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Sean Bean (Boromir), Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins).

Directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, based on the novel "The Fellowship of the Ring" by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Rated PG-13 (epic battle sequences, scary images).

178 minutes.

Released on December 19, 2001.