Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

The Magic Endures

The Fellowship of the Ring.  A Film by Peter Jackson.  New Line Cinema, 2001.

By John Bedell

The First Age of Middle Earth was lit not by the sun and the moon, but by two great trees, one silver and one gold.  The great Enemy, Morgoth, destroyed the trees, but the elves managed to catch some of their light and put it into the jewels known as the Silmarils.  Humphrey Carpenter believed that this capture was Tolkien's for metaphor for artistic creation:

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light.  Indeed only by myth-making, by becoming a "sub-creator" and inventing stories, can man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.
Whatever the merits of this notion as a theory of art, I think it admirably sums up the situation Peter Jackson found himself in when he set out to film The Lord of the Rings.  It was his job to catch on film some of the magical radiance that shines from Tolkien's book.  He has succeeded brilliantly.

Tolkien's extraordinary books create possibility and peril for a filmmaker.  They tell one of the greatest stories in literature, they are full of memorable characters, and they are set in a world full of beauty and terror.  They are also long and dizzyingly complex, and they focus on hobbits, silly little creatures not entirely suitable to be the heroes of an adventure movie.  The powerful effect they have on young people with a certain kind of imagination (like me, once) owes much to the way Tolkien's Middle Earth, imagined in so much detail, draws the reader into the fantasy, leaving everything commonplace behind.  Peter Jackson's Midde Earth had the same effect on me.  It was, on the whole, as powerfully magical as any movie I have ever seen. 

Movie special effects have finally reached a point at which Tolkien's world can be visualized in all its wonder, and Jackson has made spectacular use of all these tools.  The tricks by which the actors who play hobbits and dwarves are made to seem short are amazing--I tried hard to see some evidence of the distortion, but I could not.  For the most part the sets and effects blend easily into the awesome scenic background.  The monsters look monstrous, the elvish woods magical.  But effects do not a movie make, and the way he has deployed them is only a small part of what Jackson has accomplished.  He offers not just a movie version of the story, but an interpretation of it that is true enough to the original to satisfy all but the pickiest fan while still giving us a new and original view.  The ring, in particular, is handled brilliantly.  It is nothing more than a simple gold band, but by showing its effects on the characters Jackson slowly makes it seem more and more ominous and disturbing.  Jackson tells the story brilliantly, in a way that follows Tolkiens but is still his own.

The other impressive thing about The Fellowship of the Ring is the acting.  The Lord of the Rings is not just a book about an adventure, it is the story of several truly fascinating characters, and Frodo's struggle with the ring is one of the most important elements.  One can imagine a movie version that got all of the setting right but still missed the beauty of the story because of  lame writing or bad acting, but that is not the case here.  Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo, is excellent, and watching him one gets a real sense of the heavy burden he carries and the toll it is exacting on him; he changes before our eyes from a carefree young hobbit to a brooding hero.  Ian McKellum does an equally good job with Gandalf, and the rest of the cast is fine.

I have several quibbles about the film, but I will mention only one:  I thought the wizards' duel betwen Gandalf and Saruman was ridiculous.  I have thought this about every wizards' duel I have ever seen on film, and Jackson, given no guidance by Tolkien, fell back on the absurd tradition of bad fantasy movies.  There are also places in the story where Tolkien preserved a sense of wonder or terror by not describing too exactly--the Nazgul, the Balrog, the lidless eye-- and Jackson's depictions suffer by comparison with the power of Tolkien's vague allusions.  So Jackson is hardly perfect.  But neither was Tolkien, and I think that in a few ways Jackson has even improved the story.  Most importantly, the dialogue is kept real, and nobody ever bursts into the sort of high chivalric "Yea, I am loath to leave this place, and would feign tarry a while longer" stuff that Tolkien sometimes lapsed into.  The female characters, Arwen and Galadriel, seem much stronger and more real than Tolkien made them, and the romance between Aragorn and Arwen has more substance than Tolkien gave it.  The inevitable cutting has shorn the story of much that is delightful or strange, but in this reduced form the tale seems cleaner and sharper.  The interminable birthday party that opens the books is reduced to a manageable and pleasant scene, and some other extraneous elements are gone.

At its best, the film is magnificent.  Frodo's encounter with the Ringwraiths at Weathertop is both beautiful and truly frightening; the world Frodo enters when he puts on the ring in their presence is simply fantastic.  The race to the ford at Rivendell combines the excitement of a great Hollywood chase scene with high magic.  Even some of the lighter moments, such as Gandalf setting off some fireworks to please a gaggle of hobbit children, are pure wonder.  To lovers of Middle Earth, Peter Jackson has given a gift as great as any we have received since the books were first published, and for those who never got into the books he provides an easy and exciting way to learn something about the world that has so bewitched we fans.  The plan, they are telling us, is to release The Two Towers this time next year and The Return of the King the year after.  I know where I will be on at least two of the next 730 days.

December 22, 2001


From the 
Commonplace Book

Three Rings for the Elven- kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind
In the Land of Morder where the Shadows lie.

---J.R.R. Tolkien


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