As we come to the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this week, we will be looking back at Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Opinions differ among us as to which is the best film, and we will be arguing for each film's merits. Lobbying for Fellowship of the Ring is our friend Jonathan Weaver, who writes about medieval literature and folklore at Tolde By the Weye.
When I was a kid, I remember occasionally seeing books by J.R.R. Tolkien in the living room bookshelves of homes that had this quiet and stuffy, yet comfortable hearth smell. The people living in these homes (or those who read books about "Hobbits") often had sideburns, wore sweaters, smoked pipes, had little clay sculptures of friendly goblins and things like that, and showed great respect for trees.
Now, I'd heard of fairies and goblins and gnomes and trolls and dragons and unicorns and I could picture them all just fine – yet I somehow couldn’t picture hobbits.
Luckily, a friend at school named Morgan knew what a hobbit was. He initiated me to their mysterious world by way of the animated version of The Hobbit made by Rankin/Bass for ABC TV. That night, we rented a light brown SONY VHS copy, and, likely complemented by a Pizza Hut Bigfoot and A&W root beer, I first experienced the wonderful world of Tolkien's Middle Earth on a screen.
We soon devoured the book too. We still wanted more. We discovered that there was more to Tolkien than The Hobbit. There was a trilogy of books about hobbits for adults called The Lord of the Rings. And there was also another book that we couldn't make any sense of called The Silmarillion.
As we struggled with Lord of the Rings, we were convinced that the series would make the ultimate movie trilogy. We would often fantasize about seeing it on the big screen in all its wondrous glory.
There had already been attempts to make Lord of the Rings into a movie. There were two animated versions that told bits and pieces - one by Ralph Bakshi and another by the same people who did The Hobbit. As years passed, there were new rumors claiming that a live-action Lord of the Rings was in film production. I'd get excited about one then hear nothing more - only to hear a new one later. The first rumor that I didn't believe from the beginning proved to be the one that came true: "Hey, have you heard? They're finally making Lord of the Rings into a movie and the guy who did Meet the Feebles will be directing it!" Enter Peter Jackson and New Line.
Since Fellowship of the Ring is the first book of The Lord of Rings, its film adaptation needed to be flawless. If Tolkien fans thought it was terrible, the studio would be left promoting two more massive films made purely for popcorn and merchandise sales instead of numerous Academy Awards and critical raves from just about everyone.
Rumors circulated about cast and production. The only moan I distinctly remember hearing was that Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow didn't make the cut for the new adaptation. Fortunately for New Line, Peter Jackson, everyone else involved in the production, and especially everyone wanting to see the film, it was an instant success.
Anyway, there are five main reasons why this is my favorite film in the Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy:
We see how everyone and everything looks
A big thrill of the fantasy film experience is entering the fantasy world and seeing its wild expansiveness for the first time, but since Lord of the Rings is a classic, I was a little concerned that the new adaptation would ruin my memories and confirm the suspicions of those who hadn’t read the books that they really weren’t missing much. Though happy to be in a theatre seat seeing Middle-earth on the big screen, I sat there prepared to scrutinize the wardrobe, the perspective, and, most importantly, how these beloved characters are played by mortal actors. With the exception of Gollum (though we get a peek) and Shelob, I saw everyone and all the places I was looking most forward to seeing on the screen: Gandalf, hobbits, The Shire, Rivendell, Galadriel, Strider & co., orcs, the Balrog, and, of course, the Nazgûl. Silly to say, but seeing Jackson’s version of the characters was important – if The Shire, the Nazgûl, and Rivendell looked fine, I knew I could sit back and enjoy the rest of the trilogy. Not only was Jackson’s production tasked with adapting books to film, he was building upon previous artist interpretations of Tolkien’s world. Certain artistic interpretations by Alan Lee, John Howe, and J. Cauty are pretty much canon. The film, almost out of respect, pays tribute to the visions many artists had of Middle-earth. For example, the shot below of the Nazgul hunting for the Ring consciously borrows from Bakshi’s 1978 version of The Lord of the Rings (click for a larger version):
I'm a sucker for The Shire footage. I could watch the opening 30 minutes of the film after The Prologue over and over again. There’s Frodo sitting under a tree reading a book when Gandalf comes over the hill in a creaky wagon humming “Roads goes ever on and on, Down from the door where it began…” After Frodo cheerfully admonishes his guest for being late, the old wizard peers out from under the hood-like brim of his floppy hat at both Frodo and the audience. We then get wide shots of a beautiful pastoral community that resembles Northumberland on a perfect summer day - minus the sheep and black wellies of course! And Bag End is just as you left it in your imagination, a cozy yet spacious and clean hole that could just as well be under a healthy tree. Though we know we must leave The Shire soon, and we know the ultimate sacrifices the entire world will soon have to make to keep a peaceful way of life safe, everything somehow seems like it’s going to be alright.
I didn’t think John Williams would do it, but I was expecting Trevor Jones or James Horner, possibly even Graeme Revell to score the film, so Howard Shore was a big surprise.
The music is absolutely perfect. The "Concerning Hobbits" theme played over scenes that take place in The Shire is playful and nostalgic while also foreshadowing the inevitable epic struggle and ultimate sacrifice. The rest of the score follows suit - conveying vast mystery and terror, great heroism, themes evoking otherworldly and dream sensations, and, of course, beautiful themes that strike deep emotional chords. Though Shore scored 30 films prior to Lord of the Rings and, of course, the cult film - The Fly (for a little fun, compare the theme over The Fly’s end credits to Fellowship’s “The Treason Of Isengard” and “The Ring goes South”), it wasn't until Fellowship of the Ring that he worked a project of this epic scale.
Jackson’s production company even managed to get Enya to contribute to the score as well. Even though “Aldebaran” from her first album The Celts was dedicated to Ridley Scott, and her incredibly popular 1991 album Shepherd Moons had a track called “Lothlórien,” clearly demonstrating inspiration from Tolkien, it’s still impressive that Enya and the Ryans (her loyal collaborators) contributed some themes for the film, because Enya very rarely works on film projects.
It’s just one story
Fellowship has all of the components of a great movie of its epic scale: action and suspense, beautiful cinematography and sound, and light-hearted comedy that could fit comfortably in both a Spielberg film and a Doctor Who episode. There’s brutal and bloody action (Uruk-hai ambush resulting in Boromir’s tragic death and Aragorn’s swift vengeance), there are trials and tribulations (Boromir, Aragorn, Bilbo, Gandalf, and Frodo all tested by the Ring), commentary on how man constantly allows politics to stand in the way of solving big problems (pig-headedness and petty argument at the Council of Elrond while the entire world was depending on their leaders to get their act together), and the inspiring demonstration of true friendship (Sam refusing to let Frodo go it alone in Mordor). It’s a deep story that, though not resolved, effectively conveys a very positive moral message.
It signaled the return of Tolkien to popular culture
Appreciation of Tolkien’s world never really dies. Someone’s always reading him or meaning to set aside time to read more of him. His work is discussed academically as well (Tolkien’s works are a good introduction to Northern medieval literature and vice versa). But when these movies played in the theatre, closet Tolkien fans came out of the woodwork and new ones were made. Words like “Hobbit” "Second breakfast", "Mordor", and "Gandalf" crept into my co-workers’ regular vocabulary to my surprise. In talking about the films, many of the conversations start out really fanboy and “that was really cool!” instant gratification, but they often wander into more meaningful dialogue. That’s the nature of Tolkien’s stories. I like when that happens and I associate Fellowship of the Ring with bringing that back.