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Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring
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Cleolinda: ****

Trailers: Mr. Deeds, Black Hawk Down, Austin Powers: Goldmember, The Scorpion King, Queen of the Damned

You know, I have seen it happen a few times, but not many: a movie adaptation of a (good) book that improves upon it. And yet--there are so many wonderful little changes, additions that make you slap your forehead and wonder why Tolkien himself didn't think of them, and omissions that you barely even miss (no, hard-core Ringers, I am not trying to insinuate that you will not miss Tom Bombadil), that I went back this afternoon and read through a couple of chapters of Fellowship of the Ring, and it was still "my" Fellowship. "My" Fellowship is a little drier in tone, a little more leisurely. But Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring is my Fellowship too, and that's the beauty of the film he, his cast, and his crew have made (and God bless them, every one, because you can see the lifeblood they've poured into the creation of this film every minute it's on the screen): it deepened the colors of the story for me, showed me things I had not thought of before--things I was not sorry to have seen.

I didn't just "swoon" over the movie when I emerged (at 3:30 in the afternoon, having stood in line for 40 minutes to get tickets for the noon showing) as my aunt, who came with, expected. And maybe I would have, if I hadn't followed the movie so intensely online, and seen most of its surprises already. That, and the fact that the film ends on something of a down note--a great cliffhanger, but not exactly the kind of beat that makes you run from the theater whooping with joy. I mean--we laughed, we cried, we shrieked and ducked and oohed and aahed. And perhaps part of the measure of the film is that I keep turning it over and over in my head...

To begin, I've read a lot of complaints that the Shire is too cute, too "twee" (as the British would say, and it's a wonderfully expressive word); I'd also heard that the Elven cities were lumps of Art Nouveau indulgence. As my sister AngelDust (hey, that's her screen name, you shut up!) retorted, number one, "That's what hobbits are LIKE!" And she's never ever read any of the books--hell, she kept talking about "Lucitious" the elf. ("It's LEGOLAS.") Admittedly, at the birthday party in the beginning, whoever told Elijah Wood to dance like a refugee from Fiddler on the Roof should be spanked, but I don't remember anything much "cuter" than the sheer fact that we're dealing with "halflings" who take their high tea and their "elevenses" in little round underground houses, and that's pretty much as-written.

As for the elves, well--there's a beautiful wide shot of Frodo with some white towers made out of "gingerbread," as this kind of elaboration is called, I think, but it's mostly pretty minimalist. (Interestingly, only male reviewers seem to have a problem with these elements, and not even all the guys do.) And Loth-lorien--along with Moria--was one of the few things that really, truly knocked my socks off, so to speak. (I mean, I've
never seen anything like Lothlorien.) As for Roger Ebert complaining that the hobbits just look like people shrunk down--look, what'd you want Peter Jackson to do, go dig up some real hobbits? I thought that was one of the best things about the movie--I kept my eyes peeled for the way Jackson handled the perspective through, say, the first hour, and it was just about flawless. Admittedly--anytime you saw a hobbit full-length with his back turned, you could pretty much bet it was a stand-in. But you didn't care, that was the beauty of it: after I saw the way Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) interacted in that first scene together, I forgot to look for the seams.

Everything you've heard about McKellen's Gandalf is true--honestly, I couldn't remember what the real man looked like while I was watching him. I'll tell you this: should you see the movie after you read this review, watch his eyes. I'm telling you, you can see what the man is thinking--the character, I mean. Watch the way he asks Frodo (Elijah Wood) if he sees anything on the ring, and hears his reply--or listen to the way McKellen says to Bilbo, now that we know the ring "gives long life," "You haven't changed a bit." If you know anything about the books--or if you see the movie more than once--there are layers upon layers of knowledge and foreshadowing in almost everything he says or does.

The hobbits themselves are wonderful--Sean Astin's Sam is everything he ought to be and more (especially when a promise seemingly made lightly at the film's beginning takes on a poignant new dimension by its end), stopping just short of "bursting into tears" the 500 times Tolkien has him do. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are also great, even though they're not given much character introduction, other than as spunky troublemakers. That's the gift of the script, though--the movie finds ways to
show you who the characters are throughout instead of just telling you upfront. That is, Merry's the perceptive one (he takes them to the ferry; he realizes Frodo means to go alone towards the end); Pippin's the buoyantly clumsy one ("Fool of a Took!!"). And bless his heart, Elijah Wood seems to spend this movie finding new and meaningful ways to express pain, be it fear, worry, physical distress, or, most touchingly, stabbing grief when one member of the Fellowship sacrifices himself midway through the film. (Pretty much the entire theater was sniffling at this point. By the way, that Balrog? Hello, nightmares for a week.) He does a wonderful job of portraying a character who is innocent, yet smart enough to realize that he's got to get the hell out of Dodge if everyone else is going to stay that way, too.

As for the rest of the cast: Christopher Lee as Saruman is wonderful, but I wasn't really surprised by that. And yes, everything you've also heard about Orlando Bloom as Legolas is also true (he is one bad-ass pretty boy, lemme tell you what). It was ironic, too, that a trailer for Queen of the Damned was shown before FOTR, because you had ample chance to look at Stuart Townsend and go, "That's the guy who was going to play Aragorn??" Because you can't imagine anyone else but Viggo Mortensen in the role--a guy who can kick ass in 360 degrees, clean up real nice
and tell an elf to shut up in his own language. Yet he seemed to play the role quietly, giving everyone else plenty of room--there's not one but two great scenes, almost wholly invented by the screenwriters, that he has with Sean Bean's Boromir (in Rivendell and in Lorien), and I'll be damned if Mortensen says more than a sentence in each one--he, like his character, seems confident enough to let others do the talking. Bean was the one who surprised me--I'd heard he was good, but the script does such a good job of fleshing out his character and his rivalry with Aragorn that the book barely even touched on in the first volume. There's a lovely speech he has about his home, Minas Tirith--you can almost see it in your head as he speaks--and there's a third new scene he has teaching Merry and Pippin to sword-fight that's wonderful as well. All of which have the effect of humanizing Boromir, bringing forth both his flaws and his strengths, to the point that when the end of the film comes, it had a resonance for me that the book didn't have. (Another nice touch there: actually tempting Aragorn with the ring as well.)

Just three more, and then I'll shut up. I'd heard John Rhys-Davies didn't have much to do as Gimli, but I beg to differ--not only does he literally take a chop at the ring in Rivendell (which demonstrates to the viewer just WHY they have to go on the journey), but he has a great antagonism towards elves in general that's so subtle a non-reader might not catch it. And then Jackson and Company take the unexpected tack that Gimli still thinks that all's well in Moria--his grief at discovering otherwise pays off in spades. (Also, he gets one of the best lines in the film: "Nobody tosses a dwarf!")

Liv Tyler, though, was the one that really shocked me. I'd seen her in a few other things, and, well--she wasn't ever bad. I just had a horrible, horrible feeling she was going to do her best and still seem like she was in an entirely different movie. To my astonishment, her Arwen was one of my favorite characters,
slightly-increased role and all. Jackson has a great entrance for her--catching Aragorn at sword's-point, before you know of her relationship with him--yet also as a hallucination, a vision of light, to Frodo. She actually had that strange old-young elven quality about her--I don't know how, but the casting gamble paid off somehow.

Here's the irony: Cate Blanchett, one of my most favorite actresses, is the only one whose character I had issues with. I had imagined Galadriel to be a very quiet, sober sort of creature--gentle, but yes, with the potential to be terrible. Blanchett's performance had a strange sort of spookiness to it--listen to the way she seems to taunt Wood with the line, "Even the wisest cannot tell." And I was okay with that--it was a very interesting take on the character, and even began to grow on me. And then he offered her the ring, and suddenly she turned into the Galadriel T-2000, with this freaky deep computer-generated voice, and, well--let's just say it was Not the Way I Had Imagined That Scene. (Or, as my sister said, "And then I started crying.")

The reason I've gone so deeply into the characterizations is because that is where the heart of the movie lies (and when was the last time you saw a $90 million movie and said that, huh?). The sets, the costumes, Howard Shore's strange and lilting score (which I liked well enough on CD, but which leaps to life in action)--all of them, excellent. But the changes Jackson and his co-writers, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, make are in the service of the characters, which in turn is what makes the scenes themselves pay off so richly. The movie is great because by the time all was said and done, you cared about these characters (more sniffling the last five minutes) and were ready to follow them wherever else they decided to go (yes, even the Galadriel T-2000). Anything they changed only served to enhance my vision of the books' world, if for no other reason than that
they made me think about it. In fact, there's nothing I want to do so much now as go back, see it again, and look at that freaky-ass Mirror of Galadriel scene again. My one other complaint is that everything happened so fast that I missed half the coolness of the fight scenes. So I have tickets to another screening on Saturday; I figure that ought to go a bit of the way (just a little bit) towards holding me until The Two Towers comes out next Christmas.

Photo credits: Cleolinda's still captures from New Line TV spots
Cleolinda's Tolkien credentials:
Grew up on the Rankin-Bass Hobbit; read LOTR once at age 12, didn't remember a thing; read the books again this June, have read them 3-4 times through in the last six months waiting for the movie, which was the real attraction the whole time.
Frodo in the elven city of Rivendell.
Aragorn: Him too, please.
Aragorn resists the ring. Five minutes from now in the movie, you'll be in tears.
Arwen the vision; Arwen the bad-ass.
Frodo hiding from the Ringwraith; Merry and Frodo discussing Strider.
The Fellowship in Lothlorien.
The Fellowship flees the Balrog; Gandalf throws down.
Gandalf in Orthanc (we think?); Gandalf turning to meet the Balrog.
The more pleasant version of Galadriel.
Legolas: Cut us off a slice of that.
Gimli joins up at the council.
Aragorn and Frodo cling to the Bridge of Khazad-Dum in Moria.
Don't forget to check out our other LOTR features, our "Rings Things" trivia page and "One Cast to Rule Them All."

Below: Hold your cursor over the picture for a caption (and sometimes even an extra still).
Gandalf and Frodo: "You must leave the Shire immediately."