Lord of the Rings
"Tolkien wrote the book he wanted to read
-- we got to make the movies we wanted to see."
-- Peter Jackson, December 2001
The long wait is over. After nearly fifty years, J. R. R. Tolkien's masterpiece The Lord of the Rings has finally gotten the film treatment it deserves.
When last we left this comprehensive review, we had ended the discourse about past attempts at making a film of this novel series. Read the second of three parts of John D. Rateliff's comprehensive movie review to find out about Peter Jackson's skill at rendering the novel into movie format, as well as how well the actors did in portraying their roles.
(ii) Enter Peter Jackson
And how has Peter Jackson faced this challenge? Magnificently.
At first glance, Jackson would seem a strange choice to film a fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings, as most of his previous movies were B-movie horror (and the exception, Heavenly Creatures, a claustrophobic psychological drama). In fact, he's on record as saying that LotR was his second choice, which he embraced after being turned down for permission to remake King Kong. But as it turns out, he turned his horror-movie experience to good effect: in Jackson's hands, the Nazgul are not just sinister but the stuff of nightmares. The world Frodo slips into whenever he puts on the Ring is not just strange or eerie but terrifyingly disorienting. And Sauron's Eye is not some distant threat but an immediate, looming presence that threatens to overwhelm all who see it.
What no one could have guessed was the skill with which Jackson, accustomed to working on a shoestring budget, could translate the ability to get the most out of what he had at hand into the sheer scale of these movies. The same talent that once enabled him to talk friends into starring in his student films came into play in persuading the New Zealand army to loan him a few thousand soldiers for a few days so he could film a battle-scene, in convincing a major Hollywood studio to commit to not one but three films, and in managing multiple sets simultaneously filming different parts of three movies in locations scattered across New Zealand. Jackson clearly has the ability to inspire those he works with, and the results shine through in the film again and again.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the movie is the extreme care they've taken to get even unimportant details right. They consulted Tolkien scholars such as Tom Shippey (Tolkien: Author of the Century; The Road to Middle-earth) about the proper pronunciation of the names. Elven linguists such as David Salo and Bill Weldon helped them create Sindarin dialogue, enabling Jackson to include scenes of Arwen, Aragorn, and others actually speaking their lines in Elvish, subtitled in English. Artists Alan Lee and John Howe -- famed for their Tolkien calendars, illustrated maps, and special illustrated edition of LotR -- signed on as concept artists early on, and some scenes in the movie recreate famous pictures by these artists with such fidelity that the page from a previous year's Tolkien calendar now looks almost like a still from the movie. All the pages casually glimpsed in the archives at Minas Tirith, the volume in Saruman's library, or the scattered pages in the Chamber of Mazarbul are carefully written out with the correct tengwar or cirth (elven alphabets or dwarven runes, for the uninitiated). Even though we cannot read them as they flash by, they add immeasurably to the verisimilitude that is the hallmark of Jackson's film. Even Hobbiton, which they created from scratch in a New Zealand field, had its vegetable plots plowed and planted a year before shooting began so it would look like a place people had lived for a long time, rather than just a disposable movie set. (Rumor is that Hobbiton was left intact after filming ended and looks to become a major tourist attraction.) Every race has its own look and feel, from the handcrafted swords and armor to the style of their clothes. In short, visually the film is everything a Tolkien fan or movie buff could desire. It's possible to quibble at details (the balrog's horns remind me of Tim Curry in Legend), but not at the overall effect (the balrog is still a demon lord scary enough to send any hero running for cover, even Gandalf and Aragorn).
Best of all, Jackson found a way to include "the walking bits" -- those scenes Tolkien had so feared would be cut from any film adaptation. Instead of fast-forwarding through the journey to the destination, Jackson has used these parts of the film to show off spectacular New Zealand scenery and drive home what every reader of the book knows: Middle-earth itself is one of the major appeals of the story, and downplaying the setting in favor of more action scenes would be a sad mistake. Instead Jackson, like Tolkien, skillfully alternates between threats (chase and fight scenes) and character-building scenes where his characters interact on their long journey. This includes some of the film's most enjoyable moments, from Pippin's realization that Strider doesn't know or care about "second breakfast" to Boromir's teaching the hobbits swordplay during a rest stop in Hollin. The "fellowship" would have remained one in name only did Jackson not take the time to show us how they bonded over the days and weeks of the quest, saving each other's lives again and again, comforting each other in moments of grief, until they were truly a Fellowship. Apparently the shared experience extended beyond the characters to the actors themselves. So tightly did the actors bond during their fourteen months of filming together that when it was over, all nine members of the Fellowship, even Sir Ian, got an identical tattoo (the elven numeral "nine") before going their separate ways.
Jackson's ability to get the most out of what's available, to inspire, and to get his people to go the extra mile, extends to his cast as well. The performances are, without exception, excellent. This will not surprise those who have seen Ian McKellan's range, from kindly absent-minded professor (The Shadow) to Shakespearean villain as twentieth-century fascist (Richard III) to dying director (Gods & Monsters) to elderly ex-Nazi (Apt Pupil) to genocidal comic book villain (X-Men), nor fans of the gifted Cate Blanchett (as classy an elf-queen as Doc Weir could have wished) or the reliable John Rhys-Davies (who gives a touch of Indiana Jones sidekick panache to his portrayal of Gimli). But those with slimmer credentials whom fans of the book frankly entertained deep doubts about, like babyfaced Elijah Wood, most-likely-to-play-a-stalker Viggo Morgensen, and especially bimbo-bait Liv Tyler, also do credit to their roles. Wood is vulnerable, plucky, and likable -- an everyman who's just a little too hesitant and who continues to hold back even while others are risking their lives or dying to win him a little time to act. Morgensen is intense, dangerous, and charismatic -- likely to be the film's breakout star, a la Harrison Ford in the original Star Wars. The scene where he turns, smiling, to confront an entire orc army is a pure Errol Flynn moment. And Tyler is lovely, ethereal, and just a bit playful, laying to rest fears of "Arwen: Warrior Princess" that have haunted online sites and Tolkien fan's nightmares for the past two years. Relative unknowns Sean Astin (son of The Addams Family's John Astin), Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, and Orlando Bloom acquit themselves well as the other hobbits and Legolas, respectively. Those elven braids may look funny, but within 24 hours I heard friends and fellow gamers plotting how to create an archer like Legolas as their next D&D character, and a friend of my wife's had called him a hottie and confessed to a desire to bear Legolas's half-elven children. Aided, perhaps, by casting The Matrix's villain Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Jackson has succeeded on one point dear to Tolkien's heart: portraying the elves as truly dangerous, particularly in the opening battle-scene. Outside of Tolkien's own Silmarillion and the early Pendragon scenario "Tournament of Dreams," we have not seen elven warriors this dangerous since Spenser.
Jackson is particularly good at highlighting some features of the characters that a careless reader might miss: Gandalf's deep affection for Frodo and Bilbo, as well as the sense of how much the events of the film take out of the old man (Gandalf may be an angel, but he's an angel incarnated in an old man's body, and McKellan conveys his occasional weariness, disappointment, and distress very well); Bilbo's fatherly love for Frodo and anguish over the Ring; the relaxed, joshing nature of Frodo and Sam's friendship -- rather than emphasize the master/servant relationship, they're depicted as two friends from different walks in life who enjoy a visit to the local pub together; Merry and Pippin's sense of mischief, and the disasters Pippin invariably causes to Merry's best-laid plans -- along with Merry's quick-wittedness (within a minute or so of first encountering a Black Rider he already has a workable plan to escape him) and Pippin's sheer gooniness and utter inability to grasp consequences, like the class clown who's simply incapable of remembering what day the test is; Arwen and Aragorn's love story, which underlies the entire story but is only explicitly laid out in an appendix; Galadriel's spookiness; the friendship between Saruman and Gandalf before the events in the movie tear them apart; the malignance of the Ring itself ("It wants to be found"), which over and again tries to stir up trouble, escape Frodo's keeping, and find a suitable wearer (with Boromir atop its list of candidates) -- the scene where its influence causes the Council of Elrond to dissolve into a shouting match and almost an armed brawl is a perfect example.
Three standout performances top what one reviewer (on cnn.com) called "a monument to ensemble acting of the highest order" -- ironically enough, all three from actors perhaps best known for playing villains. Sean Bean (the rogue double-O agent in James Bond: Goldeneye) as the tormented Boromir, Ian Holm (the murderous android in Alien) as Bilbo, who very reluctantly must give up the Ring, and Christopher Lee (far too many Hammer film Draculas), giving what is surely the performance of a lifetime.
Bean's Boromir is a man desperate to save the people who depend upon him, who sees his only chance slipping away, and views the Fellowship's mission as worse than suicidal ("One does not simply walk into Mordor"). To his mind, taking the Ring into Mordor is actively aiding the Enemy by ensuring Sauron recaptures it. Through Bean and Jackson's presentation, he comes across as a brave and skilled swordsman, a loyal companion and friend, a good man to have along on a long journey, but one whose ultimate loyalties lie elsewhere, with saving his people from their impending doom. Instead of the cardboard villain he might have become in other hands, we see a compassionate man whom the Ring seduces by playing upon his deepest loyalty and deepest fear -- a man without hope who acts out of desperation, not greed. Furthermore, Jackson makes clear that, with the exception of Aragorn (who wants something the Ring cannot give him), no one can ultimately escape corruption by the Ring. Boromir is simply the first to give way and, had Frodo not left the Fellowship, others would have been corrupted as well. (See the book, where Frodo says of his companions "Some I cannot trust, and those I can trust are too dear to me [to take into Mordor]"; at the same time he thinks this, some of them are debating how to persuade or force him to go to Minas Tirith instead -- and note Pippin's seduction by the palantir of Isengard only some nine days later.) For me, the sympathetic portrayal of Boromir is one of the outstanding features of the entire film.
Holmes's Bilbo is equally impressive as a victim of the Ring, although it takes him in a completely different way. Like Gollum, Bilbo does not want to do anything with the Ring; he simply wants to have it. In fact, he is deep in the grip of an addiction he does not fully understand and is painfully aware that something is wrong but not of how to put it right. What saves him in the end is, quite simply, the intervention of an old and trusted friend; without Gandalf's interference, Bilbo might well have carried the Ring off and hidden himself, Gollum-like, in some deep hole until the Nazgul eventually caught up with him. Having played the lead role, Frodo, in the most successful previous adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (the 1981 BBC radio series, available in both CD and cassette boxed sets), Holmes also acquits himself brilliantly in a lesser but still crucial role. His Bilbo is sentimental enough to have saved and framed the original "Thror's Map" from The Hobbit (a nice touch), kind enough to have adopted an orphaned nephew and raised him as a son, generous enough to part with his few remaining treasures (Sting and the mithril-coat). An author (we see his book at one point, and his "The Road Goes Ever On" is the only one of Tolkien hobbit-poems to make it into the movie), in one scene we even see him telling an episode from The Hobbit as a story to hobbit children. Still hobbit-like enough to enjoy a pipe of Old Toby and fuss over providing a guest with enough to eat, he is nonetheless tottering on the verge of becoming a wraith -- as revealed by one brief but memorable scene -- if exposed to the Ring much longer. Anyone who has ever worried about losing a parent may well find his rapid aging in the later scenes after he gives up the Ring heartbreaking ("it seems old age is catching up with me at last"). All in all, a masterful performance.
Finally, there is Christopher Lee's Saruman. Frankly, before seeing the film I was of the opinion he was cast only because Peter Cushing, his fellow Hammer Horror star who did such a wonderful job enhancing the first Star Wars movie, was dead. Nothing could be further from the truth: Lee's saturnine features, extraordinary voice, and uncharacteristic restraint give his Saruman a sense of dignity that is wholly new to the portrayal of the character. As Lee and Jackson present him, it's quite clear that Saruman has, in fact, gone quietly mad, and quite recently too, no doubt from looking into the palantir (which he openly displays to his fellow wizard). When Gandalf first arrives, Isengard is still a peaceful wooded place. We see the two old friends walk together down one of its tree-shaded paths, share a glass or two of wine while they talk business, even exchange friendly insults, as when Saruman twits Gandalf on being so slow to recognize the Ring due to having his wits muddled by "halfling weed." This makes its transformation, under Sauron's orders, into a staging ground for the newly created Uruk-hai all the more dramatic. Saruman dominates the first movie: it is he, not Sauron, who is here responsible for the Fellowship's being unable to cross the high pass at Caradhras. It is he who creates an army capable of hunting the Fellowship by day, forcing Gandalf and company to alter their plans. And it is his defection that truly alarms Elrond and convinces him that Rivendell cannot be defended against those who would come to claim the Ring. Lee, one of the few Tolkien fans recruited for the film, has dabbled in fantasy before -- he played the Elvenking on the concept album adaptation of Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter (1977) and, more recently, the voice of Death in two animated adaptations of Terry Pratchett's Discworld (Soul Music, Weird Sisters) -- but it's ironic that only now, at the twilight of his long career, has he found his true calling. This, more than any other, should be the role by which he is remembered.
 Jackson admits to having originally depicted Arwen more in Xena mode -- as in rumors of a catfight between Arwen and Eowyn over Aragorn -- but says they reverted to a more traditional depiction after realizing the depths of the backlash this would cause among their target audience.
next week for the third part of three parts to read the review
of how the book and the movie match and differ from each other!
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