Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Lord of the Rings Movies
Part I
The Fellowship of the Ring

Movie Poster

Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films based on Tolkien’s three part series is undoubtedly one of the most successful movie franchises ever and not just from a financial point of view. For to a surprising extent the three movies are artistic successes and are excellent examples of successful epic movie making that works artistically.

The first film is following Tolkien’s novel’s The Fellowship of the Ring. And this review covers that film.

Of course it is by now rather well known that Peter Jackson filmed all three films at once in one of the most grueling film shoots of all time. This was done to reduce costs, because the whole effort was a huge financial gamble that in the end paid off quite handsomely for New Line Films, the company that bankrolled the project. It appears that by doing all the principle film shooting for all three films at the same time Peter Jackson was able to reduce the cost by about ½.1

Now Peter Jackson, although a respected film maker, was hardly well known to the movie going public when he became involved in the making of Lord of the Rings. His films before The lord of the Rings were hardly huge box office. Although he had made at least one truly outstanding film. 1994s Heavenly Creatures about two teenagers in New Zealand who plot to murder the mother of one of them and then do it. It is a good, well made, film but hardly epic. It certainly gives little idea that Peter Jackson was up to making a big budget, big screen epic with what appeared to be a cast of thousands.2

Now there had been efforts to bring The Lord of the Rings to the big screen before and many people tried their hand at doing something with it. In fact at one time The Beatles tried to be involved in making a film version of  The Lord of the Rings.3  What killed carrying out making the films should be plain by simply reading the books. The sheer scale of any attempt to bring the books to film life was in the end daunting to say nothing of the obvious huge cost of such an effort. It simply was a daunting task, financially and logistically to do so and failure to do so would result in a cheap and utterly unconvincing production. So not surprisingly the project got nowhere.

And those efforts to bring The Lord of the Rings to film life that were done were hardly reassuring in terms of showing how it could be done.

I am referring to Ralph Bakshi Film of The Lord of the Rings (1978)4 that was intended to be part I. However part II was never made. Not a surprise if you have seen part I. Ralph Bakshi attempted to do The Lord of the Rings as a cartoon. A rather obvious and sensible way to get around the staging, logistical problems of a live action Lord of the Rings. Sadly has indicated above the effort was a commercial and artistic failure that is bluntly not very watchable. It is not a complete failure some scenes are effective, (I am especially referring to the depiction of the Nazgul.), but overall it looks cheap and fails spectacularly.

If Ralph Bakshi’s effort is remembered has a failure one effort that is not remembered at all, presumably because it is so painful is the made for TV cartoon Return of the King, (1980) which was a sequel to the equally bad made for TV cartoon The Hobbit (1977). Now blissfully forgotten it has the all too standard awful TV animation, very bad voice acting and some beyond belief terrible singing in the Return of the King. And it condenses Tolkien’s plot in a way that is idiotic to the point of absurdity.5

With that sort of history behind it I would presume that Peter Jackson viewed making these films with some sort of trepidation.

Well he pulled it off. The films are overall a success and the first film shows why.

One of the most inspiring and important aspects of all three films and it is quite clear in the first film is location.

The Fellowship of the Ring like its sequels was filmed in New Zealand. The outdoor shots are gorgeous. The beauty of New Zealand is extraordinary. Not only did Peter Jackson by filming in New Zealand show a great love of his birth place but he showed good sense. The fact is New Zealand had within it a great variety of landscapes all within relatively short distances from each other and all looking suitably epic and imposing. This is augmented by great sweeping shots of a truly epic looking series of landscapes.

If the cinematography is impressive so is the editing. One of the most impressive scenes is Arwen’s ride. The sequence in which the Elf Princess Arwen carrying an injured Frodo to safety  and is chased by the 9 Nazgul. The scene is a stunning example of truly effective camera shots, editing and dead on right for the sequence music. It is also thrilling to watch. It is simply a sequence that should be taught in film schools to show how editing and film shots should be done to create excitement.

Of course the Arwen’s ride sequence is also a telling indication of another way Peter Jackson worked with the film. The simple fact is that Peter Jackson realized that Tolkien’s book in order to be successfully made into a movie had to be tweaked. Thus Arwen’s ride. For in the books Arwen is barely mentioned and her relationship with Aragorn is only described in any detail in the appendices to volume 3. In fact in the book Frodo rides to the ford on his own while injured and is their saved by an Elvish lord. Peter Jackson got rid of that and gave us Arwen’s ride and gave us an Arwen who did something.

Thus Peter Jackson knew that some stuff just had, for very good reasons of film sense and frankly avoiding annoyance, to be left out. Thus the truly annoying Tom Bombadil and every even mention of him is left out of the movie. Also almost entirely left out of the movie is Tolkien’s execrable poetry. Further Peter Jackson left out many of the touches that Tolkien had in the book that supposedly made the Hobbit’s “cozy”, but which instead made them annoying to the nth degree.

 Regarding the acting and actors involved. Peter Jackson managed to get a really good cast together.

First there is Ian McKellen as Gandalf in a truly impressive performance. The character is at once both ordinary and extraordinary. He is too put it mildly absolutely convincing as an immoral  wizard. The best scenes in the movie involving this character are not Gandalf being a Wizard but Gandalf being difficult if slightly daffy old man.

Elijah Wood has Frodo, an ordinary creature, (Hobbits aren’t humans.), caught up in very unusual events givers a performance that is very convincing as an everyman who finds everything beyond his control and wants to have a life free from such worry and care. Further the way the character is played by Elijah Wood manages to avoid the kiddie, annoying “Hobbit” coziness that is so annoying in the book.

Aragorn ha played by Viggo Mortensen is very much a conventional male action hero but with a sense of gravitas that such characters usually lack. But then the character although he looks like he is in his late 20s early 30s is in fact over 80 years old and heir to the kingdom of Gondor so a sense of seriousness is not remiss.

Bilbo Baggins as played by Ian Holm is a joy. He is at once both serious and playful and it works. The only problem is a scene set at Rivendell when with a cheap grade B movie look in his eyes Bilbo utters “my precious”. Yes I know Peter Jackson wanted that but it is annoying.

Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee is pretty good at portraying Frodo’s dearest friend in what can only be described as a truly serious bromance. The friendship is convincing and conveyed by gestures and tone of voice.

Billy Boyd and Dominic Monoghan who play Merry and Pippin aren’t bad but frankly far too much of the Hobbit annoying characteristic survive in their performances.

Legolas and Gimli played by Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies are great fun. The witty byplay between then and competition they have does not in the least conceal a budding bromance.

Sean Bean who plays Boromir is again convincing as an action hero and has someone whose great weakness is to think that using something evil can be a good thing.

There is also Christopher Lee as the villain Saruman who goes over to the dark side; so to speak. Christopher Lee plays the character as an over the top villain who relishes in his villainy and gives a performance that can only be described as campy. It is great fun to watch.

There are sadly very few female characters and frankly they don’t get enough film time. However given what is in the books Peter Jackson would have had a really difficult time giving female characters a lot more film time without completely abrogating the plot of the books for the films.

Still he did beef up Arwen’s role and as played by Liv Tyler she manages to come across as both formidable and as a rarefied almost godlike figure. Which considering that she is an immortal elf is not a surprise. It is not surprising that Aragorn loves her. What is surprising is that she loves him back.

Cate Blanchett who plays the Lady Galadriel manages to have, even more than Arwen a stunningly rarefied beauty and is if anything even more unworldly than Arwen. She is played as someone who is immensely old and wise and has a touch of weariness with it all and deeply desires to finally rest.

Another interesting aspect of the film making is how Peter Jackson filmed it so that the Hobbits would / Dwarves would look significantly shorter than Humans and Elves. This was not achieved with CGI but with truly effective use of perspective tricks. In other words Peter Jackson did it the hard way and because of that it is much more convincing than CGI.

The makeup and sets are A++ convincing and effective. The makeup especially is outstanding. The Orcs who required masses of makeup design actually look like they are real. Peter Jackson even went to the trouble of differentiating between different types and clans of Orcs and individuals so that if you pay attention the Orcs are not one un-differentiated mass. The other very convincing makeup is the dwarves who look “real” and are individualized.

Regarding the costumes. They are convincing and actually look lived in.

I mentioned a few problems with the acting in the film. Other problems are that the film is both too long and too short. It leaves out a lot of the book, some to the good and some to the bad. It tries perhaps too hard to have a lot of the book on screen. The result is a feeling of being hurried through the proceedings. A lot of back story is not explained, but then Peter Jackson would then have been accused of boring the audience. So a sort of unsatisfactory compromising had to be done.

Although the CGI is generally quite good there are some scenes in which the CGI looks hurried. The Rivendell sequences have some of that.

And another problem that repeats itself in the two sequels is that we never meet Sauron. That is and remains a problem that we never get the payoff, so speak, of meeting the chief villain.

At another time I will review the other films in the series but I do recommend that they be watched as the good films they are. They are also proof that epic popular film making does not have to be lowest common denominator stuff but can even be art.

Movie Scene

1. Lord of the Rings (Film Series), Wikipedia Here.

2. Peter Jackson, Wikipedia Here. 

3. The Tolkien Gateway, Here. OMG Facts, Here.

4.The Lord of the Rings (1978 Film), Wikipedia Here.

5. The Hobbit (1977 Film), Wikipedia HereThe Return of the King, Wikipedia Here.

Pierre Cloutier 

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