“Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring”—Review

Like that Merchant-Ivory clap-trap. All those assholes make are unwatchable movies from unreadable books. They ain't plays, they ain't books, they certainly ain't movies, they're films. And do you know what films are? They're for people who don't like movies.

‘True Romance’

Those of us who were concerned that Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings might not be sufficiently respectful to the original text had our fears allayed almost as soon as the curtain went up. The first words spoken in the film are in Elvish, Galadriel’s voice saying ‘Namarie’, farewell. Since one might well say that the elvish poem usually called ‘Namarie’ was the most important single passage in Lord of the Rings, we could be fairly confident that we were in the hands of a sensitive reader of the book.

And so it proved: there is no doubt that Jackson made a pretty good stab at translating Tolkien’s epic into a movie. The operative words are ‘translate’ and ‘movie’. Whatever the lunatic fringe of Tolkien fandom might have desired, it was always obvious that this was not, and could not have been, a simple ‘adaptation’ of the Professor’s work—actors reading out lines from the book, special effects artists turning his descriptions of scenery into pictures, like one of those BBC classic serial we used to snore through on Sunday teatimes.

The book is, in that sense, quite unadaptable. Its structure is resolutely non-linear. Major parts of the plot—the captivity of Gandalf by Saruman, the siege of Isengard by the Ents—are described after the event. A major part of one sub-plot, the love of Aragorn and Arwen, actually occurs off-stage in a small-print appendix. Presumably, no-one sane ever supposed that Ian McKellen would deliver a 20 minute monologue about how he went to a library in Minas Tirith and found a book there that explained how Isildur lost the One Ring—a flashback within a flashback! Naturally, Jackson drags this material into the foreground, shows us Aragorn wooing Arwen and Isildur confronting Sauron. That’s how movies work.

Presumably, the German edition of the text of Lord of the Rings makes judgment calls about when to translate the literal sense of Tolkien’s words, and when to depart from the literal sense because sound or rhyme is more important. Do they manage to keep the alliteration in the Ride of the Rohirrim, I wonder; or maintain the internal rhymes when Earendil the mariner tarrys long in errantry? Jackson is impaled on the horns of a similar dilemma. Movies are a foreign country; they say things differently there.

I think I’d probably envisaged Lord of the Rings as some kind of historical epic, or costume drama. But Jackson had clearly set himself the task of translating Lord of the Rings into a movie, a populist, Hollywood production—almost an action blockbuster, with nods to Indiana Jones and Titanic. This was, I admit, not what I was expecting. Given that the task was pretty obviously impossible, it is impressive how nearly Jackson succeeds. Large amounts of the book survive the translation; many of the characters are identifiable with the ones which Tolkien created; and there were only about half a dozen moments in the three hours when I actually felt like throwing things at the screen. This is, in all seriousness, a considerable achievement.

This is not Lord of the Rings: it is only the story of Lord of the Rings. In movies, ‘story’ is all. The canons of script writing tell us that if a scene does not directly advance the plot, you must cut it out, and throw it away. But story is very rarely the most important thing in a novel. Name of the Rose is a rambling book about medieval church politics and semiology. The movie cut out nearly all the theology and all the philosophy, arguably missing the entire point of the book: but it turned out that the bit that was left over was still a rather engaging little whodunit. (Umberto Eco called it a palimpsest, but then he would, wouldn’t he.) If you cut all the elegant writing and ironic observations out of Pride and Prejudice, it turns out that you are still left with quite jolly little Barbara Cartland country house romances than that you can show in movie-houses and before the watershed on BBC 2. What you do not have is anything very much to do with Jane Austen. The point of Lord of the Rings is the Middle-earth setting: the history, the back-story, the languages, the little poetic asides. In filleting the book for the screen, and extracting the story, all this has be thrown out—but what is left, ring-fillet, is still plenty for a decent, entertaining fantasy film.

Judge it as a movie, said my friends: judge it as a film in its own right. It hasn’t changed the book; it can’t do, the book is still the same as it always was. The book’s just been used as raw material to create a new, independent work of art, just like Chaucer used Boccaccio as raw material with which to create the Knight’s Tale. (Actually, they don’t say that, but they would do if they’d read Terry Jones.)

I agree, in principle, but it’s easier said that done. If this had been A.N Other fantasy movie, neither you, nor I, nor anyone else would have been in the cinema: we were there to find out ‘have they successfully translated Tolkien’s book onto the screen’. I found it almost impossible to exclude information about the book from my head while watching the movie. Like it or not, one’s first reaction when one sees the shards of the sword-that-was-broken in the Pre-Raphaelite soap-dish at Rivendell, is ‘Oh…I thought that it was in Aragorn’s scabbard’. I have no problem with movie-Aragorn being a substantially different character from book-Aragorn, but I still find myself thinking ‘Hang on…was movie-Aragorn fostered by movie-Elrond; and if not, how did movie-Aragorn come to meet movie-Arwen.’ It’s a little like watching a movie version of the life of Elizabeth I and finding out that, for the sake of the film, she was the legitimate daughter of Henry V and England is a landlocked country in Africa. It doesn’t necessarily make it a bad movie, but it’s disconcerting none the less.

To run through the good points: the principal cast is excellent: there’s just the right rapport between Frodo and Sam; Gandalf frankly is Gandalf, and Boromir and Aragorn slip into their sympathetic villain / flawed hero double act very nicely. The shire is perfect; I could have looked at it all day. The majority of the set pieces—Moria, the final battle with the orcs, Weathertop are deftly handled. At three hours, the film is never boring; indeed I’ve seen it three times and it improves on repeated viewings. A lot of the CGI work is very impressive—the combination of real scenery with the artwork at the pillars of Argnonath; the wholly computer generated image of the gates of Mordor and Moria. Most of the creatures work well. The Balrog is terribly impressive, despite the mistake about the wings. And the scaling of the human actors down to hobbit size is so astonishingly well done that you don’t notice that they are doing it at all.

There are some genuinely moving scenes—but here’s another problem. On the whole, the film doesn’t use Tolkien’s dialogue, but there are moments when great bubbles of the original text burst onto the screen. So it was very moving to hear McKellen doing the ‘still-more-who-die-deserve-life’ speech: but has McKellen earned our emotional reaction, or are we just responding to our memories of the scene in the book? Face it, you could have a ventriloquist’s dummy say ‘I pass the test; I will diminish and go into the west and remain Galadriel’ and it would still be a great line.

Very few of the major plot changes that Tolkien fans were pooing their knickers about bothered me at all. In several cases, they appeared to be (within the cinematic idiom) very valid solutions to genuine plot holes in the text. Tolkien never makes it particularly clear why Aragorn has been wandering in wastelands when he could go home at any time and become king. Jackson’s elegant solution—that he is at some level afraid that he will become corrupt in the way that Isildur did—is true to the spirit of the book, if not to its letter. Similarly, I rather preferred the idea that the sword-which-was-broken lives at Rivendell as a treasured heirloom, rather than being carried around by Aragorn. (Has it really taken him 3,000 years to find a blacksmith?) I also liked the way in which the off-stage death of Boromir mutated into a great Ben Hur set-piece, with Boromir swearing allegiance to Aragorn on his deathbed. I realize that there are technical, theological objections to it being Arwen rather than Glorfindel who rescues Frodo at the ford, but it worked perfectly well in the context of a film which has not devoted a great deal of space to footnotes in the Silmarillion. There was a lot of shouting about Jackson have invented an orc lieutenant for Saruman, but if you hadn’t seen the toys, you would hardly have noticed. He was mainly there to give Aragorn someone to behead at the end. Mr Lurtz, he dead.

My first and biggest quibble with the film relates to the inappropriate use of humour. I wholly accept that Lord of Rings is a desperately solemn book, and that three hours of very numb bums on seats require some light relief. I have no objection to Hobbits moaning about not having had second breakfast, and Gandalf bumping his head on the ceiling of Bag End. What I do object to is the misuse of Merry and Pippin, and sometimes, unforgivably, Sam, to make stupid comments and deflate dramatic moments. There is no-way that the Frodo’s tearful departure from the Fellowship should raise a laugh because of Sam’s country bumpkin humour; (‘I know you’re going alone. And I’m coming with you.’). Whoever had the idea that Merry—with an Oirsh accent, for no-reason that I could work out—should crack a joke at the council of Elrond ought to be turned into a toad and put in a garden full of snakes. This sort of thing gives the impression that the movie doesn’t have the courage of its convictions: that it is slightly ashamed of its epic feel and has to keep smiling behind its hand. This makes me rather trepidatious about how Merry and Pippin’s cruel treatment by the orc slave drivers, let alone Merry’s slaying of the Nazgul king are going to be handled. It would be a pity if they lost their pathos and epic quality because the central characters are portrayed as buffoons.

The whole use of accents is rather strange. I guess that there are a lot of characters for the audience to keep track of, and the best that the scriptwriters could think of was to make Merry and Pippin Irish, Gimli Scottish and Frodo mid-Atlantic. To me, this had the effect of distancing the characters. ‘Och aye the noo, let’s stop off for a wee dram of haggis with my uncle Balin in yon mines of Moria.’ Tolkien gives the Dwarves Scandinavian names, and says that he thinks of them as analogous to European Jews.

My second quibble, perhaps surprisingly, is that the film sticks rather too closely to the structure of the book. Once we get out of the Shire, every set piece episode is intact; Prancing Pony, attack on Weathertop, Flight to the Ford, Council of Elrond, Caradhras, Moria, Lothlorien, Great River, Boromir, Breaking of the Fellowship. Check, check, check. In fact, the only major excision is chapters 3—7 of book I. However, over and over again, the scenes are either deflated, or even made redundant, by structural changes that Jackson has already committed himself to. One felt scriptwriters saying ‘Given that we have changed such-and-such as a result of translating a book into a movie, this scene is no longer necessary: however, since it is in the book, we must leave it intact and create a new purpose for it.’

So, the back-story about Durin, Balin and the re-colonization of Moria is, very properly, dropped from the film because it is only indirectly related to the Ring-bearer’s quest. However, we still have Gandalf taking our heroes across the Caradhras because he wants to avoid the dangers of Moria, even though (so far as Gimli knows, the noo) Moria is a thriving and peaceful dwarvish city. When we get there, we have a big scene of discovering Balin’s tomb even though none of us particularly know or care who Balin is.

We have Frodo arriving in Bree and being surprised that Gandalf has not shown up even though we’ve already seen the latter being imprisoned by Saruman removing any tension or mystery from the scene. The characters meet Strider, and go off with him in five minutes, even though they have no reason to trust him. ‘We have to trust him, we’ve no choice’ says Frodo. Well, that’s that sorted out then.

The worst example is Lothlorien, my favorite, your favorite, everybody’s favorite passage in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s fairly evident that Jackson filmed more here than the studio actually allowed him to show: although we don’t see Galadriel give presents to the Fellowship, in the post-Lothlorien scenes everyone is wearing elven cloaks and elven broaches, so obviously, the gift-giving scene was filmed and chopped out. There’s no attempt to explain the special significance of Lothlorien in Middle-earth. (I’m not asking for footnotes. ‘Och aye, what is it about this place, the noo?’ ‘Sure, and it’s the one place in all Middle-earth that is still as beautiful as it would be if Sauron hadn’t wrecked everything, begorrah: the Lady’s magic slows time down’ would have done nicely.) However, the key scene, in which Frodo looks into the prophetic Mirror of Galadriel, is left intact.

In the book, the point of the scene is that if Frodo destroys the Ring, Galadriel and Lothlorien will fade away—so that when Frodo offers the ring to her, she really, really, really wants to take it. But this doesn’t fit in with the canons of Hollywood scriptwriting—every scene must advance the plot, and this is back story. So a new significance to the scene has got to be invented: Galadriel warns Frodo about Boromir, and makes it clear to him that he is going to have to go off by himself. It felt terribly much as if the mirror scene was left in because it was a Famous Scene, but then a purpose had to be invented for it after the fact. It also seems bizarre that we are not told that Galadriel has one of the three elven rings, but this may be me cheating because I read the book. She says ‘Your coming here is as the footsteps of doom’ and mentions that ‘to be a ring bearer is to be alone’ so maybe this will be elaborated on later on in the trilogy. If you were awake, you would have noticed that she was one of the three Elvish ring-bearers in the opening moments of the film.

One had the sense of taking the whole book, and somehow shrinking it or condensing it to movie dimensions; whereas what was required was a much more drastic hacking apart and re-building. We had a bonsai, whereas what we really needed was some thorough pruning.

My third quibble is this. Even accepting that we were watching a movie rather than a film, there was an appalling amount of recourse to Hollywood cliché.

I accept the fact that a three day walk through Moria with nothing happening would not be exciting, frightening, or interesting; and that Jackson has to create visual, visceral terrors for the characters to be afraid of. But could he really think of nothing better than an Indiana Jones theme park ride of collapsing bridges and dubious obedience to the laws of physics?

I suppose that we have to accept that it is a rule that no-one can fire a gun or an arrow without us seeing the shot from the projectile’s point of view; or that there must be at least one big violent battle played out in slow motion with elegiac music in the background. But was it essential for the duel of the wizards (left off stage in the book) to resort quite so obviously to Star Wars Jedi trickery, with Gandalf and Saruman levitating each other all round the joint. One just hopes that McKellen will get through part 2 without having to say ‘These aren’t the hobbits you're looking for.’ (It is interesting, by the way, to speculate about how Tolkien would have visualized the battle, had be been required to do so. I think perhaps that Saruman and Gandalf would have stared at each other until Gandalf's ‘Will’ was overcome. Which would not, I grant you, have been a very visual moment.)

In the book, we are indeed told that as Frodo leaves the Fellowship and sails off in his boat, Sam jumps into the water and is momentarily in danger of drowning. Did we really require long sequences of Sam floating underwater, breathing bubbles, and Frodo's hand coming from the service to pull him up? ‘No’ says Jackson ‘But it’s a movie. That’s how people drown in movies. Sort of a rebirth symbol, you know? Didn’t you see Titanic?’

There are also some painfully obvious bits of foreshadowing, because foreshadowing is Good. The last line of the movie is ‘I am glad you are with me Sam’— which is what Frodo says on Mount Doom, right at the end. We are shown the Palantir almost as soon as we are introduced to Saruman , which has the knock-on effect of making Saruman  explicitly a servant of Sauron, almost from the word go. There are also some painfully pointed references to Saruman  pulling up trees—to foreshadow the ents, we assume. Because everything has to push the plot forward, don’t you know.

I’m quibbling, because listing my quibbles is more interesting than listing the movies obvious good points. As an attempt to do the obviously impossible, Fellowship of the Ring succeeds remarkably well, and it bodes well for the trilogy, since Fellowship is the least cinematic of the three books. To be honest, producing a movie that I, and most die-hard Tolkien fans didn’t hate is quite an achievement in itself.

What can I say? Let’s go hunt some orc!