It was the film many thought would never happen and that languished in development hell for years, bouncing from studio to studio until New Line Cinema took a very big gamble with filmmaker Peter Jackson who, at that point in his career, was known for making slapsticky low budget horror films (Braindead) and had one art house hit (Heavenly Creatures). He wasn’t someone you would necessarily entrust millions upon millions of dollars on making a trilogy of fantasy films – not the most commercially successful genre (Willow, anyone?). Jackson was also tackling The Lord of the Rings, the much-beloved series of books by J.R.R. Tolkien – get it wrong and you’re going to have legions of very unhappy fans.
However, Jackson was a fan too and he had a vision, which, with the help of his co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and an army of collaborators, brought The Lord of the Rings vividly to life. The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), was a massive critical and commercial success and would be followed by two even more successful sequels, The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003). Everyone has their favorite film of the trilogy and for me it’s the first one because it has an intimate feel rendered on an epic scale, if that makes any sense. In other words, The Fellowship of the Ring is about a small group of characters, the Fellowship, and the journey they undertake.
Jackson establishes this intimacy early on with Bilbo Baggins’ (Ian Holm) birthday celebration. The Special Extended Edition version takes its time introducing the hobbits and their world. Jackson uses warm, inviting colors and folksy music to convey that the hobbits are a friendly, down-to-earth people who live in a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other. Most importantly, we are introduced to Frodo (Elijah Wood), the hero of this epic tale. For it is he who Bilbo entrusts with the last remaining Ring that he must to take Mordor to destroy so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of the evil Sauron.
The Shire sequences also establish the dangerously seductive lure of the Ring, the origins of the quest and the creation of the Fellowship as led by the mighty wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Aside from Frodo, fellow hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) join him on his journey. The group starts simply enough and over the course of the film others join their ranks, including Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), a human ranger, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an elvan archer, Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), a grumpy dwarf, and Boromir (Sean Bean), a human fighter. At heart of the Fellowship (and really all three films) is the friendship between Frodo and Sam. It is Sam who looks out for Frodo and sticks with him for the entire quest.
There are all kinds of parallels, story structure-wise, between The Fellowship of the Ring and Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). The Tolkien books were an obvious influence on George Lucas’ films. The main characters from both films are plucked from obscurity, a remote rural environment to go on a dangerous quest and are mentored by an elderly wizard type. Hell, Han Solo and Aragorn are characters cut from the same cloth and are both given cool introductions to establish their respective badass credentials.
Jackson manages to get some career-best performances out of many cast members. Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and Orlando Bloom, in particular, have never done anything better since (or before for that matter, except maybe for Wood and his chilling turn in Sin City) and this film launched a series of very eclectic leading man roles for the always watchable Viggo Mortensen (it doesn’t get more diverse than disparate roles in Hidalgo and Eastern Promises). Both Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee give the film some serious class and loads of genre credibility. It is Wood and Astin that anchor this film and give it its heart. The relationship between their two characters epitomizes most noble aspects of friendship and of the Fellowship. This only deepens in subsequent installments.
Once our heroes begin their journey, Jackson establishes a riveting urgency as they are pursued by the nightmarish ringwraiths and a vicious army of orcs. And yet this only strengthens the camaraderie among the hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship despite its dysfunction in the form of Boromir. However, when it matters and when faced with dangerous opponents, they work as a team as evident in the exciting and visceral battle against a monster in Balin’s Tomb and the even grittier battle against the orcs at the film’s climax.
Contrary to popular belief, Peter Jackson did not have a lifelong ambition to adapt Tolkien’s books into films. Producer Saul Zaentz owned the film rights for years and gave them to Jackson when he and Fran Walsh met with him and expressed their passion for the project. Zaentz sold the rights to Miramax who wanted to make only one film with Jackson. Disney was the financial backer but they didn’t believe in the project, refusing to give Miramax the money to make it. Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, gave Jackson three weeks to find someone else to make the film and in 1998, New Line agreed to make it into three films. Jackson originally proposed two films but it was New Line’s idea to make three.
In order to cut down on costs, Jackson decided to film all three films back-to-back over a grueling 274-day shooting schedule on location in remote areas of New Zealand in more than 100 locations with 20 major speaking roles and 20,000 extras. At the height or production, the film crew swelled to 1,300 people with seven units shooting multiple elements simultaneously. Jackson and company were at the mercy of New Zealand’s notoriously mercurial weather – unseasonal snowstorms and overnight flooding but in the end, the filmmakers accomplished what they set out to do and the proof is in the impressive final results.
The Fellowship of the Ring is one of those rare films that lives up to its mountains of hype. Jackson tells an engaging story and crams as much of the source material as possible into the film. Sure, certain characters and subplots have been cut-out but that is the nature of a feature film adaptation. Maybe, someday, someone can turn it into a mini-series so that everything can be included. Until then, we have Jackson’s magnificent films to enjoy.