USA/New Zealand. 2001.
Director – Peter Jackson, Screenplay – Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens & Fran Walsh, Based on the Novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, Producers – Peter Jackson, Barrie M. Osborne & Tim Sanders, Photography – Andrew Lesnie, Music – Howard Shore, Visual/Creature/Makeup Effects – WETA Workshop Inc (Creature Effects Supervisor – Richard Taylor, Visual Effects Supervisor – Jim Rygiel), Additional Visual Effects – Animal Logic, Digital Domain, Rhythm and Hues, Special Effects Supervisor – Mark O. Forker, Production Design – Grant Major. Production Company – New Line Cinema/Wingnut Films.
Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn/Strider), Sean Bean (Boromir), Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Billy Boyd (Pippin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Merry Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Liv Tyler (Arwen Undomiel)
In the peaceful Shire where the halfling Hobbits live, Bilbo Baggins celebrates his 111th birthday and announces that he is going to depart on a journey. Under pressure from the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo leaves the ring he obtained on one of his adventures in the care of his young nephew Frodo. Gandalf explains to Frodo that this is the One Ring forged by the dark lord Sauron that holds great power but also corrupts all who wield it. The only hope is for Frodo to find a way of disposing of the ring. And so Frodo sets forth on a journey, joined by three hobbit friends, Samwise Gamgee, Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck. However, Gandalf’s superior Saruman has been corrupted by Sauron and imprisons Gandalf and sends forth the Nazgûl, former kings corrupted by other rings who live as half-dead Ringwraiths, and an army of orcs to obtain the ring. Frodo and the others arrive in Rivendell, the home of the elves. There a fellowship of all the peoples of Middle-Earth – men, hobbits, dwarves and elves – is formed to undergo the perilous journey to carry the ring to the only place it can be destroyed – in the fires of Mount Doom in Sauron’s realm Mordor.
A general reader’s survey of the greatest works of literature in the English language conducted a few years ago by Penguin Publishers had The Lord of the Rings emerge as the single most popular work of fiction ever. The Lord of the Rings was the creation of J.R.R. Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature and later English Language and Literature at Oxford University. J.R.R. Tolkien first visited Middle-Earth with The Hobbit (1937), essentially a primer for the The Lord of the Rings that was expanded from a tale he told to his children. Tolkien then spent the next sixteen years perfecting the saga of the The Lord of the Rings. He was fascinated with the idea of epic myths and the lack of them in the English language. Borrowing substantially from the Icelandic Edda, Tolkien spent a decade-and-a-half not only creating the story that would become The Lord of the Rings, but several different languages for the peoples that inhabit his world and a series of myths and histories behind the saga.
Allen and Unwin published The Lord of the Rings between 1954 and 1955. They considered Tolkien’s million plus word epic too big to be published as one book and split it into three, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954) and The Return of the King (1955). The Lord of the Rings‘s popularity never fully emerged until the 1960s and the Berkeley counter-culture movement but by the end of the decade the saga had grown into a cult. There are few books that can be said to have singlehandedly created an entire genre, but The Lord of the Rings is one such case. By the 1980s, the fantasy saga with its invented kingdoms and detailed maps, stories spread across multi-volume sagas and the characters of small innocent creatures, wizards, dark lords, ethereal elves and ancient artifacts of power had become both cliche and an entire publishing industry. Without J.R.R. Tolkien, fair to say, there would be no David Eddings, no Terry Brooks, no Stephen Donaldson, no Tad Williams, not to mention more blatant pillagings like the Dragonlance and Elfquest series of shared world stories and the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game and its modelling of character types on Tolkien’s various racial types. The The Lord of the Rings books themselves have become a major industry, even prior to this film, with dozens of calendars, illustrated books, specially bound and anniversary editions, exegeses, publications of early texts and uncompleted story fragments, even a 12 volume History of Middle Earth edited by J.R.R. Tolkien’s son.
The Lord of the Rings has been considered as a filmic saga many times. Both Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman considered the idea during the late 1960s/early 1970s but were defeated by the size of project, unable to find the means of scaling it down to a single film at a time when the multi-volume film series was inconceivable. Children’s animators Rankin-Bass adapted The Hobbit into an animated tv special with songs The Hobbit (1977), which is better than many gave it at the time and is probably due re-evaluation. The success of Star Wars (1977) then popularised science-fiction and fantasy on the big screen and allowed Ralph Bakshi to get his animated adaptation The Lord of the Rings (1978) off the ground. Bakshi planned to split the story in two parts but the film was not a success and he left the saga only half completed as a result. Bakshi’s version was reviled by fans of the books, although is a little better than many gave it at the time. Rankin-Bass later completed the saga sort of by boldly filming The Return of the King as The Return of the King (1980).
Enter New Zealander Peter Jackson. Peter Jackson first emerged from nowhere with the hilarious zero-budget splatter film Bad Taste (1988). Jackson then made two other equally riotous low-budget splatter hits, Meet the Feebles (1990) and Braindead/Deadalive (1992), films that brim with a wacky perverted inventivity amid the late 1980s trend of popcorn splatter. Jackson then found critical acceptability with the overrated Heavenly Creatures (1994), based on a sensational true-life murder in 1950s New Zealand, which proved to be a worldwide arthouse hit. Jackson failed to follow up the acclaim that Heavenly Creatures enjoyed and turned out the surprisingly slight ghost comedy The Frighteners (1996), which was a box-office flop.
Both Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners were where Jackson discovered visual effects and CGI technology, in fact creating his own visual effects studio the WETA Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand. Alas, Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners were also the point where Jackson’s fascination with the new technology started to overwhelm his natural creativity. They are films that feel like WETA is wagging the creative dog, where Peter Jackson’s abundance of wit and humour is drowned out by a fascination with technological experimentation.
New Line Cinema had purchased the rights to the Tolkien books from Saul Zaentz, who had produced the Bakshi film, as a means of offsetting the cost of funding of Zaentz’s production of The English Patient (1996). Peter Jackson pushed to be able to make the film and New Line placed an incredible $300 million + into the project for Jackson to make three films all in one, each to be released a year apart. This was unprecedented as film series go. There have been filmic trilogies before but none that have been filmed all at once, not even any of George Lucas’s Star Wars films. There had been two films shot back to back before – Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990) and the two Matrix sequels, but both were already sequels to a big established hit that had a ready audience. The nearest comparison might be to Alexander and Ilya Salkind’s notoriously problem ridden productions of Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980). The Lord of the Rings was such an outlay that the entire financial future of New Line Cinema as a studio was riding on the dependence of the films’ success. One can also see a clear irony in both film productions of Lord of the Rings – both owe their source to George Lucas. The Ralph Bakshi version was inspired by Star Wars in 1977, while the Peter Jackson versions come in a clear attempt to follow the success of Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy beginning with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).
Making a film out of a work with as strong a following as The Lord of the Rings is a daunting task for any filmmaker. There are probably few other literary works with such a fanatical following and an army of readers who not only know every detail of the stories but also have their individual images of what the characters should look like. And there are few film sagas that have been waited on with such anticipation, with the film’s website (www.lordoftherings.net) gaining a record number of hits (reportedly a million a day at one point) in the year up to the film’s release. Within a matter of days of its release, The Fellowship of the Ring accumulated a nomination from the Golden Globes as Best Picture, followed a little while later by a host of Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Peter Jackson, partner Fran Walsh and the army at their disposal (literally so – the New Zealand Army were recruited as extras in the battle scenes) do a good job on the books. Some aspects have been trimmed. Jackson and his writers have stripped out all the songs and most of the accounts of Middle-Earth’s myths and histories that were part of the book’s texture. Out has also gone the stopover with the character of Tom Bombadil. These probably will not be missed too much by anybody except those who get so far into Tolkien as to manage to finish reading the whole of The Silmarillion (1977).
Surprisingly, there are a few additions, such as the unnecessary pumping up the character of Elrond’s daughter Arwen who is barely a name in the book into a major character played by Liv Tyler. Gandalf’s conflict with Saruman, which only happens off-screen in the story, is shown in detail, as is the depiction of the raising of the orc armies, which is something that Tolkien never even dwells upon. Most notable are the visual escalations – the journey through the Mines of Moria comes with giant-sized trolls and entire armies of orcs that seem to number into the thousands, while the traversal of the Bridge of Khazad-Dum is pumped up onto a far grander cinematic scale than the relatively smaller one that J.R.R. Tolkien envisioned it with on the page.
That said, the rest of the story remains exceptionally faithful. Jackson has determined to find a visual equivalent of the books and to write the saga on an epic widescreen canvas. For the most part, he succeeds enthrallingly. Jackson shot the entire film in New Zealand [he being one of an increasing number of filmmakers who look to the relatively unspoiled scenery of New Zealand to represent fantasy kingdoms – previous examples being George Lucas’s Tolkien copy Willow (1988) and the massively successful tv series’ Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1994-9) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)]. New Zealand in return offers a stunning visual rawness (albeit one that Jackson and WETA are not above digitally retouching) that depicts Middle-Earth with a luxuriant hyper-real beauty – the resultant success of Lord of the Rings films caused a New Zealand tourist boom with fans trekking to see the locations from the films.
There are some dazzlingly impressive effects sequences – battles of clashing armies; the stripping of Isengard, which come with incredibly detailed shots of the earth torn open and tiny figures working on multiple levels of the mines in its interior; and the journey through the colossal caverns of Moria. Jackson even throws in a journey by water through the gates formed by the giant statues of Isildur and Anarion for nothing other than the awe and beauty of the image – many other filmmakers would have scrapped the sequence as unnecessary. There is great subtlety to many of the effects rendering the hobbits and dwarves as much smaller in size than the humans through the use of forced perspective shots and digital trickery, which is a care to detail that most other filmmakers would either have ignored or padded around by casting children or some such. Sometimes there is the sense that Peter Jackson is pumping the film up toward the momentous to make the story larger in scope. Scenes that seemed small on the page – Frodo rescuing Sam from the water, Cate Blanchett turning into a vision of her dark self, the need to have a building or statue in almost every shot – seem larger than a straight dramatic reading might have given the scenes. There is the feeling here, and in images like where Ian Holm momentarily turns into a slavering Ring-obsessed figure, that Jackson seems a little untrusting of his actors to carry the scene and has to overinsistently make the point with visual trickery. Mostly though, this is one of the increasingly all-too-rare examples of a fantasy film being carried by the power of story.
Peter Jackson has also corralled an amazing cast. Elijah Wood is alas a far too cute seeming Frodo and Sean Astin, who only a few years ago was a teen idol, a pudgy Sam. Much better are unknowns Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan as the other two hobbits who craft the parts with an irascibly likeable charm. (Where for Tolkien, the Shire represented a mythic idealisation of untouched rural England, the way Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan play the parts and the way the hobbits are costumed makes them seem as though they have stepped out of a mythic storybook representation of rural Ireland).
Ian McKellen is the star of the show, giving a magnificently dignified performance as Gandalf. A 79 year-old Christopher Lee plays opposite McKellen with great stature as Saruman. It is good to see Viggo Mortensen, who one has always maintained as being one of the actors most deservous of wider recognition, get a major part like Aragorn, even if he does not get to do too much other than brood with dark handsomeness. Clearly his part will grow in the successive films and here he gets the show taken out from under him by Sean Bean as Boromir and an unrecognisable John Rhys-Davies as Gimli.
All the actors were statedly chosen for their suitedness to the parts. Orlando Bloom seems a little too youthful as Legolas but certainly holds his own when it comes to the action scenes – the only one who seems miscast is Hugo Weaving as Elrond who, instead of a regally ethereal elf ruler, comes across as merely cross. Liv Tyler feels only there in a superfluous role, presumably added to fill out the surprising dearth of females in the original stories and bring a dash of romance.
The two subsequent films are The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). After much contractual dispute, Jackson stepped into direct a trilogy of prequels with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). Also of interest is Frodo is Great … Who is That!!? (2004), a documentary about a peculiar sector of Lord of the Rings fandom, and the fictional Rise of the Fellowship (2013) about Lord of the Rings fans and gamers. The world of Middle-Earth was later brought to the screen in the tv series Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022- ). The Eye of Sauron later makes a guest appearance in The Lego Batman Movie (2017). Tolkien (2019) is a biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Peter Jackson’s other films include:- the zero-budget splatter film Bad Taste (1988); the hilariously adult take on the Muppets Meet the Feebles (1990); the gore-drenched zombie comedy Braindead/Deadalive (1992); Heavenly Creatures (1994), based on a sensational true-life murder in 1950s New Zealand; the flop ghost comedy The Frighteners (1996); and the afterlife film The Lovely Bones (2009). Jackson has also produced District 9 (2009), The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and written/produced Mortal Engines (2018).
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2001 list. Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen) and Best Special Effects, Nominee for Best Director (Peter Jackson), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Musical Score and Best Makeup Effects at this site’s Best of 2001 Awards. No. 2 on the SF, Horror & Fantasy Box-Office Top 10 of 2001 list).