The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The Lord of the Rings is probably the first thing I ever loved. And when I say The Lord of the Rings, I mean the fantasy epic written by J.R.R. Tolkien. As a young boy with a love of reading, I stumbled on the books before the movies made it to the big screen. I remember arguing with people about the books, rereading all three books after each film came out and arguing with people about the books, movies and whether or not the translations held up to Tolkien’s masterpiece.

Therefore, I can tell you things like how Aragorn took Narsil (renamed Andúril: Flame of the West) at Rivendell while he refuses to take it in the film, and that the end of The Fellowship of the Ring in the book actually happens a good fifteen minutes before the film version ends. I can talk about how after Moria, there’s a moment between Gimli and Frodo that the film skips. I can nitpick all the changes and incongruences in characters from book to film all I want and yet, I won’t.

That’s because after seeing this film again with a bit of distance from the books and with a lot more understanding of film than when I last saw it, I can confidently say that this is one of the best written scripts I’ve seen committed to film. There’s a dense amount material in here and yet the film never lingers on what the audience doesn’t need to know or glazes over the details that might confuse them. The attentive viewer doesn’t need to know a single thing beforehand to enjoy this film.

In fact, I might be so bold as to say that for the purpose of film, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens’ make some of Tolkien’s characters better. Aragorn in particular is made into a much more conflicted and vulnerable character than he was in the books, where he served as more of an image of an ideal hero. And, for the purpose of film, this makes him a much more interesting character to watch develop.

Some might complain that we don’t need to know what weed Bilbo and Gandalf smoke in the film. Or that we don’t need just about every location having some history or heritage behind it. But this would detract from the depth and detail of the world. The Lord of the Rings is one of the unmatched fantasy universes, so detailed, involved and deep in its history. The events of this film take place in the third age of a world with a long, involving history that often creeps into the narrative.

Some would complain, but I think that Tolkien, Walsh and Boyens recognized the power that history has on our presence. Throughout the film, there are allusions and references to those that have gone before and have made the world what it is, for both good and ill. The present circumstance is a result of that and the quest is one that by its nature is understood as part of that history.

It’s also a story about power. Tolkien wrote what I consider to be one of the most mature and unusual cast of characters because they are characters that do not find their strength in power. In fact, throughout the film character after character is presented with The One Ring, the ultimate power, and they must have the strength to reject that power. It’s part of what makes the Aragorn character change almost necessary, because he too must face that temptation, the draw of power.

What happens if the quest for that power becomes the destruction of the character? It’s one of the deep thematic draws that has made The Lord of the Rings one of the most popular and celebrated stories of all time. People complain that The Lord of the Rings is a clear cut series where good and evil are easily distinguishable, but that’s only because they miss the propensity many characters has in this film to reach out for power, to take it, to use might to make things right, which would put them in the wrong.

Perhaps this isn’t a good evaluation of The Fellowship of the Ring as a film. I’ve not talked about such things as the lush locales, fantastic set designs, stellar performances or exciting battle sequences. Nor have I said much about the film’s quality. At this point, after so many viewings and having read and heard so much from so many people, I’ve no interest in simply going through the motions of praising this film.

It’s one of my favorites, one that I love even more after this latest viewing and these observations were what jumped out at me on this particular moment. And I know the next time I watch it, I’ll be wowed by something else entirely. It’s one of the few great film epics and I have no qualm in saying that The Lord of the Rings is my favorite of all film epics and that, after this viewing, The Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite part of this film epic.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing