I have been a reader and lover of Tolkien’s work since I was a child, so when the first film came out I remember a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Excitement to see his masterpiece on the big screen, apprehension that it might be as big a mess as the animated attempt in 1978. Thankfully, my excitement was well rewarded with the first of three magnificent films.
The cast were impeccable, and I can’t say there was a single bad performance. I felt that the following actors were particularly suited in their roles – Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Sean Bean as Boromir, Sean Astin as Sam, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Christoper Lee as Saruman, and Domenic Monaghan as Merry. I think these actors particularly took their performances from very good to brilliant.
AS with all adaptations from books, changes have to be made. You’re moving from a written medium to a film one, and they are very different, so some things that will work in writing won’t work that way when you’re looking at it. That being said, I think “Fellowship of the Ring” has the least changes of the three films. Mostly they are in the compression of timelines, in the removal of some scenes, and in amalgamation of characters. For example, the ring is kept by Frodo in the Shire for some years in the book, but Gandalf tells him he must take the ring out of the Shire immediately he identifies it in the film. It’s a necessary change in order to keep the plot moving. I expected the whole ‘Tom Bombadil’ part to be omitted – it is interesting in a fashion, but ultimately adds nothing to the story and is not necessary. The only sad bit about that is if you omit Tom Bombadil you have to leave out the Barrow Wights, and I always love that bit. Making Arwen find them instead of Glorfindel also makes a certain sense. Glorfindel is a minor character, and plays no part in the story other than in that section. His only purpose was to be the means for Frodo to outrun the Riders, and a character who was going to be used later could do that just as well. Legolas having a previous friendship with Aragorn was a small matter, but I think it was a good idea to help explain the ease of friendship and working together later.
I would like to talk about Boromir next. I have always been especially impressed with the way Boromir was scripted in the film and the way Sean Bean brought him to life. It is easy from the book to think of him as someone who wanted power and was corrupted by it, even though Tolkien does give all the information to let the reader know it is more complicated than that. The film brings all that to light in a way that does not change the book depiction but enhances it. We understand better that Boromir is a soldier and veteran, a leader who has been fighting his whole life. We understand that he cares deeply about his people and would do anything to save them. We see that he is devoted to his father, and we also see that he has been infected by Denethor’s despair. The power he wants is power to save Gondor, and he is used to wielding the power of command. It’s no wonder he is affected by the Ring. He is the one most vulnerable to it among that group, because he is the one whose need is closest to home. Bean is fabulous in this role. He depict Boromir convincingly as a great soldier and fighter, proud of his country and heritage (“Gondor needs no king”), very cool under fire (“they have a cave troll”), a good assessor of a threat risk (“one does not simply walk into Mordor”, and his immediate understanding when they enter Moria that something went badly wrong there and they need to leave.) Boromir’s doubt and fear is also brilliantly and convincingly portrayed. His death scene with Aragorn is so tragic, I will admit it makes me cry. (“I would have followed you, my brother, my captain, my king”.)
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn is probably the single best casting in the entire film. He embodies this character so perfectly, I cannot think of a better actor. His portrayal leads in part to another minor change from the book – the book does not give Aragorn the level of ambivalence he sometimes shows. He says he does not seek power, and is uneasy about taking on the role of the heir of Isildur. His relationship with Arwen is also conflicted, as he loves her but doesn’t want to separate her from her people. That being said, the actor’s every word and move is exactly what my mental picture of Aragorn always was. One of my favourite scenes of Aragorn is near the end where the orcs show up while he is talking to Frodo, and he tells him to run, then turns towards the orcs. He just pulls his sword and walks towards them quite calmly and casually, as if he’s taking a stroll, then starts laying into them. It’s a great scene and so much how Aragorn should be. I’m not sure Aragorn would have agreed to let Frodo go off alone, but of course in the book Frodo didn’t tell anyone, he just left. The director was, I think, attempting to emphasise the lure of the Ring on everyone around, which is why he made that small change.
Director Peter Jackson’s design and effects team were fabulous. One particular moment that was exactly how I had always pictured it was the Balrog. What a fabulous scene! The size, the flames, the sound, everything came together along with the actors’ reactions to them to make for a truly exciting and impactful moment. Lothlorien had a perfect air of unreality that is in the line with the book where Sam cannot tell how long they have been there. Just the small things, like the way the different heights of different characters was handled, was all fabulous.
Jackson himself had an immense task ahead of him, and one that many said was impossible. The whole of Middle Earth has such a written history around it that a superficial attempt to tell the story might end up confusing, but a too detailed one would be too long (it was extremely long anyway). Jackson found ways to tell the story that those who were not familiar with Tolkien’s work would still be able to follow and enjoy, without losing the depth of the story for the fans of the book. A good example is the Council of Elrond, a very long chapter in the book. It is cut quite short, and instead at the beginning of the film there is a flashback to the earlier history of the rings, defeat of Sauron and taking of the One Ring by Isildur, as narrated by Galadriel. This ends up being a better method of telling the viewers what all the fuss is about without the long exposition as in the council.
“Fellowship of the Ring” is a great film, even if you haven’t read the book. It’s long, but it’s well-directed, well-acted, has action and character development, great special effects, and even a killer soundtrack. If you haven’t watched it, you should.