Lord of the Rings I: “A Wizard is never late” – The Fellowship of the Ring

LOTR cartoon FOTR
“I look down on him because I am upper class…”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the first set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  First, a quick 101 on Middle Earth history…

THERE ARE BENEFITS TO ALL TRILOGIES, BUT NOT ALL TRILOGIES TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THEM. 

Criticism of Hollywood trilogies have often walked a well worn track; one that new trinites are general measured against.  In general, the first part is weighed down by its duty to origin, while the third part may struggle to tie up all plot strands as it strives for a suitable send off.  In between, part two can go in any direction; Constraint free, there’s no need for a beginning or an end and that open-endedness is only constrained by the creative team behind it.

In the Lord of the Rings however, there was a distinct advantage.  Circumstances (World War II) had led to a sweeping single story told across multiple books and published in three distinct volumes.  The names of each film and a rough structure, though rather inadvertently, was already set.  Easy.  But then again, no other adaptation, film, or radio had ever really done followed that… So it can’t be that easy…

Despite a fervent fan base, adaptation also brings the advantage of something tangible to react against.  With such a literary and fairly unwieldy tome, 14 years in the writing, the need to modify the narrative for the medium of film wasn’t just recommended but essential.

Simply, all Fellowship needed to do was begin and that was that.  Structurally much of it draws on Ring’s lighter prequel, The Hobbit and countless other quests.  Starting at the Shire, a danger is developed, a fellowship formed and then the journey undertaken across Middle Earth.

On film, Peter Jackson imbues proceedings with a new speed ; in fact, a perhaps indecent haste which struggles under scrutiny.  In any event, that Gandalf takes hours to realise the importance of the One Ring and practise his Marathon Man routine, rather than the book’s years, is a signal of intent.  Across the many hours of the story, there has to be a strong narrative drive through and past countless villains and trials which could otherwise appear weak or sporadic.  The enemy point is a key one; while there are many heroes on show, there are also many foes, not all of whom operate directly under the all seeing eye.  The epic opening, rather strangely narrated by a powerful but fairly inconsequential elf (a consequence of a story lacking in strong female characters), provides not only instant action gratification but the big bad himself.  Striding out onto the plains of Mordor to slug hundreds of man and elf pins is an interesting touch, considering main villain duties subsequently fall to a large orange eye…  But it’s visceral, it’s physical, and that’s its main contribution.

And if there are any words that sum up this adaptation, they’re visceral and physical.  Emotion is widened in what can be a terribly academic tale, the action drawn out and the scale constantly on show.  Even without the 3d or 48fps, Jackson instils a real tactility to proceedings that’s commendable considering how much of it lives on a hard drive.  From the squint of Elrond’s eyes as elf arrows volley past his face to Boromir’s thudding perforation.  This really is no mean feat where so many of the cast on screen are synthespians and its most quoted ‘creation’ is motion captured.  It shows how demanding the schedule was that Fellowship’s Gollum, with his green pallor, is quite different to the one we would meet in the subsequent films.  But in his own brief and sinister appearance, it works.

Two legendary set-pieces fall within the film.  The first is outstanding, and potentially the most important of the trilogy.  For whilst Fellowship simply had to begin the story, it also had to ensure the audience would come back to watch further two films that had already been made; and the Mines of Moria sequence does that brilliantly, especially in the context of the open plain and siege battles that would follow.  It has added resonance in the context of The Hobbit, but manages to stand on its own all the way to its fiery finish.  Set-piece Mark II is the singular journey of the Bane of Boromir Uruk-hai from Saruman’s Isengard to meet the fellowship.  Again, it’s physical, it’s scrappy, but it also works very well in slow-motion.  It helps that as a general rule, films where Sean Bean dies a horrible death are generally quite good.  And then with the fellowship disbanded, the story can begin proper.

For an opening assault, Fellowship isn’t actually constrained by origin as lore would have it.  Beginnings are shared across the trilogy, as rather befits a tale that’s all about death and rebirth.  Gollum’s origin was supposedly bumped back from each film, but makes a fine beginning to The Return of the King.  Arguably, we see Gandalf’s (necessarily cloudy) origin in the second film.  The sense of origin adds strength to the trilogy; guiding structure and keep things fresh while also providing a constant thematic reinforcement (Aragorn even has an extra resurrection analogy dragged over a cliff with him in The Two Towers).

Many changes have been made for timing, but the main character omission from the book is perhaps the most obvious nut understandable change.  Rhyming immortal Tom Bombadil is a bit of an anomaly, hard to represent on film, and as character voted most likely to ‘misplace the One Ring’ would only really serve to undermine the plot.  In fact, while speed played a role in many narrative changes, most serve one other distinct purpose: to put the focus firmly on the One Ring.

In this adaptation, no character is immune to it, with only Gollum seeming to desire its possession rather than its power.  It’s a clear, direct yet intangible horror than creeps through the films to such an extent that it highlights the ambiguity of the series’ name itself.  After all is the Lord of the Rings the Dark Lord, or in fact the One Ring?

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Fellowship of the Ring live Storified in this hole in the ground

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