Creatures of Hobbit 

Ambitious Tolkien adaptation is alternately engrossing and unsatisfying

Ambitious Tolkien adaptation is alternately engrossing and unsatisfying

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

dir.: Peter Jackson

PG-13, 178 min.

Now playing at area theaters

Like most readers of J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy trilogy Lord of the Rings, I first encountered the books in my early teen years, after reading and enjoying The Hobbit. I started The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the trilogy, by opening to the preface of the 1970s paperback edition, filched from my older brother’s bookcase. Although I may not have the wording exactly right, I’ll never forget the first sentence: “It has now been 10 years since ‘Frodo Lives!’ first began appearing in the New York subways.”

That sentence has bubbled to the top of my memory many times since then. Not only was Lord of the Rings far more serious and full of import than The Hobbit—marking one of the first times I consciously realized that I was moving into literature for grownups—but that preface made reference to the fact that the book itself had a fascinating history. I was put in contact with a phenomenon that predated me, and this in medias res quality made my reading of the book significant beyond the plot, characters and themes.

That sense of participation in something timeless and yet historical can be enlightening—the realization that stories have stories of their own—but it is also the curse of movie adaptations of classic and cultish literature. Fans want a great movie, but they also want faithfulness. Meanwhile, the historic importance of the book makes it impossible for a movie to capture all that the book means, both intratextually and metatextually. At least Peter Jackson, the director of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and its two forthcoming sequels, didn’t have to compete with previous adaptations of the material (Ralph Bakshi’s ponderous 1978 animated version notwithstanding). But that also means that he had to solve all the story problems for the first time, finding a middle ground between what the book demands and what a movie needs.

For the first hour of Fellowship, it seems that Jackson and screenwriters Frances Walsh and Phillipa Boyens have found a passage between this Scylla and Charybdis. Jackson qualified for the job mainly on the strength of his astounding visual sense and inventive use of special effects, which turned the quirky biography Heavenly Creatures into a thrilling psychological mindbender. This talent brings to life the undersized world of the Shire, home to hobbits, with a look that finally gets fantasy right. It’s not about being realistic; it’s about being more than realistic—sharper focus, more depth of field, stronger lighting, brighter colors. Following Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) around Bag End as he prepares for his Middle Earth-shattering quest, we are charmed by its three-quarter scale detail without ever feeling that we’re touring Rock City or the Ewok Village. The hedgerows, orchards and distant mountains move together, as if photographed through Disney’s multiplane camera, and the camera swoops through real sets with the fanciful freedom that we associate with tabletop models.

Jackson takes his time setting up the story in the hobbit village, and rightly so—the hobbits are the emotional center of the tale, and much depends on the difference between how they are viewed by the other characters and how they really are. More often than not, he uses forced perspective rather than digital tricks to make the hobbits seem smaller than the other races, and that kind of old-school movie magic has an honest ring to it these days. Ian Holm, as Frodo’s uncle Bilbo Baggins, hits exactly the right note of jollity tinged with regret and tragic self-knowledge as he is persuaded by Gandalf the wizard (Ian Richardson) to pass on his magic ring to Frodo.

But this is not just any ring, as Bilbo and Gandalf might have thought: It’s the master ring that an evil lord forged to take over the world. Since its nefarious purpose corrupts anyone who tries to wield it, no matter how well-intentioned, a fellowship of men, hobbits, elves and dwarves must journey to the volcanic mountain where the ring was forged to destroy it.

As Frodo and his fellow hobbits Samwise, Merry and Pippen leave their home for the darker, wilder and definitely larger outside world, the care Jackson took with the Shire scenes pays off. Huge virtual environments like the Mines of Moria and impressive real locations in New Zealand’s wild, mountainous backcountry dwarf the travelling company, especially its child-sized hobbit members. One of the themes of Jackson’s film is “don’t judge a book by its cover”; it’s an old saw, to be sure, but it’s uniquely resonant as the director forces us to reevaluate our own unconscious assumption that small equals cute, vulnerable and needing to be coddled and protected. Few will fail to be moved by the sight of hobbits rising to the occasion in the grimmest and bloodiest circumstances.

But as the hobbit’s-eye view of the first hour gives way to the wider perspective of the later acts, Jackson loses his footing. Later events in the trilogy demand that he set up some of the other characters with conflicts and backstory, but he doesn’t have time to show these as he did with the hobbits. Instead, he has to have the characters tell it through largely unmotivated speechifying, full of stilted diction and name-dropping. Any scene that leaves the hobbits behind falls flat, especially those designed to provide a romance and a rivalry for the two human members of the party. We simply don’t care as much as we should, because their stories don’t grow organically out of the environment as the hobbits’ do. They feel like hastily erected outbuildings next to a solid stone cathedral—tacked on for the extra storage space, to be filled in later.

Jackson’s special-effects wizardry also deserts him somewhere in the Mines of Moria. The scale of the virtual sets is impressive, but the washed-out palette necessitated by gray, gritty computer-generated backgrounds is disappointing. The living characters are drained of color and threaten to disappear into the meticulously rendered stone textures of their surroundings. And the battle scenes with menacing orcs and goblins have to be edited in a frenzied, choppy fashion so that the seams of the computer compositing don’t show. Our desire to get a good look and follow the action with the same level of detail we were allowed in the first hour is thwarted by the technical limitations of the medium. It wouldn’t matter so much if Jackson hadn’t spoiled us with the first act’s skillful, soulful display.

This movie may be the best fantasy film ever made. But it is far from perfect, and it’s hard to see how any version of this material could be. Adopting the right approach to one set of problems entails leaving a few other, intractable problems dangling; and in a package this impressive, those warts stand out all the more. Nevertheless, Fellowship marks a historic moment, a new twist for an old phenomenon, and 10 years from now, a generation might find in its mysterious specificity an entryway into our fields of fantasy.

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