[My long-lost review from December 19, 2001, of the movie and an essay on the appeal of J.R.R. Tolkien and his magical world.]
“Exciting, dramatic, passionate, beautiful, chilling, palpable evil, breathtaking vistas…”
These are all words I’ve used to describe this movie to those who haven’t seen it yet. This magnum opus that took more than four years to produce, 16 months to film, and by the time the remaining two movies in the trilogy are finished with post-production, will altogether cost half a billion dollars to produce and market. Weighing in at almost three hours of running time, this movie is not for the attention span challenged.
Recent polls have consistently declared that J.R.R. Tolkien is “the most influential author of the century” and THE LORD OF THE RINGS is “the book of the century.” This is perhaps the most heavily anticipated movie since a Star Wars movie. Many said it couldn’t be made; Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary executor, said it shouldn’t be made. Nevertheless, it is a film event of epic proportions. Tolkien’s three-volume “book” THE LORD OF THE RINGS (LOTR) took over 16 years to write and over 50 years to turn into a movie. The producers are to be congratulated for a relatively faithful depiction of one of the greatest high epic romances and most realized heroic sagas of modern literature. Tolkien deals with fundamental and timeless questions: the nature of good and evil, of man and God. More on that later.
The two most natural movies for this “phenomena” to be compared to are Harry Potter and Star Wars. The recent release of the Harry Potter movie is both a record-breaker and a media event. The wildly successful publication of 100 million copies of the (so far) four books caused great anticipation for the film. But there are several differences. When people ask how I compare the two, I say Harry Potter is “Diet Tolkien.” While J.K. Rowling did her research in arcane mythology, Tolkien was a professor of the subjects that informed his writings and was a much better writer besides. Harry Potter is unabashedly targeted toward children; only Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT did so. And did I mention he’s a much better writer? Further, the Harry Potter movie’s slavish fidelity to the book made it technically faithful but caused it to lack some of the whimsical humor of the book.
In its sweep, it is similar to Star Wars, but the reference is actually backward. THE LORD OF THE RINGS influenced Star Wars, not vice-versa. As only Gandalf could defeat the Balrog, only Obi-wan could confront Darth Vader. George Lucas also employed the idea of a seemingly ordinary orphan who has to deal with great evil at the cost of sacrificing himself and others.
Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has said,
“Tolkien fans make Trekkies look like dilettantes.”
I’ve had the pleasure of being both. This movie has many little tidbits of Tolkien trivia to delight the faithful. These incidental pleasures along the way, almost “throw-away” touches, add to the enjoyment that the enthusiasts will appreciate, much though not all of the dialogue was taken from the book verbatim.
- Gandalf and Bilbo casually sing Tolkien’s song, “The Road Goes Ever On,” as they set off on trips from Hobbiton.
- The original inscription on the Ring is in an elvish script but is of the language of Mordor, and the Black Speech can be heard intoned at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell while the attendees argue about what is to be done with the One Ring.
- On the Pass over the Misty Mountains at Caradhras, the Fellowship is shown wading through the snow up to their chests. Legolas the Elf runs across the top of the snow.
- Gandalf is heard muttering the words “long expected party” and “riddles in the dark” the hobbits mention “a shortcut to mushrooms,” all of which are chapter titles in the book.
- Going through Bilbo’s papers in Hobbiton, we see the original map to the Lonely Mountain from THE HOBBIT.
There were some unexpected touches as well. The final fight between Aragorn and Lurtz, the captain of the Uruk-hai orcs, was not in the book as such, and the exciting conclusion brought applause to my theater. And the hobbits discovering that beer comes in huge “pints” at the Prancing Pony Inn in Bree was amusing.
As described by Tolkien, Hobbits had “ears only slightly pointed,” and the movie depicted them well, differentiated from the pointed ears of the Elves while not looking like Vulcan ears.
The design work for Hobbiton was fabulous and absolutely spot-on. The velvet landscape of New Zealand was terrific.
Good music can enhance a movie; great music is like a beautiful frame around a picture and can make it transcendent. Well-known examples include The Godfather, Field of Dreams, The Natural, Dances With Wolves, and Little Women. In LOTR, the soundtrack is occasionally good but not great. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for about a month, and it does not stand alone. Most of the music sounds rather Wagnerian. In the initial battle scene, it works, but elsewhere it thuds. Wagnerian music rarely works in movies, with the notable exception of “Excalibur,” the film adaptation of Mallory’s Arthurian legend “Le Mort d’Arthur.” And I will admit it worked in the climactic lightsaber battle with Darth Maul in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.”
Alternatively, the soundtrack contains Celtic flute music that skillfully conveys the semi-rustic world of the hobbits. On the positive side, the occasional songs in Elvish, for example, both Quenya and Sindarin in the lament of Gandalf, worked well. And the two pieces by Enya were ethereal and haunting. It was a shame that her second piece, “May It Be,” was relegated to the end credits. Nevertheless, her otherworldly tone and style seemed perfectly matched to the movie.
It seems somehow sacrilegious to criticize this colossal movie.
Were there things missing? Of course.
Were there favorite parts left out? Sure.
Was there too much of some things and not enough of others? Certainly:
“How do you film a book that has been read by 100 million people, has 400 websites dedicated to it, and whose fans have not only taken on the names of the characters but are capable of conversing in the book’s invented languages? Very carefully indeed.” – Internet newsgroup
There is necessary, though regrettable, condensation and compression of the story otherwise found in the book, but I must point out a few.
Lothlorien holds a special place in his readers’ hearts as the closest thing to Faerie on (Middle) earth. In this movie, it had an unexpected dark feel depicted by gothic arches. There is little light and few encounters with Elves. Indeed, the magic of mallorn trees, which since moving to Colorado, I assumed to be related somehow to golden aspens, is never depicted in the film.
Rivendell, another elvish refuge, is more faithfully rendered like the artwork of noted Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe, with a few ruins showing its ancient heritage. Still, besides Elrond and Legolas’ traveling companions from Mirkwood, it is bereft of Elves! There is no music, no song, no telling of tales for which Rivendell is renowned.
Many of the faithful have complained that the character of Arwen subsumed that of Glorfindel and that she had a much more significant role than in the book – third billing in this film. This is true: her interchange with Strider (Aragorn) is not played out until the Appendix at the end of the third book, where there is a beautiful and sad tale told. She certainly plays a more warrior-like role than in the books, but I can understand the producer’s interest in adding some “eye candy” to the movie. In general, there is only one other sizeable female role (Galadriel) in this film, and Liv Tyler is one of Hollywood’s hot stars. Her affected English accent and deep voice give her a greater gravity than her usual roles.
For years, a popular spectator sport on Internet newsgroups and Web discussion boards has been arguing about the “dream team” of who to cast for LOTR, should it ever be made into a movie.
Some have complained that there was too much of Bilbo at the beginning of the movie and not enough of Frodo. But I don’t see it this way. The beginning of the film certainly gives greater emphasis to Bilbo than Frodo. When Tolkien originally wrote the first part of Fellowship of the Ring, it was intended as a sequel to his book THE HOBBIT. Further, Ian Holm is a much better actor with a vast corpus of work (compared to the 20-year-old Elijah Wood) and nicely fits the role as if he has done it before. Indeed, he has. In the 1970s, he played Frodo in the BBC radio production of The Lord Of The Rings. And one of his most memorable roles is as the faerie Puck in the 1968 BBC TV production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night Dream” (starring the young Dames Judi Dench and Diana Rigg!) Elijah Wood’s treatment of Frodo was beautiful but not well developed. His preternaturally wide-set Bambi eyes were dazzling. Indeed the Hobbits, in general, were cast for their large eyes. But the character of Frodo is not developed in Elijah Wood. His relationship with Sam, however, is well treated. At times they seem like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. This is not surprising considering Elijah Wood played the title role in the 1993 film “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I trust that the later films will give him a chance to grow. This role is a star-maker (can you say: “Mark Hammil“?)
Sam Gamgee was well cast in Sean Astin. Despite his on-again-off-again rustic English accent, he is delightfully charming in the role. He develops the feel of the close relationship between the two heroes that will be given even more attention in the second movie.
Gandalf, portrayed by Ian McKellen, surprised me. Known most recently for his role as Magneto in the film “X-Men” and for starring on Broadway currently in “Dance of Death,” he made the role of Gandalf his own. He added just the right amount of magisterial presence and subtle humor. He stole every scene he was in and left the viewer wanting more. Brilliant.
Galadriel was superb, as portrayed by Cate Blanchett. She added just the right amount of Elizabethan poise (no pun intended) with an elvish remoteness. I felt some writing inadequacies and over-compression of the time in Lothlorien did not allow her to convey the august and profound wisdom of the wisest of Elf women in Middle-earth. Instead, some curious and overly heavy special effects during the “Mirror of Galadriel” scene made her appear uncharacteristically sinister. Scenes were obviously cut here (which we’ll have to wait for the DVD to see), like the distribution of gifts to the departing Fellowship, which left a rushed feel to the visit. One scene, however, gave me an insight I didn’t catch in the book. As the Fellowship departs by river, she waves from the shore in a pose and dress that seems saintly. Somehow, I had always missed something that Tolkien had intended,
“…I think it is true that I owe much of (the character of Galadriel) to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Saint Mary…”
Merry and Pippin were a little off, not so much in the casting as in the writing. They appeared too mischievous, prominent vehicles of “comic relief.” While not quite R2D2 and C3PO, they lacked the sincere, if immature, honorability we saw in the books. The second movie will give them a chance to stand out.
Elrond’s Hugo Weaving was curious. I could not get out of my mind his best-known role as Agent Smith in the film The Matrix. In fact, at one point in the movie, my family turned to each other and said “Mr. Anderson,” a line he frequently used in that movie, referring to Keanu Reeves. While a well-known New Zealand actor with almost 40 films to his credit, he’s not as familiar to viewers in the US. In LOTR, he portrayed the appropriate amount of fierce battle anger in the opening scene of the “Last Alliance of Men and Elves” against the evil Sauron. This is one of the best-mounted scenes in the movie, with fabulous special effects that reminded the viewer of the recent film The Mummy. But in other scenes, he seemed high-handed and almost irritated. In fact, in the movie, all the high Elves (excluding Legolas) seemed constipated or at least irritated. Elrond seemed particularly out of sorts in all the scenes in Rivendell.
Boromir, as played by Sean Bean, was outstanding. He skillfully handles the dual role of noble lord and duplicitous Fellowship member. He is well known from the 007 movie Goldeneye for his turncoat role as 006/Janus traitor.
Strider/Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen, I had trouble with. He was not originally cast in this role, and I would not have cast him thus. While I can’t deny that he did a yeoman’s acting job, I see Aragorn as a more mature man. A younger Gregory Peck or Sean Connery would have suited me nicely, but Viggo does not have the mileage, despite the grizzled appearance.
While I’m on the subject, his fighting scenes were unconvincing. The fast editing and quick cuts are usually signs of a lack of good choreography or fencing skill. I think both are true here. In contrast, movies like The Three Musketeers, Rob Roy, and even Shakespeare in Love (with noted sword fight master William Hobbs) had sword work and fight scenes worth watching. In LOTR, the fencing and fight scenes were almost universally awful.
Gimli’s John Rhys-Davies, so enchanting as Sallah in the “Indiana Jones” movies, was delightful here. Some would not recognize him because his makeup looked like it was applied with a shovel, and his hair was braided like a miniature Klingon. But why does the filmmaker give him an Edinburgh, Scotland accent as he describes the descent into Mordor?
Legolas by Orlando Bloom was delightful. Tall, graceful, and lithe, with less than a dozen movies to his credit, I’ll look forward to his performance in the upcoming film “Black Hawk Down.”
Who was JRR Tolkien?
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, but his family moved to the midlands of England following his father’s death when JRR was 4. He lived his whole life in England and had a particular fondness for its languages and those of northwestern Europe. As a child and young man, he learned almost a dozen languages, not only classical but also many European languages, and had a hobby of inventing languages. It was to create a backdrop for these languages, an historical and cultural context, that he wrote The Lord Of The Rings. These books mention some of his 15 invented languages, including Sindarin (everyday elvish, inspired by his fascination with Welsh) and Quenya (high-Elven, a kind of Elvin Latin, inspired by the Finnish language.) Less developed but present nonetheless are Entish, Khudzul (Dwarvish), the Black Speech (the language of Mordor, e.g., the Ring inscription), and Adunaic, the language of Númenor.
As a philologist (“lover of words”), Tolkien was principally known for his work in medieval languages, particularly Anglo-Saxon (Old English) as well as Middle English, and has written the authoritative translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” He had a hand as an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and served as a translator of the modern Catholic translation of the Jerusalem Bible. He taught at the University of Oxford and eventually Merton College in particular.
Middle-earth Tolkien intended to be the northwest of the Old World, remote in history, indeed, in an imaginary and archaic timeline of about 6000 years ago before the “shape of all lands has been changed.” The Old English is middan-geard and may be recognized by some as Midgard of Norse mythology, the place of men between Asgard (heaven) of the gods and Hel’s Niflheim below.
The Shire, the land of our hobbits, Tolkien said in his letters,
“is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee.” It is “an imaginary mirror” of rural England.
Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic Christian. He was a friend of C.S. Lewis, who, when they met, was an atheist. Due mainly to discussions with Tolkien, C.S. Lewis converted to Christianity and became one of the best-known and best-loved Christian apologists of the 20th century. He is also known for his charming fantasy series, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. A group of writers, including Lewis, known as The Inklings met, usually on Tuesday mornings, at a pub in Oxford called “The Eagle and Child” (known by the locals as The Bird and Baby), where they’d share a pint and read what they were working on to each other. Today, in the pub, you’ll find pictures of them on the wall in the room where they regularly met.
Tolkien described his creation of Middle-earth more as “discovery” than invention and discussed his work as “sub-creation” work that God’s creatures do in imitation and honor of Him. “Because we are made: and not only made but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” Readers resonate with it, seeing his “faerie story” as more real than reality, describing a world that, if they don’t live in, they want to live in. It is perhaps the most fully realized fantasy world in terms of various languages, cultures, geographies, natural history, races, politics, and history.
The most illuminating discussion of the nature of evil is discussed not only in LOTR but also more fully in the creation story at the beginning of LOTR’s “prequel,” THE SILMARILLION. In a letter, Tolkien writes, “We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.”
Many consider LOTR to be some form of allegory. But he writes in his introduction to FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, “… I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability with ‘allegory,’ but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
Religious cult and practices are curiously absent. That is because, as Tolkien said in a letter, “The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” His writing is advised by his faith. Indeed, it reflects his deep Christian longing.
Several archetypes shine through. For example, Tolkien has several different aspects of “Christ figures” in his story. Frodo is the suffering servant, with a great burden he must bear through the darkness to the very Cracks of Doom. Aragorn is the hidden monarch who passes through the Paths of the Dead and later is revealed as King. Gandalf dies and is resurrected. Sam is ever faithful and matures through his trials to learn compassion and eventually returns to heal the homeland – the great events of the book begin and end with him. These archetypes, as well as others, though subtler than allegory, are more powerful and deeply profound.
Tolkien’s gift for describing physical locations is one of the greatest appeals of his writings, and he guides the reader’s imagination to unbelievable vistas. His popularity exploded, especially in the United States during the mid and late ’60s, particularly with the “counter-culture,” primarily because he was concerned with environmental issues.
The late 60s saw Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek’s Mr. Spock) record the single “Bilbo Baggins,” people wore “Frodo Lives” buttons. Residence halls at the University of California, Santa Cruz, were given Middle-earth names.
Of all the books I have ever read in my life, besides the Scriptures, THE LORD OF THE RINGS has most directly and profoundly changed my life. It has guided my view of the world and of destiny. It colors how I look at nature – trees, streams, and mountain peaks.
And it is the most powerful book about redemption. This theme, so popularly portrayed in LES MISERABLES, is the basis of a mature perspective on life. As Tolkien wrote in a letter that is now the introduction to the second edition of THE SILMARILLION (the larger canvas upon which the history of LOTR is drawn and is just a small part),
“All stories are about the Fall.”
It informs my view of the inevitability of sadness. The one scene I most wished to be in the movie is when the hobbits are scared on Weathertop and ask Strider/Aragorn to tell them a story. He tells them the most beautiful story he knows, that of the elf-maiden Luthien Tinuviel and the man Beren. These two star-crossed lovers braved the fortress of Morgoth, the ancient evil to whom Sauron was but a servant, for love of each other and to claim the bride price for their marriage. Their doom is shrouded in legend but tells of their death and a life beyond… and foreshadows the romance of Aragorn and the elf-maiden Arwen.
Strider/Aragorn begins the story by saying, “it is a fair tale, though it is sad in the telling, as are all the tales of Middle-earth.” Toward the end of his life, JRR wrote a letter to his son Christopher describing his wife (and Christopher’s mother) Edith. She inspired him to write the story of Luthien and Beren when in a woodland glade many years before, she had danced among the trees. He wrote to his son,
“the sufferings that we endured after our love began… and to explain how these never touched our depths nor dimmed our memories of our youthful love. For ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade, and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting.”
Read the books — they will change your life.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Subscribe to have future articles delivered to your email.