There've been a few rare but memorable occasions when I've been watching a fantasy-based cinematic adaptation and suddenly felt a giddy rush of excitement when I realize that the director's hit a home run. It happened while watching Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie and it happened again while I was watching The Fellowship of the Ring.
Adapting The Lord of the Rings has to be a daunting task. Just ask Ralph Bakshi, who tried to animate the story in the late Seventies but came away with a muddy-looking, charmless film that always had a whiff of abandonment about it. Now, I don't know the exact circumstances by which a relatively obscure New Zealand-based splatter-film director came to be the new cinematic interpreter of Tolkien's works, but just minutes into Fellowship of the Ring I was convinced that he was a solid pick for the job. In much the same way as Bryan Singer rescued the long-maligned superhero genre, Peter Jackson has since been crowned the savior of modern fantasy films.
"Love me, love my carrot. *URP!!!*"
Starting with the epic prologue and the introduction of Bilbo and Frodo in the Shire, pretty much everything in this adaptation is note-perfect. Indeed, if Jackson hadn't bothered to sweat the small stuff, we could have been left with yet another cheese-ball fantasy flop like Hawk the Slayer or the truly execrable Quest for the Mighty Sword. But everything we've come to expect from Middle Earth is brought to life here in vivid detail. For example, instead of representing the village of Hobbiton as a green-screen mirage a la George Lucas, Jackson decreed that an actual hamlet be built in New Zealand. Replete with overgrown hedges, authentic structures and detailed props, Hobbiton really feels like a genuine milieu. As a result, the actors, clad in authentic costumes and realistic make-up, seem to be just as taken by the illusion as we are.
The casting is an achievement unto itself. Much in the same way that Daniel Radcliffe has supplanted my mind's eye portrait of Harry Potter, Elijah Wood is now and forever Frodo Baggins. Ian McKellan also makes for a prototypical Gandalf: sagely, commanding and vaguely befuddled at times. Frodo's fellow hobbits are also well represented. Sean Astin is completely unpretentious and stalwart as Sam and both Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd lend tremendous distinction to their roles as Merry and Pippin.
"Don't worry, Mr. Frodo! I managed to save all of the tomatoes and bacon!"
In another odd parallel to X-Men, Peter Jackson got a very lucky bounce from some "eleventh hour" casting. Just as Singer had to replace Hugh Jackman for Dougray Scott as Wolverine, Viggo Mortensen had to assume the role of Aragorn just days into production after Stuart Townsend turned out to be too young and freshly-scrubbed for the role. Movie audiences were the big winners here since Mortensen's discovery proved to be a real boon for The Lord of the Rings.
By the time Aragorn leads the hobbits to Rivendell, we've already been treated to some spectacular scenery and witnessed several brilliantly realized threats like the Nazgul. It's at this point when the movie really kicks into high gear. For the sake of full disclosure, I've always liked the first book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy best since the group dynamic and intimate tale of the "Fellowship" is much more interesting to me then the epic mass battles that follow.
"Hello, tiny sirs! Do you have a minute to learn about Sauron's Good News?"
The brilliantly-staged Council of Elrond sequence gives us three more iconic characters and the stellar cast members who have been chosen to inhabit them. The delightful John Rhys-Davies makes for an appropriately acerbic Gimli, Sean Bean manages to make the role of Boromir very sympathetic and Orlando Bloom is so perfect as Legolas I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he was actually cloned in an elf factory. In fact, the only casting that's slightly questionable is Liv Tyler, who's turn as Arwen is a tad overwrought, especially when coupled with some of the riper examples of her mock-Shakespearean dialogue.
As if the first half of the film didn't have enough evidence to convince jaded fans that Jackson was on the right path, his "hero shot" of the Fellowship cresting a hill together resulted in a geekgasm felt 'round the world. Jackson then continues to pile on one spectacle after another. The Fellowship's delve into the Mines of Moria is the highlight of the entire trilogy for me. I love how the skills of this hastily-assembled group barely managed to sustain them through the "long dark" of Moria. Well, most of them anyway.
"Look, just leave your pamphlets by the door and back the fuck off!!!"
In addition to being a bona-fide gift to fantasy film fans, Fellowship of the Ring is clearly a labor of love for Peter Jackson. Not only did he lay down some tremendous groundwork for the relatively intimate story contained in Book One, he would also prove to quite adept at prosecuting the epic "War of the Ring" which followed in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
But, alas, that is a story for another day...