Friday, August 22, 2008

Review - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2002 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation
2002 Nebula Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Hey, can you guess what won for dramatic presentation for the next two years? If you said the other two Lord of the Rings movies you're wrong since this was the last year that both the Hugo and Nebula used their original format for the award. The Nebula award switches over to a writing specific "Best Script" award (though I'm dubious of how well that is reflected as opposed to the movie as a whole) and the Hugos split into a long form dramatic presentation intended for movies and a short form intended for television series. Not that it has actually worked out quite that way since several format breaking nominees for the dramatic presentation Hugos have come up; this year, for example all of the first season of Heroes was nominated in the long form category while a fan created video distrubed on the web was nominated in the short form (and that doesn't even get into one of the strangest Hugo winners you'll find).

I wouldn't call myself a major Tolkien fan. I don't speak Elvish, I don't have the history of Numenor memorized, and I don't have the multivolume History of Middle Earth series. On the other hand I do own The Annotated Hobbit with the original "Riddles in the Dark" chapter, have read The Silmarillion, and can sound my way through Tolkien's runic alphabet. I suppose it's a matter of scale; I've read his works, enjoy them, and know them but don't live them or considder them the pinnacle of human achievement like some appear to.

I recall when the film was announced and Peter Jackson was to direct it. My reaction was one of shock: as good as Heavenly Creatures was I could not envision the man responsible for Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive handling The Lord of the Rings. The movies would be the most obsessed over film project in history (thanks to the Internet bringing nerds together) and there was a disconnect between Jackson's manic style and Tolkien's sedate mythology.

I'm sorry to tell those of you hoping for another three thousand words on how much I hate something I enjoyed the entire trilogy quite a bit. I found it to be a wonderful example of how to adapt difficult material: keep the themes and as the major structure but be willing to make dramatic changes that fit the new medium without violating the spirit of the original. The changes, as any change in an adaptation tends to do, caused some on the Internet to declare the films to be monstrous abominations.

Does anyone who finds this blog need a plot recap? Besides being based on the single most widely read work for nerds its also one of the highest grossing films of all time. Still, there's these rings and one's really bad and some short guys are suckered by a wizard to tramp across the country side to throw it into a volcano. They team up with a bunch of other fellows to beat up monsters and then two of the short guys decide to ditch the rest of the team to hog the glory for themselves so the movie ends before the bad ring is destroyed.

I'm not going to go into the adaptation process since The Fellowship of the Ring was the most faithful of the three films. I need to review all three films and I have to save something for the future. I will say that I didn't mind the loss of the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil; it's a diversion when the plot of a movie needs to be ramping up. We'll get into that next week.

What I will comment on are the three things that I found most immediately striking in the film: the direction, the elegant design work, and the acting.

The shift toward digital editing in the mid-nineties triggered a change in action set pieces in Hollywood movies that I despised. Directors lost the ability to carry a scene in them and substituted random shots that typically made little sense in context (Michael Bay, I'm looking at you). Similarly the advent of CGI encouraged directors to do everything in CGI regardless of how sloppy it looked. Jackson didn't follow the crowd with either of those.

While the editing in the action sequences is more jittery than the pastoral scenes it does not consist entirely of one and half second long shots of the moment of impact for a blow. Jackson lingers on the action and in doing so imbues the sequences with more character. That's the kind of thing that can make up for a lot of faults in my book since it is so rare but Jackson did a respectable job with the rest of the film packing it with striking images that were so perfectly formed that they'll likely supplant the personal vision in reader's minds.

One of the things that caused The Lord of the Rings to take such a long time before being translated to a live action movie was the complication of having five major characters and scores of minor ones who are dramatically shorter than the average human but still need to interact with them constantly. Hiring actors who can fit the height requirement isn't an option since there simply aren't enough of them. Jackson may have made some of the most successful CGI creations depicted on film but they wouldn't stand up as a full cast with screen focus for an entire movie. The use of forced perspective and dozens of practical effects tricks to make things appear different makes the illusion seem very real.

On top of that the film assembled a cast based more on character actors who could play the parts and up and coming actors who had potential. It gave them a cast of skilled actors who were willing to make the sacrifices required for shooting three films simultaniously. Not one of the major characters hits a sour note for me and since there are a dozen major characters in the film that is impressive.

It was ambitious to even try to adapt The Lord of the Rings and Jackson dispelled doubts with The Fellowship of the Ring. Every bit of praise and attention it has received is well earned.