Ten years later: The Fellowship of the Ring
Last night, not long after I mentioned The Lord of the Rings in my discussion of the future of storytelling, my wife and I found ourselves at Ravinia Park in Chicago, where we saw The Fellowship of the Ring with a full orchestra and choir performing Howard Shore’s famous score. An excited crowd had packed itself into the pavilion and lawn, and looking around, I was reminded of the true definition of a four-quadrant movie, which has nothing to do with marketing and everything to do with how it fires an audience’s imagination. “Three generations of any family,” David Thomson has drily noted, “could see [The Lord of the Rings] at the same time, in emotional comfort.” And it’s true. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that there were grandchildren in attendance last night who had not yet been born when the movie came out almost ten years ago.
And whatever its other qualities, the movie works. It still looks great, and the special effects, if not miraculous, do a fine job of serving the narrative and performances. And while I’m personally of the opinion that Peter Jackson never quite figured out the right tone for his material until The Return of the King, Fellowship still has the strongest story in the trilogy. There’s something inexpressibly satisfying about seeing the pieces of the epic falling into place, as the Fellowship is gathered, tested, and finally scattered. The other two movies have their moments, and Return of the King in particular is a masterpiece, but I’m guessing that when most viewers think back to their favorite scenes, whether they’re casual fans or Tolkien obsessives, this is the installment that first comes to mind. And the individual moments haven’t lost any of their power: when Aragorn beheads the Uruk-Hai at the end, for instance, the entire auditorium erupted in cheers, drowning out the orchestra.
There are small problems here and there. Jackson’s treatment of Saruman’s army verges on Sam Raimi-style horror, and not in a good way; he occasionally botches big moments, like Galadriel’s speech, with overuse of special effects; and there’s a little too much slapstick in the Shire. All of these qualities would be progressively improved over the course of the trilogy, and to my relief, I found that that the acting was strong from the very beginning. Now that we’ve come to know these actors so well, it’s important to remember that many of them were unknowns or doubtful quantities at the time, and in many cases, their performances have been enriched in retrospect. It’s hard to watch Orlando Bloom, for instance, without seeing something comic in Legolas’s unblinking intensity, while Viggo Mortensen, who once came off as miscast, now seems ideal as Aragorn. Throughout it all, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf remains the film’s perfect calm center—it’s a performance that looks even better as the years go by.
Watching the film again with an audience, for the first time in almost a decade, reminded me of how movies serve as markers in our own lives. When I first saw Fellowship of the Ring, I was a college senior; now I’m married and about to get my first mortgage. Movies, too, have changed. It would be premature to say that this kind of film now seems old-fashioned, with Deathly Hallows having done a commendable job with a rather different franchise, and the two parts of the Hobbit still on the way. Yet with Universal canceling The Dark Tower, directors like Guillermo Del Toro unable to finance their dream projects, and the likes of Andy Hendrickson running the show at Disney, one senses a certain lack of the will that led New Line and Peter Jackson to risk so much on this trilogy. Thankfully, though, they did. And the movies are permanently richer as a result.