The most anticipated fantasy film and literary adaptation of the year is finally here and it’s little more than an uninspired hack job designed to squeeze the maximum amount of dollars out of consumers and the viewing public…, but enough about Harry Potter. Let’s talk about how an impossible project can be done right, as with the first installment of the trilogy “Lord of the Rings.”
For those of you who actually got laid in high school, here’s the basic story: In an ancient, mystical world called Middle Earth, a wizard of ultimate evil named Sauron created a magic ring of ultimate power to enslave the world. Unfortunately for him, at the moment of his ultimate triumph, a lucky sword swing from a desperate prince ultimately severed his ring finger. You know, he’d have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those damn kids.
Anyhoo, lost for a few thousand years, the ring resurfaces complete with a chunk of Sauron’s black soul. The forces of good realize quickly realize that the bearer of an object of absolute power has a bad habit of corrupting absolutely (not to mention quickly), so the little hunk of metal will have to be destroyed. However, the only way to accomplish that task is to chuck it into the volcano of Mount Doom, on the other side of Middle Earth, deep into Sauron’s old kingdom. Who would engage in such a suicide mission? Well, as none of the more powerful folk, like wizards and elves, seem able to even touch the ring without getting all stinky with evil, a humble little (and I mean little) hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who comes in possession of the lost ring is stuck as it’s keeper. Thankfully, he gets some help in the form of the second most powerful wizard in the land (Ian McKellen), a mysterious ranger (Viggo Mortensen), a troubled human warrior (Sean Bean), an elf (Orlando Bloom), a dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), his hobbit best friend (Sean Astin), and some additional comic relief (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan). Together, they are the FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING! Heroism, betrayal, death, darkness, hot elf chicks, and two more movies ensue.
Now, New Zealand director Peter Jackson got New Line Pictures to put up around $300 million to film an adaptation of all of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Three books beget three movies, all shot before the first movie is even released. Sounds rather financially risky, right? The creative pitfalls are just as bad. The highlights are as follows:
The Vision Thing. ^ Adapting a movie from another medium is always dicey, even if the original sucked. A book always represents its author’s vision. When translated to film, the producers must decide whether to choose a director that-^ A) is a competent hack who will attempt to reproduce the author’s vision (Hello, Chris Columbus!); ^B) has a compatible vision to the writer (Hello, Frank Darabont!); or- ^C) has his own take on the story (Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, you know, the usual suspects). The hack method, as exhibited with that Potter kid, is the least risky way to go, but it never exactly produces art. The third method might seem prone to the best art but usually results in something closer to the unwatchable as with “The Exorcist II: The Heretic.” Peter Jackson, thankfully, seems to have gone the middle path, where he does have his own well-thought out vision, but one completely compatible with the one presented by the author. Is it the exact same story? No. Does it have the same tone and meaning? Yes.
The Sequel Thing. ^ It’s not so much that “Fellowship of the Ring” is designed to have sequels; it’s that the story itself is already a direct sequel to the author’s book, “The Hobbit.” The end result is that the new film requires a lengthy prologue not only to set up the world to the audience but also recap events from a book previously seen on screen only in animated form decades ago. Does it work? Actually, this works much better than I ever thought it would. In a way, it’s this compressed opening that kind of kicks both the movie and the audience into high gear from the beginning.
The Structure Thing. ^ Though released as three books, this story was actually written all at once as a single manuscript over the course of 17 years. Due to its length, the original publisher preferred to break it up into increments. In general, novels aren’t written in convenient three-act structures, so it’s extra-doubtful that Tolkien would have even considered writing his epic in three easily self-contained stories. As such, it’s next to impossible to end any but the last film with anything other than a cliffhanger. Consider yourself warned.
The Reverse Rip-Off Effect. ^ The price of being the most influential work of fantasy of the last 50 years is that everyone else borrows or steals from you. The price of making a film out of the most influential fantasy series of books of the last 50 years is that so many other movies have already appropriated elements from this material, an audience unfamiliar with the original may presume that the adaptor’s film is instead ripping off several others. At the very least, Peter Jackson knows that his series will have to stand up against such things as the “Star Wars” series (though beating out the last couple of entries won’t take much effort). I don’t know know if it helps or hurts that nearly every other fantasy flick of the last 20 years has mostly sucked a*s.
So, is “Fellowship of the Ring” any good? Actually, it’s great. It’s well shot, edited, and directed, and the visual effects are stunning. Better yet, unlike with most films that have wall-to-wall CGI, Jackson actually gives his actors the opportunity to act. Massive battle scenes are important, but no less so than the shots consisting of little more than the expressive mugs of Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, and others. As a result, the audience is allowed to be enthralled by the sights and engrossed by the performances.
HOWEVER, as great as this initial installment is, it really rates a grade of “Incomplete.”, Once you’ve sat through this one, you know you’ve only seen the beginning. But hey, so far so good. Probably the best comment I could give it is that after sitting through the first three hours, I would have happily sat through another five. How long am I going to have to wait for that DVD Box Set?