The Lord of the Rings
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

It was a major act of chutzpah even to think of making three real major motion pictures out of Tolkien's trilogy. Half the events of the story are set in caves, mines, water, and fire. Then there's Rivendell, Lorien, and dozens of mysterious magical places above ground, not even counting the Shire and its quaint hobbit-holes. With all the special effects needed, it's a Middle-Earth Lucasfilm. But for the most part director Peter Jackson, with his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, has managed to transfer the story - at least Part I - to film without a serious hitch. And that is not a backhanded compliment. "The Fellowship of the Ring" works well enough both as story and as film to hold our interest, if not excite our imagination.

The story's scheme is simple: Eons ago the evil master Sauron forged the golden ring that gives power to anyone who holds it. But the power of the ring is evil, not good. It becomes the task of little hobbit Frodo Baggins to return the ring to the fires in the volcanic bowels of Mount Doom in the land of Mordor, and destroy it there. If he does not succeed, then Sauron and his minions will take over the world. Tolkien's great act of genius in conceiving the work was to turn the convention of quest stories upside down and make the ring not good but evil. It wants to return to Sauron, and it has the power to tempt any good person who holds it, turning them to the dark side, so to speak. Those who hold it face a double threat: first, the temptation of the ring itself; and second, the attacks of Sauron's minions who try to kill the good people, in order to keep them from destroying the ring and defeating Sauron's power.

The story is simple but the events are a feast of challenges. Hobbits are little people, quiet, placid, not at all confrontational. Frodo (Elijah Wood) is given a task beyond anything he could ever have conceived of. It is given by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), who has some powers but not absolute control. His own nemesis is his former mentor Saruman (Christopher Lee), now the lieutenant of Sauron. The story of Part I, the Fellowship, is the story of the assembling of the group that will accompany Frodo and try to get to Mount Doom before Sauron gets to them; and of their initial battles.

Jackson and his cowriters have set their plot as a series of running battles the group must fight, with only momentary respites before the enemy catches up again. Here Jackson and his crew are at their best, staging battles both aboveground and below, using a mix of live action and computer-generated effects with skill and invention. But they've barely drawn Frodo as a person; though Wood, with his wide-blue-eyed stare and soft voice, does his best to enrich the part, he is still barely more than a stick figure. McKellan has the look of Gandalf but not the majesty we remember from the story. Compare him with another long-bearded power figure, Richard Harris's Dumbledore in "Harry Potter," and we see that Gandalf on screen is a pale shadow of a wizard.

A problem for me with Jackson's direction is his insistence on a swooping, diving, circling camera at moments when he should just rest and let the people and settings carry the moment. And he overuses his zoom lens disastrously, insisting on coming in tight on his characters whenever danger threatens. We already know danger threatens; this is just overkill. There is also some bizarre editing, with strange and mismatched cuts from shot to shot that someone should have caught and corrected long before the film was released.

Nevertheless, the film is likable, on occasion powerful and touching, and we can look forward to the gathering storm of Book II, next year at this time.