The release of The Fellowship of the Ring will probably be remembered as a milestone in modern film-making. It’s the story of a quest to save a magical civilisation from growing evil. A band of travellers sets out to defeat a powerful sorcerer by destroying his source of power – a magic ring. In our tired age of cinema, this epic undertaking is compelling and packed with visual surprise. But it also deserves more serious criticism than it will probably receive. After all, you can’t make the film of The Lord of the Rings without taking some flak.
One of the secrets of any great work of fiction is creating an imaginary universe in which the characters can thrive. All the best books and films drop you so far into another world that you leave it only with regret. Director Peter Jackson has created one of those places.
I re-read JRR Tolkien’s trilogy a couple of months ago in order to compare it more closely with the new film. A poignant quote on the spine of the book read: ‘The world is divided into two groups of people – those who have read The Lord of the Rings, and those who are going to.’ My concern was that with a film out, people would shun the book.
This film is deliberately loyal to its source. Yes, it is inevitably abridged and unlike the book, its pace is relentless – one of its few drawbacks. But, overall, it is a pretty staggering feat of direction and set design.
Conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, who illustrated the Harper Collins editions of the trilogy, were charged with bringing the races of Middle Earth to life. It was from their sketches that the multitude of creatures, dwellings and landscapes were eventually created.
Life-sized outdoor sets for the opening scene of Hobbiton, the spectacularly detailed elf kingdom Rivendell and the grim Mines of Moriah, were the creations of production designer Grant Major. The panoramic sweeps of Hobbiton (an actual open air village) seem to glow and beam with colour, and two giant stone kings guarding Minas Tirith betray nothing of their model structure. As impressive, are the sets of the rebuilding of Isengard and the Frankensteinian breeding of the Uruk-Hai, which the book doesn’t capture.
Special effects group WETA from New Zealand did all the model-making, physical effects and computer-generated stuff. Of the digital effects, the quest’s underground encounter with a demon called the Balrog, in the abandoned Mines of Moriah is stunning. The visual medium comes into its own from time to time. Close ups of the cave troll are brilliantly pulled off against a great musical score by Howard Shore.
Its few hitches should not stop you from seeing this film. Some of the casting is slightly questionable (Sean Bean, Viggo Mortensen, Hugo Weaving for example) and sadly one or two of the effects are just not polished enough in places (the start of the troll battle and the flying bridge scenes). But this is more than compensated for by the epic scale of this refreshing film, a parable on the human spirit.
Bring on parts two and three, but don’t forget the books.
The first part of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, is on general release at UK cinemas from 19 December