a film by Peter Jackson

Starring: Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, Bill Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Ian McKellen Directed by: Peter Jackson Produced by: Peter Jackson, Barrie M Osborne, Fran Walsh, Tim Sanders Written by: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh Distributor: New Line Cinema.


Now that I've got the gushing out of the way, let me just say that I'm no more a "Tolkienite" than I am a Trekkie. I don't speak elvish, I can't do runes, I haven't memorized the entire geneology of Isildur, and I don't even own an Orc costume. I did, however, grow up in the 70's, when you couldn't get a high school diploma without getting stoned on Tolkien and Thai stick. I read it a half-dozen times like everybody else, and yes, I was spellbound. Like all of you, I wanted to go to Middle Earth. I wanted to live there.

I still do, especially after seeing Peter Jackson's triumphant cinematic rendering of The Fellowship of the Ring. Perhaps it helps that I'm not a Tolkienite, and that my last reading of LOTR was fifteen years ago. Unlike those poor Middle Earthers I've heard complaining on radio call-in shows and newsgroups, I don't remember that there were four orcs, not three, on page 237, or that Arwen wears a D cup, not a C, or that everybody knows that elves pronounce a soft ch after a vowel, not hard. Fuch!

Well, I don't know. I don't care. My elvish is a bit rusty, but I remember enough from my half-dozen reads of LOTR in my days of danger to remember how reading it made me feel. And as I watch Peter Jackson's movie, here's the truth of it: it made me feel like this. These may not be the exact images Tolkien evoked in my head, but Jackson's vision certainly resonates with and enriches my own. The proof is in the pudding--for the first time in many years, I have an itch to dust off my old boxed set and read LOTR again.

Yes, after a stirring recount of the history of the One Ring, the movie bogs down at bit at Bag's End--but so did the book, if memory serves. Yes, the film has a bit more of an action movie quality than Tolkien on the page--parts of it felt a lot like watching Mel Gibson's biopic of William Wallace. Jackson never takes time out for the legends and songs that gave the text its lyrical, mythic quality. The movie is too kinetic for all that, racing to cover as much ground as possible. But if Jackson's Fellowship makes concessions to the medium, it is never gratuitous, never patronizing. Working far from Hollywood, the filmmakers have resisted the "commercial" impulse to castrate, edentulate, lobotomize or otherwise mutilate Tolkien so as to make a movie suitable for the Ritalin-addled twelve-year-olds who apparently drive the US economy. (And yet Fellowship looks to be the commercial success of the year. Hollywood pablum-pimps please take note.)

Terrific performances all around. Elijah Wood's Frodo has both vulnerability and strength. Ian Holm is the perfect choice for Bilbo Baggins. Sir Ian McKellan renders a powerful, imposing Gandalf, but also a Gandalf with a certain gentle humor. And Sean Bean's Boromir is truly a pleasant surprise. Boromir is a difficult role, far too easy to play as a boneheaded Gondorian redneck. But Bean plays the role with all the humanity and sympathy it deserves, giving Boromir's tragedy an almost Shakespearean depth. The final scene between Aragorn and Boromir, which might easily have become either smarmy or bloodless, is done just right, and left me with a lump in my throat.

It helped a lot that I could believe Boromir was dying, pale with shock. The entire film benefits from a meticulous crafstmanship and an almost unheard-of realism. Our heroes have dirty fingernails, soiled clothes, and sweaty armpits. Bad hair days all around. You can't fight Evil without getting mussed up. But that's okay. If the cast ends up looking a bit bedraggled, the scenery takes up the slack. The New Zealand settings are breathtaking, and with just a minimum of cgi enhancement they evoke the beauty and majesty of Middle Earth. Oh, yes. ..I still want to live there.

If, like me, you read Tolkien during the Ancient Times, then you're going to have a wonderful, nostalgic experience, one that will evoke the kiss of an old girlfriend, the interminable riffs of a Yes album, the pungent perfume of Panama Red. If you're a Tolkienite, the kind of person who could correct Legolas' bad grammar, you're going to want to take a Quaalude and remember that you're going to see a movie, a damn good movie, and, all things considered, a pretty faithful one at that.

And if you've never read Lord of the Rings.. .well, I almost envy you.

J.R.R. Tolkien meets Braveheart.

Sullydog Approves.

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