Middle-earth Comes to Omniplex

There is much good in Peter Jackson’s rendition of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s great trilogy The Lord of the Rings. My ten-year-old son said the film was “awesome,” and from what I can tell, all his school-fellows agree. Yet, anyone who genuinely loves Tolkien’s work and understands what lay behind it, all the labor and all the faith, will certainly be mildly disappointed in our latest blockbuster.

There is an old adage that to reproduce a masterpiece requires a talent equal to that of the originator. Tolkien may well be the single most significant author of the twentieth century. No other books of the past century have had the audience of The Lord of the Rings. To find a work with comparable shelf life and literary influence, you must pass back to the 19th century and name the giant books, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Tolstoy’s War and Peace or even Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.”

Peter Jackson may be a very fine filmmaker with remarkable representational tools at his disposal – the special effects in the film are marvelous– but he is not near the level of Tolkien. There were very few moments in the film when I felt completely taken in to this “Middle-earth.” In fact, I found myself losing interest in the characters and glancing at my wrist watch around the 90-minute mark.

Elijah Wood as Frodo looks like a hobbit, and so does Ian Holm as old Bilbo, although Wood’s Frodo lacks some depth. Likewise the other hobbits look right. Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee, Frodo’ faithful companion, and arguably the best character in the story, even acts right. His final scene, chasing down Frodo to stay with him as the journey continues (into the next film), was genuinely moving. But this moment was only a moment.

Ian Mckellen’s Gandalf is believable in many scenes, but Christopher Lee’s Saruman came off the Hollywood evil villain shelf. And so it goes through most of the cast. Liv Tyler is okay as the elf Arwen, overcoming a rather silly rendering of her romantic commitment to the hero Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen. Cate Blanchett is excellent as the elf Queen Galadriel, despite the hysterical special effects around her scene. John Rhys-Davies is fine as the dwarf Gimli. Hugo Weaving, on the other hand, is awful as Arwen’s elf father Elrond.

This unevenness broke the spell for me. As did the soundtrack, which blended the best of Disney with Titanic. The music gave away the manipulative intentions of the film producers, who perhaps need to think hard about the lesson behind “one ring to rule them all.” Like all manipulative art, real emotion gives way to sentiment in much of the film. I don’t recall so much crying in the Tolkien books. A lively faith and moral strength, Tolkien’s great virtues, do not translate into emotional exultation.

But I sense that, like many viewers, I am prone to criticize this film more harshly than it deserves, because The Lord of the Rings made such a profound impression on me as a young man. This is always the problem when the masterpieces are put on film, especially the long ones.

Tolkien’s work is highly episodic. Compressed into even a lengthy 178 minutes, it overpowers the medium. Every five minutes a new adversary appears on screen, and you are tempted to think you have stepped into a remake of Jason and the Argonauts. What was needed, perhaps, was a mini-series format like the great BBC version of War and Peace with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre or the television versions of Brideshead Revisited and Nicholas Nickleby. With more time the characters might have gained depth and Tolkien’s prose descriptions might have been used more to convey the lyricism of his world.

Where Jackson’s film succeeds best is in some of the remarkable visual effects. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ hobbit-hole in the agrarian shire makes believable and delightful an aspect of the book hard to imagine–a comfy home built into a hillside with a round door. Likewise Gandalf’s fireworks display and playful smoke rings made everyone in the theater lean forward. The orcs and goblins, despite a bit too much sliminess, likewise worked for the most part.

Yet, he who lives by the sword dies by it. Certain to date terribly is the scene of Gandalf’s battle with a demonic Balrog, which is just too cartoonish, and the battle scenes that depict the fall of the evil Sauron and first passage of the ring of power.

My guess is that in another generation this version of The Lord of the Rings will show its wrinkles like Excalibur, the 1981 Arthurian film, has done, and there will be movement toward a remake. One good thing here is that unlike, say, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings can be remade repeatedly. And eventually a great film version should emerge.

Until then, this film will be enjoyed for awhile by many people, especially hobbit-sized ones, some of whom will pick up Tolkien and read. Which is one more very good thing.