Saturday, April 18, 2009

2002-01-08: Review of "Fellowship of the Ring"

Warning: some spoilers.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring joins the growing list of films adapted from books ranging from The Wizard of Oz, to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. For a movie adaptation, The Fellowship of the Ring does a fairly good job of compressing the first two books of JRR Tolkien's six book saga (plus the Silmarillion and The Hobbit) into a three hour movie.

It is a very difficult job adapting to movie a story that set the genre for fantasy in 1954. Since Tolkien, there have been innumerable variations on the theme of "Little Unknown Person races on behalf of the Free World to Deliver the Power Artifact so that the Great Powerful Evil may be overthrown." To adapt such a tale to the movie screen is a daunting task. On one side there are legions of book-quoting Tolkien fanatics waiting to pounce on any element that departs from the books; on the other side are hordes of movie-goers who have never cracked a page of Tolkien in their lives trying to digest a back-story that spans at least 3000 years. The Fellowship of the Ring does a good job of balancing the needs of the audience, but not without some cost to the original plot and characters.

The Rest of the Story

Tolkien was a professor of linguistics and medieval literature at Oxford. He worked on a large body of stories, myths and legends for over thirty years detailing the creation of Middle Earth by an omnipotent deity and his archangels; the genesis of the races; and everyone's trials, tribulations, loves, betrayals, families and wars. The central conflict is over three holy jewels, or Simarils, within which are locked the light of the sun's and moon's precursors. This work was published posthumously by his son Christopher as the Silmarillion.

By the time he began work on The Hobbit, he had been writing about the conflicts of Elves, Dwarves, Men and various Dark Lords for some time. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the final chapters of the Silmarillion's vaster tale. The amount of back-story Tolkien amassed allowed him to make subtle references to past histories, which gave The Lord of the Rings rich landscapes for complex characters to act and react in.

Because the format of film limits the amount of expose and back-story, the film's director has had to present the characters less subtly. Some of Tolkien's intricate plot has been simplified, and some of the dialog has been sacrificed for action scenes or substituted by visual metaphor --often computer generated.

Of the Elves

Tolkien's Elves are a central theme in his stories. Tolkien despised the diminutive, butterfly winged Flower Fairies. Elves for Tolkien have to partake of Faerie -- they need to have an awesome (in the original sense of the word) combination of ordinary attributes that makes them extra-ordinary and transformative to encounter. In his essay On Faerie Stories, Tolkien cites the Green Knight, men without shadows, and shadows without men as examples of citizens of Faerie. Tolkien's Elves have three attributes:
  1. by existing simultaneously in the material world and spirit world, they are granted an epoch-spanning immortality,
  2. they desire communion with all living things,
  3. they are artisans and crafters.

In the books these attributes make the Elves creators of wonder, but also weary preservers of beauty -- beauty that is not like Miss America, but beauty that is terrible, enchanting, and potent in its power to change hearts forever.

Unfortunately, the film Elves miss the mark. Focusing on the spiritual side of Elvish nature, whenever the Elves or their homes are on the silver screen, a boy soprano is singing hymns accompanied by Enya choruses (yes, Enya). Elven architecture consists of white painted, gothic arched arbors, with a sprinkling of Catholic-looking statuary; this was too bad, since elsewhere in the film Tolkien's watercolors guided the sets and costumes. The Elves habitually, albeit randomly, communicate with telepathy. During the film's Elvin scenes I felt like I had stumbled into a commercial for a New Age Bookstore -- the 1990's version of the Victorian Flower Fairies.

The overstressing of the supernatural nature of the Elves may make them accessible to a Tolkien novice, but led to some disappointing scenes and character interpretations for Tolkien enthusiasts. However -- more importantly than the altering of a character in the translation from book to film -- the departure from Tolkien's elements of Faerie changes the nature of the story from a piercing Tale of High Faerie in which the relationships between Good, Evil and Power are explored, to an adventure-race epic to see who can shoot the most Orcs with control over a trinket of mass destruction as the prize.

Of the Fight Scenes

And speaking of shooting the most Orcs, the director's experiences filming Hercules and Xena showed in the fight scenes, which were as well choreographed as they were ludicrous. All that was needed was a reduction of the number of bad guys to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief. As it was, one character is able to take on all Nine of the Nazgul at once (in direct conflict with Tolkien's books), and it seems whole legions of Orcs were dispatched by the ninja-precision blows of the good guys (a foreshadowing to the toe-curling snowboarding scene in The Two Towers). The really great fight scene, though, was the flashback to the First War of the Ring -- if you're going to have hordes of Orcs running around, you might as well have an infernal army of them.

Of the Good Guys

Gandalf the Grey is portrayed brilliantly by Ian McClellan, who is able to show both Gandalf's serious and humorous sides. Although some of his dialogs have been moved around a bit, much of his character as lore master and mover to deeds has been preserved.

Most of the Hobbits -- with the exception of Bilbo Baggins -- seemed to have been dumbed-down, probably as a result of having their dialogs exchanged for action scenes. Frodo Baggins is played as a simple young hobbit instead of a country scholar. Much of Frodo's character comes off as convincingly earnest. Sam, who in the books is a common Hobbit farmer, is portrayed in the movie as simple and tenacious. Merry and Pippin become comic relief, going on the quest more by accident instead of through their friendship and devotion to Frodo.

Unfortunately, the friendship of the hobbits and their relationships to each other are lost with their dialog. The director will really have an interesting time with Frodo's and Sam's relationship in the next two movies. Some have noted that Frodo's and Sam's journey to Mordor is very similar to Tolkien's love-tale of the journey of Beren and Luthien into Angband (which in turn is similar to the Orpheus and Eurydice tale). Without the dialog and back-story it will be tempting to American audiences -- who are unused to deep but un-macho male friendships -- to read in homoerotic motives.

Elrond Halfelvin comes closest to being a Tolkien Elf (with minor rewrites to his role in the first war against Sauron and some odd-sounding dialog). His hairstyle is an appropriate mix between Native American and Viking warrior, reflecting both his status as an Elven lord and his connection to the natural world.

The Elven Lady Galadriel is very disappointing -- as is most of the Lothlorien segment. Gweneth Paltrow imitates a prophetess-in-a-box instead of portraying a Elven Queen and Seeress who has been resisting evil for 3000 years. The Mirror of Galadriel scene was over-simplified, changing from revelation of the Ring's power over others' psychologies to a two-dimensional "aren't-I-noble" computer image enhanced pageant. In the books, the Lothlorien chapters convey the sense of Faerie through the dialog of Sam the Hobbit; as much of Sam's dialog has been excised from the movie, the film is unsuccessful in connecting the audience with the Elves' transformative wonder.

Arwen Halfelvin, the daughter of Elrond Halfelvin, departs from the text in an interesting way. By giving her the actions of the excised Elf-Prince Glorfindel, and making her responsible for a flash flood that sweeps the Nazgul away (the second time all nine are vanquished single-handedly), the film makers have changed her character from a trophy princess to kind of police-elf character. Given the mostly male cast Tolkien wrote, Arwen's film character is a refreshing, updated look at a female role.

Aragorn, a.k.a. Strider, is portrayed well, especially in the opening scenes, but the director couldn't help put in some drivel about him renouncing his heritage. Because a letter from Gandalf and a feast have been excised, Aragorn's genealogy as King of Gondor has to be substituted with something.

Boromir of Gondor is played convincingly, but I wanted him to be more of a macho bore than he was. In the book he tended to burst into discussions; the movie focused more on his fighting skills. At least they made him concerned for the city he would someday rule as stewart (although his stewardship was only briefly touched on). Because dialog has been reduced, the film has had to use other routes to reveal Boromir's character.

Legolas Greenleaf and Gimli son of Gloin are delegated to minor characters. Since they are introduced in the Council of Elrond, which is presented in a very abridged form, we aren't really quite sure who they are, why they are there, or why they are chosen to become members of the Fellowship of the Ring. The two characters develop more in later books, so further insight to their characters will have to wait.

Of the Bad Guys

Wow, they got Sauron right on. Master of Evil, Sauron is represented by an infernal red cat eye floating through the spirit world. The translation from textual description to movie image works very well.

The Nine Black Riders, or Nazgul, were portrayed wonderfully. Other than the way they could be single-handedly vanquished, the movie hit these dark servants on the mark.

Unfortunately, the wizard Saruman is almost as divergent from the book as Galadriel is. Again, in order to simplify things for the film, they have changed Saruman from a fallen good guy who has come to admire evil by studying it too closely, to a cowardly traitor who would rather choose life and service under a rule of evil than risk death by resisting. The textual Saruman wants to become the ruler of the world; the cinema Saruman is simply a powerful yes-wizard to Sauron. The wizard fight between Galdalf and Saruman was just plain silly, reminding me of the wrestling octogenarian sorceresses from the movie Willow. We'll have to wait for the next movie to see if Saruman's character develops any more (editor's note: it doesn't)

Other bad guys include the Balrog, who provided a great climax to an otherwise confusing Mines of Moria sequence; and Gollum, who made only brief cameo appearances, shuffling out of dark places to shine his pale green eyes at the audience. Gollum, the twisted first finder of the ring, has his character revealed more clearly in the later books.

In case you haven't noticed a trend, Tolkien's great evil characters are revealed as evil because of what they do or because of their high evil imagery. Tolkien's good characters are revealed as good because of what they do and their inner struggles to choose to do good as revealed by narrative or dialog. Action scenes and special effects work well for portraying Tolkien's evil folks, but not so well for his good (or fallen) characters. In fact, in at least three points the movie uses cheesy special effects to make up for excised dialog to show the audience a good character's temptation.

If It Were My Film

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring will probably encourage folks to foray into the writings of Tolkien who wouldn't otherwise. This is a good thing. They will be in for some pleasant surprises. As for those of use who are dyed-in-the-wool Tolkien fanatics, we'll have to wait for a movie that opens up with an Oxford professor sitting in an armchair, reading aloud from a great red book, his voice enchanting our hearts and minds as he describes images of Middle Earth.
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