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It’s not too often that a film is released that I instantly proclaim an undisputed classic. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings is such a film. It is near a perfect and beautiful realization of an epic as it gets. I stress near, nonetheless, as the film omits certain key points from the book and takes a few liberties with others. I’ll get to them at the end of this paean. Still, for sheer story-telling, adventure, the desire to do good and battle evil, this film leaves all others in its wake.
The film was made entirely in New Zealand, which generated the ire of a few in Hollywood that believe they’re the centre of the universe and no film should be made outside of US auspices. The director, Peter Jackson, portrays his native homeland as a primeval Europe, rich and ripe for legends and myth-creation. It is photogenic and lavish in nearly every shot; every hillock, rock, freshet, brook and dell looks as alive as the Third Age of Middle Earth should be. Even the gloom and desolation of Mordor is animated and real. A vast amount of attention to detail was given to this film, from the authentic Sindarin a few of the characters speak, to the intricacy of the armour and weapons.
The respect for the work of Tolkien is heavily engraved in this film. This simply isn’t a movie based on a broad ideal; it is a near-faithful rendition of what Tolkien may have envisioned. To be sure, it has to fit the framework of the motion picture form, as far as continuity, dramatic thrust, plot and characterization go, but it is handled with such finesse, with such sheer passion that I’m positive it’ll invoke a sense of wonder in even the most dourest of critics
Let me talk about the opening. From the opening scenes depicting the massive battle between the Last Alliance of Men And Elves and Sauron’s forces, you know you are witnessing a spectacle. The courage and conviction of the armies led by Gil-Gilad and Elendil falters as Sauron himself makes an appearance, mace and Ring in hand…we see the eternal story of good versus evil, of the forces of the free world arrayed against a god-like spirit of malice such as Sauron. The summation of two Ages of the World unfolds before us…the triumph of the Last Alliance and the Ring’s hold on Isildur; to his ambush in the Gladden Fields and the eventual recovery of the Ring by Déagol, to the betrayal of Gollum by the Ring and Bilbo’s finding of it. It is a superb synopsis of huge and world-shaking events, superbly handled and depicted. It sets up the oncoming events with little doubt as to the motives of all concerned. Three millennia later, we are taken to the bucolic charm of The Shire and Frodo Baggins reading peacefully under a tree.
The players given the task of recreating familiar (to fantasy fans anyway) names, handle their job exceptionally well. Viggo Mortensen excels as Aragorn, Elijah Wood is simply outstanding as Frodo Baggins and Sir Ian McKellen will go into film fame as Gandalf. It’s almost as if the role were custom-crafted for him. On the other hand, some of the characters have simplified roles. Legolas and Gimli have far more substance in the books than they do here; Merry and Pippin are more than just mischievous side-kicks of Frodo and Sam, and Sam’s relationship to Frodo is never explained in the film. Cate Blanchett handles the fey persona of Galadriel well. It’s exactly how I pictured her; tall, fair and perilous, wise beyond all mortal understanding. Hugo Weaving plays Elrond the Half-Elven with solemn dignity, and is portrayed pretty much the way Tolkien intended; timeless and world-weary.
Liv Tyler is simply wonderful as Arwen. She only has a small role in the book, but the film expands upon it to a degree and makes her a front-line character, so to speak. I was truly touched by her performance. She captures the essence of an Elven lady perfectly. Sean Bean tackles the troubled character of Boromir well; a man thoroughly distraught at the impending peril his nation of Gondor faces and his desperation to save it in any way he can. Full marks to a fine British actor. Christopher Lee plays Saruman the White exactly as you’d expect Saruman to be. The film makes a few assumptions about Saruman which I’ll come to in a moment.
The Book and the Film: The Differences and other Points
Here I’m going to be a purist and carp or comment on the myriad of differences that exist between the motion picture and the book. Most are subtle, some aren’t however. One thing I do need to mention is the lack of sense of distance in the film. We see Gandalf leave for Isengard and Minas Tirith at two points in the film. Both of these places are literally hundreds of miles from The Shire and would’ve taken Gandalf a long time to reach them (which it did).
He did a whole lot more in the absences from The Shire that just these two deeds, namely, tracked down Gollum (mentioned in the film), learned the identity of the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, met up with Radagast the Brown, and a few other things. He also spent years doing this. For reference, I have a map of Middle Earth which may help to convey the distances involved. Isengard would be near where the R in Rohan is and Minas Tirith is the large castle like symbol at the east end of the White Mountains, right near the Anduin River. As far as the differences go, I will present them in list format for easier reading.
- The beginning of the film in The Shire is very much an “abridged” version. Still, the film does stick to the gist of what went on. This is true for a lot of the film in reality.
- We are not shown Gil-galad at all in the opening sequence. It was he, not Elrond, who was High King of the Elves at the time. Elrond was his herald. Gil-galad and Elendil were slain in combat with Sauron. Isildur did not simply say no and walk away from the Crack of Doom. He kept the Ring as “weregild” for the death of his father, Elendil. Elrond and the others did encourage him to destroy the Ring in the Sammath Naur nonetheless.
- Narsil broke when Elendil fell on it, not when Sauron trod on it, as the film shows.
- Frodo is a great-nephew of Bilbo Baggins. This is mentioned in the film as simply his nephew. The genealogies at the end of Return of the King show this. However, Bilbo has assumed guardianship of Frodo when Frodo’s parents died in a boating accident. Frodo is also related to Merry and Pippin. Frodo’s mother was a Brandybuck. Pippin does mention his familial tie to Frodo in the film in Bree at the Prancing Pony, however.
- Sam is employed as a gardener by the Bagginses. Sam’s father, the Gaffer, was Bilbo’s gardener, and Sam is simply carrying on the family tradition.
- It is broad daylight in the book when Gandalf reveals the truth of the One Ring to Frodo, not the dead of night like the film has it. This is why Sam was trimming out the window with his shears.
- Frodo, Pippin and Sam meet Gildor Inglorion, a Noldor Elf, in the Shire. They meet Gildor in the Green Hill Country and they stay the night with his Elves. This was omitted from the film. Sort of added in the Extended Edition. We see the Elves, but the hobbits never meet them.
- The pursuit of the Nine of the hobbits in the book doesn’t really match what goes on in the film. Can’t fault it though, as the Nine are depicted beautifully.
- Merry and Pippin do not meet Sam and Frodo “quite by chance” in Farmer Maggot’s cornfields in the book. In fact, Frodo had sold Bag End (his home) to a distant relation and had resolved to live in Buckland with Merry. It was all a ruse as Frodo had intended to leave the Shire for Bree. It turned out that Merry and Pippin had wind of this and conspired to leave for Bree with him. In fact, the residents of Buckland sound the alarm while the four hobbits make their escape into the Old Forest. From the movie, you can’t really tell where in The Shire they are anyway, so this is probably a moot point. In addition, we never meet Fredegar “Fatty” Bolger, who is a close friend of the four hobbits.
- Farmer Maggot doesn’t chase them out of any cornfield in the book. In fact, they stay for a while in his home.
- Gandalf stops to survey Mt. Doom from his vantage to the west of Minas Tirith. We can see Osgiliath in the middle distance. Tolkien never really says if any of this can be seen at all from this distance, but the emphasis was on a looming shadow growing in the East, so the film is probably trying to reinforce the impending war.
- The entire section from the Hobbit’s escape from Buckland into the Old Forest, getting caught by Old Man Willow, meeting Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, their capture by wights on the Barrow Downs and Bombadil’s rescuing them was all omitted from the film. Probably a good idea, as Bombadil is an awkward character in the books that doesn’t seem to “fit in” with Middle Earth. A lot of conjecture exists out there as to what his nature was.
- The proprietor of the Prancing Pony, Barliman Butterbur, knows Gandalf well in the books. His name, nor his friendship with Gandalf, is mentioned in the film. Gandalf had actually left a letter for “Mr. Underhill” with Butterbur.
- Frodo puts the Ring on by accident in the book after performing a dance, not by tripping over a foot as the film has it.
- Aragorn does not seize Frodo and haul him off into a room. He actually talks to Frodo quietly before the dance debacle with the Ring; Aragorn suggests to Frodo he needs to quieten Pippin down. Afterward, they go off to the hobbits room.
- The Nine do not go up to the Hobbit’s rooms in the book; in fact, they are aided and abetted by a lot of Southerners living in Bree, spies of Saruman. Bill Ferny is one such fellow, and it is from him that Sam gets his pony Bill.
- Aragorn does not give the hobbits any weapons on Weathertop in the book. The hobbits had plundered a barrow in The Barrow Downs for their weapons, and fine weapons they were too, the “written blade of Westernesse” as Tolkien later describes one of them.
- Arwen does not meet the companions in the Trollshaws as the film depicts it. In fact, they are met by Glorfindel at the Last Bridge over the Mitheithel River. It is from there, the Nine make a concerted effort to apprehend Frodo. All of the companions reach the Ford of Bruinen at the same time in the book. It is Glorfindel, a Noldor Elven Lord, that daunts the Nine. Arwen does not meet the companions before Rivendell. However, they do camp near where Bilbo had encountered the three trolls in The Hobbit. The film has depicted this faithfully, though the importance or relevance of it is not mentioned.
- The reasons for Boromir, Legolas and Gimli being in Rivendell are not explained in the film. Boromir has come to Rivendell to seek the answer to an age old riddle concerning the One Ring. Legolas is there representing his father Thranduil, the Elven King of Mirkwood, who had held Gollum captive for some time. Gimli had accompanied his father, Glóin, from Erebor, for counsel concerning the fate of Balin and the re-opening of the Mines of Moria. The latter two were selected as members of Fellowship as they represented their Kindreds.
- Legolas does not tell Boromir that Aragorn is his King. Nor does Boromir state that Gondor needs no King. Boromir calls Aragorn his King as he lays dying in Parth Galen.
- At no time in the book does Elrond state that the strength of Men has fallen
- Aragorn has not turned from the path of kingship of Gondor. Far from it. He is, like his people, in exile, since the destruction of their last kingdom by the Witch King of Carn Dûm (the leader of the Nine). At no time in the film is the heritage of Aragorn and his people explained. i.e they are the Dúnedain, the Faithful that followed Elendil over the Sea at the time of the destruction of Númenor. Aragorn is the last Chieftain of the Dúnedain in the North. Boromir represents their kindred in the South.
- No mention of Narsil being re-forged in the film. Part of the riddle Boromir is out to solve involves the Sword that was Re-forged. Narsil is then called Andúril.
- Gandalf does not see Saruman’s palantíri in the Fellowship of the Ring. It is assumed there was some link between Isengard and Mordor. The fact that a palantíri exists was not established until The Two Towers
- Most of the discourse between Gandalf and Saruman in Isengard was implied in the book, not overt like it is in the film.
- At no time, does Saruman declare his allegiance to Sauron. His reason for wanting the One Ring is to supplant Sauron and rule by himself. The allegiance, such as it is, is a convenience, and both Sauron and Saruman probably see it this way, although unspoken. He doesn’t build any army for Mordor, but for himself.
- Saruman doesn’t breed any type of Orc. Melkor and his cohorts originally bred them in the Elder Days, and Sauron then created a superior breed that could handle sunlight etc. The Uruks were in existence before the events portrayed in the film.
- There is no Uruk-Hai named Lurtz in the book.
- Saruman does not sing any song to change the weather on the Dimrill Pass. It is the cruelty of the mountain, Caradhras or Redhorn, that does this itself.
- Sam says goodbye to Bill the pony at the Gates of Moria. This is the first time in the film we have heard the pony’s name or knew Sam had a pony at all. Maybe something they cut out. The forthcoming extended edition may resolve this chink in continuity.
- Gimli is under no illusions that they’ll get a warm welcome from Balin in Moria. In fact, it is his deepest fear that Balin and his party have perished
- Pippin drops a pebble in to the well near the three way junction in the book, not knocks a skeleton’s head off in the Chamber of Mazarbûl
- No cave troll attacks them in the Chamber in the book, although it made for a fine action sequence in the film. One sticks its arm through a door in the book.
- Gimli takes Frodo to look into Kheled-zaram in the book after they have left Moria. This is omitted in the film.
- In Lothlorien, Haldir insists upon blindfolding Gimli, as they do not trust the Dwarf. An order from Galadriel rescinds this. Omitted from the film.
- Galadriel gives gifts to all of them, not just the Phial to Frodo. Apparently, in the forthcoming extended edition, we see Gimli ask for, and receive, a lock of Galadriel’s hair. Sam gets a small box which contains seeds.
- The significance of the seat that Frodo sits on in Parth Galen is not explained in the film. The seats are called Amon Hên and Amon Lhaw, the hills of Sight and Hearing, respectively. It is by sitting on the Seat of Seeing that Frodo is able to perceive the vastness and horror of Mordor.
- Aragorn finds Boromir dying propped up against a tree in the book, not out in the open.
- Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas sing a requiem for Boromir as they send his funeral boat down the Anduin
No doubt I’ve been a touch pedantic here and there, yet the film is almost flawless even with the creative license taken by Jackson. It conveys a story, and it conveys it beautifully. As a closer, I need to point something out here that irritates me. The film perpetrates the modern fantasy viewpoint that dwarves and elves hate each other, that elves are all long-bowmen experts and dwarves all gruff axe-wielders, and never the twain shall meet.
Truth to tell, both races are proud and noble and have done many great and wonderful things. There is a minor and lingering mistrust between the two Kindreds, mainly stemming from the Dwarves habit of stirring orc tribes up, which then go on the prowl in Elven lands. Tolkien portrays both races with depth and dignity, that have a vast and marvellous history. They are more than the Everquest “dorf” or the pointy-eared “treehugger”. Give the Lord of the Rings a read sometime and see how wonderful these two races actually are.