The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Paul R. Potts

While Peter Jackson has not released versions of the trilogy called “Director’s Cuts,” the Extended Edition releases gave me just about everything I could have hoped to see in a director’s cut.

A Tolkien fan from a very young age, I have read the series several times over the past thirty years, read most of Tolkien’s other work and even taught a class on the first book to 5th through 7th graders. (Talk about tough critics!) So, I would say I know the story as well as all but the most rabid Tolkien fans. Tolkien’s work is beautiful and fascinating, filled with a level of detail, history, language, and culture that make it seem impossible that one man created the whole sprawling world.

But, like all texts, it is the work of human hands, and it is not a work without flaws. One of the first volume’s flaws is that Tolkien does not really establish a gripping storyline until the second half. This is not only my opinion; see Tom Shippey’s book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. In the novel, nearly twenty years pass between Bilbo’s birthday party and Frodo’s reluctant exodus from the Shire. Even when the black riders first show up, they are not very frightening, and do not generate much panic. The four hobbits do not take their task very seriously for many chapters, and we read about them getting lost, stuffing their faces, singing, and otherwise fooling around as if they were geeks on a camping trip:

The hobbits in particular have to be dug out, or winkled out, of no fewer than five Homely Houses before the voyage of the Ring starts in earnest. First there is Bag End, then the (really rather unnecessary) halt at Fredegar Bolger’s house at Crickhollow; then the house of Tom Bombadil, then the Prancing Pony, and finally the house of Elrond. Furthermore much of the activity of the hobbits in these sections comes not from their adventures but from their recuperations: feasting with the elves in the Shire, hot baths in Crickhollow, singing with Tom Bombadil, singing again in the common room of the Prancing Pony, working their way through ‘yellow cream, honey-comb, and white bread and butter’, ‘hot soup, cold meats, a blackberry tart, new loaves, slabs of butter, and half a ripe cheese’, not to mention the elves ‘fruits sweet as wildberries and richer than the tended fruits of gardens’ and Farmer Maggot’s ‘mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon’. (Shippey, p. 65)

This sort of digression is acceptable in a novel, if the reader is not in a hurry, and it is rewarding for the reader to stop and enjoy the elves leaving the shire, Farmer Maggot (Frodo’s childhood nemesis), the treacherous trees of the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the strange and perilous barrow-wights. But if filmed in its entirety, this would have made a six-hour movie, not a three-hour movie, and at least half the audience would have walked out. Only the die-hard would enjoy Tom Bombadil regaling us with another silly story about badgers, or watching the hobbits have yet another bath together. We may welcome this sort of side-story in a novel, but on-screen, he would have degenerated into an unbearably campy character, and would have completely destroyed any momentum the filmed story had developed up to that point.

The real achievement of Jackson’s film is that it translates Tolkien’s very rewarding, but sometimes difficult, text into film, making something that proves mostly satisfying to both die-hard obsessive Tolkien fans, looking to see that every nuance of the text is faithfully reproduced, and a wider audience of viewers, many of whom have little or no familiarity with the story and who just wanted to see an engaging adventure on the screen. It does this largely by virtue of the skillful cuts and minor revisions to the story. They are, for the most part, deftly done. The lovely and sad love story of Aragorn and Arwen is told in the book primarily in one of appendices to the third volume. Most people will not read it there, but it is a beautiful story and deserves to be told. I don’t believe Tolkien would object to giving Arwen a little screen time. Although some fans objected to the removal of the powerful elf-lord Glorfindel, he is a minor, minor character in the book and his loss will only be noticed by the obsessive reader of the original books.

Tolkien’s original work does not feature very many female characters. I don’t think that is really due to any personal misogyny on Tolkien’s part. It seems to me more likely that, writing high fantasy steeped in the tradition of Beowulf, he just didn’t have much practice thinking about female characters, or many good models for writing about them.

I’ve heard that the lack of female characters is one reason that young girls don’t “get” Tolkien; maybe giving women stronger roles in the film will help draw girls to the films and interest them in the books. As a teacher, I don’t see a downside in getting more people to read.

Unfortunately, not all the cuts and changes are wholly positive; when we lose Bombadil, we also lose the story of the hobbits on the barrow-downs. This sequence fits beautifully in the tradition of gothic horror on-screen, and could have been used to establish a little of the dark history of the haunted world Frodo and the hobbits inhabit. Rather than completely rearrange the story to accommodate barrow-wights without Bombadil, we lose both. We also lose the back-story of the weapon that eventually slays the chief of the Nazgûl, the meanest black rider of them all. I hope this is worked into a later film, but this may be asking too much.

When I consider scenes like this and imagine them filmed, I find myself wishing that Jackson had been able to get funding to create six two-hour movies, releasing two per year instead of one per year. But, coming back to earth, I don’t think Peter Jackson and the actors could have handled much more than the grueling 18 months of shooting they already accomplished.

The second and third volumes are much faster-moving and show much more revision in service of the story. In fact, strictly as an adventure novel, The Two Towers is the best. It moves along ferociously, inter-cutting quickly between the members of the now-fractured fellowship. I expect that The Two Towers will be adapted with much less alteration. I am particularly looking forward to Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Eowyn, a female character who gets to do a little more butt-kicking and a little less pining for her menfolk.

I’m also really hoping that a few other key bits of the appendices make it into the third movie, even as an epilogue; in the appendix, we find out what eventually becomes of Arwen, and what tradition tells us became of Samwise, and what becomes of the strange and touching friendship between Legolas and Gimli, and Gimli’s love of the Lady Galadriel. I hope these story elements are mentioned, even briefly in voice-over; they are too moving to lose entirely.

The movie is visually stunning. As reported in Cinefex magazine, nearly every sequence in the movie is subtly color-graded, giving a distinct mood to every set. I’ve heard people complain about “fake-looking computer graphics,” but most of these “computer graphics” aren’t really computer graphics; they are real outdoor backdrops, or elaborate miniatures. There are a few sequences in which I feel the computer graphics are over-used or abused; I didn’t like the tentacled watcher guarding the door to Moria very much (it looked a bit too much like a half-dozen other computer-generated monsters, and this scene seems to borrow from the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars). The cave-troll was a little bit predictable, but generates a surprising amount of pathos for a computer-generated villain. Interestingly, the sequences in which hundreds or even thousands of fighters are computer-generated work very well, particularly in the prologue where we see Sauron fighting the massed armies of elves and men at the end of the second age.

Jackson’s use of largely unknown actors keeps us from obsessing about the casting. The performances are mostly good, or at least good enough to avoid distracting the viewer from the story. Frodo is very well-played. One performance stands out in particular; Ian McKellen is excellent as Gandalf, with a mixture of wisdom, concern, sadness, compassion, humor, and even a bit of human vanity. He deserved to win Best Supporting Actor for his work in this film.

That all said, I have a few minor gripes with the film.

I’m looking forward to seeing a director’s cut; I’ve heard there are some extra goodies that specifically address these minor gripes and put back a little bit of this lost detail.

I have a few more nits to pick.

Peter Jackson’s set the bar very high; he’s got two more movies to get out, and he’s got to make a convincing Treebeard. He also has to craft a convincing, fully digital Gollum, portraying him as a horrific, degraded, pathetic, and yet touching and sympathetic character, for an incredibly demanding audience.

Fortunately, from what I’ve seen so far, Peter Jackson and his team are up to the job. I fully expect The Two Towers to be an amazing film, and I look forward to watching both the theatrical release and the director’s cut of the first film many more times.

Is Tolkien spinning in his grave? No, I don’t think so. He might cringe a bit at the on-screen violence, but the book is violent, too. I think he would find a lot to enjoy.

Ann Arbor, Michigan

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