‘The Fellowship of the Ring’: the film is not the book.

by Jason Negri

As a die-hard Tolkien fan who has read the trilogy every year for at least the last decade, I anxiously awaited the release of the “Fellowship of the Ring.” Now, having seen it three times, I feel ready to offer a review. (If any reader knows the director, Peter Jackson, please feel free to pass these observations on to him.)

The first time through, I was generally pleased, though inevitably a little let down. Only later did I realize that my attempt to take in the film had been plagued by somewhat unfair mental comparisons with the best fantasy books ever written. The second and third time around I was able to appreciate the movie in itself, and enjoy it all the more.

Still, my opinion remains somewhat dichotomized. To the extent that the movie brought to screen the really cool story of The Fellowship of the Ring, I thought it was great. How could it not be? The director started with one of the greatest stories ever written and had all the marvels of modern technology at his fingertips. However, to the extent that the movie neglected what made the books superb, I was disappointed.

Allow me to explain.

Overall, the picture was a great one—definitely qualifying for a slot on my personal Top 10 list. The effects, cinematography and music were outstanding. The battle scenes were excellent, with measured violence and no gratuitous gore. The initial battle, depicting the Last Alliance of Elves and Men against Sauron was overwhelming. I had been worried that any attempt to show Sauron incarnate would flop.

It seemed that his absolute evil and horrifying power could only be fathomed by the imagination. But Jackson surprised me, deftly showing the Dark Lord sweeping a score of warriors 100 yards away with his mace. It was very well done and I think he did the right thing showing Sauron thus and avoiding a similar depiction for the rest of the film.

I was also gratified that Jackson preserved some of the best dialogue from the book. Frodo and Gandalf’s discussion of Gollum, Bilbo and pity has always been a favorite of mine, and I think Sir Ian McKellan (playing Gandalf) pulled it off with the perfect depth of sincerity and wisdom. Also, I was very impressed with Sean Bean as Boromir and Christopher Lee as Saruman.

Some deviation from the books was necessary—I accepted that from the beginning. The omission of Bombadil infuriated some fans, but it didn’t bother me at all. The increased focus on Saruman’s activities (which you don’t really see much in the first book of the trilogy) was appropriate, since viewers not only need a tangible “bad guy” to hate in the movie, but they also need to see more obviously the activities of Saruman. In the book, such activities were going on behind the scenes during the narration of the main story line. Some of these more obvious departures from “true Tolkien purity” were simply necessary or at least preferable given the realities of making a book into a big screen production. Sometimes a director’s gotta do what a director’s gotta do.

With these accolades in mind, I turn to my gripes, all of which have to do with character development deviating from the books.

1) In the books, Aragorn is what we call a “real man.” He is self-assured, wise, strong, a true leader with bearing, and proud in the best sense of that word. The movie, however, painted him with the unseemly modern gloss of an angst-ridden guy who’s not sure if he’s “good enough” to get the job done. And while this modern view of men is so rampant in the media that I barely notice it any more, it was very disappointing to see a character such as Aragorn, who should exemplify the very best of a man, portrayed in this fashion. Sure he can fight, but if the modern era has taught us anything about men, it’s that it takes more—much more—to be a man than being able to destroy orcs.

2) Aragorn’s misgivings about himself were exascerbated by the contrast with Arwen’s elevated role. I didn’t mind the “warrior maiden” touch (though I found it unnecessary with the character of Eowyn coming up in the next movie) so much as I minded her smug comment about “catching a ranger off his guard” in the woods. It seemed to be an example of “women are better than men,” and I found it particularly offensive in this work. It made for an uncomfortable transition right after the Fords at Rivendell when she goes from sword-wielding elvish “bad-ass” to weeping, nurturing font of elvish grace and compassion in 75 seconds. “Whatever grace is given me, let it pass to him.” Huh?

Since we’re on the subject of Arwen, she was way too breathy on the bridge scene with her beau. She looked great (of course), but her line about choosing a mortal life could have been much better. Bad acting or bad scripting? Dunno, don’t care.

3) Biggest disappointment: Lothlorien and Galadriel. (Peter, what were you thinking?) For a weary fellowship, Lothlorien is supposed to be a heaven-on-Middle-Earth respite from their toils. The questionable reputation of the Lady of the Golden Wood was certainly mentioned in the book, but it was quickly dispelled by the reassurances of Aragorn (whom you could trust implicitly; see #1 above), and then by the Fellowship’s own experience there. Lothlorien was peaceful. Lothlorien was healing. Lothlorien was paradise.

What did the movie give us? A dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic foray into a world ruled by a sorceress. Jackson portrayed the whole realm as entirely too sinister, and Galadriel never dispelled her aura of mystery and threat. (A good friend of mine—a fellow FUS alumnus—and I are diametrically opposed on this one. He liked Cate Blanchett’s portrayal, with the exception of her temptation scene. I was roundly disappointed by the whole thing, with the exception of the temptation scene, which I thought was appropriate and well-done.) All in all, she was way too menacing. She certainly would not have inspired the trust that motivated Frodo to offer her the Ring. Geez, in the books, Gimli and Sam were practically in love with her!

I realize the film was long and certain things had to go, but Jackson could have spent the same amount of time in Lothlorien and portrayed it better, or spent an additional 5-10 minutes cleaning up the lousy first impression the Fellowship (and the audience) got from the place. Insufficient time was given to shake the ethereal discomfort it gave me. It is my understanding that the DVD version coming out in November will have an additional 30 minutes of footage including more on Lothlorien, so here’s hoping it will be enough to show us more of the real Lothlorien.

4) Frodo never grew up. As the book develops, there’s a definite sense that all the characters grow up and mature—particularly the Ring-bearer. A man (or a hobbit) does not bear a desperate burden, face black riders, survive a mortal wound and watch a dear friend die while trying to save the free world—all without gaining some gravitas, strength and self-possession. Frodo remained the same weak, dependent hobbit he was when he left the Shire.

Why on earth would anyone ask for his opinion on anything, especially the decision of whether to risk the mines of Moria? This is not the Frodo who will have the strength of will to tame Smeagol, or to deal with Faramir as an equal. Heck, this isn’t even the Frodo who could or would tell Sam what to do—which fits with Jackson’s decision to make Frodo and Sam friends rather than master and servant. I know we will see Frodo mature in the next movie. It just would have been nice (and appropriate) to see it starting in this one.

I was not simply seeking to be entertained by this movie—I was desperately hoping the film would reflect what I have found special and unique in the trilogy. Tolkien had a profound insight into the human condition: our weaknesses and strengths, our very nature. The books explored so many facets of this nature and highlighted what was exemplary: duty, courage, beauty, truth, sacrifice, comradeship, honor. These are qualities revered in Western culture and sorely needed today in a modern age of depravity, individualism, relativism and selfishness. Their presence throughout Tolkien’s opus made these books the sort of stories in which you could remove yourself from real life, and come back to it a better person than when you went in.

Knowing of Tolkien’s distaste for allegory, I think he would agree with my assessment that the books aren’t life-changing so much as they are virtue-enforcing: they don’t hit you over the head with a moral message that forces you to re-examine yourself, but they do illustrate that with all our modern enlightenment, these virtues matter, and we ignore them at the risk of losing our humanity.

In sum, I enjoyed the movie very much, though it failed to capture the range and depth of the human condition probed by the books. Obviously my expectations were too high. But it occurs to me that true Tolkien fans—those who have read the books every year—will agree. The Lord of the Rings is not just a creative, entertaining story, and you can’t read the books repeatedly without gaining some appreciation for the deeper truths that pervade it. If Jackson can bring out a bit more of this in the next two movies, he will have accomplished a grand feat indeed.

Jason Negri (FUS class of ‘92) is a second year student at Ave Maria Law School in Ann Arbor.