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Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring Movie Review - Rajesh Shah

" ‘Stray but a little . . . ‘ "

After having seen Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I was reminded of the words of Galadriel to the Fellowship upon their arrival to Caras Galadhon: "But this I will say to you: your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true."

If Peter Jackson’s Quest was to make a stunning movie that embodied the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing–his characters and the themes which he wove into his magnum opus–he strayed not just a little. And he failed miserably, though clearly not to the ruin of all! Jackson’s magnum opus has been generally well-received, both in the mainstream media and "fan" web-sites which have followed his every move for the last three years (though the objectivity and motives of these web-sites must be gently questioned).

I myself cannot speak of this movie with impartiality. Thus, this "review" must be seen in the context of an avid admirer of Tolkien’s writing and the world which he created, but also one who was willing to give this movie a chance. I started reading Tolkien at the age of twelve, and reading quickly evolved into studying him–the man and his voluminous works. The mythology and the history which he created are second-nature to me now; I have lectured on Tolkien and I have examined him critically and academically–but never losing the love of either the beauty of the world and its inhabitants or the grandeur of his writing.

It gave me, therefore, great pause when I heard three or so years ago that this film was being made. I followed the making of the film casually, and found that some of my fears were assuaged–or so I thought. The trailers gave me hope that the Company would remain true. Walking into the theater, I thought the film would be good, but for a nitpicker like myself, would never be great. I was prepared to accept the alterations as being minor and necessary to the translation of the book into film; I was prepared to accept Jackson at his word when he said he wanted to be true to the spirit of Tolkien. Unfortunately, Jackson either was not truthful or just does not get Tolkien.

It is not the alterations to the text in and of themselves which makes this particular adaptation so infuriating. It is the fact that the alterations greatly misrepresent Tolkien’s characters and themes. Where to begin? For I found so much wrong with this film (and so little right) that it becomes difficult for me to organize my thoughts in a coherent manner, especially since this is completely from memory. I chose then to first take on each character, and then to fill in the gaps with scenes that I felt were particularly obnoxious to the sensibilities of Tolkien admirers.


This character, I feel, was the most mutilated in the film. Jackson takes away the essence of the character. Tolkien’s Frodo was scared of the task before him, but displayed courage at virtually every step of the way. Jackson’s Frodo is a child who is babied throughout his long journey but really shows little inner strength. We first see him jumping into the arms of a loving Gandalf (odd enough to begin with); and later, when Gandalf reveals the true nature of the Ring, we see little of the reluctant resolve that Tolkien masterfully portrays in "The Shadow of the Past". But the real tragedy is the manner in which Jackson chooses to portray Frodo during three moments of high tension: the attack at Weathertop, the flight to the Ford, and the breaking of the Fellowship.

During each of these scenes, Frodo (in the book) demonstrates bravery in the face of difficult or extremely dangerous situations. At Weathertop, when he foolishly slips on the Ring, he still has the courage to invoke the name of Elbereth Gilthoniel and slash at the feet of his enemy. Though he acted foolishly and suffered tremendously, he still does not give in–a trait that is later mirrored in his actions at the Ford. There, he rides across the Ford alone and defies the Riders ("By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!"). Again, he is not saved by his own inner strength, but he remains ultimately indomitable at this point in the story. And then, when faced with the madness of Boromir, he chooses to leave the Fellowship and seek Mordor alone. In the movie, however, each of these instances is conspicuously marked by the absence of Frodo’s indomitable will. At Weathertop, Jackson has Frodo cower on the ground before being wounded. At the Ford, Frodo is carried over by Arwen, and it is Arwen who defies the Riders while Frodo lapses into delirium. And on Amon Hen, Frodo is "allowed" to go off by himself by Aragorn’s grace and in the context of not only Boromir’s treason, but also an attack of Orcs. These alterations serve to rob Frodo of his will–important because one of the important themes of the story is the crumbling of that will to the point where he gives in at last to the power of the Ring (but is saved because of his pity for Gollum). How will Jackson show the gradual decline in Frodo’s willpower during films two and three when his protagonist really has done little courageous in film one?

What Jackson has produced in this movie is a Frodo that barely resembles the character whom Tolkien wrote about. It is a Frodo who is childlike, awe-struck, and boring.


Jackson further manages to detract from the character of Aragorn, though perhaps more subtly than with Frodo. The Aragorn/Strider that we see is conflicted and unsure of himself–a far cry from the Aragorn of the book. Tolkien’s Aragorn fought his most important battle years before when he renounced the Shadow with Arwen. When we first see him at Bree, he is the mysterious Ranger who frightens the hobbits but whom they learn to trust. And the reader begins to see the kingly nature come out in Aragorn as the journey progresses. Aragorn’s real inner conflict has to do with his love for Arwen–and with the addition of Arwen in the movie, Jackson could easily have made this a thematic centerpiece with regards to Aragorn’s motivations. Instead, he gives us an Aragorn who is unsure of his place and who seems uncertain whether he can be the King of the Reunited Kingdoms. Gone are Bilbo’s verses which set up the dichotomy of the character: "All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost…" Jackson fails to underscore the mysterious nature of a Strider who turns out to be a descendent of kings. At Rivendell, his uncertainty is further emphasized and he needs to be consoled by Arwen; during the Council, when challenged by Boromir, his powerful retort ("If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we have played another part…") is absent. And finally, in the climax of the movie, the breaking of the Fellowship, Aragorn’s role is drastically changed–to the detriment of his character, as well as Frodo’s (see above). Tolkien’s Aragorn, having seen and spoken to Frodo face to face, would never have allowed him to go off to Mordor by himself. His desire to go to Minas Tirith and save his people was strong, but it is also a mark of his faithfulness and kingliness that he would have followed Frodo to the end (as he indeed says to Legolas and Gimli). But Jackson chooses to further de-emphasize this aspect of the character in favor of the vacillating, unsure and seemingly lost Aragorn that we see.


Gandalf is perhaps the best done of all the characters (perhaps because he dies midway through the movie!). The only problems I have are really quibbles. Gandalf is a bit too fatherly towards the Hobbits (hugging Frodo and Bilbo at different times); and dancing at the Party? Gandalf is supposed to be stern, ill-tempered, avuncular, but with a good sense of humor–but he is certainly not meant to be giddy. Overall, however, the screenplay does not do too much damage with regards to his character.


These two characters can be grouped together because they are interchangeable in their uselessness to the propagation of the story. They are mere comic relief or fluff–and the viewer is given no explanation as to why they are part of the Fellowship ("I think Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom").


Another character who was not mutilated, Boromir’s role maintains most of its tenor. Yet still the viewer has little sense as to why Boromir arrived in Rivendell and little sense as to who he actually is. A little more of development would have been in order.


Jackson’s Gimli was an abomination. The line "nobody tosses a dwarf" alone earns immediate condemnation. But the character himself was one-dimensional and again we have no clear idea as to why the Dwarf is in the Fellowship.


This character Tolkien himself did little to develop, so one cannot blame Jackson for following his course. His skill with the bow is interesting, but his character does little else in the movie. Noticeably absent, however, is the burgeoning relationship between Legolas and Gimli–and important theme in Tolkien’s writing.


Of the supporting characters, Elrond’s was the most poorly portrayed. Jackson’s Elrond is angry, argumentative, and stubborn. He speaks of Men with nothing but contempt; he doubts openly to Gandalf that Aragorn can stay true to the task and rebuild the Kingdom of Men. Would Elrond Half-Elven (and half man), who has been a father to Aragorn, ever speak in such a manner? At the beginning of the Council, he states that he has called the members to him; whereas in the book, he explicitly says the opposite. The idea of destiny, free will, and the will of a higher power are virtually teeming in the pages of Tolkien’s Council of Elrond. Yet in the movie, we see little of this. And we see little of the wisdom and dignity that made Elrond one of the Great.


The confusing turn that Galadriel’s character takes has been remarked on in many reviews. The eerie fear that she exudes is much different from the terrible beauty and temptation which she displays in the book and greatly diminishes her character from one of the powerful of Middle-earth to a mere horror show.


Arwen was my greatest fear coming into the movie and it proved mostly unfounded. Her character really was not offensive, but as I stated above, her actions detract from Frodo and it is in that respect that she serves to reflect poorly on Tolkien’s writing.

While I feel that the alteration of the characters best exemplifies where this movie went wrong, there are also several scenes that further emphasize the point.


This came totally out of left field. The entire story arc was confusing and took up film time that would have been better served developing characters. Gandalf would never have told Saruman where the Ring was located, as his mistrust of him had been brewing for over a hundred years. The odd "wizard fighting" was ridiculous, as was Gandalf talking to a moth. Saruman is portrayed as the willing servant of Sauron (and why take away the mystery of the Palantir and its role in Saruman’s downfall from the second movie?); we do not get the sense that he wants the Ring for himself. The creation of Lurtz is totally unnecessary and adds nothing to the film but "cool effects". We see multiple CGI pans of Isengard in an attempt to show off WETA’s handiwork, but does this really help the movie along? Or is it merely there to cater to the masses who like "coolness"?


One of the great scenes of the book, in the movie it is reduced to a mere transition. In the book, the Prancing Pony is something of respite for the four beleaguered and tired Hobbits. They drop their guard, almost to disaster; but they meet up with the mysterious Strider. In the movie, Bree is a scary place. Faces leer out of the darkness at the travelers; darkness is everywhere, and there is no feeling of the comfort of good ale and warm food–and what traveler, even though he knows that danger still lurks, has not appreciated such minor breaks from their toil? High drama in this scene should have been a shadowy figure leaping over the wall and following the Hobbits; instead it is Frodo falling on the floor and the Ring miraculously leaping into the air and falling on his finger. And then Jackson rips a scene directly out of Bashki’s adaptation where the Riders enter the Hobbits room and slash at the pillows. Overall, something that I would have dearly liked to see portrayed as it was in the book; but instead, Jackson decided to put his own stamp on it.

Council of Elrond

As stated above, this scene could have contained a great deal of interesting exposition, as well as the important themes of free will and destiny. Instead we get a mishmash of bickering followed by a corny selection of the Fellowship. A scene that could have been both moving and informative–underlining the history of the Ring, developing the character of Aragorn, demonstrating the quiet mettle of Frodo–became standard boring Hollywood fare.

Moria/Cave troll

An unbelievable amount of time was spent on the attack of the cave troll, and the most pressing question I would have is: why? The scene did little to carry the story forward. It seemed simply an excuse to have a "neat" battle and "cool" special effects, while more important parts of the story were left by the wayside. The Balrog seemed more like a lava monster and less like a palpable presence.

Breaking of the Fellowship

Most of what I have to say regarding this scene I said in the sections on Frodo and Aragorn. It really did not mirror the book, and it took away from the motivations of the characters. The battle with the Super Orc was typical Hollywood over-direction; the timeline of the story was altered so as to make Frodo appear weaker and Aragorn more indecisive. The death of Boromir lacked some of the most poignant lines of dialogue that Tolkien wrote. And it left me with feeling that the second movie is going to be even worse, if that is possible.

These brief (to my thought) snippets about the characters and certain scenes are just a glimpse into my distaste for this movie. But I will say that the "look" of the film was decent. Both the characters and the locations looked for the most part as they should–or as any reader of Tolkien might imagine them. In the end, one cannot fault a director for deciding on a particular style of architecture or the length of hair for a character. The director must go with what is given to him, and in this regard Jackson did an admirable job considering that Tolkien’s descriptions, while rich, are short on nitty-gritty details. Visual effects, costuming, props all enrich the movie and provide a background for the action. However, it is the screenplay that fails this movie. While the details of what kind of weapons the Orcs should carry or what the Balrog should have looked like might be murky or at least open to debate, Tolkien’s themes and the actions of his characters are astoundingly clear. Yet Jackson chose to alter them at nearly every step of the way; he chose to inject things into this movie that would make Professor Tolkien turn in his grave. And the result? A Hollywood blockbuster full of action, gory battle after gory battle, banal one-liners, and motive-less characters–topped off by an in-your-face score that made me think Jay and Silent Bob were about to pop out at any second.

If my take on this film seems harsh and vitriolic, it is meant to. I am angry: angry that Peter Jackson would have the audacity to denigrate Tolkien’s work as he did, angry that he claims to be faithful to the author, and angry that hordes of fans who know the book are lapping up Jackson’s tripe.

For years, I’ve looked with scorn upon the Ralph Bashki’s animated version. But watching it again, after having seen the current film, I can say that despite the psychedelic tendencies and strange animation, Bashki got it right for the most part. In the end, it is very telling that Tolkien’s name appears after Jackson’s in the credits: this film was all about Peter Jackson, Hollywood, and money, and little about J.R.R. Tolkien.

Rajesh Shah


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