One film to rule them all

Peter Jackson's "Fellowship of the Ring" pleases both Tolkien nuts and "Lord of the Rings" virgins. How did he pull off such an unlikely feat?

Topics: J.R.R. Tolkien, Movies,

One film to rule them all

During the months of lead-up to the release last Christmas of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Peter Jackson’s remarkable film adaptation of the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” one question kept pushing to the fore. Jackson, we kept reading, needed to please the fanatical devotees of Tolkien’s fantasy classic — people who had (like me, I freely and proudly admit) been weaned on his saga of Elves and Dwarves and Rings of Power — or he’d never get his movie the approving buzz it would need. But he also needed to make a film that would reach beyond the cadres of Middle Earth-lovers to people who’d never cracked Tolkien’s tomes — or he’d never sell enough tickets.

As movie critics and feature writers and online scribes weighed the fate of Jackson’s project, they regularly set these two goals at odds with each other. If Jackson satisfied the hobbit-heads by showing proper deference to Tolkien’s work, the conventional wisdom went, he’d never get the masses into the theater. But if he did the necessary surgery on Tolkien’s saga to make it a movie with mass appeal, he’d surely piss off his core audience.

Once the movie opened and the critics began raving, the common explanation for the project’s success continued to parrot this perspective: Jackson had managed an extraordinary balancing act. He’d made the right trade-offs. He took the conflicting demands of fans and the general public and somehow found the perfect compromise.

This interpretation has the advantage of fitting conveniently into people’s preconceptions about the inherent differences between literature and cinema, art films and box-office bonanzas, smart moviegoers and crude mass audiences. But it’s wrong.

Anyone who watches “The Fellowship of the Ring” with a deep knowledge of the text on which it’s based can see — moment by moment, scene by scene, image by image — that what’s best in Jackson’s film is directly drawn from what’s best in Tolkien’s prose. The film is filled with visual tours de force — from the way the face of Ian Holm’s Bilbo tightens into orcish ferocity when he glimpses the ring he once possessed, to the way the whitecaps on a river flood-tide turn into galloping white stallions as they crest (a scene my colleague Stephanie Zacharek wrote about beautifully in her review of the movie). And every single one of them is a direct screen translation of some special effect that was already present in Tolkien’s writing.

It turned out that there was no conflict between satisfying Tolkien’s fans and catering to everyone else. What Jackson and his collaborators did right was to trust Tolkien, to draw virtually all of their movie straight from the book — understanding that the same visions that had captivated millions of readers for decades could, if transferred to the screen with respect and imagination, equally well captivate millions of viewers. Such trust is so rare in Hollywood today — and, when it’s found, it’s so often misplaced, in source material that doesn’t merit it — that the coherence and quality of “The Fellowship of the Ring” lands in our laps like an unexpectedly generous gift.

The sheer faith “Fellowship” places in its text is something many critics — who either hadn’t read the books or, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, hadn’t read them in a long time — simply missed. Here’s Elvis Mitchell, writing in the New York Times: “Mr. Jackson has exploited the anecdotal nature by turning ‘Fellowship’ into an escalating group of cliffhangers.” Well, no: Those cliffhangers are Tolkien originals, one and all, beautifully re-created by Jackson but already present on the page in their full nail-biting glory.

Consider how Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Ring” presents what is probably the action climax of Tolkien’s story: the confrontation, deep in the mines of Moria, between the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the Balrog, a mysterious “demon of the ancient world.” Now, the word “Balrog” doesn’t mean anything to the average moviegoer; it doesn’t mean anything at first to the reader of Tolkien’s book, either. All the reader knows is that this mysterious force of evil causes even Gandalf to quail (“What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge”) — and sends the hordes of lesser foes that have been assailing the story’s heroes skittering away in terror.

Tolkien’s description of the Balrog is somewhat vague: “It was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and go before it … Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.”

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A writer can use words to evoke images without having to spell out every detail; the reader’s imagination can be left to fill in a general outline. Gandalf’s declaration that “there are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world” (words that roll meatily from McKellen’s Shakespeare-seasoned mouth) leaves us free to imagine what those things might look like. Indeed, a filmmaker adapting a book like “The Lord of the Rings” is forced to compete with millions of readers’ mental pictures — the movies that unspool through our minds as we turn Tolkien’s pages. My Balrog isn’t the same as your Balrog; Tolkien’s blurry portrait left each of us free to draw one of our own.

A filmmaker doesn’t have that luxury: He has to put something on the screen, and it better be good. Jackson’s Balrog takes its cue, almost word for word, from Tolkien: There’s smoke and fire, and a blackness so intense that, when the characters finally emerge from the mines in the next scene into a cold snowy rockscape, you narrow your eyes and blink along with them. There’s a shadow that “reaches out like two vast wings.” And there’s the coiling whip of flame.

The movie’s showdown between wizard and demon is a moment of high suspense whose storyboard follows Tolkien’s original scheme practically shot by shot: Gandalf, perched on a slender stone bridge across an endlessly deep chasm, challenges the Balrog with an invocation; the demon falters a moment, then charges onto the bridge; the wizard smites the bridge with his staff, and it smashes asunder, hurling the Balrog into the deep; a last lash of the Balrog’s whip pulls Gandalf to the edge.

The whole thing happens quickly and leaves us, like Gandalf’s companions, stunned and full of questions. The reader of “The Fellowship of the Ring” doesn’t get those questions answered till deep in “The Two Towers,” the second book of the trilogy; moviegoers, similarly, will have to wait till the release of Jackson’s “The Two Towers” to learn more of what happened there at the Bridge of Khazad-dum.

I don’t think too many moviegoers are unhappy about that — they understand that “The Lord of the Rings” is a trilogy, and they’re only one-third through it. Jackson felt no need to concoct a bogus positive note for the conclusion of “Fellowship”; the movie ends, as the book did, with Frodo and Sam heading off through a barren craggy landscape toward Mordor, Middle Earth’s heart of darkness.

It’s as un-Hollywood an ending as you can imagine, yet it feels right because it’s consistent with the movie’s moral weight, its exploration of the uses of power and the nature of corruption. In such a context, artistic compromises — like, Hey, you can’t end a three-hour movie on such a bummer note! — would feel like the betrayals they are.

One great theme of “The Lord of the Rings” — the one that Jackson chooses to set at the center of his version — is the power of individual choice to alter the course of history. This “little guy does big things” angle happens also to be a classic Hollywood high-concept plot, to be sure; what sets “Fellowship” apart is the way individual choice — specifically, the choice of Frodo the hobbit to pursue the quest to destroy the evil One Ring, and the choices others make to support or hinder that quest — keeps being tested and examined from new angles. Tolkien’s men and elves and dwarves and hobbits are engaged in a vast struggle with Sauron, the Dark Lord, and the Ring’s power is a great temptation: Can it be used for good? Must it be renounced? Why? Each character’s encounter with this question adds a layer of depth to the story’s moral resonance.

Though readers have found echoes of everything from the Nazi concentration camps to the H-bomb in Tolkien’s symbols, he wasn’t writing straight allegory, but rather sculpting new myths from old. His Middle Earth was built from the ground up — first with the new languages that Tolkien, an Oxford philologist, invented for his world, then with histories and chronologies and cartographies and poetry, and only then with narrative tales like “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” The “Fellowship” movie is built on the bedrock of all this world-forging, and even the moviegoer who has never read a page of Tolkien can sense the rich embroidery of a fully imagined alternate universe that backs each frame of the film.

This is one trait that sets “The Fellowship of the Ring” apart from superficially similar movie sagas like the “Star Wars” epic (a comparison that has engendered no end of controversy in Salon’s pages). George Lucas assembled the “Star Wars” pastiche of space-opera clichés and Joseph Campbell-isms specifically for the screen, and everything in it feels second- or third-hand. At its best it’s entertaining fun, but its primary manifestation in the world is as a commercial enterprise — and the “Star Wars” universe has been built out through the years primarily as a means to drive purchases of “Star Wars” products.

Tolkien’s world predates any merchandising; it gestated in one writer’s head for decades before it became a monster hit among 1960s paperback readers. It has the integrity of a singular imaginative vision — along, certainly, with the limitations. Yes, “The Lord of the Rings” is romance-impaired, short on female characters and bracketed with a certain Victorian-English sentimentality; but given its other virtues and splendors, all one can do is acknowledge such shortcomings and say, “So what?”

To my amazement (because I was one of those Tolkien readers utterly convinced that no one could ever make a good movie out of “The Lord of the Rings,” and therefore no one should bother trying), Jackson tapped right into Tolkien’s voice, his pitch, the feel of Middle Earth — its heady mixture of Norse myth, English pastoral, medieval combat and Shakespearean chronicle. It’s that ear for Tolkien’s cadence that earns Jackson the freedom to trim Tolkien’s story down to size as needed (the cuts — in “Fellowship,” primarily the episode of Tom Bombadil — are reasonable and deft) and to make a small handful of artful changes (that’s Arwen riding Frodo to safety across the Ford to Rivendell, rather than the elf-lord Glorfindel, and I can’t imagine a Tolkien fan who’d put up a fuss).

People who love “The Lord of the Rings” love it, among other things, for its stature and sense of scale. Jackson’s swoopily hyperactive camera (as David Edelstein’s review in Slate smartly pointed out) does cinematic justice to Tolkien’s prose — it’s a kinetic eye that sets “Fellowship” instantly apart from the ponderous clichés of the sword-and-sorcery genre. In shots of Saruman’s citadel of Orthanc, for instance, he zooms up to the pinnacles of impossibly high towers and then down, down, down below the ground where infernal smelters are carving gaping wounds in the earth.

Here, or in the shots of the fiery Mount Doom in the heart of Mordor, you feel a sense of overpowering vastness and dynamic motion in perfect tension. The film’s infrequent touches of contemporary directing style (like the Hong Kong action-film moves in one scene of combat between Gandalf and the traitor wizard Saruman) are interpolated with perfect taste. Missteps (one off-key dwarf-tossing joke, the too-Christian-sounding choral notes in the Black Riders’ musical theme) are trivial; the important stuff is just right.

If Jackson keeps this up through the next two movies — and there’s every reason to imagine he can, since all three were conceived and shot together — “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” should offer stunning payoffs for Tolkien readers and everyone else alike. To get a sense of just how unusual and unlikely this happy outcome is, just recall another instance where a brilliant young filmmaker tried to adapt a much-loved epic of fantasy and science fiction. Cast your mind back to David Lynch’s “Dune.”

Devotees of Frank Herbert’s novel were appalled by the mishmash Lynch made of the desert-planet saga; moviegoers who hadn’t read it were simply perplexed and bored by its incoherence. “Dune” was a mess no matter how you cut it, but post-production trims forced by Lynch’s producer, Dino de Laurentiis, compounded the problem. So three cheers for Jackson’s film company, New Line, and its corporate overlords, for not similarly compromising “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

“The hearts of men are easily corrupted,” utters Cate Blanchett’s voice in the movie’s opening narration. But sometimes people still make the right choices — and when they do, new worlds open before our eyes.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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