| Into the mines of Middle Earth
Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring
is a complex vision of a fantasy classic
1 | INDEX
The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, is stunning. Taking full advantage of its New Zealand filming location, the film ventures into forbidding mines, across open fields, down turbulent rivers and across snow-capped mountains, the film's palette shifting according to mood. At one particularly striking moment, the Fellowship emerges from the deep blacks and reds of a mine into a wide-open expanse of whitish gray rocks, the abrupt shift in scene echoing the characters own change from fear to sadness.
For those who've neither read the books nor seen the movie I can only suggest that you do both, posthaste. Both are well worth your time (the book, of course, being both more time-consuming and more worthy). The story takes us through an episode in the War of the Ring, a great conflict in a place called Middle Earth between the forces of Good (elves, dwarves, humans--some of the them--and diminutive hobbits) and Evil (orcs, goblins, and sundry minions of the main meanie of Middle Earth, Sauron, a sort of fallen angel). At the center of the conflict is the unassuming hobbit Frodo (played by a wistful Elijah Wood), assisted by the wizard Gandalf (a bearded and pointy-hatted Ian McKellen) and a Fellowship of dwarves (1), elves (1), humans (2), and hobbits (3).
Jackson took on a great challenge in translating these beloved Second-World-War-era books to the screen. But Jackson has a fully-formed vision of Tolkien's world and seems willing to take risks. Pacing was clearly the biggest challenge. While Tolkien's narrative typically strolls with a slow swelling of tension and significance rather than giving us a sudden flash of excitement, Jackson pumps the blood through the narrative at points. For example, Gandalf's anxiety-bordering-on-fear when he discovers that Frodo is in possession of the One Ring, key to Sauron's power, is not especially true to the original, in which Gandalf is singularly phlegmatic. But Gandalf's emotion pushes the plot along in a way that would have been impossible in a more faithful adaptation. The way Jackson solves the problem of visually stitching the narrative together is impressive: he uses scenery changes (as Steven Soderbergh used colored lenses in Traffic) to signal shifts in place, time and mood and keep the many characters in some kind of order.
Tolkien's books have been criticized for their males-only, each-race-in-its-place philosophy. Jackson's version, while beefing up the role of one of the books' main female characters (Arwen, an Elvish princess played appealingly but perhaps a little flatly by Liv Tyler), is quite true to the original. It is an all-male Council that decides the fate of the Ring, and an all-male Fellowship that guards the Ring-bearer. Each race has its special strengths and weaknesses: the dwarves doughty and dense, the elves noble and aloof, the hobbits pure and powerless (mostly). Only "Men"--no gender-neutral "humans" here--are slightly more complex, sometimes good and sometimes evil.
Even more striking than the strict divisions between races, however, is the strength of kinship ties within them. Blood is thick in Tolkien's world, in the books and on film. The adaptation is careful to preserve Bilbo Baggins's exhaustive enumeration of the families of Hobbiton, Gimli the Dwarf's mourning over his cousin Balin, and Aragorn's anxiety over the weakness of the "blood" he has inherited from Isildur, an ancient ancestor. Even Elrond, a half-human elf, criticizes humanity for having "spent" the strength of its ancestors' blood. Keeping the lines pure and the families strong--this is one of the central themes of Tolkien's work.
But it is not without its exceptions. Elrond is, after all, "Half-Elven," and no less respected or powerful because of it. And the central romance of the trilogy, brought out even more strongly in the movie than in the books, is between Arwen and Aragorn, elf and human. (Aragorn is descendent of human kings, but was raised by Elves.)
In the parking lot after seeing "The Fellowship" for the second time, I overheard a girl scream to her two friends--more than once--"Elves can't marry people!" In a way, she was right; in Tolkien's world, all of the forces are working against kind of inter-racial intimacy. But what she missed was one of the complexities of Tolkien's world and part of what has made his myths endure; that even in a world where everyone (perhaps even the author) is against it, it still happens.
Into the mines of Middle Earth