Since JRR Tolkien published his mighty head-trip epic in the 1950s, its influence has got everywhere in popular culture: in games, the fantasy genre, and for a while of course in music. Peter Jackson’s reverent screen version of Tolkien’s first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring seems similar from certain aspects nothing so much as a 178-minute electric mandolin solo.
Obviously, the stately texts that Tolkien taught at Oxford have crashed further out of fashion than ever, and Tolkien’s own imitations have simply supplanted them in the canon. Do fans of Lord of the Rings go on to gobble up Le Morte Darthur, Troilus and Criseyde or perhaps Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Professor Tolkien’s own magisterial 1925 edition? Puh-lease.
It is the master’s own delirious Wagnerian-Arthurian marathon, starting here with the winsome young hobbit Frodo Baggins protecting the ring from the evil Lord of Mordor (pronounced with a preposterous Olde Welshe type rolling “r”), that has become the imitated classic. But only now, after nearly 50 years, has the first substantial movie version arrived, made possible by advances in CGI and a new taste, arguably, for politically inflected escapism and good-versus-evil battle fantasy.
So here we are, plunged back into that distant, mist-wreathed world, a dark era when no work of children’s fiction was considered properly imaginative unless it had a map of its elaborate made-up geography just inside the front cover.
The Middle Earth that director Peter Jackson has created for his hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards and trolls is magnificently realised, an exotic, hyper-real English countryside, melding with a dramatic North American landscape: much richer than a Roger Dean album cover. It is the stunning landscape of the director’s own New Zealand which stands in – digitally modified here and there – and, in many ways, New Zealand itself is the modest star of the film.
It is in these swooping, rolling hills and forests that the young hobbit Frodo Baggins inherits the Ring from his twinkly-eyed kinsman Bilbo (Ian Holm). He teams up with a Fellowship of the Ring, a species cross- section of Middle-Earth: hobbits, elves, humans, a wizard and a dwarf. They all begin their very long quest to return it to the forge where it was made, and so permanently destroy its potential for evil.
Frodo is portrayed by Elijah Wood, whose pert features are forever set in a kind of glazed, dazed, saucer-eyed expression of shock, as if he had just been goosed by one of the elves. Like all hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo are only about three-and-a-half feet tall, which necessitates some fancy FX-footwork when they are standing next to normal-sized members of the Fellowship, and occasionally getting children (or possibly, ahem, real dwarves) to body-double for them from behind.
The other big star, playing a sort of Ben Kenobi to Frodo’s Luke Skywalker, is Ian McKellen as the great-bearded, pointy-hatted, long-pipe-smoking stoner wizard Gandalf. As ever, McKellen effortlessly dominates the screen. Chortling, benign, mischievous yet wise, Gandalf provides spiritual and logistic leadership for the Fellowship, and does so after what is the movie’s one moment of real psychological drama.
This is the confrontation with Saruman, the sinister wizard, played by that formidably intelligent performer Christopher Lee – still a screen force – with grey hair permed out into long straight tresses, like a cross between Methuselah and Mary Hopkin. Having at first pretended to be on Gandalf’s side, Saruman joins the forces of evil.
That, really, is the sole moment of narrative interest: a knotty storyline reversal. For most of the time, the Fellowship and the plot itself simply drift unidirectionally across a huge, undulating plain, stopping for the weird sword-clashing punch-up. They encounter arresting personalities: Cate Blanchett‘s commanding Elf-Queen Galadriel and Liv Tyler’s Elf Arwen cross their paths, though their roles are marginal – this movie is a men-only affair.
Also, Sean Bean’s Boromir has an agonised, ambiguous fascination with the Ring which almost leads to calamity. But, in spite of all this and a mighty pitched battle with Mordor’s deadly and violent soldier-creatures, there is a strange paucity of plot complication, a lack of anything unfolding, all the more disconcerting because of the clotted and indigestible mythic back story that we have to pull through before anything happens at all.
There is no doubt that Peter Jackson and designer Grant Major have come up with a stunning-looking movie, a complete world entire of itself. But I can’t help remembering their similar achievement for Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, in which the fantasy world was significantly a symptom of regressive, emotionally dysfunctional teenagers. Whether or not that’s a fair description of The Lord of the Rings‘ target fanbase, I can hardly say, but we are certainly expected to buy into this fantasy without qualification. And it is sometimes a pretty serious – not to say humourless – world.
There are a few funny lines but, as in a certain type of erotic movie, jokes are basically antipathetic to the Lord of the Rings experience. Unlike Tattooine, or Hogwarts, or even Camelot, Middle Earth is very self-important, especially when people are deadpanning lines like: “By nightfall, these hills will be swarming with orcs.”
In the end, signing up to the movie’s whole hobbity-elvish universe requires a leap of faith, a leap very similar to the ones that characters are always doing across bridges and crumbling, vertiginous precipices. It’s a leap I didn’t feel much like making – and, with two more The Lord of the Rings movie episodes like this on the way, the credibility gap looks wider than ever.