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There are two kinds of people probably sharing the same dread about the movie adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien‘s ornate and busy ”Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring” — its most loving adherents and those who have spent whole their lives avoiding the novels. But none of them is likely to be disappointed by the director Peter Jackson’s altogether heroic job in tackling perhaps the most challenging nerd/academic fantasy epic ever.
Given that huge portions of the movie are devoted to exposition (there’s a crushing amount of explanation required), Mr. Jackson has simmered the book down to the most compact action-epic of which could be made. As director and co-scriptwriter (he wrote the adaptation together with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) he knew that what propels the story forward are the battles between the odds of good and evil — a word from which British stage actors can extract at least three syllables.
One of those British actors, Ian McKellen, plays Gandalf, the wizard and friend to the Baggins family. Gandalf stops by on the Shire to pay a visit to his hobbit friend Bilbo (Ian Holm) on his 111th birthday. (It’s good to see Mr. Holm and Sir Ian together, even though the special effect required to make the hobbit diminutive and Gandalf lanky and majestic interferes with their ease.)
During the celebration, Bilbo gives his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood) a ring, and it places Frodo in the center of a struggle for the future of the world. The ring, which contains an evil wizard’s ”cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all life,” must be destroyed in the fire Pits of Mordor, where it was created. Even the mighty Gandalf is afraid of this special ring.
” The Fellowship of the Ring ” then slips into a series of chases and pitched battles, each with a bit more at stake because the ring’s power to tempt those who come in contact with it becomes a bigger factor. Mr. Jackson has exploited the anecdotal nature by turning ” The Fellowship of the Ring ” into an escalating group of cliffhangers. This is the craftiest way to deal with the essence of ” The Fellowship of the Ring,” shrinking the border between seduction and greed. When the ring corrupts both sides, what’s the difference between people who want it to do what’s right and those who want it for less selfless reasons?
Tolkien’s books were written and passed around from zealot to zealot long before fantasy became the order of the day in contemporary popular culture, which is why so much of ” The Fellowship of the Ring ” will seem familiar to those who know nothing about them. (Tolkien devotees are probably still wiping the bad taste of Ralph Bakshi’s poky 1978 animated adaptation from their mouths.)
Rather than emphasize the similarities to George Lucas’s mythology, Mr. Jackson gallops straight through them, trimming away as many of the complications as possible. ” The Fellowship of the Ring ” might still seem like ”Star Wars” and just about every other otherworldly battle epic of the last 3decades — a whopping composite of Christian allegory, Norse mythology and a boys’ book of journey. There’s not much of a place for women on the loamy, rich dream scapes of Middle Earth; they enter the action briefly as if they were dream figures, part of the film’s subconscious, like the glorious Elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the magical Arwen (Liv Tyler).
” The Fellowship of the Ring ” centers on a band composed of the hobbits Frodo and his best friend, Sam (Sean Astin); the wizard Gandalf; and a group of warriors that finds the humans Aragorn (played by Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), the cranky dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and the elf archer Legolas (Armando Bloom).
Mr. Jackson apparently feels that the way to keep each of the fighting groups separate in the audience’s minds is to provide them with hairstyles reminiscent of 1970’s bands. The hobbits all have heads of tossled curls – they look like members of Peter Frampton’s gang. Aragorn and Boromir have the long, unwashed bushes of Aerosmith, and the flaxen-maned Legolas has the fallen-angel look of one of the Allman Brothers. (The tubby, bilious and bearded Gimli could be a roadie for any of them.) ” The Fellowship of the Ring ” serves like a sword-and-sorcery classic produced by VH-1. Together, they rock against the forces of Sauron — the evil wizard who created the Ring that Frodo holds. They need to pass through a cavernous passageway to successfully face the assortment of nightmare creatures that Sauron sends to stop them.
In Tolkien’s book, each obstacle represents what is by now a kitschy level of enlightenment; once it’s surmounted, you can never go back. Although this sadder-but-wiser educational experience is vital to the story, instead of snip it away, the director lingers on the mournfulness. When Frodo’s band of brothers has to endure its sacrifices, the movie has a sense of loss. Mr. Jackson puts more feeling into ” The Fellowship of the Ring ” this time around than he did with his previous movies, namely ”Heavenly Creatures” and the bracing shock comedy ”Dead Alive” and ”The Frighteners” (which contained milder elements from ”Dead Alive”). He’s better at this stuff than the happy shenanigans at Bilbo’s birthday bash in the Shire; it’s an entire village of comic relief. Mr. Jackson is a deft moviemaker, though, blending humor and horror in the same sequence — so that the actors’ takes of disbelief when yet another menace materializes are so expressive they look like part of the storytelling.
The movie gets going once the quest begins and the adventurers hit the road. As the actors serve a plot need instead of filling out characterization, the film works best when the they quickly communicate their functions. Mr. Wood’s light, tremulous voice for Frodo and earnest, pointed face offer decency. He sometimes appears to possess the visage that Michael Jackson has spent tons of money having sculptured by man-made means.
Sir Ian’s good-humored courtliness goes a long way, especially in his sequences with his used-to-be mentor-turned-nemesis, the wizard Saruman; he’s portrayed by Christopher Lee as if he were still Dracula rising from the death. Mr. Mortensen’s tendency to withhold as an actor informs Aragorn’s nobility, and he moves well with a sword; it gives him an action hero’s passion, which contrasts with Bean’s conflicted Boromir.
If the actors had more to do, the picture might run longer than its current 165 minutes. At that length, a few people might find the film exhausting, because those not caught up in the story — which will appear reiterative as Tolkien’s prose has been pillaged so often — may find themselves indifferent to ” The Fellowship of the Ring.” The playful spookiness of Mr. Jackson’s direction brings a vivid, light touch, a gesture that doesn’t usually come to mind when Tolkien’s name is mentioned.