“The Fellowship of the Ring” came out in theaters twenty years ago, almost to the day.
Below is an essay that I wrote in the days after I saw it — an essay that, besides being a bit of a time portal, covers a ton of subjects about books, movies, history, religion, dead white males, etc. You know the drill.
I have nothing to say about Tolkien today that would be as good as what I wrote twenty years ago, so I will say no more. Let’s just hit the switch on the time machine.
(A compilation of all three essays I wrote back then for Jackson’s trilogy is on its own page, Tolkien’s Movies.)
“The Fellowship of the Ring”
December 23, 2001
After two viewings with my friend Vigil
You never know how a movie will affect you. That’s especially true of the good ones. I had expected a great action film with epic excitement and a healthy spiritual pulse. I did not expect to feel so much sadness and loss. It was somewhat like the effect on me of James Cameron’s version of the Titanic story. For most of a day after first seeing “Fellowship” I simply felt like being silent. I was prepared, having read the book, for the losses of Gandalf and Boromir, so those were not the most emotional moments of the movie for me. What a surprise instead to be holding back tears when, after much suffering, Frodo lays eyes on Bilbo in Rivendell. And the lines in Bilbo’s face – how poignant to think that he was now dying, without the Ring. I felt very little for Bilbo in the book. But onscreen it was another story. Ian Holm is probably the single best actor in the cast, so there is little wonder that his appearance should have drawn up some authentic, adult emotion in me. It was his skills as an actor.
The second-best actor is undoubtedly Ian McKellen, and I must say I found his Gandalf a sadder figure than in the book. Tolkien’s Gandalf always gave me the sense that he could not take a false step; in the movie he hits his head in Bilbo’s house. His ease in dispatching the wolves on Caradhras, a sequence left out of the movie, illustrated his power in so many ways. Sam’s certainty that whatever fate had in store for Gandalf, it was not likely to be a wolf’s belly, illustrated Tolkien’s idea that Gandalf is little bowed by merely physical dangers or even forces of nature; his true enemies are spiritual powers like Sauron, Saruman, or the Balrog demon.
Tolkien reports that the Ring is a temptation for Gandalf, but McKellen gives us much more, and all of it casting Gandalf in a more vulnerable light. In the book he is the first to realize what the Ring is, and he appears to do much work over many years in coming to that conclusion. The movie implies that all Gandalf had to do was a little research on the Ring, and that he was late in doing so. Tolkien’s wizard comes back to Frodo in his usual self-possessed manner after a 12-year absence to explain what he has learned in his travels and hard labors; Jackson’s Gandalf, having done his historical research, rushes back to Frodo soon after Bilbo’s birthday party and is wild with anxiety over whether the Ring is safe. In the movie Gandalf pleads with Elrond that Frodo be released from his duties, only to be reminded by Elrond of the world’s peril; in the book it’s Gandalf who’s doing all the reminding, and no one speaks to him in like manner. Saruman mistreats him, but Tolkien does not portray these scenes for us, and does not even imply physical abuse, whereas in the movie we see Gandalf battered and suffering.
Gandalf on the page was prideful, and he bristles when Boromir questions his decision to go into Moria after seeing that the wizard does not know the password into the mines:
‘The answer to your first question, Boromir, is that I do not know the [password] – yet. But we shall soon see. And,’ he added, with a glint in his eyes under their bristling brows, ‘you may ask what is the use of my deeds when they are proved useless. As for your other question: do you doubt my tale? Or have you no wits left? I did not enter this way. I came from the East.’
He then figures out the password, an achievement left to Frodo in the movie. Jackson’s Frodo had also made the final decision to go into Moria, after Gimli twice suggests it. In the book Gandalf suggests the choice, makes the final decision, and figures out how to get in. All of this is important, because it is the place where Gandalf falls. His pride played a role in his fall, as did his courage, and his original thinking. He does not see his end, and must be reminded by Aragorn to have a worry for himself. In the movie, he senses he will fall in Moria, and has understandable fear about it. He goes because he is Frodo’s servant.
All these are significant changes, but for what was lost in the character of Gandalf, something was gained, too. Ian McKellen gives him a quiet voice, a wise whisper hinting of power underneath, which suits the cinema nicely. Unlike a stage actor, a film star can whisper and still be heard, and it’s been said that it’s easier for an actor to connect with the authentic part inside if he does not have to shout. Gandalf on the screen, when the Balrog appears, whispers what doom is coming, and warns that “This is a foe beyond any of you” so quietly that those around him would surely not hear him – but the audience can. McKellen has given us a cinematic portrayal, a Gandalf just as soulful as Tolkien’s, but in a different way. He is sadder, less prideful, and more vulnerable on screen.
This Gandalf is not seen confronting wolves by raising his voice and growing visibly like “some ancient king of stone set on a hill,” but like Tolkien’s wizard, he does something essentially equivalent when he confronts Bilbo about the Ring, at a moment when the dramatic tension comes not from an external attack but only the strain upon a dear friendship. That scene reminds me that confronting a friend requires its own kind of courage, and Jackson’s Gandalf has it. He has a courage that seems to be set firmly in the context of relationships, principally his devotion to Bilbo and Frodo.
Another thing gained in these changes is that since Frodo chooses to go into Moria, and Gandalf falls there as his obedient servant, Frodo’s tears for him take on an extra layer of meaning, on top of his childlike mourning for a lost father figure. Frodo’s character has also changed. He looks younger than he should, to start. This younger, childlike Frodo does not defy the Riders across the Ford with such stirring words as he uses in the book, lifting his sword when the Riders beckon him to Mordor:
By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!
Arwen’s role here, an inspired choice by Jackson, nevertheless takes this away from Frodo and makes him more passive. The screenwriters, trying to hold everything in balance, and having rightly but regrettably omitted episodes with Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wights in which Frodo’s role was central, then give him more at the expense of Gandalf, in the process creating a hobbit and a wizard different from Tolkien’s, but still successful. They work. More to the point, they work for the silver screen: for instance, Sam’s nearly drowning at the end is a little pokey in Jackson’s version but still emotional, principally due to that moment when we see Sam’s hand squeezing Frodo’s arm.
One complaint I have already heard concerns Merry and Pippin. In the book they devote themselves to Frodo without his asking, while in the movie they bumble into the adventure. At least Jackson has them draw the orcs away from Frodo at the end, something Tolkien did not do. Jackson tends to give something back for everything he takes away.
Another very large change from the book, but more successful, is the way that the movie builds up Saruman, and not merely by allotting screen time to episodes about him that Tolkien merely reported. Jackson and Christopher Lee have made him quite a memorable villain. Caradhras, the mountain which in Tolkien seemed to have a vicious will of its own, not bowing to any person’s power, is in the movie a passive figure before Saruman. He, not the mountain, not the spirit of Sauron, is shown to have power over nature. Jackson has illustrated this by showing us Saruman’s uprooting of trees, and his ability to quickly breed powerful new species. Last of all, and this is pure Jackson, is the way that Saruman subdues Gandalf, throwing him about with perfect mastery over the law of gravity. As I mentioned, Gandalf’s character loses something in order to give more to another character, and why not? Gandalf’s character is abundantly rich, and something is gained in return, notably a new portrait of what humility and pride mean in Gandalf. And a sequence not yet seen will pack more of a punch because of what has been done with Saruman in Jackson’s movie: the confrontation at Isengard.
Legolas comes off very nicely, but Gimli is much reduced, so we miss seeing the natural hostility between elf and dwarf blossom into a friendship. We also don’t get anything of Gimli’s love for Galadriel, one of the most wondrous things in the book, more memorable than Aragorn and Arwen. Jackson’s not finished yet but here I do think he’s missed the moment: it’s too late to insert much about the hostility between dwarves and elves, or to illustrate just how wondrous it is that Gimli should love Legolas and the “elf-witch.” Gimli and Legolas will be friends, and it will be left at that, unless Jackson has extra humor, heart and spirit to give those two.
I’ve heard that it’s a mistake to have Aragorn doubt himself because of his lineage. But in the movie Aragorn acts with decisiveness at the end, while Tolkien had him nearly wringing his hands at that moment, sharing in Frodo’s soul-searching. Aragorn’s relationship to Frodo might seem diminished – in the book he would never have let Frodo go to Mordor by himself – but on the other hand we get to see Aragorn close his hand over Frodo’s and the ring, which is part of Jackson’s treatment of temptation, and not a bad moment of devotion to Frodo, either. (I did not completely get the meaning of the scene, because I have the book interfering in my mind, but others have told me that when Aragorn hears the ring call to him in this scene, he realizes he has to let Frodo go, or else endanger him with the kind of temptation that Boromir does fall to). Overall, Viggo Mortenson’s Aragorn is a distinct improvement, in my opinion, over Tolkien’s. His love for Arwen is seen, his doubt is set off by decisiveness at all other turns, and Viggo simply conveys much more than the blank character that Aragorn was on the page.
Jackson has added a very interesting emphasis on humankind as fated to inherit Middle-Earth. What we see of men in this first movie is a less evolved state, when their wisdom is still uncertain, and their power not even acknowledged, still less come to fruition. This theme was not absent in Tolkien, but in the movie it hits home, especially in that moving sequence where Boromir says farewell to Aragorn. There’s a certain dignity and hope there, built upon Tolkien, but made Jackson’s own. I look forward to seeing what he does with it.
The screenwriters have added action sequences not in the book, all to positive effect. The one that crowds seem most to appreciate, judging from my two viewings, is Strider’s execution of the orc that slays Boromir. It brought up clapping like nothing else, and I would say it stimulates the gladiatorial spectator in all of us, but the righteousness of his vengeance cannot be missed.
Having Frodo chased by a Black Rider to the Ferry Crossing is successful as action and makes the audience feel protective of him, something that Tolkien accomplished at a more leisurely pace, with more words, history, inner reflection, and of course with the Barrow-wight episode, which is the single most terrifying passage in the book. But since it had to go, something else had to come in.
Arwen’s role at the Ford is not entirely invented. Loosely speaking, she takes the place of Glorfindel the elf, who joins Frodo’s company at the same time that she does in the movie – but Glorfindel sees Frodo to within a mile of the Ford, no further. Let me just say that to have a woman enter at this point, and not as another man in this buddy road film who’s merely dressed in women’s clothes, but as a savior different from all the rest, is just interesting at this point in the film. My intellect registers a creative choice and I feel the entrance of a different kind of energy.
Arwen’s love scene in Rivendell with Strider works because we get to hear renouncing her immortality, as Tolkien had reported in an appendix of the book. So we have a love story built from Tolkien’s own vision, evoking the sense of loss that the elves always mention when they talk about the Ring: Elrond surmises with sadness that even the three elf rings, never touched by Sauron, will expire when the One Ring is destroyed, and the height of elf civilization will pass away over the sea. In Tolkien, things fade away in victory or defeat, because of Time. The Nazgul men fade out of life because of the One Ring; dear Bilbo fades away from the real world, feeling stretched and thin while he has the Ring; and when he gives it up, Time takes over and he ages, his life fading. Victory over the Ring would mean the fading away of elves and ancient wisdom. Marriage, in Tolkien’s world, would mean the victory of mortality over immortality.
Much of this resembles real life; even folks who are not interested in spiritual matters, or inclined to look to worlds not registered by human senses, are agreed that physical things do not endure. Arwen’s choice to live, in her words, “a single lifetime,” as a mortal and with a human, strikes a chord that leaves Jews and Christians recognizing something theologically desirable, touches the romantics with an idea of a sacrifice for love, and strikes the realist as true because it is not escapist with regard to ordinary difficulties, and also not blind to death’s reality.
Now on the matter of purely cinematic choices: having Arwen raise the flood right there, facing riders only a few feet away, is more dramatic than Tolkien’s mysterious flood, later explained to be the doing of a character (Elrond) who is far away from the scene. Of course, a mysterious flood has its own dramatic effect: it would be a powerful force of nature from unknown sources with unclear intentions. But to have it reported later is something a movie cannot do if it is to stay cinematic, that is, if it is to serve the images onscreen as they’re happening. A book can afford to be more novelistic, that is, it can use words and reports while not sacrificing anything. The images produced in a book, such as a flood, linger and can be recalled with words, and also by the reader’s choice to reflect on them, not to mention the ability to return to a previous page. A movie’s images, though they might linger in memory, disappear and are replaced by new ones quickly, so there’s no going back, and the viewer who tries to go back has to blot out the specific images newly arrived on screen. It’s better all around, in any story, to show rather than to tell, but that is especially true in the world of moving images.
And so in the movie we get to see Saruman’s preparations for war, and his encounter with Gandalf, in real time. We see Sauron dispatching the Nine Riders, while Gollum is tortured, and Mount Doom burns over the Tower of Barad-Dur, itself pulsing with menace, all in real time. We see Isildur’s alliance of men and Elves battling Sauron, as reported, it is true, by an unknown narrator, but it is not a report that interrupts: it actually opens the movie, in real time, as a prologue of the past.
Even in Jackson’s film there are still many things reported. But they all work, partly because past events are reported as much in images as in words, and partly because no single report takes up too much time. The Council of Elrond, if it had been depicted as in the book, would have required the movie to sit for too long, and to sit with speeches. That is very hard to do successfully, unless you’re doing Shakespeare as Laurence Olivier did it, by delivering poetry already designed to be spoken out loud (albeit for the stage), with soulful cinematic voices, and with images all around, like the cinema-born noir images of his “Hamlet.” In a movie, images tell the real tale, the only tale that movie audiences really pay attention to. Wisely, much of the information that Tolkien transmitted at the Council of Elrond is spread out in the movie – such as the history of the Ring, Gandalf’s research into the Ring, and his imprisonment by Saruman.
And as another example, Gandalf’s fine words to Frodo about doing what we can with the time we have been given, originally spoken in the Shire, are now given in Moria, at a dark moment when they serve the movie well. Having Gollum appear at that moment also gives a dramatic context to Gandalf’s words about the pity of Bilbo and “many who deserve death.”
My single favorite moment in the movie actually comes in a flashback moment, though it is reported not long after it actually happened. That is the eagle picking up Gandalf. I knew he was coming, and when he arrived, and swoops Gandalf away, I have to tell you, the form of that eagle’s body in the darkness around Isengard just looked so real, so birdlike, under the wizard’s human form – what an incongruous and fantastical image! – that my heart was thumping with serious pleasure. I wrote many notes on the eagles of Middle-Earth after first reading Tolkien, and perhaps his kind speak to me. They are underrated in the book, and how gloriously they work on film!
Among other things not seen in the book, having the Fellowship fight the cave Troll is also a successful choice, though when Legolas jumped on its neck I did have to think of “Harry Potter.” (More on Harry later). The only quibble I have is that the troll’s sword should have crushed Frodo’s chest. It would not have pierced the mail coat that Frodo wore, but it would have crushed the life out of him. Tolkien’s choice was better: a single orc spear offers a point of death, too, but does not penetrate mail-coats. It’s a small matter, though; the mail is magical, after all.
Two images showed up in my mind repeatedly in the days after seeing the movie. The lesser of the two was a ground-level panoramic shot, from the side, of Arwen outpacing the Black Riders. This and the other image are two instances where the movie is running freely, so to speak, without a book to follow. The other is Jackson’s invention: Moria’s disintegrating staircase, which then comes back together in a small quake. When it collapses again, and its top half plunges slowly off to the right of the screen while our friends escape to the left, we’re talking serious thumping again. This is action as poetry. From the vastness of the column-lined inner city of Moria, to the image of eight single figures escaping across the thin bridge of Kazad-dum, the Moria sequence is the most successful and stirring in the whole movie. It was the one presented to acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, and even the few unhappy reviews I have read recently do say that this sequence delivers. It’s a masterpiece; stack it up there with the sinking of “Titanic.”
James Cameron’s epic comes back to mind in so many ways. It also opened on Dec. 19, and Vigil and I also saw it twice on its opening weekend, after months of shared anticipation. I had known about “Titanic” and “Fellowship” since their planning stages, which in each case turned out to be two years. CNN.com’s review of Jackson’s film said that not since “Gone With the Wind” had a movie held up so well to the book, which is not literally true, since good movies have been made out of bad books – but the comment indicates a kinship between these three extravaganzas, I think. “Titanic” was compared repeatedly with “Gone With the Wind,” and “Fellowship” is, as far I know, the first since then to elicit that comparison. If I had to identify what was going on, I would say that both Cameron and Jackson, through sheer passion for a personal project, have fashioned a work of art out of action-movie material, and left me surprised, as I said at the beginning, at the heartfulness and sadness I found. Both movies brought me back to a subject I thought I had exhausted years before, only to find an untouched layer of emotions I had not considered. All that is left is for “Fellowship,” as anticipated, to demonstrate legs at the box-office reminiscent of Cameron’s blockbuster, though I don’t think Jackson’s film is headed for such numbers. It will open bigger than “Titanic” and fall faster, though slower than any film this year, except perhaps “Shrek.” It will out-gross “Harry Potter,” I think, but it is not as broad in its sensibilities, when all is said and done, to outpace “Titanic.” And truth be told, “Titanic” left me both shaken and uplifted in ways that Jackson’s movie only approximates.
So we come now to the few unhappy reviews. One Tolkien fan wrote on MSNBC.com that Jackson’s film was loud and soulless, and that Harry’s film was preferable, with characters sketched to more human dimensions, and he is not the only one to say he now prefers Harry’s film. Part of this is just carping, I think, and it gives away a literary purist who likes his movie adaptations as faithful to the source as possible. But it does hit on something important. When I first read Harry Potter, I laughed out loud, and felt drawn into the story in a personal way. Harry’s adventures take place in daily life, and many of his experiences take place in ordinary settings like family life and school. Comedy is present, and so is the female sex, as well as love stories. All of it is recognizable but elevated at the same time, in the sense that Harry’s choices are so consequential to the larger world. So in Harry Potter we laugh and get to feel at home, though we also travel far away from the ordinary. In Tolkien everything is grim and not ordinary. The style is epic, the talk is epic, even the little love story feels epic rather than earthy.
Ancient mythology, by the way, could be both earthy and wickedly comical, so it is not that Tolkien is classical while Harry is modern. It is rather that Tolkien’s style is grim and lonely, in a world where the natural has been disfigured or blasted away by war: much like the Europe of Tolkien’s day. He fought in the trenches of World War I, after all. In the movie Boromir speaks about Mordor at the Council of Elrond with words that described certain 20th-century history very clearly: he says the land is waste and the very air is poisonous, evoking images of the barren French countryside in 1918, troops dug into trenches, and poison gas wafted into the air. But this just reminds us that Tolkien’s world is so prominently about war, and men, and the front. Rowling chooses to devote the body of her novels to a story about war on the home front, and women and children are abundant, if not exactly on equal footing with male characters; but Tolkien, for most of his book, chooses to leave the domestic behind, along with everything natural, or funny in the way that life’s least magical predicaments can be funny.
In the end, the fact that the few people who are not liking Jackson’s movie tend to see the “Harry Potter” movie positively should not be a surprise. Different worlds, different writers. And yes, different movies. One is epic and the other warm; two intentions could not be more different, so the comparison is useless after a while. For my money, the “Rings” movie is better. It communicates its life-force more successfully than Chris Columbus’ movie of “Harry Potter”.
What it communicates is epic and otherworldly, and never was meant to be otherwise. The two Ians, Holm and McKellen, have gone a long way toward humanizing the epic, and Frodo’s childlike presence has done much, too. Liv Tyler injects an energy both heroic and feminine, and Cate Blanchett adds a spooky radiance to the movie’s light. But really what we have is a story that, while not denying the human element, especially in friendship, goes beyond, and states openly that there is an impersonal struggle going on between good and evil. Whether that struggle is truly impersonal is a questionable matter. Christianity, as far as I can tell, says that it is a very personal struggle indeed (see virtually any part of the Bible), and within each soul as much as without. Tolkien’s story has been a beloved Christian work because in Frodo we have something of the idea that the true victory is won not by the strong, but the humble. And here we depart from the idea in the ancient mythologies that victory needs to be won by the hero with great ability in mind and body, like Gilgamesh, Achilles, Odysseus, or Beowulf.
These past two weekends I have been reading Gilgamesh and Beowulf. And revisiting The Iliad and The Odyssey, too, through reports in Bulfinch’s Mythology. I figured that my reasons for doing so came from purely personal interest and had nothing to do with the approaching movie. But studying those works, I now see the connections. There are little ones, on the surface: Gilgamesh was the king of a city called Uruk, and Tolkien gives Saruman’s orcs the name of Uruk-hai. A young prince in Beowulf is called Eomer, who is also a prince in Tolkien, the nephew of Théoden; another lord in Beowulf is called Hama, as is Théoden’s captain; the great hall in the Old English epic, like Théoden’s hall, is called Meduseld. A more substantial parallel would be the theme of ring-givers in Beowulf: how the kings of old were known as ring-bearers and ring-givers; how it was an honor to receive a ring; how wearing one was an expression of mutual allegiance. This theme Tolkien picks ups. The function of a ring in a different kind of allegiance, the marriage bond, barely appears in Tolkien. He does have two marriages, but really misses a golden opportunity which I hope Jackson takes: the chance to see a ring different from Sauron’s slipped onto a hand given in marriage.
There are other parallels. For instance, both Beowulf and Tolkien present dragons, each of whom is robbed.
And there are two more connections: Gollum as an echo of Cain, and the Balrog as an echo of Grendel. This is how Grendel is described in Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation (lines 102-108):
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marshes, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the eternal Lord had exacted a price
All of this brings to mind Gollum’s murder of his friend Deagol, his banishment by family and neighbors, and his lonely wanderings, like Grendel, cursing light and civilization. Gollum is not a demon – he is more Cain than Grendel – but Tolkien does reserve that adjective for another creature of Middle-Earth. When we see first see Grendel in Beowulf, we see that “a baleful light, / flame more than light, flared from his eyes” (lines 726, 727), and no reader of Tolkien could fail to think then of the Balrog.
Tolkien’s world also mirrors the idea in Beowulf that if the hero is lost, doom must follow. How different from the story of Christ, where immortality (the object of Gilgamesh’s lonely quest) follows the central figure’s death, and brings anticipation of the world’s end in a final battle, as in Tolkien, but with the greatest of hope. In Tolkien, as in Beowulf, fate is mysterious, and all depends on a single figure who can fall. In this sense, at least, The Lord of the Rings does not come off easily as a Christian tale.
The design of Beowulf comes closest to Tolkien, again, in the matter of the ladies, that is, in their near-absence, while Homer and Gilgamesh provide much more of the female sex. In The Iliad we have Helen of Troy, unwitting cause of so much war, and in The Odyssey we have Penelope, separated from her husband and wilefully contending with suitors; in both we have Homer’s goddesses in their full panoply of character. In Gilgamesh, the king spurns Ishtar (a cultural predecessor to Aphrodite) and stirs her vengeance; and then there’s the temple prostitute, humanizing the wild-man Enkidu. None of this would fit easily in Tolkien, unless Arwen may be said to motivate Aragorn as Penelope’s faithfulness and memory motivated Odysseus. But in general the ancient female roles mentioned do not mix well with Tolkien, not because they are different by chance, but because it’s hard to imagine Tolkien’s parallel for them. In Beowulf we have a story as focused on men, beasts, evil, and war as The Lord of the Rings. One woman does appear, in the role of a queen who has wise words to offer before the last battle is fought, and makes the gift of a torque to Beowulf himself, but who gives little in the way of active participation. Galadriel comes easily to mind here.
Perhaps the most solid connection is that Tolkien loved Beowulf, and wrote an essay, “The Monster and the Critics,” that made Beowulf scholarship what it is today: he pointed out, after it had long been forgotten in the stuffy circles of academia, that the epic revolved around the central character’s confrontations with the monsters, and that these encounters were not mere filler; the lesson has been almost universally accepted in the world of scholarship. I have to find that essay.
In the meantime I’ll take my girlfriend to see Tolkien on screen. Who knows, maybe we’ll even make out during the slow parts.