The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2001 (the last before the category was split into Long Form and Short Form), and the Nebula for 2002 (awarded in 2003) It also won four Oscars. IMDB users rank it top film of 2001 on one system but only fourth on the other, behind Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Thir13en Ghosts (which I had not heard of) and Donnie Darko. For the Nebula, it beat Shrek, The Dead Zone episode “Unreasonable Doubt” and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Once More, with Feeling”.
For the Hugo, it beat, in the following order, Shrek again, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Monsters, Inc. and “Once More, with Feeling” again. I haven't seen any of The Dead Zone, and I'm not sure if I have seen Shrek – I think I've been in the room while other people's children were watching it without paying too much attention – but I've certainly seen the other three. “Once More, with Feeling” is one of my favourite Buffy episodes, but I think I'd have voted with the crushing majority that gave the Hugo to The Fellowship of the Ring on the first count. It was also far ahead at nominations stage. (“Once More, with Feeling” got the second highest number of first preferences, but was overtaken by the other films in the counts for later places and ended up fifth out of five, which I think is an injustice.)
I usually start with actors who have appeared in earlier films that won the Hugo, Nebula or Oscar, but I'm going to step slightly outside that for Elijah Wood, so memorably Frodo Baggins here and in the next two films; he was the kid playing video games at the start of Back to the Future II back in 1989, when he was eight.
We've seen John Rhys-Davies, Gimli here, as Sallah in the two Hugo- and Nebula-winning Indiana Jones films, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Ian Holm is the only cast member with a speaking role in an Oscar-winning film. Before being Bilbo here, he was Abrahams' coach Mussevini in Chariots of Fire, as well as of course being the android Ash in Alien.
According to legend, Christopher Lee, Saruman here, was an uncredited and non-speaking palace guard in Olivier's Oscar-winning 1948 Hamlet
Slightly surprisingly there is only one crossover with Doctor Who, and there it's a voice-only role; Ian McKellen, Gandalf here, was the voice of the Great Intelligence in The Snowmen (2012), though to be really meta, he also appeared the following year as himself playing Gandalf in The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.
I saw this in the cinema when it first came out, and loved it then, and enjoyed the whole trilogy in 2005, and twenty years on I love it still. Of course I know the original book backwards, so I was poised to be hyper-critical of ways in which the film failed to live up to expectations (as the Bakshi version largely failed). I'm also still a fan of the BBC radio version from forty years ago, which is surely a high water mark for dramatisation of any novel in any medium. And in general I start these reviews with things I didn't like so much, so I'll do the same here.
Though there's very little to object to. Yes, we lose the Elves in the Shire (though they are in the extended edition), the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Wight, which are really vivid parts of the book, but IIRC the BBC and Bakshi did the same; I think it would be difficult to dramatise Bombadil without being twee – he fulfills a function in Tolkien's mind and on the page, which sensible scriptwriters have resisted adapting.
(There is a hilarious adaptation of Bombadil in Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney's parody, Bored of the Rings. “Toke a lid, smoke a lid, pop the mescalino! …Hop a hill! Pop a pill! For old Tim Benzedrino!”)
The fervent Tolkien fan must also twitch at the infantilisation of the characters of Merry and Pippin, who in the book are well abreast of Frodo's plans to the point of maturing their own plan to travel with him, like it or not, but are set up in the film as mere comic relief. At the same time, fervent Tolkien fans know and expect a significant future narrative trajectory for them both. (Also, re Billy Boyd's accent – lots of planets may have a North, but even a small patch of hobbit territory in Middle Earth has a Scotland.)
The last and most trivial ground of complaint is that the timescale of the book is drastically compressed – seventeen years elapse between Bilbo's party and the formation of the Fellowship in the original novel, whereas in the film we get the sense that it's only a matter of weeks.
OK, onto the good stuff, and there is a lot of it. The sense of scale is in general very well done. In particular, making the hobbits and dwarves look shorter than humans, orcs, elves and wizards is a cinematic masterpiece. There are one or two moments where it slips (meaning distance shots of the Fellowship where it's fairly obvious that the hobbits and Gimli are being played by shorter standins, and a slightly awkward overlay at the Council of Elrond). But for most of the three hours (four if you watch the director's cut) it works well and convincingly. Likewise the battle and chase sequences have occasional weak moments, but the tolerant viewer will ignore them for the sake of the greater spectacle.
Dramatising Isildur at the beginning is a great move, setting the epic tone which would have been lost if we had just jumped straight into the birthday party. At the same time, the first reveal of the Shire is an amazing piece of establishment and world-building. In general the places of Jackson's Middle Earth look beautiful and they look like you wanted Tolkien's Middle Earth to look. New Zealand has a starring role in all three films.
Boosting the role of Arwen is also frankly an improvement on the book. As Una McCormack has observed, there are more named horses than named women in The Lord of the Rings. It remains a story about male chaps having male adventures, but Jackson has mildly redressed the balance. It’s also entirely right for dramatic purposes to relocate Boromir’s death from the beginning of The Two Towers to the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.
All of the performances are excellent, starting with Elijah Wood, who was still a teenager when filming began, and ending with Cate Blanchett, who at 30 successfully conveys millennia of authority. I think Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn isn't quite as interesting as Robert Stephens in the BBC audio, but that's a high bar.
And, well, the music.
F, having previously read The Hobbit but not LOTR, watched it with me and enjoyed it. So it's not just me.
Two more notes.
Here's a brilliant blog post by Dimitra Fini, looking at how Jackson's imagery of the hobbits hiding from the Black Rider derives from Bakshi and ultimately from the early twentieth century art of Arthur Rackham.
And here's Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jack Black infiltrating the Council of Elrond.
Of course I went back to re-read the book, for the first time since 2004. The second paragraph of Chapter III, "Three is Company", is:
‘I know. But it is difficult to do both [go quietly, and go soon]’ he [Frodo] objected. ‘If I just vanish like Bilbo, the tale will be all over the Shire in no time.’
A couple of points struck me in the light of having rewatched the film. The first is that the foreword to the second edition and the prologue are both in their different ways integral to the text. The foreword is a curious piece of soul-baring which tells us how not to read the book and refuses to tell us how we should read it.
The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved. The most critical reader of all, myself, now finds many defects, minor and major, but being fortunately under no obligation either to review the book or to write it again, he will pass over these in silence, except one that has been noted by others: the book is too short.
And a moving note on personal experience:
An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous. It is also false, though naturally attractive, when the lives of an author and critic have overlapped, to suppose that the movements of thought or the events of times common to both were necessarily the most powerful influences. One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
(Though it’s telling that the “close friends” don’t seem to include Edith. The survivor is Christopher Wiseman.)
I’ve noted some points of difference with the film above, but I’ll also note here that the hobbits we hear about in the Shire are almost all chaps. It would be nice to know more about Melilot Brandybuck, who dances the Springle-ring with Everard Took. (Some have speculated.)
Anyway, I’ll get onto The Two Towers in due course, but first the 2001 Oscar winner, A Beautiful Mind.