There are three film franchises that have impacted me above all others. First, there came STAR WARS, which kept me happy throughout my first decade (on VHS – sadly I’m too young to have seen the original trilogy on the big screen). Then, in winter 2001 the way fantasy films looked, sounded and felt was changed forever with the releases of HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in close succession. There’s no denying the impact of these touchstones, particularly of the veritable mountain climbed in adapting Tolkien into a blockbuster, but just how well have they aged? Without further ado, let’s take a look back at the opening chapter of Peter Jackson’s ambitious fantasy epic on its fifteenth anniversary.
In the first chapter of the granddaddy of grand fantasy storytelling, nine companions quest across Middle Earth to return the banished Dark Lord Sauron’s Ring of Power to the land of Mordor and destroy it. The ring bearer Frodo’s (Elijah Wood) burden is great, and many dark forces are drawn to the power of the One Ring, but the quest must succeed for Middle Earth to survive.
Getting all your exposition out of the way at the beginning can really save you, and your audience, an almighty headache further down the line. The prologue to Fellowship is about as elegant and attention-grabbing as such world-building sequences can be. The themes, the scale and the stakes are established from the off and the later Council of Elrond scene is much less drawn out without the need to reestablish the treat and the concerns of the various races when it’s done so cleanly in the first ten minutes.
As thrilling as the sweeping action scenes accompanied by Howard Shore’s soaring score can be (Balin’s Tomb especially still holds up today), it is some of the littler moments that are the most satisfying. This is one of the well-realised cast of characters ever assembled, and it’s all down to the harmonious ensemble. Look to Gandalf (Ian McKellan) uttering that famously ominous rhyme to Frodo by firelight; Bilbo’s (Ian Holm) sobbing apology to his nephew “for everything”; the Fellowship’s pain in grief at the apparent demise of their guide; Sam’s (Sean Astin) unwavering loyalty to his friend.
The special effects still look pretty good, with only the forced perspective used for making similar-sized actors look a different scale to each other starting to look ropey to the modern SFX-trained eye. Real locations and hard graft from Weta Workshop and the art department win the day and give the film staying power that the more CG-ed THE HOBBIT surely won’t have when as many years have passed.
The casting couldn’t have been better, and every member of the Fellowship inhabits their role completely. I’ll admit that I was never especially convinced by Aragorn and Arwen’s forbidden romance, and this has not changed over time, particularly with Viggo Mortensen and Liv Tyler turning in far more accomplished performances since. If there’s a real love story in Lord of the Rings, as we all know, it’s between Frodo and Sam. Sadly, we had to wait until the concluding chapters of Rings before we’re given a compelling female character at all (Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel is more of a plot device), which is clearly why Jackson and his writers created Tauriel for the Hobbit: an attempt at balance.
Fellowship has aged remarkably well midway through its second decade. Every time I revisit this towering tale I’m very hard-pressed not to see it through to the end. For me it still holds wonder and its lasting effect on the shape of the contemporary film industry can’t be disputed. Pretty much every fantasy post-2001 that wasn’t Potter tried to be Lord of the Rings, which wasn’t always a bonus. Fair enough to bring back the impressive locations of New Zealand and Weta’s army of armourers for NARNIA, but SNOW WHITE and ALICE IN WONDERLAND never needed battle scenes or grand themes. Nor did The Hobbit, for that matter… SSP