Back in 2001, audiences' attentions were firmly fixed on the upcoming adaptation of a fantasy classic. ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ broke box office records and got glowing reviews, bringing the cultural obsession with J.K. Rowling’s creation to its zenith. However, while everyone was distracted by the boy who lived, another adaptation of arguably the greatest fantasy classic slipped into theatres, one that had been deemed unfilmible and the attempt likely destined for disappointment. Few expected it to be a massive success. No one expected it to be a critically-acclaimed, Best Picture-nominated masterpiece.
I was one of those people distracted by Potter, forgetting that ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ was around the corner. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ has been my favourite book for most of my life, and yet the hysteria around Potter meant that, as I was standing in line waiting to see ‘Fellowship’, I realised I hadn’t even bothered to see a trailer for it. I was about to see my favourite book turned into a film and I had no idea what it might even look like. I sat in my seat with my fifteen-year-old nerves rattling, terrified at all the ways they were going to screw it up. What I got was a night that changed my life completely.
Anyone who has followed my work for SWITCH over the past five years or had any conversation with me about film ever will know I bandy about the words "one of my favourite films" a lot - arguably way too much. There’s one thing I’m certain of though: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is my favourite film (I count them as a singular experience because I think they’re at their strongest together). So when the opportunity came up to write about the first film in the trilogy for its 15th anniversary, I jumped at the chance. I’ve set myself a challenge though - I can’t just gush over how much I love the film, I need to make a genuine argument for why I love it so much, especially as ‘Fellowship’ is probably the best of the three films. So, in a circumstance where I would be completely within my rights to just vomit hyperbole all over the page in praise of it, I’m going to attempt to seriously make my case for why ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ is such an important piece of our cinematic history.
'THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING' TRAILER 1
Tolkien’s monumental work seemed like a beast too impossible to tame, but what director Peter Jackson and his team proved was that the task wasn’t actually as impossible as it appeared. It had been done before - albeit in a different medium, in the 1981 BBC Radio dramatisation, where the book was condensed into 13 hours of storytelling. Much of the detail of Tolkien’s book had been omitted, but it proved that everything wasn’t essential to building the world and telling the story. Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens went one step further in their refining of a dramatised adaptation, and nowhere is that clearer than in ‘Fellowship’. By resting their narrative on the central through-line of the Frodo Baggins’ quest to destroy the One Ring, suddenly a lot of unnecessary detail falls away. The later two films may not have allowed for this, but this guiding principle gives the film of ‘Fellowship’ an emotional clarity and narrative drive that allows all the pieces to fall into place. There are clunky moments in the screenplay (though not as many as were to come), but their work streamlining the story proved that there was a way to tame the beast, and in the process uncover something totally unexpected about Tolkien’s book. Their adaptation succeeds where many fail, in that they concern themselves less with capturing as many "bits" of the book as more with capturing its soul.
Much has been written about the immense technical achievements of the film. It was as significant moment in the history of filmmaking as the opening of ‘Star Wars’, the dinosaur reveal in ‘Jurassic Park’, or bullet-time in ‘The Matrix’. Watching the prologue alone of ‘Fellowship’ was witnessing a leap in visual effects, design, cinematography and music the likes of which arguably hasn't been beaten. Peter Jackson and his team of artists, craftsman and lunatics pushed themselves and the medium far past what had been imagined at that point, but the truth is, none of that wouldn’t have mattered an ounce if it hadn’t had an ounce of heart. This was the huge surprise about ‘Fellowship’ to me as a fifteen-year-old, and something that still hits me hard now - it’s an emotionally resonant, powerful film. Amidst the enormity of the world and the events around it, Jackson’s focus is entirely on the human story, predominantly the Hobbits, innocents caught in the middle of what quickly goes from an adventure to a nightmare. By resting the narrative focus on Frodo, we see it through his eyes, and what we see is a world almost too big for him to comprehend, and a burden almost too heavy for him to bear. As much as Jackson grapples with and conquers the epic, his handling of the intimate is even more exquisite. The final five minutes are utterly heartbreaking and so deeply moving, friendships tested and splintered holding together as tight as they can, looking forward to face the darkness ahead. While the emotional scale of the series would grow as it went on, it was never more specific and intimate as it was in ‘Fellowship’, and even now, the film still sings with an emotional resonance most traditional dramas can’t seem to manufacture.
That cinema could be this biblical, this enormous, both visually and emotionally, was something audiences in 2001 hadn’t seen in a long while.
It’s hard to imagine this now, but ‘Fellowship’ was a daring film at the time. Three hour films weren’t the norm as they are now; neither were films with this many characters or fantasy films played as drama or tragedy with genuine conviction. There were no guarantees this film would work, and even less that the inexperienced team from New Zealand would even be able to pull it off. I’d argue though that this is why ‘Fellowship’ ended up being the masterpiece it is - it’s made with no sense of ego or overburdening confidence. Instead, it’s just trying to be the best it can possibly be, made with great love and care and daring. Much like Tolkien’s process of writing the book itself, they made their own rules and tried things they didn’t know would work. Most masterpieces are made without any knowledge that they’re a masterpiece, and that innocence and genuineness is often what makes them just that. ‘Fellowship’ benefits from being the first, unburdened by the expectations that would weigh on the later films, both of which would then benefit from not having the time to think about how big a success they were becoming. Jackson is flying by the seat of his pants in every frame, but what guides him and everyone on and off screen is their guts, their conviction and their iron-proof belief in the power of the story they are telling. It’s that belief that leads to the power we see and hear, in the resonance of the images and the operatic enormity of the score (unsurprisingly, my favourite film score of all time). That cinema could be this biblical, this enormous - both visually and emotionally - was something audiences in 2001 hadn’t seen in a long while.
It was also about timing. ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was released three months after September 11. The world was a scary, uncertain place, where the images on the news were bigger than anything at the cinema. Harry Potter provided escapism, but ‘Fellowship’ gave us a moment to grapple with the bigger questions of the nature of good and evil, of the struggle of the ordinary against the impossible, of the enormity of life and death, within a framework that was both distant and familiar at the same time. There are moments of cathartic grief in that film that really hit home in 2001, and much like we now see ‘Star Wars’ in the context of the political and social upheavals of the 70s, I think we should see these films - and this film in particular - within the context of the world it emerged in, a world I would argue needed it more than it could have expected.
‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was never considered a genuine Oscar contender outside of technical categories before it was released. Its jump to the front of the race for Best Picture was sudden and breathtaking, and this in itself should be enough to convince of its legacy (many still believe, myself included, that it should have won). It’s a powerful piece of cinema, one that captures all the potential for what cinema can be, and while its later chapters would reap even greater rewards and acclaim, I think ‘Fellowship’ is still objectively the finest film in the trilogy. It’s an extraordinary achievement, a perfect balance between the epic and the human, a visual spectacle that is never about its spectacle, an assault on the senses and on the heart. As Frodo and Sam walked uncertainly towards the fires of Mordor in the distance, we all collectively held our breaths in anticipation for the long wait ahead, but giddy from what we’d just seen. I know I was never the same again after I saw that film, and I doubt the art of cinema itself was either.
But if we thought we knew what was coming, we really hadn’t seen anything yet.