Under the Radar’s very first print issue came out in December 2001. In honor of our 15th Anniversary some of our writers are reflecting on some of their favorite albums (and movies and TV shows) from 2001, that are also celebrating their 15th anniversary.
Stringing a story out over several films usually leads to failure. The Lord of the Rings is different, to a large degree because it’s actually one story forced into three separate entities, just as the book was when it proved more advantageous to publish in segments. Thus choosing a favorite is more a matter of taste than quality given the remarkable evenness across the trilogy. Whatever anyone else says, for me it will always be The Fellowship of the Ring.
First released 15 years ago back in 2001; its impact has not yet receded. Over the years I’ve re-watched all three films regularly. I’ve attended back-to-back screenings through the night, re-read the books, and waited in patient excitement for the delayed arrival of The Hobbit, a flawed but impressive achievement. Fellowship stills sits at the top. It’s almost hard to remember back to the time when it seemed like a bad idea.
The depth of the books, the painstaking world creation undertaken by J.R.R. Tolkien, did not seem a comfortable fit for cinema screens. To achieve the right sense of scale, money would be needed. To recoup investment, Hollywood has a tendency to aim for a low denominator, cutting out the detail and nuance that makes Middle-earth such an engrossing proposition. I feared the worst and went in with expectations dutifully lowered. How wrong I was.
It helps that this series costing hundreds of millions of dollars was in many ways a passion project. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and their team were given the kind of control rarely handed out, especially since the ’70s New Wave blew up in the faces of studio executives. Making the films together and decamping to New Zealand allowed them to get on with it. Their veneration for the source material also coupled delightfully with a purist’s love of film. Thus we have that rarest of beasts; a smash critical hit, multiple award winner, and runaway box office success.
Part of what makes Fellowship stand out is the freshness. It’s our first glimpse at a world soon to capture millions. We meet the characters for the first time and we understand just what it is they face. I’ve always been a sucker for origin stories and this is about as good as they get. The whole thing is one long beginning punctuated by flashes of brilliantly conceived action and carefully calibrated character development. The tone set here carries faithfully through two more films. The stakes rise higher but it all flows from the path first forged back in 2001.
The key reason Fellowship and the wider trilogy succeeds is the decision not to follow blindly after Tolkien. Like all good adaptations it knows better than to try for the magic of the book, translating the material into the visual language of cinema. The opening prologue is a good summation, mixing in enough history to create a sense of scale while allowing the camera to roam across forbidding landscapes, supported by Howard Shore’s superb score. As the forces of Sauron charge forward and the weapons of their foes swing up in a line it feels like we’re glimpsing something bigger.
This allows events and characters to be removed and condensed, trimming back details without diminishing the story. Periodically a new sight of breathtaking scale will flood the screen, building out the lore of Middle-earth in the way only film can. It happens when we see Rivendell for the first time, or the mines of Moria looming from the darkness. When the Hobbits stand on the ruins of Weathertop, the link to a once mighty past is woven in as we watch them cook and bicker. The same happens when they float past awesome stone statues. Shore’s score is always there to signpost the importance of these symbols.
Yet that is only half the tone set by Fellowship. What makes it so powerful is the way it marries scale with intimate character portrait. Jackson and co strike a complex emotional note, mixing fear and excitement with a growing sense of loss for a world none of the characters will ever be able to return to. If they fail in their mission Sauron wipes them from the map; if they succeed they’ll have changed too much to be able to slip back into past lives. Casting helps sustain this feeling. There’s not an actor out of place. Everyone forms up to create a formidable ensemble, no one stealing scenes (with the possible exception of Hugo Weaving who draws attention through his striking diction alone), and no one giving out slack. It’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the roles.
Fellowship sees the value of this broad collection of individuals. The title demands more than one focal point and the screenplay obliges. The film series might focus on Frodo and the ring but it doesn’t do so by robbing the likes of Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir, Sam, Merry, Pippin, or anyone else of their importance. Having yet to plunge them into the increasingly breathless adventure picking up pace in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Fellowship has the time and space to build up every participant. They all get to express opinions, voice concerns, and interact with each other. When everything does go south, we already care about them. This is a world-changing story happening to a collection of individuals we know and understand.
That’s the true magic of Fellowship. There will be better battles (try topping Helm’s Deep), tougher scrapes, and ever worsening peril. The rush of success and the bitter taste of estrangement felt by the main protagonists changed forever by their experiences are yet to come. None of it could have happened without The Fellowship of the Ring. 15 years later and it remains magnificent both in isolation and as the start of something very special indeed.