These days, everyone's churning out trilogies and quadrilogies and multi-movie "installments" of one great big epic. We owe it all to J.R.R. Tolkien… or more accurately to Peter Jackson, who decided to adapt Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy into three separate movies. If it had failed, it might have sunk the studio that bankrolled it. Luckily for everyone, it became a huge hit, and even won a pile of Oscars before all was said and done. Tolkien himself balked at having to cut his giant story into separate books, but it wound up being a literary masterpiece loved by readers everywhere. And the movie version found exactly the same fate.
The first of these silver screen installments, The Fellowship of the Ring set the tone for the two movies to come. A Tolkien lover himself, Jackson sticks pretty close to the story here, and only makes the changes he needs to fit the story into a new medium.
Jackson spells out the path of the Ringbearer in fairly straightforward terms, as Frodo (Elijah Wood) takes the One Ring first to the elven kingdom of Rivendell, and then on a seriously dangerous quest to destroy it in the volcanic Mount Doom. It takes a long time, and the more things Jackson leaves out, the crankier Tolkien's fans are going to be with him. So the major story beats stay the same, as does the identity of the Fellowship (nine brave, and mostly handsome souls tasked with protecting teeny Frodo) and the super scary challenges they have to face on the way.
Jackson also wants to get the look of Tolkien right. Tolkien loved nature: mountains, rivers, trees, and flowers. If it grows and if it's green, Tolkien was a fan. Jackson had to bring that love to life for all of us to see, so careful planning went into his take on Middle-earth. He chose his home nation of New Zealand for filming, which not only has the wide-open vistas and gorgeous landscapes that Tolkien wrote about, plus all the greenery a heart could desire. Seeing his take on the Shire, and on Rivendell, it's hard not to think that he nailed it.
But Jackson captures much more than just the look onscreen. He also manages to convey Tolkien's emphasis on the all-encompassing conflict that is the battle for Middle-earth. The War of the Ring supposedly takes place across all of Middle-earth, with massive armies punching it out for fantasyland supremacy. A lot of it takes place off the page, but Tolkien never lets us forget it.
So how does Jackson tackle such a large-scale task? He has his special effects boys whip up a computer program to create thousands of little CGI dudes to charge each other in an orgy of slaughter. Suddenly, we see the vastness of what Tolkien was writing about in clear and concrete terms… thanks to the magic of special effects.
The Fellowship of the Ring requires a whole boatload of exposition, which puts the filmmakers in a bit of a conundrum. In the books, we can always rely on trusty Gandalf to channel his inner know-it-all and give us the scoop. But here, Jackson finds a way to give us the info we need without having to listen to Gandalf blather on.
For example, in the book, reading Gandalf's retelling of history of the One Ring or his imprisonment at Orthanc is no problem (we're reading anyway, right?). The movie? Not so much. Ian McKellan's an acting powerhouse, but if he just stood there and talked, we'd all go mad with boredom. So Jackson gives us the same information in a more action-packed format: a first-hand look at Gandalf's battle with Saruman, complete with scary music and old man kung fu. And rather than watch Gandalf tell Frodo all about the ring's sordid history, we get it in prologue form, with all the battles and shenanigans unfolding right in front of us, montage-style.
The Lord of the Rings is chock full of characters who pop in and out at random. Folks like Glorfindel the elf promptly vanish once they've done their part, and other characters like Arwen hardly appear at all. All these minor characters give the books a truly epic scope, but things can get a bit messy when you've got people, people everywhere. And dropping a character into a movie scene, only to have them disappear altogether a moment later never flies well with the critical set. So Jackson sliced and diced accordingly—cutting some characters altogether.
And yet, he also chose to give some of these minor characters even more screen time, so that we could get to know them better. Take Arwen, for example. In the books, she's Aragorn's ladylove, and pops in with some elfish wisdom now and then. But in the movies, Jackson makes her into much more of an action gal, and even has her save Frodo at the Ford when the Ringwraiths come to collect their tiny hobbit bounty.
Plus—and let's be honest here—Tolkien was never one for characterization. And he had the benefit of thousands of pages to let us get used to the humans, elves, hobbits, and orcs who populate Middle-earth. Jackson doesn't have nearly so much time, so he slaps on some personality traits (that Tolkien frankly couldn't be bothered with) to make characters stand out more, and to endear them to us in a matter of minutes. Gimli the Dwarf, for example, becomes a headstrong man of action with a bit of comic relief on the side, while Pippin becomes a well-meaning chowderhead. You don't find that in the books, but it's a useful tool in moviemaking. We grasp who these folks are right quick, so Jackson can get on with the business of telling the story.
Speaking of story, you may have noticed that this book's a bit long. And by a bit long, we mean holy cannoli that's a lot o' pages. If Peter Jackson were to put all those scenes on film we'd still be in the theater right now.
Thankfully, he managed to trim it down to three hours. That may seem like a long time to spend in a movie theater, but Jackson keeps things flowing like a mighty river. He drops anything that doesn't directly relate to the Ring quest (like, say, that long sojourn in the Old Forest where the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil who proceeds to sing… endlessly). This movie has a one-track mind: destroy the Ring or bust.
But Jackson's not afraid to embellish a little, either, to make connections and develop themes that help tighten the narrative. Take the end of the film, when Frodo leaves the Fellowship, for example. In the book, he just splits without a word to anyone—serious jerk move, Frodo!—while the movie gives him some closure with Aragorn before he heads out on his own. It helps strengthen Aragorn's motivation, since he promises Frodo he'll "look after the others" which means saving Pippin and Merry. In the book, that decision's a lot less fleshed out, which makes Aragorn look like a slightly weaker character, who can't keep his merry band of Ring-destroyers together.
All of which helps the story move along more briskly, make sense more quickly, and get us into the spirit of things without multiple passages dedicated to trees and songs and songs about trees. (We don't hate those things, we just think they work better in books than on the movie screen.)
Long before Peter Jackson came along, freaky-deaky animator Ralph Bakshi took a stab at the tale in one movie and one movie only: 1978's The Lord of the Rings. The money ran out before he could finish, but we get a decent look at both Fellowship and its follow-up, The Two Towers.
So, Shmoopers, what do you think? Did Jackson make the right cuts and additions? Shmoop amongst yourselves.