WHEN: July 19, 2014, 5:28am. (Week 29, July 13-19.)
WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME.
FORMAT: Blu-ray on a Vizio 47″ LCD HDTV.
COMPANY: My girlfriend Becca was in the room from Rivendell on.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Groggy, just woke up. Re-read Roger Ebert’s review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
So I was stuck in line at the DMV a couple days ago and needed something to amuse me while waiting, so I decided to read through some old Roger Ebert reviews of particularly turd-like films, and that’s when it hit me: despite having been a fan of the critic from an early age, I’m pretty sure I’ve never read Ebert’s review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Why would I? I hate the fantasy genre, so nobody’s opinion on it, no matter how esteemed, would have convinced a defiant sixteen-year-old me to check out this Middle-earth crap in the theater.
Not so fast, Rog.
To my surprise, even though he gave the film three stars out of four, I agreed with damn near everything Roger had to say about this flick. It was eerie. His thoughts on its style, its structure, its comparison to the book (which I had just finished reading), and many other aspects of Fellowship were almost identical to mine, even though he enjoyed it and I despised it. Was I missing something? Was he? Like I did with Top Gun two years prior, I decided to break Ebert’s article down to its individual ideas and address each one as I re-watched The Fellowship of the Ring this week. Yes, if you’re just joining us, I watch the same movie every week even though I hate it. Because I’m stupid.
Anyway, I recommend reading the whole review yourself first, then check back and read me… basically agreeing a whole bunch as I watch the movie. So, what’s Roger got to say about LotR 1?
We invest Hobbits with qualities that cannot be visualized. Absolutely, which is why Jackson hedged his bets by making the Hobbits nerdlingers. Audience stand-in characters are easy to mold into your own image in a book, but on the big screen, they had to be changed to embody their target demographic.
The books are about Hobbits enlisting the help of Men and Wizards, while the film is about Men and Wizards who take along Hobbits. Oh, this has bothered me for a while. I constantly wonder why they don’t ditch the Hobs at Rivendell. And watching the film again, Gandalf is the one with all the determination, while Frodo is just saying, “Um, okay, dude, sure, you’re my friend and you think I’m really good-hearted, so I guess I’ll take this thing to the volcano.” And now I know the Hobbits only stick around in the book because Boromir had a prophetic dream and Pippin told Elrond to get stuffed.
The film is more of a sword-and-sorcery epic than a realization of the more naive and guileless vision of J. R. R. Tolkien. Yup. Complete agreement. And the change is extra jarring if you see the film first and then read the book.
The Hollywood of an earlier, gentler time, like the one that made The Wizard of Oz, is better suited to make The Ring Trilogy. Hmm, I’m with him until the Wizard of Oz part. He’s not specifically saying it should look and feel like Oz but now I can’t get the idea of what that would be like out of my head. Also, it’s weird to think of the fact that the Oz movie existed before the Rings book, for some reason. I would love to see a Golden Age of Hollywood-style Fellowship movie, but I wonder if they could resist the temptation to make it an epic as well.
What the hell, why not make it in 1902?
Its genre is the overwrought special-effects action picture in the style of Gladiator or The Matrix, but it transcends this by being well-crafted. The Gladiator comparison is spot-on, though I see Gladiator as a moderning up of the old epic style; an Ultimate Marvel version of Ben-Hur, maybe. Likening Fellowship to The Matrix seems off, though. I guess I don’t see any solid parallels between the action or style of the two other than “there are fights and special effects,” though, damn, Fellowship could use more Propellerheads songs.
The film’s action scenes are far more sustained than the book; the Khazad-dûm scene is less than 500 words. Okay, for this one I decided to conduct an experiment. I started a timer when Gandalf shouted, “Over the bridge!” and stopped it when he fell down the pit and Frodo screamed, “NOOOOOOOOO!” The time elapsed was 2 minutes and 15 seconds, or approximately 1.26% of the film’s runtime. This website claims The Fellowship of the Ring is 187,790 words long, so if the Khazad-dûm scene took up approximately 500 words, that would be 0.27% of the book. I don’t think a difference of one percent warrants a claim of the action scenes being “far more sustained,” though I can’t even begin to figure out the math on the fact that Gandalf and Saruman’s magic fight is never seen in the book.
Like, a whole paragraph on how great the book is, wow. Yeah, seriously, Rog practically stops for a book review in the middle of his movie review. At least give it a separate article, man.
It’s nice that the book pauses for songs and poems, but the movie has no time for this. I am actually okay with this change purely for time; they’re usually the first thing to go in any film adaptation of a book with songs. Were Rings done as a mini-series, though, I’d keep the Hobbit ditties. And I agree with the overall sentiment, that the film doesn’t make time for smaller moments, though it does have them. I like when Frodo talks with Sam and Bilbo about leaving Rivendell to return to the Shire, and the scene immediately after Gandalf’s death is pure emotion and character development.
This moment deserves its own article, and I don’t even like this movie.
Peter Jackson has made a work for, and of, our times that will be embraced by Tolkien fans. This is a really strange comment. Ebert repeatedly says that the movie doesn’t capture Tolkien’s vision, but Tolkien fans will love it? Does he think other Tolkien fans are idiots? I’m very confused. Maybe what Jackson got right ultimately outweighs what he got wrong, or–ohhhhh, fuck, does he mean 9/11? That had just happened when he wrote this review, hadn’t it? Well, that’s next week’s article.
It’s an awesome production in its daring and breadth, and there are small touches that are just right. I agree on the small touches, but I wonder if Roger and I agree on the same small touches.
The Hobbits have the right amount of twinkle and pluck in their gaze, especially Elijah Wood and Ian Holm. Is that what that face Frodo’s always making is, twinkle and pluck?
Pictured: pluck, possibly twinkle.
Does this mean that Sam, Merry, and Pippin are sucky Halflings? I actually think they fit my view of Hobbits more. Frodo seems too self-aware of his pure-heartedness. Sam’s performance seems more ruggedly genuine. And Merry and Pippin exhibit their care-free doofy side. I get the feeling Elijah is above the other Hobbits. Like, he’s the least Hobbit-y Hobbit. I don’t get that in the book.
The non-Hobbit members of the Fellowship are so well-seen and acted that we can’t imagine the Hobbits getting anywhere without them. YES.
Jackson has used modern special effects to great purpose in several shots, especially the water horses. I’ve always thought the water horses look really silly, but now I’m wondering if it’s purely because of the genre. Maybe magic CGI doesn’t impress me as much as sci-fi CGI? Men in Black looks dated as balls by now, but I still find it charmingly dated. I’ll concede that the water horses look about as good as they could. Hell, 2014-era CGI might have gotten too up its own ass and done spinning 360 shots blasting through the highly realistic water droplets or some crap. Whatever, the water horses are fine. And many of the other special effects are too, especially the practical ones.
The crowds of Orcs are well-handled in big battle scenes, as realism has to be tempered with a certain fanciful fudging (???). I really don’t know what he’s referring to here. Maybe that the Fellowship should be easily overtaken due to being outnumbered, but the battle scenes are shot in such a way that we never think of that? If so, yes, agree. I actually have yet to get angry about the fact that the Fellowship should be entirely fucked in every fight scene. Holy shit, and when Aragorn goes up against the Uruk-hai ALONE? He’s so dead. Fucker shoulda run.
The film is remarkably well-made, but it goes on and on and on, until we realize this sort of thing can continue indefinitely. DON’T I KNOW IT, ROG. The length is a constant irritation in all these movies. I think the cinematography goes a long way in keeping things interesting, because for me, it’s certainly not the subject matter.
Tolkien claims in the foreword that “this tale grew in the telling,” and it’s as if Tolkien, and now Jackson, grew so fond of the journey, they dreaded the destination. Hmm, I don’t quite think Jackson could have operated like this. Making a film is a different beast than writing a novel, especially a Hollywood blockbuster. I think a certain level of planning just has to happen on a movie like this. You can’t say, “This is so much fun, let’s keep going!” on a major studio budget beyond the pre-production stage.
The fact that the film doesn’t fit Ebert’s imaginary vision of Middle-earth is his problem, not yours. This may be the purest thing you can say when reviewing an adaptation.
Tolkien’s son claimed that The Lord of the Rings is “peculiarly unsuitable to transformation into visual dramatic form” and that is probably true. I hate to get all “in the age of Netflix” about this, because for all I know that format will crumble very soon, but I don’t think I agree. A nice, slowly paced series, with episodes of varying and suitable lengths that cover everything in the book, could be possible. I really believe this. It won’t happen in my lifetime, because Jackson’s Rings movies are too new, but I think it could work someday.
Rather than transforming it into a faithful adaptation, Jackson has transmuted it into a modern sword-and-sorcery epic with many of the same characters and incidents. Yes. I think Jackson knew what he was up against and a faithful adaptation was out of the question. I don’t think he successfully recreated the book, but he adequately warped it into a manageable nine-and-a-half-hour form that the studio could be happy with. And he did it by tweaking the genre. Smart man, that Peter Jackson. Still, tone is a vital block in the Jenga tower that is storytelling, and for me, Jackson moved it too damn fast to stop it from toppling.
Yes, Jenga is the toppling tower metaphor I’ve chosen here. I stand by it.
ONE THING THAT WOULD HAVE IMPROVED THE MOVIE:
Getting rid of the uneasy feeling that Ebert disingenuously gave it three stars just to get the nerds off his back, but since that’s not something I can make in GIMP, here’s Boromir holding a dildo.
Rest in peace, Roger.