This request came from an unexpected source, a 13-year-old friend who was visiting and asked if we could watch Lord of the Rings on the big screen TV (and it had to be the extended version). I said we could start with the first one, and so it was that Friday night around 8:30 we began watching the first part of an epic saga, a film long enough that we didn’t finish until around 12:30 in the morning.
Our friend made an excellent choice. The Fellowship of the Ring is grand entertainment, made on a large scale but with time and room for real characters of depth that we come to care about deeply. In most ways, I am not the audience for these films. I never read Tolkien, and am not a fan of the genre. On the other hand, I’ve been a fan of Peter Jackson since his splatter-core beginnings with Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Jackson’s participation ensured that I watched the films when they were released, watched the extended versions when they were released, and was happy to indulge my friend with a third viewing. It holds up marvelously; it’s better than I had remembered.
Jackson brings a loving understanding to the material, so that I imagine fans of the books also became fans of the movies. But he also reaches out to people like myself, clueless about the books and wary of twee fantasies about lovable munchkins. Yes, when we meet the hobbits, they are twee and innocent and lovable. But the story carries some of them (Frodo, most obviously) far beyond the shire, literally and figuratively, and it is then that Jackson begins to make a believer out of me. (Again noting that Tolkien might have pulled off this feat with the originals, but I don’t know them.) The evil forces are truly frightening … you never get the feeling you’re just watching a big-scale version of Dungeons and Dragons. Jackson is willing to pile on the gore … if he is several levels below his splatter movies in this regard, he nonetheless pushes the limit of the PG-13 rating. This matter not because Gore Is Good, but because the violence is part of what makes the evil terrifying and shows the dangers the Fellowship will face.
There is also a perfect blend of the human and the mystical. The Dark Riders are faceless yet scary on a primal level, while the faces of the humans, hobbits, wizards, dwarves, and elves are readable entries into the souls of the characters. This blend is reflected in the entire film, which easily moves from small moments to large ones, from the simple effect of an actor like Ian McKellen enjoying his role to the magical CGI that makes the more miraculous parts of the journey believable.
Throughout, Jackson rarely makes a bad move, keeping our attention for the entire 200+ minutes of the Extended edition (this is one time when the extended version is the right one, as Jackson reworked the entire film to integrate the new material). I originally gave this film 9/10, but now I think that was like giving a top student an A- on their first essay, so they’ll be driven to better themselves the next time around. In retrospect, Jackson needed no such incentive. 10/10. #33 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century, #783 on their Top 1000 all-time list.