J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was considered unfilmable for a very long time – the story was too big, too fantastical.
But in the late 1990s, New Zealand director Peter Jackson got the green light to shoot the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy: a sprawling fantasy epic that chronicles the tipping point of the mythical Middle-Earth, and the humble hobbits who change the world. The richness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world is translated exquisitely into a movie trilogy full of beauty, horror, hope, humor and vibrant characters.
“The Fellowship of the Ring” introduces us to the hobbits. Eccentric old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) leaves the peaceful Shire at his 111st birthday, leaving all he has to his young nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) — including a golden Ring that makes the wearer invisible. But the grey wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) reveals that it’s actually the One Ring, which is the source of power for the demonic Dark Lord Sauron. So Frodo and his best pals leave the Shire and join a band of elves, men, and dwarves to take the Ring to the only place where it can be destroyed.
“The Two Towers” picks up immediately after “Fellowship” ends, with Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) lost on the path to Mordor, and being stalked by the murderous Ring-junkie Gollum (Andy Serkis). Elsewhere, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) make a desperate stand with the kingdom of Rohan, but must face off against the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his orc armies.
“Return of the King” brings the trilogy to a dizzying head: Frodo and Sam’s friendship is threatened by Gollum’s trickery, leading Frodo into a potential fatal trap. Gandalf and Pippin head for the city of Gondor, while Aragorn summons an ancient army that might be able to turn the tide against Mordor. But no matter how many battles they win, the war will never be won if Frodo is not able to destroy the Ring once and for all.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is one of those stories that is too big to fit into one movie – it’s almost too big to fit into three. While Jackson had to streamline the story considerably, the heart of the original novels is still there, with its message about how misfortunes can become blessings, and even the smallest and least imposing person can change the world. Despite the richness of the world-building and the complexity of the characters, it all boils down to that.
Changes are certainly made, such as altering and adding to the characters of Arwen and Faramir, as well as obviously having to leave a lot of events and characters out. Certainly the trilogy doesn’t need Tom Bombadil. But the overall story is remarkably faithful to Tolkien’s tale, and Jackson’s script with partner Philippa Boyens is a masterpiece of storytelling – full of humor and dramatic moments, adapting Tolkien’s richly-archaic prose into powerful speeches (such as Sam’s powerful final speech in “The Two Towers”).
Furthermore, it’s a beautifully-constructed movie – the exquisite sets and expansive New Zealand landscapes are breathtaking; the battle scenes are bloody and exciting; the different cultures of Middle-Earth feel deep and well-lived-in. All the trappings — clothes, jewelry, even beer mugs — are realistic. And the special effects are almost entirely convincing-looking, especially the gruesome Gollum. He’s the first fully convincing CGI character, and after awhile you’ll forget he is made digitally.
It also has a cast who give the performance of their lives – Elijah Wood as the wide-eyed, wounded Frodo Baggins; Sean Astin as his steadfast best friend Sam, who supports him no matter what happens; and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the mischievous but brave Merry and Pippin. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is the prototypical wizard – kindly and grandfatherly, but capable of anger and fear when confronted by the Ring – and Viggo Mortensen is outstanding as the noble king-in-waiting Aragorn. Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies round out the cast as the elegant elf Legolas and doughty, down-to-earth dwarf Gimli – and there are a bunch of other great performances by actors such as Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto, and many many more.
The extended versions of the movies are even better than the theatrical versions — plenty of cut scenes that fill out the characters and plotline are put back in. As a result, the extended versions cleave more closely to the original books. Not to mention TV specials, featurettes, cast commentary on everything in the movies, Sean Astin’s sweet little short film “The Long and Short of It,” and extensive behind-the-scenes footage that will inform viewers about special effects, sets, direction, and everyday life filming “Lord of the Riings.”
The movie adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy are classics for a reason – while they have some flaws, Peter Jackson managed to adapt a brilliant story into brilliant, beloved movies. Powerful, gripping and full of beauty.