In January I publicly admitted that I’d never seen any of the Indiana Jones quadruple, so to fix that error I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and had a fantastic time in doing so! Intense, action packed, and a Nazi’s face melts off his skull – what more could you want?!
My next confession? I don’t care for The Lord of the Rings. Or rather, I’ve never felt compelled to dig into the story. Fantasy isn’t my go-to genre, so it’s never been on the top of my ‘to watch’ list. I can handle the likes of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones because there’s an obvious ‘human’ element to them. But when everyone’s an elf, orc or hobbit? Sadly, my brain switches off. I know, I’m the worst.
So, of course, I planned to watch the longest film in my Catching Up with Classics series – the Peter Jackson epic The Fellowship of the Ring, adapting from the J. R. R. Tolkien novel – during the shortest month of the year. At 178 minutes I found it a struggle but made it through. Did I enjoy it as much as Indy and friends? Does its heavy reliance on early 2000s CGI age well? Here goes!
February’s pick: The Fellowship of the Ring
The first in the Jackson-helmed trilogy (and the first of six adventures into Middle-earth, if we include The Hobbit series), The Fellowship of the Ring began shooting at the end of 1999 in locations around New Zealand, Jackson’s homeland. Pre-production, the cast took part in various classes, including swordfighting, boating and horse-riding, activities which all play a large part in the narrative. Jackson hoped that this time together would help the cast to bond, giving a sense of on-screen chemistry as the characters take on one dangerous challenge together after another.
It worked, but did you know just how many big name alternatives were considered for certain roles beforehand?! Although a young Elijah Wood landed the leading role of hero hobbit Frodo Baggins, Jake Gyllenhaal also auditioned, alongside another 150 actors! Living legend Ian McKellen plays wise old wizard Gandalf, but both Sean Connery and Patrick Stewart were also approached; Connery didn’t understand the plot (me too, Sean), while Stewart didn’t like the script. Vin Diesel, a fan of the book, auditioned for Aragorn, a role that finally went to Viggo Mortensen. And Helena Bonham Carter expressed interest in playing Arwen, a beautiful half-elf portrayed by Liv Tyler. What could’ve been!
If, like pre-February me, you’re unfamiliar with the story of The Fellowship of the Ring, I’m about to attempt to give you an overview. If, however, you’re a hardcore Tolkein fan, I’d like to apologise now for the following lack of detail.
The story opens on the forging of the One Ring – the one that’ll go on to cause a lot of trouble – and a fierce battle for the Ring and its magical power ensues. It then lands in the hands of Gollum (Andy Serkis), a mysterious cave-dweller who goes on to own it for the next five centuries…until Biblo Baggins (Ian Holm), a humble hobbit, stumbles across it and pockets it for himself.
Thanks to the Ring’s powers, Bilbo makes it to his 111th birthday before he retires, choosing to hand the responsibility of taking care of the Ring to his nephew, Frodo (Wood). However, as soon as Bilbo leaves the Shire, Frodo is warned by Gandalf (McKellen) that Saruman (Christopher Lee) – another wizard, but evil – is looking for the Ring, and has sent an army of undead servants to find it.
Teaming up with friends Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), Frodo leaves the Shire to escape the possibility of being captured and tortured. Along the journey they’re escorted by Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davis) and Boromir (Sean Bean), as Frodo volunteers to attempt to get rid of the Ring, once and for all. But, of course, it’s not a simple, peaceful trip, as the Fellowship are ambushed time and again by various orcs, trolls and soldiers.
Has it aged well?
Again, if you’re a fan of LOTR, I’m about to offend you and I’m sorry – but I’d say ‘not really’. Having been released at the opening of the new century, Jackson had to use the technology available to him at the time, so when you watch it through modern eyes it looks dated. Long scenes shot against green screens with the scenery superimposed, I found it hard to suspend my disbelief. Gandalf and Saruman’s fight on top of a tower looks especially dated, with the establishing shots of the surrounding area and the constant, disorientating cuts make it look like something out of a bad 90s video game.
Although Jackson and crew shot across New Zealand, maybe incorporating even more of the natural beauty of the country would’ve made it feel less old. The opening sequences set in the Shire – which you can actually visit and I now want to – were beautiful and I settled in for more of the same, only for the next 160 minutes to be nearly wholly CGI.
Hindsight is 2020
Again, I’m sorry, but LOTR is very white. The entire main cast list is white – take a look. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I’ve never read the source material (surprised?), but I’d put a hefty bet on Tolkien never really clarifying whether Frodo and friends is a white hobbit. This is definitely my 2020 vision talking, but we can definitely do better nowadays and I would hope so, too.
Classy or classless classic?
With all that being said, it’s a classy classic. While (very) long, we connect with Frodo and the Fellowship from the start, and the mystical evil that waits at the end of their journey has left me wanting to watch more. While I still struggle with the fantasy of it all, I enjoyed letting my mind escape me for three hours, and I think I now understand way it’s so well loved by fans all over the globe.