The Lord of the Rings (I):
The Fellowship of the Ring

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Based on The Fellowship of the Ring,
first of three volumes of the novel
The Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Director: Peter Jackson

  • Sean Astin — Samwise "Sam" Gamgee
  • Sean Bean — Boromir
  • Cate Blanchett — Galadriel
  • Orlando Bloom — Legolas
  • Billy Boyd — Peregrin "Pippin" Took
  • Ian Holm — Bilbo Baggins
  • Christopher Lee — Saruman
  • Ian McKellen — Gandalf
  • Dominic Monaghan — Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck
  • Viggo Mortensen — Aragorn / Strider
  • John Rhys-Davies — Gimli
  • Liv Tyler — Arwen
  • Hugo Weaving — Elrond
  • Elijah Wood — Frodo Baggins

New Line Cinema: 2001

178 minutes (original release)
208 minutes (extended release)
December 2001

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.


A recent critical study by T. L. Shippey calls The Lord of the Rings the best novel of the 20th Century. The 21st Century has seen its translation into a new medium, film. (To be strictly accurate, live action film; much of the story has been made into animated films previously.) The first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, has just been released; the other two installments are scheduled for one and two years later.

Fans have anticipated this film with a mixture of hope and dread. Which of these was more justified is being hotly debated, and no doubt the debate will continue for a long time. But at the very least, it appears that Peter Jackson was not simply pasting a famous title onto his own entirely different work, but making an honest effort to translate Tolkien's story from prose into film.

Any such translation has to be, in some measure, a new creation, an original work of art. Things that work in one medium may not work at all in another. Too close an adherence to the original novel can burden a film more heavily than any director's artistry can sustain — not that Jackson is likely to be accused of that mistake.

A film is shorter than a novel; even the script of a long film can scarcely be longer than a novella. So translating a novel, especially one this long, into a film calls for compression of the story. Jackson leaves out a number of subplots, especially in the first half of the book, omitting some characters and combining others.

A film is visual rather than textual; points that a novelist can make by exposition, a director has to condense into action. Jackson has produced a film filled with action, including several fast-paced, chaotic battle scenes.

Finally, a film actually has to show things to the viewer; it can't evoke them with a few suggestive phrases that invite readers to form their own visions. This visual concreteness makes fantasy less effective in film. Jackson uses a variety of visual devices to minimize this problem: montages, visual distortions, shadows and other concealments, and abstract visual imagery all play a part.

What makes a re-creation of this kind succeed or fail is its capturing the essentials of the original creation. That is, the director has to first be an interpreter and critic. What does the film The Fellowship of the Ring reveal about Jackson's interpretation of the work of prose fiction The Fellowship of the Ring?

In the first place, this is a story of action, struggle, and conflict — what the Greeks called an agony. The basic conflict is between good and evil; but more specifically, it's between freedom and tyranny, in a sense very congruent with libertarian understandings. Jackson shows this, above all, in the opening sequences in the Shire, and in Frodo's brief vision, in the Mirror of Galadriel, of a conquered Shire with miserable hobbits in heavy chains being led into slavery. All the scenes of battle grow out of the desperate need to resist tyranny.

But the other engine of Tolkien's plot, the one that transforms his story from melodrama into drama, is the role of the One Ring. It isn't simply a tool for Sauron's power or a prize for the two sides to struggle over. Its power makes it a deadly temptation to the defenders of freedom, able to corrupt them by its very usefulness and beauty. Jackson brings that corruption sharply into focus throughout the film. He shows Bilbo Baggins' desire for the Ring as an addiction from which he only frees himself by desperate effort, and with help from the wizard Gandalf. He shows both Gandalf and Galadriel tempted by it, almost past endurance, to the point where they fear even to touch it. And he shows its corrupting influence at work within the Fellowship and finally destroying it.

In opposition to this power, Jackson constantly brings out the importance of loyalty and trust, embodied above all in the Fellowship's four hobbits. Frodo and Sam Gamgee embody these qualities in their purest form; but Merry and Pippin have them as well, in their willingness to attack a troll in Frodo's defense or distract a band of orc warriors from capturing him. By the film's end the Fellowship's other survivors, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, have come to share this quality, and Boromir has been redeemed by it.

Now, all these themes of Jackson's film are present in Tolkien's novel; in fact they are central to it. Despite his protests of having no allegorical intent, no pot of message, Tolkien was a novelist of the 20th Century, just as Shippey describes him, and his whole story reflects that century. An age when old tyranny, thought to have been forgotten, comes back to life and seeks to enslave the world, and when the defenders of freedom face a deadly temptation to use the methods of tyranny — describes the 20th Century as much as Tolkien's imaginary Third Age of Middle-Earth.

And what about the polar opposite of Mordor's totalitarianism, the idyllic world of the Shire? Certainly this is a land of private property, respect for law, and minimal government — almost a self-portrait of England and the English. But its sources go back farther than that; as a student of ancient languages, Tolkien modelled the Shire on ancient Iceland, even to its division into four farthings (fjorthungr) and the crucial role, in emergencies, of the Shire-Moot and Shire-Muster. Libertarian economist David Friedman proposes Iceland as a historical model for an anarchistic society; the Shire isn't quite anarchistic, but from a libertarian point of view its laws and institutions are appealing in many ways. In saying that people living under such happy conditions can have the courage, the mutual loyalty, and the sheer stubbornness to fight for freedom and to resist the temptations of power, Tolkien offers a hope that libertarians must share. And Jackson makes this idea a focus of his version of the story.

Fitting this massive book into a film entailed a number of cuts and even the dropping of several significant characters, or in one case the combining of two characters into one. The worst loss, in terms of weakening the overall story, is the omission of Galadriel's gifts to the members of the Fellowship — a scene that marks the transition from Strider the Ranger to Aragorn the heir of Gondor, that accounts for the beginning of Gimli's friendship with Legolas, and that sets up the eventual renewal of the Shire by Sam Gamgee. [The extended DVD version repairs this omission.] The more active role of Arwen in the story seemed alarming in prospect, but Jackson presented it with enough restraint to make it work; this version of Arwen is not so much a combatant as a wielder of magic, like her ancestor Luthien, which shows a sense of respect for Tolkienian precedent.

The occasional added scenes nearly always enhance the film, from the introduction of Merry, Pippin, and Sam at Bilbo's birthday party, to Gimli's proposal for dealing with the Ring, to Boromir's final combat with the Uruk-hai taking place on screen, an unexpectedly moving scene. The battle and other action scenes convey a sense of the chaos that threatens Tolkien's world. Some of these changes in detail seem well made, and others badly — and no doubt which is which will be debated for a long time — but overall they seem to fall within the limits of a critic's right to interpret a work and an adaptor's right to invent.

The one point where this film seems to fall short is in not emphasizing the weakness of the adversarial characters that counterbalances the emerging loyalty of the heroes: exclusive concern with their own ambitions, betrayal, and paranoia. Jackson seems to envision Saruman as a willing tool of Sauron, happy to serve him by betraying the White Council. Tolkien's Saruman was not so trustworthy, exemplifying the old saying "false to one, false to two". Perhaps this will emerge more in the later films. It's needed to make the bonds between the heroes stand out more clearly — as something precious in their own right as the Ring is not, as a source of strength, and at the same time as something threatened by Sauron's plans, which would create a world of masters and slaves where friendship was impossible.

But though The Fellowship of the Ring has imperfections, it's a worthy translation of Tolkien's work into a new medium. In some ways it actually illuminates the original story more clearly and from new angles. And many of its scenes are moving; Jackson makes the viewer care about the fates of Tolkien's characters — and admire the courage with which they face them. This film isn't just a way to lead new audiences to Tolkien's writing; it's a fine achievement that deserves its own audience.


© 2001 William H. Stoddard

First published in Prometheus, December 2001
Libertarian Futurist Society

W.H. Stoddard reviews Peter Jackson's films
of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings:

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring
  2. The Two Towers
  3. The Return of the King

More by William H. Stoddard

The Lord of the Rings
films' official site

J.R.R. Tolkien at Troynovant


The initial DVD release of The Fellowship of the Ring, although with an extra disc of supporting material, is identical to the theatrical release. This does not contain the extra thirty minutes of main-feature footage, valuable additional scenes and details, included in the extended release on DVD. Viewers familiar with The Fellowship of the Ring who hope to see as much of the book as possible to be represented in the film must choose the extended DVD version.

Do not, from enthusiasm for Tolkien on film, buy the earlier Ralph Bakshi animated partial adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  — RWF


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