Fellowship of the Ring at 20: the film that revitalised and ruined Hollywood

Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings film was a stunning achievement but it introduced a new world of delayed and extended gratification

When I first saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring with my dad at a Johannesburg mall multiplex one afternoon in that idle dead zone between Christmas and New Year, not everyone in the audience was left as rapt as they might now claim to have been. “That’s it?” asked a bewildered punter in front of us, to nobody and everybody in general, as the credits rolled to the droning vocal windchimes of Enya. “That’s really the end?” He and his partner skulked out of the cinema before anyone could reassure them more was on the way. I assume they got the memo eventually.

Even for those of us forewarned of Peter Jackson’s bold three-film adaptation strategy, however, the limbo in which the first instalment left us was disorienting and exhilarating, like being woken abruptly from a still-escalating dream. Twenty years on, to a Generation Marvel audience, that shock might be hard to understand. A vast amount of blockbusters these days are but chapters in a larger narrative; their fans are less preoccupied with endings than with closing-credit teases and hints for whatever’s coming next. By 2001, we were fully accustomed to ubiquitous sequels, of course, though they largely feigned completeness in themselves each time; the promise of future extensions and rehashes was left tacit, a sort of silent gentleman’s agreement between studios and paying viewers.

It might be unfair to draw a straight causal line between Jackson’s project and the glumly corporatised franchise culture that overwhelms Hollywood cinema culture today. For one thing, it shares either the credit or the blame with Christmas 2001’s other colossal fantasy-film event: Chris Columbus’ pedestrian but immediately obsession-inspiring Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first move in a more conservative strategy – only one film made at a time, at least to begin with – that nonetheless worked like gangbusters. Columbus’ film might not have had its follow-ups ready to go the way Jackson’s did, but its scene-setting narrative and ellipsis of an ending as good as promised them, pending the audience’s thumbs-up.

You don’t need me to tell you how that turned out, but cinematically, the Potter franchise-starter was marked by its commercial caution: its imagination was safely limited, its storytelling by-the-book in all senses, its budget spent to yield more value than magic. The Fellowship of the Ring, by comparison, was a reckless, wondrous extravagance to complement New Line Cinema’s considerable risk-taking in funding the production of all three films upfront for over £200m, based on the conviction of a New Zealander best known in Hollywood for some cheerfully icky indie horrors and one brilliant, Oscar-nominated arthouse downer about teen female patricide.

One can only presume Jackson talked a good game. But he filmed one, too. From the film’s luxuriant, immediately immersive prologue, the viewer feels in the grip of a storyteller with complete conviction in his own vision — granted the money and wherewithal to realise what had long existed in his mind’s eye. That prologue alone is a pretty jaw-dropping feat of showing off: guided by the seductively knowing voiceover of Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, we swoop through centuries and mountain ranges in mere minutes, merely passing through scraps of battle scenes that only preview the digital dazzle of grand-scale warfare to come, and are given our first intriguingly repulsive glimpse of Andy Serkis’s Gollum, the uncanny motion-capture creation that would swiftly change the possibilities of human performance in mainstream film-making.

I had forgotten that The Fellowship of the Ring offers us this much straight out of the gate: Jackson is not a film-maker to hold onto his cards, even if spreading JRR Tolkien’s admittedly vast narrative across three years and nine hours was nothing if not an exercise in delayed gratification. Somehow, however, The Fellowship of the Rings keeps renewing its spell, giving us more things to literally ooh-and-aah over: the first, perfectly art-directed reveal of Bilbo Baggins’ higgledy-piggledy home, its exquisitely shabby detailing extending outdoors into the impossibly green, rolling, topsy-turvy shire; the camera’s first, awed sweep across Lothlorien, its soaring elf-gothic architecture impossibly hanging off vertiginous cliffs; the astonishing movie star entrance granted Liv Tyler’s Arwen on horseback, shrouded in ethereal mist and the backlighting of a Meat Loaf music video.

Galadriel kisses Frodo on the head in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring. Photograph: New Line Cinema/Allstar

Never the most instinctively tasteful of film-makers, Jackson doesn’t shy from New Age kitsch in his aesthetic; he just presents it with enough assurance and spectacular extravagance that we come to believe in it too. I had always been less a Tolkien fanatic than an admirer, yet the first film’s immense achievement was to hook even agnostics with the sheer bravura excess of its world-building: few who saw it didn’t return the next year, and the one after, if only to see how much grander things could get. That it all felt so fully and comfortingly imagined from the off was the beauty of Jackson and New Line’s mad all-in-one gambit. There was little room here for adjustment or focus-grouping or interference: its imagination was brought to us whole.

The Fellowship of the Ring taught studios that audiences could be strung along for serials, that film-makers too could enjoy the expansive, sprawling privileges of what had hitherto been largely defined as televisual storytelling – albeit on a visual scale that, a decade prior to Game of Thrones, was still thought of as cinema’s advantage. Yet if the film changed cinema in this respect, few successors have used its expansions to similarly thrilling advantage – including Jackson himself, whose gaudy, bloated Hobbit trilogy had none of his first Tolkien outing’s breathless, liberated romanticism.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, meanwhile, proved that franchises could be built around multiple disparate visions rather than a single impassioned one, its corporatised cluster of superhero adventures covering a safe number of audience bases without ever approaching the near-deranged singularity of vision driving Jackson’s franchise-starter. You can even see the legacy of Jackson’s game-changing battle scenes – all vast expanses of mud and blood and metal – in the murky, charcoal-hued digital showdowns that most contemporary superhero movies climax with these days, minus the crisp, crunchy tactility and human touch. Somehow, The Fellowship of the Ring revitalised and ruined Hollywood cinema all at once – a kind of riddled curse that Gollum himself would be proud of.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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