Its been nearly five decades coming, but at last a live-action adaptation of what many consider the greatest book of the 20th Century has arrived and in spectacular fashion. With "The Fellowship of the Ring", Director Peter Jackson has established his prominence as a great filmmaker in both mainstream audience and critical circles, a rare feat indeed.
In a year and a time when Hollywood films seem endlessly derivative and lack weight, 'Fellowship' reminds us once again that its plot and characters that are the most important thing to make a good movie, whilst special effects are there to help enhance a story rather than be the center of it. It easily takes the crown as the best film of the year as it hits every mark it sets its sights on. Performances are superb all round whether they be Elijah Wood as a warm and good-hearted Frodo, Christopher Lee in full Hammer Films tradition as the evil wizard Saruman, Ian Holm as the eccentric Bilbo, Orlando Bloom as Legolas (he may not say much but damn the boy can shoot), Sean Bean as the conflicted Boromir, Mortensen, Weaving, the list goes on.
There's not a weak one among them, even Cate Blanchett who goes a little over the top, and Liv Tyler whose Arwen role has been expanded in a clever way (despite early reports she never falters for even a second). If there's one stand-out though its McKellan, he friggin IS Gandalf - after seeing this there's no-one else you could put in that role that would do it the justice he gives it. Jackson's production team should also be heavily commended, from the costumes to the production design, everything from the haunting Lothlorien woods to the hobbit-sized Shire houses has been done down to the smallest detail with not just style but practicality and function too.
What makes it work though? Unlike with the very literal "Harry Potter", Jackson has indeed taken license with Tolkien's version and made some changes - mostly for the better. Saruman's role has been greatly expanded and a Orc bodyguard character added to give the film a much firmer and more urgent sense of evil (the Gandalf/Saruman fight is amazing in a non-cliche Matrix rip-off way at last!!!). Also the time spent between leaving the Shire and arriving at Bree runs at about five minutes though in the novel it takes up a good portion of the first book.
This comes as somewhat of a relief as characters like Tom Bombadil and Farmer Maggot are better left on the cutting room floor (though it does lessen the Black Rider threat a little). Jackson also dumped all the useless songs, and added a 9-minute prologue describing the history of the ring with an enormous scale battle where we get to actually see Sauron in physical form (albeit armoured).
The FX in this sequence (and its really only in this scene) are a bit mirky as you've got silver armoured guys fighting on grey ash slopes in heavily overcast conditions. Nevertheless Sauron proves one frightening enemy. Adaptions of existing sequences are excellent - Moria is done in great detail (the Balrog should win best FX shots of the year), the 'short hobbit' trick is done flawlessly, the 'ring on' effect proved much more spectacular than I ever thought, and the sneak peeks at Gollum leave me hanging in anticipation.
Only two things stood out to me as problems with this first viewing I had of the film. The first is that like in the novels, the first half of the first book is the weakest part of the entire trilogy in story telling terms and while Jackson has thankfully streamlined it and made it much more satisfying, it still doesn't get the blood pumping like the second half - once they reach Rivendell things pick up.
There's been complaints it has an anti-climactic ending but I thought it capped itself off just fine and in fact by using the first bits from "The Two Towers", Jackson has given it a bit more proper closure than the novel. The second fault is one which is solved on repeat viewings and that's that those who haven't read the book will get confused by all the uses of names and places, indeed I'm glad I read the books again this year (only read them once before back in 1990) as it gives one a better idea - the map that appears in the opening sequence, newcomers should try and memorise it as much as they can during its brief on-screen appearance.
Isengard (Saruman's tower) and Barad-dur (Sauron's castle which appears only in one shot in the opening sequence) also look so similar to each other I wouldn't be surprised if people got confused and started asking "Why can Gandalf travel there in three days whilst the rest take three movies to do the same thing"?. Repeat viewings will iron out these problems, indeed the pacing is ultra fast and it certainly doesn't feel like three hours. I'm chimed to see it again and am hanging for the next one. Jackson's not only done it, he's created cinematic history too.