- Director: Peter Jackson
- Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
- Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Sean Bean, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, and Andy Serkis
- Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#50), 4 Oscars (Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Makeup), 9 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Peter Jackson, Best Supporting Actor – Ian McKellan, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song – “May It Be,” Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, Best Sound)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the last of the 2007 AFI Top 100 list to be covered on this site. This was sort of our original raison d’etre, so, go us, I suppose. It is also the most recent movie on the list, not by coincidence. It seems like it would be good business at the AFI for them to keep doing occasional updates, but weirdly they have not, so here we are. We also intend to cover, in the near term, the rest of the movies that were on the original 1997 AFI list but not the 2007 update (we have two of these remaining). Regardless, The Fellowship of the Ring is sort of a weird case, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s original Lord of the Rings books themselves. Tolkien’s original longer work has been broken into three parts by publishers. After decades of failed attempts to get a Lord of the Rings movie adaptation off the ground, which resulted in one mostly-forgotten animated version directed by Ralph Bakshi, who only did the first half of the story, then didn’t make enough money to get a “sequel” green-lit.
Director Peter Jackson avoided this problem by, somehow, convincing New Line Cinema to give him all of the money to go off and film three movies worth of material in one go in his native New Zealand, and the three resulting films, one of each book of Tolkien’s trilogy, were then released over three consecutive Decembers. Each of these movies were not only massively successful financially (New Line’s enormous gamble paid off in spades), they were critically successful as well. Sort of, at least. These movies are so specifically themselves that I get the sense that film buffs (as opposed to fantasy geeks) have very little idea what to do with them. Each of the three movies would receive double-digit hauls of Oscar nominations, but only the last installment, The Return of the King, would actually win Best Picture, and I always had the impression that victory was more out of respect than love. Since the release of Jackson’s films, there have been dozens of imitators (particularly of the mass battle scenes), but most of these have been not great, and Jackson’s follow-ups have generally ranged from not super memorable to semi-disasters. So I think if anything these movies are viewed with even more skepticism by film types today than they were at the time.
I come at The Lord of the Rings from a different perspective, that of someone who has loved the books as long as they can remember, and then fell in love with the movies at first sight, at least partially to the degree that they successfully translated Tolkien’s work to the screen. My first experience with Tolkien was having The Hobbit (which would later be made into a trilogy by Jackson as well, much less successfully for a myriad of reasons) read to me at bedtime by my father, and read the full Lord of the Rings novels pretty much as soon as I was able to, then The Silmarillion, then the National Lampoon Bored of the Rings parody paperback I found in my dad’s office, and so on. I have since described the movies as “my Star Wars,” in the sense that they fulfill a similar role in my life that I think Star Wars has for many slightly older nerds I know. I have watched all of the movies dozens of times. I have even, to date, had four dogs named after various Lord of the Rings characters. So I am a big fan of these movies, I guess I am saying, and if you are looking to me for some deep and penetrating critique thereof, this may not be the place.
The Lord of Rings has become the archetypal epic fantasy quest narrative in our culture today to such a degree that it may feel familiar to viewers who lack any experience with it, either through cultural osmosis or because they have already encountered one of its many close imitators. Frodo (Elijah Wood) is a Hobbit, a race of diminutive creatures from “The Shire” who live in well-furnished holes under the ground. Frodo happens to inherit a magic ring from his uncle, Bilbo (Ian Holm), the star of The Hobbit, and, partially through the counsel and assistance of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) becomes involved in a quest through the world of “Middle-Earth” to throw the One Ring into Mount Doom in order to prevent the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron. He is assisted in this task by the Fellowship that gives the first book its title, including his hobbit friends Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippin (Billy Boyd), along with the heroic Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the long lost heir to a throne who in other, less good versions of this story would be the main character, the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the gruff Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and Boromir (Sean Bean), whose father is the “Steward of Gondor” and who seems most skeptical about the whole enterprise throughout.
Unlike most other movies (certainly those that came out prior to this, the practice became more popular since), The Fellowship of the Ring was never intended to tell a “full” story, and was only ever meant as the first of three very long movies. While there is a “resolution,” and I don’t think it would be completely accurate to say the movie ends on a “cliffhanger,” it also does not end with the Ring getting thrown into Mount Doom. You should know going in that, even after more than three hours, you are not going to get the story resolution of, say, the first Star Wars movie.
All of the stops and starts on Lord of the Rings projects over the years may have been lucky, in the end, because the movie ended up not being made until the level of movie technology caught up with the task of making it. Jackson not only spared no expense in recreating the physical details of things like weapons and interior decorating in Middle-Earth, mixed with some spectacular CGI-aided wide shots of miniatures for some of the locations, he also used various techniques, ranging from the very high tech to the very low tech, to make the otherwise normal-size actors cast as the hobbits seem substantially shorter than the various actors playing full-size humans. In some scenes, this is as simple as having someone stand on a box or something, but other scenes involved a lot more computer graphics than some viewers might initially suspect.
One of the big contributions of the Lord of the Rings to movie technology in general actually ended up being the computer techniques used to reproduce mass armies on screen. In, say, Spartacus, the armies are made up of actual humans, but Jackson’s team pioneered techniques allowing him to show crowds of CGI people and creatures without it seeming like he just copied and pasted the same model over and over and over. There is at least some of this in The Fellowship of the Ring, but we get a lot more of it in the subsequent two films. Today, these shots have become almost cliché and boring, so it may be hard for a modern viewer to appreciate the moment where the “camera” pulls back from Saruman (the great Christopher Lee, the only member of the cast to have actually met Tolkien himself) at the top of his tower to show thousands of orcs on the field below in The Two Towers, but I can tell you that the first time I saw that in a theater it really was impressive.
Each of the Lord of the Rings movies is over three hours long in the “theatrical” version, and each has since had an even longer “extended cut” released on DVD. In some ways, Tolkien the author and Jackson the director were made for each other. Tolkien, I saw someone say on the recent 20th anniversary of this film’s release, always seemed more interested in the details of this world he’d created than in the story itself, and always seemed vaguely annoyed that he was forced to have an adventure story in the middle in order to show readers around his world. Jackson has always been most interested in creating the worlds of his films, and not interested in cutting down the length of his movies (i.e. leaving out parts of the world he’s created) for the purpose of making the actual story move forward faster. This leads to some of the more pointed criticisms of Jackson’s trilogy, particularly the third installment, which many have accused of ending about 45 minutes after it should and having “several endings too many.” I’m not sure I actually disagree with that particular assertion (the weakest half hour of the whole thing for me is definitely that last half hour of The Return of the King), but there is just so much here that it’s hard to begrudge Jackson or anyone else for wanting to hold on a little longer. I think the lack of major female characters is probably a bigger issue for me, though this is far more an issue with the original books than the movies. The movie version, at least, greatly expands the character of Arwen (Liv Tyler), relegated to an appendix in the novels, and gives its lengthy opening narration to the elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), in an attempt to up the percentage of female speaking parts at least slightly in this initial installment prior to the most important female character in the novels, Eowyn, appearing in the second volume.
Taken as one long movie, The Lord of the Rings is unequivocally my all-time favorite movie, and one of my most watched as an adult, along with perhaps a few Holiday favorites. If it is a question of one individual film, I think my favorite may actually be the middle installment, The Two Towers, which of the trilogy is probably the one you hear about the least. But is that my favorite movie, put against, I don’t know, The Princess Bride, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or any of about a half dozen other movies? I feel like I should have a definitive answer to that, but I don’t right now, and will save the question for another day. Thanks to all of our readers for sticking with us all the way through the AFI 100, we hope to have plenty of fun stuff to come.