Preface to the revision: With The Two Towers just days away, I wanted to record my final pre-sequel thoughts on The Fellowship of the Ring. Because I still really like the gut-level reactions in my original review, I'm just amending and extending it with my more recent thoughts (which include a few observations about the extended edition DVD). My new comments will be the only text other than spoiler tags enclosed in [square brackets].
I have also gone through the whole movie and outlined what I imagine would be my own ideal cut of Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring (based mostly on the extended edition). Be warned that I haven't had the chance to convert the outline from text to HTML yet!
[No spoilers yet]
Wow. What to say. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, or, well, most of it. : ) I lost track of the passage of time: I was sufficiently caught up in the film that when the end came, it felt like I had hardly been there at all. (The friends I went with were really hoping for a "Next time on 'The Lord of the Rings'..." section.) On the whole, the movie was for me a success: it really did capture the feel of Middle-earth in many places, and that's what I was looking for. Emphasis on action rather than travel did change the overall tone of the story substantially, but for a movie I don't know that that's necessarily a bad thing. Quite a few details were changed, but for the most part those changes were done well. I'll be going again, probably more than once. [I eventually saw it in theaters four times, which may be the only time I've seen a movie in the theater more than twice.]
The acting was in general quite good; Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo, and Sam in particular felt just about perfect to me, Merry and Pippin weren't bad (and will have more opportunity to shine later), and Boromir did very well. Legolas seemed to do well, too, though he didn't have a whole lot to do. Gimli felt a little overacted at times, and maybe a touch extreme on the Elf-hating; we'll see how he does with more screen time, too. [I've grown to appreciate Merry, Pippin, and Legolas more over time, and Gimli gets more and better character time in the extended edition.]
On to some details. (Be warned, this gets long... even for me.) As I said above, I enjoyed the movie, so if I tend to focus on the negative below, it's because those bits stood out for me. I'm not going to try to catalogue all of the changes from the books, or even all of the significant ones; this is just my first chance to think through what sticks out most in my mind. [I'm still not going to list the changes: I don't have the time or the patience to be as thorough as others who have made such lists.]
First of all, my showing was actually a bit frustrating for the first minute or so: the film was misaligned (the New Line logo was split between the top and bottom of the screen), and the audio seemed to be coming through just one speaker. The cries of dismay from the audience were quite something, let me tell you! (The alignment got fixed first, and as crucial seconds went by with the audio still wrong, some deeply tortured soul cried out "Sound!"... it was a bit funny, but the full stereo kicked in just seconds later.)
[Okay, now on to the spoilers.]
On to the movie itself. First, a general comment: it's possible that there was something less than perfect about the audio track on the film that I saw, but I thought that too much of the dialogue was whispered or otherwise quiet relative to the score. [I didn't notice that problem in later viewings.]
I felt that the prologue was well done. I haven't had time to decide yet if it was really necessary to show it before the main film [I've now decided that it was a great decision], but I'm willing to bow to Jackson's greater understanding of his audience. Quite a few names were cut ("Elendil" is just "the King", Gil-Galad isn't mentioned, etc. [another good choice]), but the essence of the history was all there in a form that I think will be comprehensible to non-readers. Some details were wrong (Isildur was taken entirely by surprise at the Gladden fields, for example, which was made possible by replacing the fields with a forest), but I suspect that a more accurate telling of the history would have been less clear and would at any rate have taken longer to show. [Adding his use of the Ring and death in the extended cut was an improvement, too.]
The Shire was very well done and looked beautiful, and the hobbits were great. [I actually prefered most of the theatrical Shire intro to the extended edition.] It felt real [and seeing such a perfect glimpse of Middle-earth on the big screen honestly brought tears to my eyes every time]. The one irritating thing was probably a matter of my own psychology [yep]: I found myself analyzing every scene, every shot, to figure out how the size difference between Gandalf and the hobbits was accomplished. Happily, that analytic tendency fell away within twenty minutes or so, but it did keep me from completely getting into the story at first. [I've gotten into the story much faster in later viewings.] (Just to be clear, the effects are very well done, and essentially invisible as far as I'm concerned: I was deducing the filming procedure, not observing it.)
I was delighted by the fireworks. Not because they were pretty on the screen! Rather, because they were all right, taken straight out of the books as far as I could remember. Bilbo disappeared without Gandalf's assisting flash, but as that was the first mention of the Ring's power of invisibility, I think it was a good decision. Gandalf is suitably upset with Bilbo about it afterward. Bilbo's departure was handled very well, too, and much of the dialogue was from the books verbatim.
The passage of time in the movie is never very clear. The chronology of Gandalf's quest for knowledge about the Ring, Gollum's torture, and the riding of the Nine is not really specified at all. It certainly doesn't feel like seventeen years! [Jackson says on the DVD that it intentionally wasn't, and I understand his reasons... but I wish he could have made it work.] Still, one could make a case for seventeen years being consistent with what is said and shown in the film (heck, Gandalf comments on searching long for Gollum only to have Sauron find him first). I suspect that only those of us who know the books well will even notice that there's anything to be confused about... but that does mean that most people probably have entirely the wrong impression about the times involved.
Another change in timing is that Frodo's departure looks a lot more like Bilbo's in The Hobbit: Gandalf practically bundles him out the door without a pocket handkerchief. [My purist side still rebels, but I do understand it was a good choice.] I don't think he's heard about the coming of the Nazgul yet, but he knows that Gollum has been found and that Frodo is in danger. Given the excision of Tom Bombadil, having Gandalf send Frodo to the Prancing Pony is very reasonable.
Jumping ahead a little, Isengard and Orthanc looked great. The encounter and duel between Saruman and Gandalf is used as a chance for exposition of more backstory details. If not for that, those scenes could have been trimmed enormously. Saruman comes across as more of a vassal of Mordor than a would-be rival [which I still feel is a shame, though I should wait for the other movies to judge for sure], although some of the dialogue hints at Saruman's hopes of personal power. In another strange rush of time, Isengard is still beautiful and green with trees when Gandalf arrives, but Saruman has it clear cut while Gandalf is there. (There's a great exchange between Saruman and an Orc about that, which led my wife to remark, "Don't piss off the trees!" Heavy foreshadowing here, which is probably why the tree-felling was shown. [A good choice.]) In fact, his entire army of Uruk-hai seems to have been started and finished during the movie. [And I don't see the point of the weird "bred from Orcs and goblin-men" explanation of their origins.]
Yet another time confusion: as far as I can recall, Gandalf is still imprisoned on Orthanc when Frodo is stabbed, and seems to be flown directly to Rivendell after escaping [the extended DVD's map does show Gandalf going to Rohan first, so we may hear more about that soon] (escaping right in front of Saruman, mind you! Also frustrating. And I would have preferred Radagast to the moth story [I've changed my mind on this: explaining Radagast would cost precious time, and the moth scene looks good enough to be worth keeping even for that reason alone]). One more frustration from this section: what's up with Saruman's claim that Sauron currently has no physical form? Why else would Gollum comment on the "four fingers on the Black Hand"? I don't see that this contributes anything at all, and it does seem to contradict the books. [Sounds like Jackson was legitimately confused on this one.]
I wish that Saruman had been given more of a chance to appear good before being revealed as evil.
I was less frustrated than I feared by the fact that Merry and Pippin knew nothing of the Ring or of Frodo's plans before he left. I prefer the story in the books, yes, but given what this movie is I think the situation is handled well. I still wish the conspiracy had existed, though [not so much anymore], and that more time could have been spent in the Shire. That's one of the main casualties of the condensation of the early story: we really don't get a chance to know the hobbits at all before they leave the Shire, and after that there's too much else going on to develop their characters much [the extra scene in the Green Dragon helps a bit with this]. I have high hopes that their time in pairs in the next film (without any big people with them) will do a lot to fix that, but that's a year away.
Just to be clear, everything between "A Conspiracy Unmasked" and "Fog on the Barrow-downs" is cut, inclusive. I really expected at least a glimpse of them traveling between the Shire and Bree, to the extent that I at first mistook the wall around Bree for the border of Buckland leading into the Old Forest (it didn't look at all right, though... so the realization that it was actually Bree was at least something of a relief). Yes, you could imagine that the hobbits met Bombadil in the space between the end of the Ferry scene and the arrival at Bree, but it's even easier to imagine that the Buckleberry Ferry drops them off right there [and in fact, a map in the DVD extras mistakenly places Bree on the banks of the Brandywine, though the map in the film itself gets it right].
Generalizing from this, I would have liked to see more glimpses of travel in general. [The extended version does improve this a bit.] The movie does show some of it, but really doesn't capture the sense of distance (or time) very clearly at all. That also substantially alters the feel of the story: the movie is a series of action sequences glued together by travel, while FotR is a series of journeys punctuated by action sequences. Perhaps that's necessary to make a film that people (non-purists, anyway) would actually want to see. [I'm still not convinced, but I'll still defer to Jackson's judgement.]
In general, Bree was done well. I wish Pippin had only said "I know a Baggins", rather than going on to say, "he's over there." [I no longer know why I cared. : ) ] That's a technical nitpick, though, and I did like the joke about beer that preceeded it. I pretty strongly disliked the way the Unseen world was shown [and I still do]: it ought to look different, sure, but it shouldn't look psychadelic. I'm surprised that Bilbo could even find his way to Bag End after the party, much less operate the doorknob. The appearance of the Nazgul when wearing the Ring was great, though. Shifting back to Bree, Aragorn doesn't get as much of an introduction as he deserves (some of it, in fact, spills over into their journey), but I guess it turns out okay. [Yep.]
I still don't see what was wrong with Tolkien's version of the events on Weathertop. Not the foggiest idea. It seems more plausible to me for Strider to explain that the Nazgul think they have already succeeded than it does for him to singlehandedly drive them all away... by lighting them each on fire, for goodness sake! These are the NAZGUL! [This is one of the few concerns of mine that wasn't addressed at all in the extended edition. Tolkien himself complained in Letters about a Weathertop adaptation exactly like this, and despite Jackson's far greater understanding of what works on screen I think the original scene could have worked beautifully.]
I wish there had been time to explain the stone trolls. [Even the added comment in the extended edition seems like enough to me.] As it is, they're just a brief nod to those who know the books (or possibly to those who were listening carefully to Bilbo's story to the kids in Hobbiton). Again, the group seems to have teleported from one location to another, with only a passing reference to travel time to suggest otherwise.
I'm not sure what to make of Arwen. I would have been more kindly disposed toward her if we hadn't so soon seen her as seen by Frodo, who was fading in to the world of the Unseen. (Why Arwen should look anything like Glorfindel there is an open question, but it's quite appropriate if you accept the substitution in the first place.) I knew why she looked bright and shiny to Frodo, but I couldn't shake the feeling that non-experts would think that she routinely glowed like a foxfire when meeting people for the first time. Also, I don't know that even Glorfindel shone like that except when "revealed in his wrath" at the Ford.
Given that negative early impression, I didn't feel very charitable toward her in the rest of her Glorfindel role. I didn't see the need for her non-stop high speed ride to the Ford from the trolls' clearing (as opposed to a final burst of speed), and I would rather have seen Frodo face the Nazgul there than her. It's very odd to think that Arwen rather than Elrond called the flood... though the flood was very well done and looked practically perfect as far as I'm concerned. [The look of the flood still stands out in my mind as something that the film got absolutely dead on. But in a perfect world, I'd substantially reduce Arwen's riding time, and I'd show the four wraiths who almost cut Frodo off at the Ford. I suppose Jackson had good reasons for the change, but even with Arwen instead of Glorfindel I still like Tolkien's story better.]
I have absolutely no idea what passed between her and Frodo after the Nazgul were swept away: she seemed to be either praying for him or granting him her immortality, I'm not sure which. Very odd indeed. [In the DVD commentary, they mention that Arwen's words come straight out of the book, which is true... but they're from an entirely different point, when Arwen is offering Frodo her place on the ship to Valinor. The line just doesn't fit here: she would only give up her place for Aragorn, and only once he'd survived to become king. I think that something about hurrying him to Elrond would have been better.]
Rivendell itself looked beautiful. For some reason, though, I didn't like Elrond. I think it would have done a lot for his character if they'd shown some of the interaction between him and Aragorn and Arwen. [Presumably that will come in the next couple of films. But even when we see Elrond speaking to Aragorn in the extended edition, he seems pretty cold. He seems like something of a racist, actually.] (And what was up with the claim that Aragorn had somehow turned his back on his heritage? [I'm willing to withhold judgement on this point until the end: I've slowly gotten some sense of why Jackson has made this drastic change, and I can see that it could be beneficial. We'll see how it turns out.])
I can't really blame Jackson for placing the shards of Narsil on a pedestal instead of in Aragorn's sheath. If we have trouble finding a reason why Aragorn was lugging a broken sword around the countryside, I can't expect a typical movie viewer to accept it. [It seems pretty clear at this point that the sword will be sent from Arwen to Aragorn in place of (or along with) his banner. Having it show up at the beginning of The Return of the King would help propel him to his return.]
I'm sympathetic with the changes to the Council of Elrond, to be honest. What was shown wasn't "true", but I think that it worked for the film. The one thing that did bother me was the implication that Elrond actually did summon representatives of all the races to take council for the future. (Then again, neither Legolas nor Gloin nor Boromir have any tidings for the Council, so I guess they needed some explanation for their presence. Gollum was never captured or held in Mirkwood, for example. Oh, and for some reason, Bilbo didn't go back to the Lonely Mountain and Dale, either, but that's mentioned elsewhere in Rivendell. [If they got rid of the seventeen year gap, then such a journey could hardly be finished before Frodo got there. Plus, this way emphasizes Bilbo's aging without the Ring.])
I'm not sure why the advocates of the various routes past the Misty Mountains are shuffled so much; it doesn't seem to accomplish much of anything, so why change the books? [I stand by this question. I also think the Balrog was foreshadowed entirely too much and in entirely the wrong way; see below.] For that matter, why show the attempt on the Redhorn Gate at all? [I eventually came up with reasons, some of which follow.] And for the love of God, why make the storm there Saruman's doing? At least including these scenes did provide an "in joke" laugh, when I saw the company trudging through deep snow only to be passed by Legolas walking on top of it. : ) At any rate, given the lack of deep relevance to the Caradhras attempt, why not just have Gandalf explain that a storm has blocked the pass and have done with it? On the other hand, the scenery was beautiful, so I can't condemn its inclusion entirely. : ) In the context of the film, I also think that the scene where Boromir picks up the Ring was worth inventing, although I think he ought to have given it back to Frodo a bit more readily. [Upon reflection, I think it does work well as written: he seems distracted, not evil. In the end, I do like the Redhorn scenes and I'd miss them if they were gone, but I would have appreciated the extended Lothlorien sequence more.]
On another note, even beyond the mere fact of his involvement, I was frustrated by Saruman's comments in this part of the film. Why Jackson thought it was necessary to warn the audience about the Balrog ahead of time I'll never know (particularly as, in the books, none of the wise seem to have known what exactly was there). [Pretty much all of the scenes involving Saruman between Rivendell and Lorien could be cut, as far as I'm concerned... though the crebain would have to stay, and the scene where they report back looks cool and could be worth keeping. But why would Saruman deliberately try to steer Gandalf to Moria? Saruman wants the Ring for himself, not for Sauron or the Balrog to get it.]
I actually think that the implication that Balin was expected to be fine in Moria was quite reasonable for the film. A detailed history of the re-occupation would be too long and too complicated for non-experts, and implying that he should still be alive would probably make the shock of his death more meaningful to those who didn't know him well from the books. [Maybe that's why they needed to have Gandalf know about the Balrog, though... in which case, I do think that tweaks to this section could have improved matters.]
The Moria sequence in general was very good. I do think that the time spent on the cave troll could have been better spent elsewhere, that the flight to the bridge was too complicated, and that being surrounded by a horde of orcs without anyone on either side making any effort to hurt each other was implausible, but despite those reservations I still came out of Moria happy. [Looking back, I think those are scenes that I could have done without if it would have restored the Lorien footage to the theatrical release, though, no matter how proud the production team was of them. Reducing the duration of the fight by Balin's tomb would also be helpful to those who found the film to be far too violent, like my mother.]
The Balrog didn't feel quite right to me, althought it was suitably scary. (Jackson seems to have dealt with the wings issue by showing glimpses of wings in the middle of dense shadow, but infrequently enough that non-wingers could ignore them or explain them as hints of form of the shadow itself. [Sadly, they do seem to be "solid" as far as I can tell.] It would probably be hard to do better than that in terms of satisfying the fans in the audience.) Incidentally, there is absolutely no way that this immense Balrog could ever have fit within the Chamber of Mazarbul, so it's a good thing the film doesn't imply that it did. [ : P ]
The grief after Gandalf's fall was quite emotional (although we don't get to see Legolas or Gimli expressing much of it). I thought the film technique matched that sorrow quite well, too. [I still find myself quite moved by this scene.]
Perhaps the single biggest disappointment in the film for me was Lothlorien. [No perhaps about it!] It starts out acceptably [especially in the extended edition, where we actually get to see the woods in daylight where they do look beautiful], but the dwellings in Caras Galadon didn't really feel right to me. Then, of course, Galadriel and Celeborn show up glowing just like Arwen did to Frodo in the Unseen world, but this is to everyone, in the world of the Seen. Almost all of her lines felt v-e-r-y s-l-o-w to me. Galadriel already seems to know that Gandalf is dead, although she doesn't seem to have let Celeborn in on that little fact until she had the chance to answer his question for him in front of a crowd. (Did Jackson take our Celeborn bashing too seriously? Is this an "in joke"?) Actually, given the complete lack of reaction on any of the Elves' part to the news that he was gone, maybe Celeborn was the only one who didn't know (and I guess he didn't really care).
Galadriel seems to have at least half of her conversations via telepathy. This is probably to make her seem powerful, but at least for me it was just weird. [I think this went a bit better in the extended edition, or maybe I'm just getting used to it.]
In a later scene, it seems that Frodo just follows Galadriel to the Mirror uninvited [must have been a telepathic call or something], and without Sam, which is a bit annoying. Given the extra foreshadowing that Jackson has added to the films, it seems odd that he'd deliberately cut some of the foreshadowing that Tolkien put in himself. (Bodes ill for the Scouring of the Shire, too. Damn.) I don't know why Frodo sees images of the members of the Fellowship instead of ancient history. Also in this scene, Galadriel tells Frodo that "he" will try to take the Ring, and that Frodo knows who she means (and so does the audience, with all that's gone before). All I can think is that this was another attempt to make the foreshadowing clear to the subtlety-blind (and I do mean blind).
Galadriel's temptation scene is probably the single worst moment in the film [and even more clearly so in the extended edition, where so many of my other concerns have been addressed]. I have no idea whether Cate Blanchett acted it well or not: her voice was distorted to sound like a Dalek from Dr. Who, and her physical appearance morphed into something reminiscent of Beetlejuice. The book says, "She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful." The book says nothing about her looking like a vampire Gumby painted by Vaughn Gogh. Other parts of the movie seemed different from the books, but this one image felt opposite them, and that really bothered me. (I'm starting to think that this was one of the scenes that I was most looking forward to seeing without consciously realizing it. [In fact, I'm convinced of it. It's the only "favorite" scene of mine that the movie really didn't do justice to at all.]) The one minor saving grace of the scene was that her words after refusing the Ring were essentially verbatim: I love that line. (Strangely, there is also no mention of her Ring, except in the prologue when we see her wearing it, and maybe obliquely when she refers to bearers of Rings of Power. [Ah, but she does mention it in the extended version, which is very good.])
The departure from Lorien is also rushed [it's much better in the extended edition]. Galadriel's gift of the Phial is shown in a flashback, and no other gifts are mentioned (although we do see everyone in cloaks fastened with leaves later on). [Thank GOODNESS this scene was brought back for the extended cut. It really does wonders in convincing us that Galadriel isn't an evil witch after all.] Galadriel's farewell isn't a song, but rather a simple wave goodbye from the shore (I couldn't shake the impression that she had just had a substantial dose of codine before this scene, either). There's no hint that Gimli has been emotionally touched by Galadriel or Lothlorien at all (which, given Galadriel's oddness, probably isn't surprising) [but again, the extended edition does a great job showing this: Gimli's "she gave me three" has become one of my favorite lines from this part of the film]. [And I get a kick out of Legolas's "lembas commercial".]
The journey down the river is one of the only real travel sequences in the film. It cuts back and forth, however, with film of the Uruk-hai rushing to intercept the company, which is rather jarring. That's presumably done to build tension, and it does, but it means that the feel of the travel itself is lost. As I've said before, that's probably the biggest difference between the tones of the movie and the book. [Adding time to this part in the extended edition, including the nighttime conversation of Aragorn and Boromir, really does help a lot.]
Despite the major changes, I'm actually very happy with the treatment of the Breaking of the Fellowship. I think that an attempt to follow the books in this case would be very difficult for non-readers to understand. The books include a fair bit of time with Aragorn reasoning things out, discussions between the characters, deductions and guesses, and all that would translate quite poorly to the screen. Jackson's solution is simple, it makes the issues and reasons for everyone's choices clear, and it keeps the pace up.
The death of Boromir was very well done, and I think it really gave the audience a clearer idea of his motives and hopes and desires. Sean Bean played his part well.
I would say that the fight between Aragorn and (I guess) Lurtz was unnecessary, but given the fact that it actually got applause in my theater, I guess it's worth keeping. (Anyone else think that was actually Viggo's blood coming out of his mouth when he lay on the ground?) [In general, though, I think that the length of most of the fight scenes in this part except for Boromir's could have been reduced without hurting things much, and doing so might have left my mother a little less traumatized by the violence level when the movie was over.]
One more negative comment: Sam spent waaaaay too much time under water relative to the screen time allocated to other, more important parts of the story (and relative to the book, I think). Why not just show him going under followed immediately by Frodo's rescue? I don't see that this was worth the time. [It's felt less over-long in every subsequent viewing, happily.] However, I did appreciate Frodo and Sam's final scene together. A good way to end the movie.
So, yeah, a lot of that was negative, but as I said my overall reaction to the film was quite good. If Galadriel had been handled better, I think I'd be calling this film great. I have no idea yet how any of this will stand up to repeat viewings, of course, so I'll keep you posted. : ) [Better every time, honestly... particularly when I was watching it on the big screen.] I'm glad that these movies have been made.