The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53—55
Peter Jackson | 685 mins | New Zealand & USA / English & Sindarin | 12 / PG-13

For obvious reasons, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is usually listed as the three separate films it was released as. But in the same way J.R.R. Tolkien considered it one long novel that had to be split up for the sake of publication, so too the movies work well — best, one could even argue — as a single 11½-hour experience.

Having inducted the trilogy’s individual instalments into my 100 Favourites series over the past week (and a bit), I’ve covered most aspects of this epic moviemaking endeavour pretty thoroughly already, so here are links to each of my previous entries:



The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53

One Ring To Rule Them All

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 208 minutes (extended edition)* | 178 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: PG (“Battle violence and fantasy horror may not be suitable for under 8’s”)
MPAA: PG-13
* 228 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 19th December 2001 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2001

Stars
Elijah Wood (The Ice Storm, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Ian McKellen (Richard III, X-Men)
Viggo Mortensen (G.I. Jane, Eastern Promises)
Sean Bean (GoldenEye, Black Death)
John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale)
Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Kingdom of Heaven)
Sean Astin (The Goonies, The Colour of Magic)
Dominic Monaghan (I Sell the Dead, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
Billy Boyd (Urban Ghost Story, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)

Director
Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, King Kong)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (Meet the Feebles, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Philippa Boyens (King Kong, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)

Based on
The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Story
Legend tells of a ring, created by an ancient evil that gave its wearer the power to enslave the world. Believed lost for centuries, it has now been found… in the possession of one Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire. With an evil force thought long-defeated on the rise, and hunting for the Ring to cement his power, Frodo will do what few of his kind have ever done: venture beyond the confines of their homeland. Joined by eight companions, they must travel across Middle-earth to destroy the One Ring once and for all.

Our Heroes
Frodo Baggins lives a quiet life in the countryside idyll of the Shire, where the greatest drama is stopping his relatives from stealing the cutlery. When a dangerous artefact is found to be in his possession, however, the honest and good nature of his people comes to the fore. On his quest, he has eight friends and protectors: his best friend / bodyguard / gardener, Samwise Gamgee; two rambunctious but pure-hearted Hobbits, Merry and Pippin; the powerful wizard Gandalf the Grey; a mysterious ranger from the North, Strider, aka Aragorn; from the world of Men, warrior Boromir; elf Legolas, a skilled archer; and an axe-wielding dwarf, Gimli.

Our Villains
The Dark Lord Sauron is an almost intangible threat, though his manifestation as a giant flaming eye atop an imposing tower is pretty freaky. Of more immediate danger to our heroes are his armies of orcs, as well as former allies who may have been converted…

Best Supporting Character
In many ways the strongest character arc of this first film belongs to Boromir. From the kingdom of Gondor, who are on the front lines defending the world from Sauron’s forces, Boromir is understandably frustrated by the lack of support his people have received, and is eager to use the Ring — a power he is denied, because it is too dangerous. But the Ring’s temptation is hard to resist… At one point a threat from within, which ultimately tears the fellowship asunder, Boromir comes through in the end with a helluva death scene. (He’s played by Sean Bean, of course he dies.)

Memorable Quote
“One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #1
“Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” — Gandalf

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #2
“He is seeking it, seeking it, all his thought is bent on it.” — Gandalf (well, I use it all the time…)

Memorable Scene
In the Elven city of Rivendell, representatives from Middle-earth’s various kingdoms and races gather for a council to decide what to do with the Ring. Concluding it must be destroyed, they bicker over who will make the dangerous journey into Mordor to do so. As the arguments grow louder and more heated, a small voice pipes up: to Gandalf’s dismay, but not surprise, Frodo offers to carry the Ring.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore’s score across the trilogy is incredible, a well-considered and developed work of art that he’s even turned into a symphony. There’s at least one memorable motif in each film, but the first has the best of all: “The Fellowship” theme, which naturally resurfaces regularly throughout the film, is (for my money) one of the greatest pieces of film music ever composed. (For more information on the score, try this dedicated Wikipedia article.)

Technical Wizardry
The production’s dedication to creating the world of Middle-earth is extraordinary. It’s not just the faultless design work, which perfectly imagined the locations, costumes, weaponry, creatures, and so on, but the amount of effort that then went into realising those designs: they produced over 19,000 costumes, including linking 12.5 million plastic rings by hand to create all the chainmail; 48,000 swords, axes, shields, and other pieces of armour; 500 bows and 10,000 arrows… the numbers go on. Also, because Hobbits walk around barefoot, shoe-like fake feet were created for the actors — of which they got through 1,800 pairs.

Truly Special Effect
One of the biggest challenges for realising The Lord of the Rings on screen are the heights of the various races — Hobbits are under 4-foot tall, dwarves are a little taller, and men are… well, man-sized. Jackson and co achieved this by employing various techniques, including forced perspective, body doubles, and split screen, which of course necessitated building two versions of some sets, one of which had to be a precisely scaled up/down version of the other. Fortunately, all of the Hobbit actors were quite short and Gimli actor John Rhys-Davies is quite tall, so they were able to lump the Hobbits and Gimli together as being the same scale. On screen, the results are seamless.

Making of
Viggo Mortensen Method-ed his way through playing Aragorn, including living in his costume outside of filming, insisting on doing his own stunts and using a real steel sword instead of the significantly lighter aluminium and rubber duplicates, bonding with the horses before filming, and having the script revised so that more of Aragorn’s lines were in Elvish.

Previously on…
The Lord of the Rings was adapted as an animated movie in 1978, which I think has its fans but generally isn’t that well regarded. For various reasons it didn’t tell the whole story, either, leading to a TV movie adaptation of The Return of the King being produced in 1980. On radio, it was adapted by the BBC in 1955-6, in the US in the ’60s and again in the ’70s, and, most notably, by the BBC again in 1981. That last adaptation was so acclaimed that Jackson has said it was an influence on his film version.

Next time…
The Two Towers and The Return of the King complete the story. A decade later, cast and crew returned to adapt Tolkien’s preceding novel, The Hobbit, as a prequel trilogy. There are other Middle-earth books, but their film rights reside with people who aren’t fans of Jackson’s films, so that’s probably that for Middle-earth on the big screen.

Awards
4 Oscars (Cinematography, Score, Makeup, Visual Effects)
9 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Editing, Song, Sound)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Director, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair, Audience Award)
8 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Ian McKellen), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Music, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen), Director)
6 Saturn nominations (Writing, Music, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, Cinescape Genre Face of the Future Male (Orlando Bloom))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Jackson has given himself a mountain to climb in tackling Tolkien’s obsessively multi-layered fantasy (intricate back-stories, made-up languages and all). On the whole he copes beautifully. The Fellowship of the Ring honours the text without being enslaved by it. The explanatory dialogue may creak on occasion, but the action scenes have a snap and pace that suggests a film-maker not scared to bring his own touch to the material. Physically, too, the film is a triumph: an art-department’s dream during its lovely interior sequences and a potent advert for the New Zealand tourist board when it heads into the great outdoors. […] Jackson’s serious, high-minded approach looks defiantly out-of-fashion; worlds away from kid-friendly Harry Potter (the season’s other big fantasy film about wizards). Instead, The Fellowship of the Ring boasts some more unlikely influences. At times, Jackson’s film could almost pass for the Anglo-Saxon cousin of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; lacking the dark, liquid exoticism of Ang Lee’s Chinese-language epic, but compensating with old-school blood-and-thunder and a rash of fairytale monsters.” — Xan Brooks, The Guardian

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“everything about the film is of the highest quality. Both the visuals and audio blend together so well, to create an incredible onscreen world. The set designers did a wonderful job; iconic locations from the book became iconic film locations, such as the rolling green hills of The Shire, pulling you in like a dream, or the mystic and elegant Rivendell or the deep dark of Moria. All of these places and more truly are another world, and no matter what you think of the film the images of these places will stick with you forever.” — Ben Foster, BFFRAP

Verdict

Now that it’s fêted as one of the greatest film trilogies ever made, it’s easy to forget what a gamble a three-film, $300 million adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfilmable novel seemed back when production started in the late ’90s; especially as it was to be made by a director whose track record was low-budget horror films, with a cast mostly without star names, filmed on the other side of the planet, where little news leaked out to the wider world, and with all three films shot at once — no backing out if the first flopped. Then it was released and became an instant global phenomenon.

Watching it for the first time, unfamiliar with the story in all but the broadest sense, was an incredible experience. I remember it ending and having no idea how there could be two more films — it felt like Frodo and Sam were almost at Mount Doom already! Oh, how naïve I was. Anyway, for me Fellowship remains the strongest of the trilogy; the only one that feels like a complete work in its own right — even though it’s clearly nowhere near the end of the overall narrative, an awful lot of the plots and themes reach suitable climaxes. Finiteness aside, the quality of the work is unquestionable: this is exciting, funny, emotional, transportive, epic filmmaking of the highest order.

Next… nobody tosses #54.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Extended Edition (2014/2015)

2015 #180a
Peter Jackson | 164 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / R

I just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all. You’re going on to a set and you’re winging it. You’ve got these massively complicated scenes, no storyboards, and you’re making it up there and then on the spot […] I went to our producers and the studio and said […] ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing now.’

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Extended EditionSo says Peter Jackson in the special features accompanying this extended cut of his trilogy-closing saga-ending sixth Middle-earth movie, as widely reported on the set’s release back in November. Similar comments are echoed repeatedly throughout the special features, like how on Lord of the Rings they had racks and racks of metal orc helmets finished a whole year before they were needed for filming, whereas on The Hobbit they were delivering such props to set on the morning they were required for the shoot.

Another revelation: by making the late-in-the-day decision to split the intended two Hobbit movies into three, Jackson gained a whole year to prep and shoot the gigantic (sub)titular battle scene that forms the climax to his telling of Tolkien’s story. Various reasons have been suggested for Jackson and/or the producers’ trilogy-making decision, from genuine artistic intent, to poorly managed storytelling, to pure greed. In the wake of those special features, this new one — that everyone was making it up as they went along, too deep in to see the bigger picture, and desperate for a way to gain some time to get a handle on what they were doing — seems the most plausible of them all.

In the end, The Hobbit films are what they are. What, if anything, does extending the last one by 19½ minutes bring to the table? Well, as with The Desolation of Smaug, the third film counterintuitively doesn’t feel as overlong (note: as overlong) in the extended cut as it did in the theatrical, but I’d attribute that more to the re-watch factor than the extra scenes and moments making it magically quicker. The new material isn’t scattered about as freely as it is in the Lord of the Rings extensions, but instead is largely confined to three or four wholly-new scenes and some short additions throughout the battle, plus largely-immaterial alterations to the effects in existing footage. Anyone interested in a six-page account of every little change can find those details here.

War, huh, what is it good for? Chariots.Most obvious, and most discussed, is the dwarves’ war chariot action scene, whose bloody decapitations saw the film earn an R in the US and 15 over here. A seven-minute action sequence in the middle of the battle, it’s by far the largest single addition, and is mainly notable for all that blood and its use of the word “jambags”. Somewhat ironically, the sequence was a last-minute addition (the physical chariot was the last thing built for the films), which even as they’re shooting it Jackson acknowledges is an indulgence, and then of course it got bumped to the extended edition for being just that.

Elsewhere: the brief funeral scene at the end is good; more Billy Connolly is more Billy Connolly; an extended fight at Dol Guldur proves you didn’t need the Smaug confrontation to provide some up-front adrenaline; some extra comedy is uncomfortably, inappropriately silly; I don’t think there’s more of Ryan Gage’s over-featured Alfrid, thank goodness, other than that he’s treated to a death scene — hurrah! Fans who had hoped for more of Beorn fighting in the final battle get their wish… for all of ten seconds (literally). No wonder they weren’t best pleased.

In the comments on my review of the extended second film, I assessed that film’s new scenes between Gandalf and Thorin’s mentally-fractured father Thrain should pay off in the third film when Gandalf re-encountered a gold-mad Thorin. And… they don’t. At all. Gandalf the warriorNot a sausage, unless I missed something. It didn’t bother me too much because, quite frankly, I can’t quite remember what it was all about; but when I inevitably watch the extended trilogy back to back one day, it may do then. That said, I can’t imagine it’s a major fault, but again highlights the built-on-the-fly, ill-thought-through state of expanding The Hobbit 2 into The Hobbit 2 and 3.

That The Battle of the Five Armies feels less overlong on a second viewing demonstrates how draggy films come about in the first place: sat in an edit suite for weeks or months, watching a film over and over (and over) again, the material must become so familiar that you lose any sense of perspective about its length or pace. Nonetheless, I still feel The Hobbit would’ve been best served in two films, or by allowing Parts 2 and 3 to run considerably shorter than your usual Middle-earth excursion. Fans have already cut together book-faithful edits of the entire trilogy, which I believe run something like four hours. Maybe that would’ve been best of all.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Extended Edition (2013/2014)

2015 #35a
Peter Jackson | 187 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Extended EditionAt the start of their audio commentary on The Desolation of Smaug, co-screenwriters Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens note that, when the decision was made to extend the already-shot Hobbit duology to a trilogy, it wasn’t a third movie that need to be created but a second. That is to say, it was the middle instalment that required the most extra material, including a new prologue and climax. The theatrical version rather felt like that had happened, too, and now we have a cut with 16% more again.

Fortunately for new-stuff spotters, most of these additions come in the form of whole scenes, rather than tiny extensions here and there. In total, there’s almost 27 minutes of new material, plus a little over 90 seconds removed (all of it moments that seem to have been added to the theatrical edition to cover for now-reinserted scenes). That’s a pretty significant amount, and it does impact on some facets of the story, but not enough to change the overall feel. That said, I did like the film a little better, but I’d attribute that as much to simply watching it again: things that bugged me last time felt less irksome, like how long was spent on Legolas fighting orcs at the end, for instance.

One thing I never had a problem with, unlike some others, is the film’s proportion of Bilbo: some say the titular hero is sidelined, with too much focus on Thorin and Gandalf as a result. Two things: one, despite the title, this is clearly structured as an ensemble movie — of course other characters are going to get some of the focus. Second, there’s actually loads of Bilbo! He saves everyone from spiders in Mirkwood, he saves everyone from imprisonment by the wood elves, he’s the one who finds the keyhole at Erebor, he goes into the mountain and has a long confrontation with Smaug, he’s the first face we see after the prologue and the last we see before the credits. And those are just the highlights. Better BilboThe extended cut amps him up even more, with an extra part in Mirkwood and a moment where he stands up for Thorin in Laketown. In fairness, he doesn’t have as much character development in this film as the first, while Thorin is on a definite arc and Gandalf is off on his own side-plot, but he’s undoubtedly a key character. I really don’t understand that complaint.

Of the new stuff, however, the best addition is more Beorn, authoritatively played by Mikael Persbrandt. He felt underused and half-arsed in the theatrical version, like they’d cut out a book character to make way for more film-added stuff later on. I have no idea how big his role is in the novel, but Tauriel and her dwarven love triangle aren’t in there at all, so I can well imagine some would rather have more of the skin-changer (whether from the novel or not) than the interspecies romance. Here, we get more of a sense of him as a character, with two whole worthwhile scenes supplementing his sole one from the other cut.

Other notable additions include an extended bit in Mirkwood, where the party have to cross a river; some more of Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown; and a whole additional character encountered by Gandalf at Dol Guldur, played by renowned actor Sir Antony Sher, under so much make-up you’d never even know. There are more bits and bobs, including additional lines that set up some of the aforementioned new scenes, but nothing as significant as these. Some build on storylines first included in the extended cut of An Unexpected Journey, others are just on the level of “we shot this so here it is”.

Beorn againEven if some of the additions are worthless, on balance this is a better version of the film: more Beorn, more of the atmospheric Mirkwood, an additional character whose appearance will hopefully pay off in the extended Battle of the Five Armies (presuming it can’t have done in the theatrical version); plus simply watching the film for a second time helps iron out some of the pacing and emphasis problems I had on my first viewing. It’s still the weakest of Jackson’s Middle-earth films, and there are many issues with splitting one film in two (which I expect to rear their head again in the third film, with how some of the decisions pan out), but it isn’t all bad.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

The concluding part of the trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, is 2015’s #36. It’s released on DVD and Blu-ray in the US tomorrow and in the UK on 20th April. I’ll have a review nearer that time.