Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis
Directed by Peter Jackson
Expectations: High. I love this.
The Lord of the Rings films are the high-water mark for modern fantasy filmmaking. Even now, 12 years on from its initial release, nothing has come close to capturing a world filled with elves, dwarves and magic quite like Peter Jackson did with his adaptation of the beloved J.R.R. Tolkien work. When I first saw this film back in 2001, I remember thinking that Jackson had opened the floodgates for the studios to green-light tons of thrilling high fantasy screen adventures, similar to how X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man were the jumping off point for the modern explosion of superhero films around the same time.
But someone must have stood at those open gates and yelled, “You shall not pass!” because it never happened. The teen fantasy genre definitely caught fire, but that’s probably more a result of Harry Potter than anything Lord of the Rings did. My only real guess as to why this cinema revolution never happened is that from a production standpoint, the enterprise of producing Lord of the Rings was insane. Green-lighting a genre director with no mainstream hits to adapt one of the most well-known books of all-time, filming an entire trilogy simultaneously with no guarantee that they’ll make even a shred of their budget back at the box office? Those aren’t the kinds of risks that studios like to play with, thus keeping the high fantasy film revolution at bay.
Another reason is Peter Jackson himself. Jackson spearheaded the production of Lord of the Rings, driving it forward with his passion for the material. This wasn’t your average Hollywood director-for-hire nonsense, Jackson was asking studios to let him adapt the book. Without someone with that level of passion behind every fantasy film to be, they have failed to materialize in any real way. There are definitely films that tried to capitalize on this one’s success — there’s no way In the Name of the King would’ve been made without it — but without that passion, they failed to resonate with audiences.
The attention to detail is also stunning, done to such a high degree that I’m sure it gave many Hollywood executives nightmares akin to Frodo’s visions of the Eye of Sauron. Actually constructing chain mail for every soldier on-screen, and forging real swords? Unheard of! But somehow Jackson was able to achieve all of this while also completing all three films at a budget of around $280 million. Even considering the inflation that has caused The Hobbit trilogy to cost roughly $580 million, I think fantasy fans would love to see studios give it their best to create more fantasy films in a similar style to Jackson’s highly detailed epics. I’m sure we can all do without a Lone Ranger here and a Pirates of the Caribbean 46 there in order to see something that’s never been truly explored in film (or at least explored to the depths that it could be). But I suppose it all comes back to finding someone with a passion for the material that the studio is also willing to invest in.
While Jackson was integral to the success of the film, in a lot of ways Lord of the Rings represents a completely new Peter Jackson than had been seen before. There are shreds of his former style evidenced throughout the film, from his ever-flowing, dynamic Steadicam work to his penchant for creepy, grotesque character designs, but for the most part this is Peter Jackson ditching a lot of his up-to-this-point trademark on-screen manic energy. That’s not to say that he forgets everything he learned, but that he showcases talents and strengths on Lord of the Rings that very few — even his most hardened fans — could have predicted. His previous frenetic style is muted on purpose, making appearances when required, in an attempt to capture the tone necessary for a believable yet fun Lord of the Rings film.
Purists might balk at some of its changes from the source material, but this is honestly about as good of an adaptation as you could ever hope to get. Just think — the first deal Peter Jackson got was only for one film! From the whole book! Can you imagine? That’s what you call “Setting things up to fail,” but thankfully we didn’t have to watch the crash and burn of Lord of the Rings, we instead got to bask in its sword-swingin’, orc-bashin’, ring-bearin’ glory. The Fellowship of the Ring is one of the greatest fantasy films of all-time.