Twenty years ago…..YES!! Yes!! Twenty years ago this week, The Fellowship of the Ring, the greatest cinematic masterpiece debuted across movie screens across our land and since that week, no one has watched or made a movie in the same way.
Now I like to think that everyone would agree this statement of fact is indeed a fact. However, for all of your recalcitrant folk out there that want to play the role of contrarian, I’ll give you the reasons why the Lord of the Rings is….yes…the greatest cinematic masterpiece of all time.
The source material
JRR Tolkien created a world that is so rich, deep, and consistent within itself that no other single franchise has yet to achieve those lofty ideals for world building. Sure, Star Wars has that extended universe thing, but that almost reads as fan fiction at times, and with multiple authors writing these stories and movies that contradict these stories, canon can be compromised. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is vast and ever growing, but this multi-verse stuff just appears as a bunch of retconning and there really is no true thread that binds all these characters in a tight and meaningful way. Harry Potter is consistent, but the world is not as vast as Middle-Earth. And Game of Thrones, well the damn author hasn’t even finished the books yet, and don’t hold your breath he ever will.
Tolkien did something that I don’t know is even possible anymore in this day and age; built the world THEN wrote the stories, not the other way around as all modern day franchises do. Media execs don’t have the time or patience to let a single person flesh out an entire mythology over the course of one’s life and then print/publish. Tolkien did have that luxury, but also he is the OG of world building.
Anyone who knows the history of trying to adapt this lush mythos to the Silver Screen knows how messy previous attempts were. From the cartoons, from the rights being bought..renewed..sold…bought…contested in court…etc, to the ill fated John Boorman attempt to adapt it (later that project became Excalibur), this undertaking is a behemoth. But the day Peter Jackson saw that dinosaur in Jurassic Park in 1993, he knew this could be done.
The ambitious scope of this project is unparalleled. Peter Jackson and company spent over 400+ days of shooting for these three films (for perspective, average for a movie is around 30 days). The amount of editing, post-production, CG work, etc took an unequaled amount of manpower and hours (for 2001) to complete. The budget….enormous. The expectations….immense. The delays….not as bad as you would think. The odds were against all of this work to fall into place the way it did; the project was just too big. Honestly it is a minor miracle to me that things turned out the way it did for these films. Yes, it was careful planning and tons of money, but it was also a labor of love by all involved, and I think that extra intangible piece pulled it all together so seamlessly.
We live in a time where the anti-hero and not-all-good-or-bad gray nuanced characters are common in stories. I also know that is a criticism of Lord of the Rings; the good are all good and the bad are all bad. There is a bit of truth in that, but I would argue the evil beings (Sauron and friends) are not really supposed to be characters per se but more of a evil force. The nuance of characters come in the form of how the races of Middle-Earth deal with the faceless (but not eyeless) evil. Denethor had his story arc, Boromir had his, and so did our central characters. So yes, it is not as ‘gritty’ as a RR Martin story, but there are layers.
However I would also say that even though our main do-gooders have that old school white hat the entire time (which is a trait I feel is sadly losing steam in this day and age of writing), there is real fear and anxiety with every step they take. Yes, our heroes are courageous, but they are fraught with fears and uncertainty which they express throughout the entire journey. I find that very relatable. Also, the main hero (Samwise and Frodo) being the most unassuming of sort is just so satisfying. They are not kings, they do not have any magic powers, they don’t have any edge in this war whatsoever other than the fact they are small and unknown to the bad guys.
These sci-fi/fantasy films are hard to work with for an actor. They say such silly lines that refer to things that are so made up and nerdy, it is hard to pull that type of dialogue off. Each actor in this ensemble pulled of their lines as if it was a Shakespearean cast performing at the Globe.
OK, that is high praise. But it is true the performances were so on point that nary a line was cringe-worthy. Well, maybe one or two……but can you imagine anyone else ever playing Gandalf, Frodo, Samwise, Galadriel, or Aragorn ever again?
The point is the dialogue was wonderfully crafted, beautifully acted and directed, all in a genre that it is easy for it to look goofy.
There are three distinct categories of film goers for these movies: critics, casual movie folks, and hardcore Tolkien fans. These three groups rarely play nice with each other and don’t often see eye to eye. They all value different things; critics care about the form and cinematic construct, casual movie folk want entertainment, and the hardcores want an exact telling of their favorite stories int he precise way they imagined it….full of details and minusca.
Jackson appeased all three.
Huge box office hit that made billions of dollars = casual fans approve.
Chat rooms (for the most part) singing the praises of the trilogy = hardcores approve.
Each movie nominated for Best Picture, winning 11 Oscars in 2003 = critics approve.
Imagine any other nerdy, geeky, wonky, fantasy film ever being NOMINATED for an Oscar, much less winning. I know the Oscars are not the end all and be all….trust me I know this very well. But cmon…a fantasy movie…with hobbits and magic….winning Best Picture?
All of the previous reasons listed above is why YOU should acknowledge that these films are a triumph of the human spirit. But here are MY reasons:
I love them. They make me happy. I cry every time Samwise encourages Frodo to move on and good will conquer evil at the end of Two Towers, I cry every time I hear Aragorn say ‘you bow down to no one’, I cheer every time I see Legolas kill that Oliphant in Return, I feel warm and sad when I see Frodo sail off into the Grey Havens, and I feel surprised/not surprised when I see Frodo…after all that time and effort….not throw that ring into the fire (still remains one of the most poignant and fantastic climaxes in history).
In a world where there is a lot bad things, I feel lucky that I have something like these movies to make me feel better and can call on them whenever I need them.
I like to think you have a movie or two that can do the same for you.