"One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, / One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them / In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie"...Tolkien's story of the One Ring and the Fellowship that resolved to destroy it is, without a doubt, the most successful, the most enduring, and the most important fantasy novel written in the 20th century. The fruit of more than twelve years' labor in the writing, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was more than a best-selling novel: it was the embodiment of a world that he had been creating and polishing for nearly his entire adult life. We can measure its success in part by the fact that Tolkien's story is as vivid and compelling to readers now as it was fifty years ago on its first publication.
How do you capture the majesty, grandeur, and power of this tremendous work? How do you create a film version that has the freshness and originality of novel, a highly innovative one at the time, while capturing the mood and themes that Tolkien himself expressed? How do you create a movie world that even begins to approximate the images that Tolkien's prose created of Lórien, or the Mines of Moria, or the Black Riders ?
Ask Peter Jackson that question, because he's done it. The answer, it appears, is to fully embrace the entirety of the original story: not just its characters or its setting, its fantastic creatures or its magical objects, but also its structure, pacing, depth, flavor, theme, seriousness, and overall tone. The Fellowship of the Ring is an outstanding success, an incredible achievement, because the work of Peter Jackson has been to make "J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings"... not "Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings." Jackson's love of, and commitment to, the original novel shines through every scene of the film, with the result that The Fellowship of the Ring is everything I could possibly ask it to be.
The Fellowship of the Ring is the first part of the three-part sequence adapting Tolkien's full novel The Lord of the Rings to the screen. This three-movie structure may seem intuitively obvious to viewers because, after all, The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy... right? Actually, it's not: the original novel is just that, a single novel, even though it is usually published in three parts. Conceived of, written, and submitted to the publisher as a single volume, The Lord of the Rings was only divided into three books when the publisher realized that their current publishing technology (1950s) was not capable of printing and binding a paperback of such length. The choice of making it into three books was thus a practical rather than a literary consideration, reflected by the fact that most hardcover editions (with tougher spines) do contain the full book in one volume.
The fact that The Lord of the Rings is not really a trilogy poses some interesting problems of narrative structure for the filmmaker. In the novel, the action stops at a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, which is natural enough given that a simple turn of the page takes us to the next section, The Two Towers. But in presenting each third of the novel as an individual movie, Jackson was faced with the necessity of providing some sort of closure. What is Jackson's resolution? He advances the action very slightly into the events of the next section, which gives just enough further narrative to wrap up a few story ends and provide a sense of mingled anticipation and satisfaction. Part of the journey has concluded; more is to come. And the whole thing is handled so deftly that I had to refer back to my copy of the novel to see exactly how Jackson had managed it.
Even with three movies to tell the story in, it is still not possible to translate absolutely every word of The Lord of the Rings to the screen. Or rather, it would be possible but not desirable: novel and film are different media, and not all portions of the novel are equally well-suited to the screen. In the choices of what to cut as well as in what to film, Jackson shows a high degree of sensitivity to both the quality of the film and Tolkien's original vision. One of the main sections that is trimmed from the film is a sub-plot about Frodo's plans for departure from the Shire; the slight compression of the action allows the story to steadily gain momentum from the moment that Frodo is entrusted with the One Ring to his first encounter with the Black Riders. Another section that is not filmed is the hobbits' encounter with Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil, which is in my view one of the weakest sections of Tolkien's novel both from a plot and style point of view. By omitting these scenes, the result is that the action moves forward steadily with a mounting intensity that absorbs the viewer into the world of Middle Earth.
Other, minor adaptations are present throughout; for instance, dialogue spoken in the novel by one character might be given to a different one in the film, or transferred to a different scene. However, Tolkien's actual language is used in the film for nearly all the dialogue, even when the speaker has been changed; considering Tolkien's gift for language that is both epic, beautiful, and natural, this fidelity to the original novel is a distinct asset to the film.
I still haven't mentioned the one change that's both the most dramatic alteration to the novel's structure, and one of my favorite portions of the film. The opening scene of the film is a prologue narrated by Galadriel, telling the origin and history of the Rings of Power, and the One Ring that Sauron made to rule them all. The story that's told in these opening minutes is taken from a brief dialogue in the Council of Elrond chapter in the middle of The Fellowship of the Ring, telling of how Isildur came to have (and lose) the Ring. Creating an opening sequence from this, and bringing it to life in the tremendously impressive way that it appears in the finished film, was a stroke of genius: it sets the tone of the film from the beginning, foreshadows what is to come, and provides important context for the story as it develops.
One of the toughest challenges of filming The Lord of the Rings that Jackson had to face was the special effects... and in a fantasy movie, "special effects" encompasses everything from characters to setting and a lot in between. I was initially very hesitant about even seeing The Fellowship of the Ring; with my own personal vision of how the characters and the world of Middle Earth looked like from reading the novel, I was afraid that the film version would seem false. What really happened, though, is that I was absolutely blown away. Again, Jackson's commitment to getting things right shines through. One of the major contributors to the conceptual design of the film was Alan Lee, whose fantastic illustrations of Tolkien's novel have graced the most beautiful editions of the book. The realization of Middle Earth created by Lee and the other artists is beautiful, evocative, and most importantly, true to Tolkien's own creation.
The Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring is, essentially, the "director's cut," with thirty minutes of additional footage incorporated into the film. There's no branching technology involved; the only cut of the film on the Extended Edition is the extended version of the film. The theatrical release was already outstanding; what more does the Extended Edition offer? The Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring takes an already amazing film and puts the final polishing touch on it. Or let me put it this way: for three and a half hours, I was glued to my seat, totally immersed in the world of Middle Earth, hardly aware of the passing of time. It's simply an incredible film.
Now let's take a closer look at what the Extended Edition offers: a few distinct additions and many more small extensions and additions to scenes that were already present in the theatrical cut. The most substantial addition is in the beginning; after the prologue of the history of the Ring, we get a longer introduction to the Shire, narrated by Bilbo, that gives us a more substantial look at Bilbo himself as well as hobbit society. Another significant addition is an additional scene in Lórien, in which the Fellowship are given gifts by Galadriel. But in addition to these, there are snippets too numerous to name included throughout the film.
The extra footage in the Extended Edition enhances the film, providing more context to some of the actions taken by the Fellowship, and fleshing out of some of the characters and their motivations, especially Aragorn and Boromir. Certainly, for anyone who saw and enjoyed the theatrical release, or who is a definite Tolkien fan, the Extended Edition will absolutely be the version to own. For viewers who have never seen the movie, the theatrical release would probably be equally suitable as a starting place; after all, the theatrical release is a great movie already. But it's the Extended Edition that gets my score of a full five stars: as a Tolkien fan and a lover of great film, I can't believe how lucky we are to get this fantastic rendition of a truly great novel.
The Fellowship of the Ring is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the theatrical presentation. Appropriately enough, given the epic scope of the story, The Fellowship of the Ring is a visual feast. The gorgeous landscapes and impressive architecture, from the delicate tree-borne palace in Lothlórien to Saruman's foreboding tower, are well-served by the film's gorgeous color palette, which is impeccably represented on the DVD transfer. The image captures the subtleties of the film's color, from the grim black and metallic colors of an army's equipment to the jewel tones of the Shire's fields under full sunlight. The print is pristine, with not a single flaw, speck, or touch of noise. Contrast is also given a workout in this film, but even in the Mines of Moria, with the scene lit only by flickering torches, the image maintains its level of detail, while blacks are appropriately deep and dark; in short, the image looks fantastic in a variety of challenging light situations.
Taken as a whole, the video quality of The Fellowship of the Ring is truly outstanding; in fact, it's almost perfect, and I'm a tough judge of video quality. The only thing that keeps it from being perfect is a tiny hint of edge enhancement that does appear in some scenes, and an equally tiny amount of grain visible in light-colored backgrounds in one or two scenes. That's it: otherwise, it's perfect.
Considering the extremely high image quality of the DVD of the theatrical version, the question on my mind was not just whether the Extended Edition could improve on it, but even whether it could match it, considering the additional space needed on the disc to contain the DTS soundtrack. I did a scene-to-scene comparison between the theatrical and extended DVDs, and I am pleased to report that the Extended Edition has the identical transfer to the theatrical release in terms of video quality: there are no differences at all in the transfer that I could detect.
Kudos should go to New Line for recognizing and addressing the compression issue for this DVD. With a three-and-a-half-hour film, DTS and Dolby 5.1 tracks, and commentaries on top, the decision to split the film between two DVDs was an extremely wise one. Similarly, there had been some rumors of an isolated music score and an isolated effects score slated for this DVD, but they were dropped in favor of allotting more space for the highest video and audio quality. I was actively looking for any signs of compression problems, and found none: there are no artifacts appearing at all in the transfer. I had no issue whatsoever with switching discs mid-movie; the break between Part I and Part II falls very naturally when Frodo arrives at the house of Elrond.
Viewers really can't go wrong with the sound options on The Fellowship of the Ring. The Extended Edition includes the outstanding Dolby 5.1 track that appeared on the theatrical release DVD and goes one further with a simply fabulous DTS 6.1 track as well. A Dolby 2.0 stereo track is also included. New music was created for the additional scenes that are included in the extended edition, resulting in a seamless audio experience.
The 5.1 track is probably the best I've heard it its category, to begin with, with exceptional clarity and depth and an excellent use of the surround channels to provide an immersive audio environment. With DTS, the sound gets an extra boost in depth and clarity to polish it even further.
The DTS track's handling of surround is incredibly immersive. It's highly directional, not just "surrounding" the viewer with sound, but providing well-defined spatial orientation for both characters on screen and special effects. From specific sound effects, like a flock of Saruman's bird spies crossing overhead, to larger-scale effects like a battle being fought, the soundtrack puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. Dialogue is always, and I mean always, clear and natural sounding, and in perfect balance with the music and the other sound effects.
The artistry that went into creating the sound mix for The Fellowship of the Ring is amazing; beyond simply "good sound," the soundtrack is used to create special audio effects that enhance and support the impact of what's happening in the film. For instance, the sound effects associated with Sauron and the "shadow world" are enough to give anybody the chills, and the telepathic voice of Galadriel is extremely effectively presented by using all the channels at once, as though she were everywhere at once.
One word: Wow. Peter Jackson certainly knows how to put together a knockout special edition. The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition offers, by far, the best set of special features that I have seen on any DVD.
Let's start with the very well-designed menus, which combine a simple, clean interface with an attractive movie-themed design and very brief animated transistions. The special features menus on discs three and four are very well-organized, with a "play all" feature for the series of featurettes (totaling two and a half hours on the first disc and three and a half on the second disc) as well as an "index" feature for access to the various segments of the featurettes and the art and pre-production galleries included on the disc.
Discs one and two, in addition to having parts I and II of the film, contain no fewer than four separate audio commentaries: director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens; the design team; the production/post-production team; and the cast.
Discs three and four contain the balance of the special features, which are presented in anamorphic widescreen and display excellent image quality. The "making of" material is outstanding, with each featurette focusing on a specific aspect of the filmmaking process. Disc three includes two and a half hours of documentary material, covering the writing, design, and pre-production of the film, starting with "J.R.R. Tolkien: Creator of Middle Earth," a thoughtful look at J.R.R. Tolkien himself, with a quite accurate presentation of his own views on his novel and the influences of World War I and industrialization on his work. The subsequent sections take a look at how Peter Jackson and his team tackled the job of bringing Tolkien's work to the screen, in "From Book to Script," "Visualizing the Story," "Designing and Building Middle Earth," "Middle Earth Atlas," and "New Zealand as Middle Earth." On disc four, we get an additional three and a half hours of documentaries, this time focusing on the filming and post-production: "Filming The Fellowship of the Ring," "Visual Effects," "Post-Production: Putting it All Together," "Digital Grading," "Sound and Music," and "The Road Goes Ever On."
In addition to the six hours of documentaries, both discs include a substantial amount of ancillary materials: extensive image galleries and artists' sketches, some with brief commentaries from the artists, storyboard sequences, and computer-animated pre-visualization sequences, a demonstration of the editing process, a set test of Bilbo Baggins' house with Jackson and crew reading the parts of the characters, production photos, and miniatures. Basically, everything anybody could possibly want is included somewhere on the four discs of the Extended Edition.
There is no overlap between the special features of the Extended Edition and the theatrical release DVD: the bonus content on the first release is not duplicated here. The theatrical release DVD contains a set of featurettes that were originally created for television or lordoftherings.net; these are fairly lightweight and promotional-style, especially in comparision to the material created specifically for the Extended Edition. The theatrical release also contains an Enya music video, a preview of the Extended Edition, and a preview of a Two Towers video game. However, while the special features on the first release are reasonably good, they are so overshadowed by the quality of the Extended Edition's special features that there's really no reason to own both editions. Speaking strictly from an "extras" point of view, viewers who own the theatrical release DVD will definitely want to upgrade to the Extended Edition, while viewers who have not yet bought either one should simply get the Extended Edition to begin with.
When I first heard that a live-action film of The Lord of the Rings was being done, I was positive that I would never want to see it: loving the book as I did, I didn't see how any film could live up to my own imaginative vision of the story. Well, Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring does... it lives up to the highest expectations I had, and goes further. This is the best fantasy film ever made, and a fantastic film independent of its genre. Add it to your collection.