2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson
For the longest time, it felt like Ron Howard’s Tolkien wanna-be Willow was as close as we were ever going to get to an live-action adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. We’d had two animated cracks at it: Ralph Bakshi’s murky misfire in 1978 that let people think the story ended halfway through The Two Towers, and Rankin-Bass’ swing and a miss at pretending The Return of the King was the only book in the trilogy. It was an adaptation (the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit) that got me hooked on Tolkien in the first place, but it seemed like that was as good as it would get. The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable, at least in a form that would do the book any justice. So when Peter Jackson got the damn fool idea to give it a try — with three movies, no less — I was more than a little skeptical.
Then information about the production began trickling out and everything just looked right. People who’d seen early screenings of footage talked about it in rapturous tones. As the release date got closer, reviews were overwhelmingly positive. I began to allow myself to believe. Belief became hope. Hope became excitement. And then it was the day before the release and we were excitedly planning to meet up for the midnight show. It felt like Christmas, everyone checking in, making sure we were all going to be there. In the line, people were reading the book, trading scenes they hoped were in the movie, scenes they hoped Jackson got right. And then there we were, the lights out, the screen lit up, the music starting, a few hundred people holding their breath.
Some two hours later, we heaved a contented sigh. Jackson had pulled it off. Spectacularly. I’d seen Middle-earth. I’d walked the sunny fields of the Shire and the shady paths of Rivendell and the long dark of Moria. I’d glimpsed Sting and the One Ring. I’d heard Gandalf and Elrond and Galadriel. It didn’t matter that we had a year to wait for the story to continue, and two years for it to end. As Frodo and Sam wearily trudged towards Mordor and the credits began to roll, despite the hour, I was ready to watch it all over again.
And I did. We went again opening night. And then, thanks to being the resident Tolkien expert in my circle of friends, I became the go-to movie companion for those who were worried they’d be confused. I gladly offered my services, filling in blanks, answering questions, basically being a living CliffsNotes for the uninitiated. All told, I saw the movie seven times in the first six days it was out. I just wanted to keep living in that world. It was as deep and as hard a falling in love with a movie as I have ever experienced. I even sneaked into a theater to catch the last ten minutes of it on my way to see another movie. Even that little taste was enough.
There was also a much-needed sense of hope and heroism to the film. Three months were scarcely enough time to process the events of that awful September, and while I’m not so naive as to think a fantasy film could somehow magically make people forget 9/11, The Fellowship of the Ring definitely came along at the right moment. Beneath the elves and the orcs and ancient relics was a story of ordinary people facing evil because it was the right thing to do. Because there were homes and families to be protected. And with our country on the verge of doing the same, that simple heroism definitely resonated. Not that I think the film wouldn’t have been a hit without that resonance. But it was certainly a welcome Christmas present that year.
I loved the other two movies as well, but nothing will compare to that late night in December 2001, watching with ever-increasing awe as the realization washed over me that I was finally seeing The Lord of the Rings on the big screen. Rankin-Bass and Bakshi and Ron Howard were all but forgotten. The experience of reading the book will never be replaced, nor will it ever really be fully captured, even over the course of three epic films. But Jackson got the spirit right if not the letter, and that’s the important thing. He gave us the best Lord of the Rings films we could possibly hope for. And the one I’d been waiting for for nearly twenty-five years.