The task of making a cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's gargantuan, six-part fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings that was, on the one hand, comprehensive enough that it didn't feel like a rushed and perfunctory illustration of plot points masquerading as a dramatic narrative while also being, on the other hand, a manageable object eluded filmmakers on multiple continents for decades, until in the late 1990s, New Zealand cult director Peter Jackson managed to convince New Line Cinema to stake its entire future on a massive production that was, really, the only way a satisfactory version of the story would ever be made: one huge super-shoot that would create not one but three movies, each adapting one of the book's three volumes, all made at one time to guarantee artistic continuity, and that, unlike Ralph Bakshi's stalled-out 1978 animated The Lord of the Rings, the entire story could be told. The risk, of course, was that if one epic fantasy was costly, three were a financial obscenity, and if the first one didn't take off, everybody involved would look like a complete jackass with two years' worth of debilitating write-offs already in the can.

This resulted in the December, 2001 release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and of course, none of these bad things came to pass at all: the first film was a critical and commercial smash hit of such cultural resonance that it even blasted through the cast iron genre resistance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, while settling in as the fifth-highest-grossing movie in the history of the worldwide box office. Before it had reached its second week of release, it had already been anointed as the Star Wars of new era, a populist fantasy of extraordinary visual grandeur, the film that graduated high fantasy from the realm of tacky '80s adventures and kids' films to real, actual cinema. This is a reputation that Peter Jackson's trilogy of films, but this first movie most particularly, still enjoys today, and with good reason: there have been a lot of fantasy movies, but none outside of these that take fantasy so seriously and throw so much time, money, and craftsmanship at making sure that it doesn't look like high-end LARP-ing. I will even agree with that most august comparison, that it is the Star Wars of the 2000s: like that film series, The Lord of the Rings is spectacular and grand if you give in to it, but apply even a little bit of critical thinking, and boy, do the flaws start to show up in force. Having said that, I want to make absolutely certain that everybody saw how I led with the "spectacular and grand" bit, because surely, there's no end of epic grandeur here, and the movie absolutely kills on the big screen when it gets to overwhelm you right into submission, and I enjoy the films for what they are.

Adapted by Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh, and collaborator Philippa Boyens from the two parts of the first novel in Tolkien's three-volume work, The Fellowship of the Ring, and just a few pages of the second, The Two Towers, the film tells of a little hobbit in the peaceful green Shire, based on the English countryside of Tolkien's nostalgia, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), and the ring he inherits from his 111-year-old uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm). Not to waste too much recap space on a movie that is very long and very full of detail, and that damn near everyone has seen anyway, Frodo's ring turns out to be a totem of unspeakable, ancient evil, and the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) arranges to send Frodo, his servant and friend Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), and cousins Peregrin "Pippin" Took (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) on a journey to the elven community at Rivendell. This is just the first leg of a much longer, perilous quest: for at Rivendell, it's decided that the ring must be destroyed in the volcano Orodruin, or Mount Doom, in distant Mordor, the stronghold of the dark lord Sauron. Frodo volunteers, and along with Sam, Pippin, Merry, and Gandalf, a further group of heroes is assigned to help him, nine in all: the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), human Boromir (Sean Bean), son of the leader of the great southern city of Gondor, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the heir to the long-dormant line of Gondorian kings. The whole lot of them travel through mountains, into a dark, enemy-field mine where one of their party is lost, to another elven community in the woods of Lothlórien, and down a great river towards Mordor, at which point another one of our heroes is slain and the fellowship itself begins to disintegrate as Frodo learns that the evil he carries on a chain around his neck is a danger not just to him, but to all those around him.

That being the short recap, what's immediately obvious is that The Fellowship of the Rings is stuffed full of incident, as will happen when one tries to pare down a book as daunting as Tolkien's (Fellowship is far and away the most narratively-packed volume of the three) into even a generous three or three-and-a-half hours. And Jackson et aliae were obliged to leave out quite a bit of material just to get us that far, and what they kept is not allowed to linger very much. We're certainly nowhere near the Rankin/Bass The Hobbit TV special, where plot points are stated and then passed by in the span of seconds rather than minutes, but still, the film moves, aiming for breadth over depth in all things, and the rush of scenes, particularly in its transition out of its first act, suggests that as much as Jackson cares about this scene, he cares even more about the next scene. But leaving that aside for the moment, what emerges is an admirable and almost completely successful attempt to create a complicated, lived-in universe with thousands of years of history that have be explained or at least implied while also telling an entertaining action-adventure story that is coherent and exciting all on its own terms. And that is not something that any previous Tolkien adaptation had managed, or even approached: Bakshi's film cycles through plot joylessly without engaging us in the characters at all, and the Finnish Hobitit, which, prior to Jackson's films, was the only Middle-Earth adaptation that was really sensible at all as a narrative in its own right, could only manage that feat by sacrificing all of the epic scope: it is a fantasy epic that feels like it all takes place in a big backyard.

But Jackson's Fellowship, now there's an epic movie of a once-in-a-lifetime sort; the thing that the movie is best at is depicting indescribable vastness, one of the few times in live-action cinema that we are treated to an entire world consisting of not just a few communities or even a small country, but of hundreds of miles of different places and cultures, all of them invented wholesale - the Middle-Earth of the films is larger than the New Zealand portraying it, but you'd never be able to tell. Much more than its two sequels, The Fellowship of the Ring has the feeling of being dumped into a magical sandbox, full of some of the most astonishing sets and miniatures in living memory, and unlike most live-action fantasy, where things feel conspicuously bounded by the filmmakers' frame, Jackson's gift, and that of his army of collaborators in designing and building and staging this world, is to recreate the endless feeling of Tolkien's writing, the sense that no matter how far you looked to the horizon, there were lands yet to be found beyond sight.

No doubt about it, that's a heady feeling for a movie to tap into, and a sheer fantasy, The Fellowship of the Ring is unimpeachable; but what Jackson does with this unbelievably glorious, tactile world is frankly not that effective. And that brings us back to the plot, and the script, which as I said does an admirable job of being internally coherent while also cramming in all the plot detail that could be managed, it's something impressive more for having been done than for having been done well. Initially, at least, all things seem fine: a moody exposition-setting short film as a prologue, in which elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) tells us only what we need to know, but in an evocative way that doesn't make it seem so medicinal; then we're introduced to the hobbits and their world in a sequence that condenses Tolkien rather considerably, but without rushing, as we watch Bilbo's birthday celebration and his painful departure from the ring that has already begun corrupting his soul (the only omission here that bothers me: in the book, Bilbo and Frodo shared a birthday, a detail that would have taken 20 seconds onscreen to explain, and would have considerably deepened the symbolic connection between the two characters). I can trace the moment things start to go wrong to a single cut: Gandalf, knowing that Bilbo must be handled if he's to leave the ring behind, quickly scoops it up into an envelope and closes it with a wax stamp. Absolutely nothing about the sound design, the dialogue, or the way the film has progressed to this point suggests that we're not watching this happen in real time, but there are several seconds conspicuously missing: Gandalf never drips wax onto the envelope, or lowers it to the table - the scene cuts from him pulling the envelope back, to pressing a stamp on it. Such a tiny little mistake, the kind that, as you're watching, triggers an idle, "oh, that's wrong," but nothing else. And if it wasn't the beginning of a solid hour or more of unbelievably hectic storytelling, I cannot imagine that I'd be discussing it here now.

But it is that beginning, and what follows is an inscrutable narrative wreck: Gandalf travels to a city that, eventually, we'll learn is Gondor, and the rest of the series promises that the journey from Hobbiton in the Shire to Gondor takes weeks or months; everything about the way the scene is pieced together implies, strongly, that Gandalf takes a day or less to ride; then he rides back to Hobbiton, apparently returning two days after he left, to send Frodo on his quest, before taking all morning to arrive at Isengard, home of the great but traitorous wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), which will take other characters a movie and a half to reach. I'm not saying that it's meant to be a grand total of three days for Gandalf to criss-cross Middle-Earth; I'm saying that the way the film has been edited, it's virtually impossible to come to any other conclusion, and this manic cutting won't stop plaguing the film until the four hobbits arrive at Rivendell, God knows how long later.

(Besides that, it's just sloppy: "If I take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been" Sam says at one point, prior to mentioning a "Farmer Maggot" like the two of them were old bridge partners; no fewer than five characters, Merry, Pippin, Legolas,Gimli and Boromir, are stuck into the script without our being given any sense as to why we care about them other than because they are now in front of the camera - Legolas in particular just sort of is a protagonist out of thin air - and the whole council at Rivendell is abrupt and forced, like when a screenwriter finds out that she has 90 seconds of screentime to cover a massively important plot point that took several pages in the book).

The flow of time isn't just some incidental, nitpicky thing, either: The Lord of the Rings is ultimately a travelogue through a fantasy landscape, and depicting with some sensibility the distances involved and the time it takes to travel through them is key to stressing the vast size of that landscape. But for every bit of an hour, the movie just kind of rampages from place to place, not suggesting if it's a day, a week, or a year in between shots, and this speaks to the greatest single problem with The Fellowship of the Ring - and oddly, considering that the three movies were all shot in one gigantic package, each of them has a very discrete set of merits and flaws, I've always found - again, the greatest problem with this first movie, which is that it's episodic to the point where it almost totally lacks an overarching plot. In the first half, up to Rivendell, this takes the form of arrhythmic progression through disconnected setpieces; after Rivendell, the flow of scenes is, thankfully, a great deal smoother, but it still fully lives up to Kevin Smith's famous putdown of being hours of watching people walking, with the only real narrative distinction between locations being that in some of them, there are battle scenes (and not, in general, very exciting battle scenes: Jackson would reach outstanding heights with the next two movies, but the action in Fellowship, particularly the climactic orc battle, has always struck me as being enthusiastically choreographed and awkwardly filmed).

What's at issue is that Jackson, a nimble and clever filmmaker in low-scale genre objects like Heavenly Creatures and Braindead/Dead Alive, is not a terribly good fit as a director for something this grandiose. A producer, yes: and the mere fact of marshaling so many people on- and off-screen into this many hours of movie is impressive all by itself. But what he cannot do, and what this film needs badly, is to modulate tone: other than the moments when he gets to indulge in a little bit more horror (and nearly all of the best scenes in this film are the most overtly horrifying: sword-wielding wraiths stalking through an inn, the hobbits hiding from another wraith in the roots of a tree, the slow reveal of the desolation of the dwarf mine of Moria; and I cannot help but mention that the first two of these were largely taken intact from the 1978 Bakshi film), Jackson has a one-size-fits-all aesthetic that only really fits the two elf strongholds, a sort of "wow, wow, lookatthat!" gawking, complete with swirling, looping camera movements (there's a Raimi-esque tracking shot during the Gandalf/Saruman showdown that I detest feverishly) and Spielbergian shots of looking around at gorgeously-lit things from a low angle, as Howard Shore's robust knock-off of John Williams stealing from Richard Wagner rages on the soundtrack. It's a peculiarly flat movie, tonally: awe here, awe there, awe everywhere, and everybody onscreen who isn't designated comic relief seems constantly brooding and somnolent. The sense of domesticity that ought to be present in the Shire scenes only crops up rarely, the harried, weary feeling of life on the road isn't present at all. And this, I think, has always been my biggest complaint with this leg of the trilogy: it's so damn anxious to be an epic, which it does very well, that it forgets to be a story.

The only thing that keeps Fellowship grounded at a human level, then, is the cast - an absolutely terrific one, top-to-bottom, though McKellen and Mortensen are the obvious stand-outs, and I deeply regret Wood and Astin's limp stabs at fantasy accents (everybody else makes do with their native English, Scottish, or Australian voices), and if you're casting a character whose purpose at a narrative level is to be one of the most commandingly beautiful woman alive, you can do better than Liv Tyler for both psychological complexity and physical attractiveness - for the actors are generally able to make us believe in these people, rather than just wander through Jackson's gawking awe like so many meat puppets. The movie is impressive but shallow: it takes the twinkly gravitas of a McKellen to give it heart.

To close things out, I'd like to talk about the extended cut: once the movie became a massive hit, Jackson was able to get the go-ahead to add material back in that he'd been obliged to gut for time, turning a not-quite-three-hour movie into not-quite-three-and-a-half. While the extended cuts (emphatically not director's cuts) of the other two are mixed affairs on the whole, in the case of Fellowship, I am 100% in favor of the longer version: though it is still rushed, it is considerably less so, taking plenty of time to stop and breathe, and to significantly expand our sense of character and place - the best Shire scene in the entire movie is only present in this cut, the very opening of the movie proper, as we track back from a map depicting all the vast lands of the rest of the film, we find ourselves in a homey little study, domestic quietude asserting itself over epic grandeur - this cut scene is also the only place we ever learn anything about hobbits beyond "they are short". Aragorn emerges as a more sensitive, deeper soul; Boromir's rough transitions between heroism and villainy are given a bit more grounding; Lothlórien serves actual character purposes rather than just working as another narrative layover. There are also two separate details which set up plot points that pay off later in the series: the true identity of the nasty monster Gollum, who was once the ring's owner and now tracks it, and the gift of elf cloaks to the fellowship. It's richer, and deeper; and slower, which has sometimes been used as an argument against it, but given how much the theatrical cut of the film already felt like it was on uppers, a couple languid stretches are by no means my idea of a serious problem. It makes the film cleaner and clearer, and thus even though it is a significantly longer version of a movie that wasn't short to begin with, it moves with much greater purpose, and is so much more engaging, to me, that it ends up feeling less draggy.

Reviews in this series
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Jackson, 2001)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Jackson, 2002)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Jackson, 2012)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Jackson, 2013)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Jackson, 2014)