The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The first part of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” is the most thrilling adventure movie in at least a decade, and one of the most visceral, emotional films of the year. When it’s not stopping your heart, it’s breaking it, filling it or lightening it.

Fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien novels have eagerly anticipated the trilogy of films (the other two parts, filmed concurrently with “Fellowship,” will be released at Christmas 2002 and 2003). I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. I haven’t read more than chunks of “Fellowship,” but the film seems to be a respectful, smart adaptation (by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and director Peter Jackson), capturing the spirit and intention of the book even as it has to, of necessity, trim a few things here and there. (Tom Bombadil is gone altogether, for example.)

The story, for those unfamiliar with it, is an epic Hero’s Journey. A hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), accompanied by friends and aided by the wise old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), must travel a great distance to the aptly named Mt. Doom to destroy an evil ring, resisting its powers and temptations along the way. All the while, they are pursued by the Dark Riders, dreadful creatures called orcs, and all manner of foul beasts, some of whom seek the ring for themselves and some of whom simply like to kill things.

It runs three hours and fills every minute of it. There is never a moment not occupied with some exciting bit of action or important nugget of dialogue. If you can find even five minutes that should have been shaved off, you’re better at Shorten the Long Movie than I am, and Shorten the Long Movie is one of my favorite pastimes. (“Titanic”? Didn’t need the framing story with the old lady. “Harry Potter”? Could have omitted the entire opening sequence with baby Harry. “Pearl Harbor”? The 90 minutes before the bombs started dropping could have been trimmed to 45.)

Director Peter Jackson delivers a feast for the eyes without being overly flashy or scintillating. The war scenes are horrific, the evil cities monstrous, the city of Rivendell gorgeous. The troll that traps our heroes in a cave is terrifyingly real. The orcs are straight out of a nightmare.

But unlike a certain other wizard-oriented book-based film in recent memory, “Fellowship” was not content to merely transfer the events and characters from page to screen. Jackson has also captured the emotions and relationships of these beings. When Gandalf goes to his old friend Saruman (Christopher Lee) for help, only to learn that Saruman is no longer one of the good guys, we feel his pain. The dialogue is often melodramatic, almost Shakespearean, as written, but it’s delivered with such conviction that it instantly conveys connections between people. The characters’ relationships to each other have weight and mass and substance — not because the books told us they do, but because they actually do.

Frodo, overwhelmed by the task he’s been assigned and all its associated dangers, wishes aloud that none of this had ever happened. Gandalf, sympathetic but wise, says he doesn’t blame him for feeling that way, but reminds him that we don’t get to decide which cards we’re dealt in life. “All that you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you,” he says.

Can it be that this fantasy-novel-turned-roller-coaster-ride has some magnitude to it? That it all MEANS something beyond providing a thousand thrills and adventures? “The Fellowship of the Ring” is enjoyable on a “popcorn movie” level, to be sure. But it goes so much further than that with its pure, earnest themes of Good vs. Evil, bravery, friendship and devotion. It is a massive, grand film that is massively, grandly entertaining.

A (; PG-13, a lot of scary violence, though none is especially graphic or bloody; there is no sex, nudity or profanity.)