Peter Jackson emphasizes the territorial nature of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth by fascinatingly playing with lines of division. Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Sam Gangee (Sean Astin) flee from the Shire with the Great Ring in tow. Sam stops, noting that with his next step he’ll be at the furthest point he has ever been from the Shire. A scarecrow looms over the proceedings and Frodo guides Sam into the rocky terrain of the unfamiliar. Jackson understands the purity of home and the escalating terror that befalls the Fellowship the further it rides from the Shire. For fans there is the joy of recognition, that mushrooms will bring the Hobbit group that much closer to the Prancing Pony Inn. There is also the pervasive sound of trotting, the fear that every crossing path will be blocked by Black Riders and that every echo will carry with it the blood-curdling screech of Rider horses.
Tolkien’s classical prose rendered Middle-earth a fantastical playground for Christian angst. One of the more remarkable elements of Jackson’s film is his evocation of the Black Rider attacks. When they dismount from their horses, the Black Riders appear larger than life. With their poisoned swords lowered, they solemnly approach the Fellowship as if engaged in a spiritual ritual. Allusions to Christianity are inevitable when any text is this fraught with mythic vibrations. The Black Riders take on the Fellowship atop a mountain that could very well have been the final resting spot of Noah’s Arc (curiously, the tip of the mountain is in the shape of an ancient ship). This relic is the menacing backdrop for a fabulous battle between a malleable good and a difficult-to-gauge evil.
Tolkien’s good-versus-evil procedural is many things (virginal, terrifyingly apocalyptic) and Jackson fully grasps the allure of the Great Ring to the Fellowship as the group slithers closer to the Cracks of Doom. If Frodo is the chosen prophet, then Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) is a fallen angel. Better than the film’s wizard battle between Saruman and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is latter’s entrapment atop a slinky black tower that stands below a blood-red sky and is circled by flying creatures from much happier lands. True to his source material, Jackson implicates nature in the film’s epic struggles. As Gandalf stands defeated atop the Tower of Orthanac, a butterfly-like creature portends survival. Below, Saruman orders that the trees around the tower be decimated by his army of Orcs. For Saruman it seems that evil can only exist in the absence of light and nature.
“White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.” Those were words once uttered by the sweet-talking Saruman, now Sauron’s servant. Jackson understands the Great Ring’s pull and that only two paths can exist: the one that leads toward the ring’s destruction and the one that champions its evil. The element of greed in the film is as potent here as it is in the Tolkien original, evoked by Jackson when the faces of the Fellowship’s members are morphed into ghoulish representations of their prior selves. Boromir (Sean Bean) is tempted by the ring and is forced to reclaim his humanity when Strider (Viggo Mortensen) takes him to task. Earlier, an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) is fearfully reminded of his selfish attachment to the ring once the Fellowship arrives at Rivendell.
If there is a terror here that is singular to Jackson it is the vision that accompanies Frodo whenever the young Hobbit wears the Great Ring. The dread conjured by these images is gripping—here, Frodo is forced to stare at a terrifying incarnation of Middle-earth. These visions may be horrifying but their allure is obvious. Gandalf warns against this very pull (one that emanates from the Eye of Mordor, here represented as a black slit surrounded by flames) and the hesitancy on Frodo’s fingers suggests his curiousness for more. Once rustic landscapes are now black and ashen while good and evil seemingly have switched clothes—Frodo wears the Great Ring and the Black Riders now don white garbs. Frodo is faced with the haunting reality that his potential for evil is as potent as his potential for good.
Nowhere is the color-coordinated duality between good and evil better visualized than with Jackson’s breathtaking interpretation of Arwen (Liv Tyler) leading a wounded Frodo into Rivendell (regardless of the Glorfindel excision). It’s a ferocious sequence, from the you-go-girl horse ride to the faint-then-soaring arrival of Arwen’s flood. The showdown atop the Khazad-Dum bridge is liable to cause weeping while Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel) actually out-divas McKellen. Sure, Lee’s Saruman and Hugo Weaving’s Elrond are a tad kitschy and John Rhys-Davies Gimli would make a great Ram-Man for He-Man but Jackson has deftly done away with only the most non-essential of Tolkien’s decorations (the Hobbit songs thankfully among them). One curious bit of business seemingly plagues the proceedings: Bill the Pony makes an otherwise head-shaking appearance right before entering Moria. Before this point, he was hardly the focus of anyone’s attentions.
Jackson’s take on the Shire is considerably more happy-go-lucky than Tolkien fans might expect; the fireworks are grand but life for the Hobbits is strangely akin to an Irish jig. Despite the Shire’s exaggerated sense of joy and normalcy, Jackson has stunningly authenticated Tolkien’s mythic landscape. Blue waters wash against flowery green pastures. There is a sense of belonging here, as if we’ve finally stumbled across that old friend we’ve only seen in dreams and read about in the thumb-worn pages of Tolkien’s novels. At three hours, Fellowship of the Ring soars, its pitfalls miniscule when compared to the jaw-dropping splendor of its remarkable set pieces. Jackson’s flights of fantasy bow before Tokien and are quite unlike anything you are likely to ever see on film. Or at least until next December.