The name J.R.R. Tolkien is synonymous with Western fantasy literature. When Tolkien combined Scandinavian mythology with his own experiences from the First World War to expand on his children’s story The Hobbit and create a mythical multi-millennial fantastical history for England, it became the template from which all other works of fantasy were drawn. Middle-Earth’s serene elves, hardy dwarves, noble men, wicked orcs, subtle wizards, and unassuming hobbits exist with such a deep history and rich backstory that filming the events of The Lord of the Rings seemed like an impossible task; the story is too large to ever be contained in a single film. Peter Jackson’s films are called a trilogy, but as they were all shot at the same time and flow seamlessly from one to the other, much like Tolkien’s books were originally intended to be they are one epic-length film, one with scope and breadth unequaled in all of cinema and the only vehicle large enough to house so much of Middle-Earth at once.
The films center around a treacherous quest. The One Ring, the object of power needed by the titular Lord of the Rings, Sauron, to be restored to his full power, is discovered by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in the hands of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a hobbit with a pure heart but no yearning for adventure. Though ferrying the Ring to the elvish city of Rivendell gives him all the experience with the world outside of his home in the Shire he needs, he volunteers to carry Sauron’s weapon to its final destination: Mount Doom, deep in the dark land of Mordor, to be unforged in the volcano. Meanwhile, Sauron gathers his armies of orcs and mercenaries to attack the lands of men; with his ally the fallen wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) they wage war first against Rohan, land of the horse-lords, and then against Gondor at Minas Tirith, where the throne of men has remained empty since Sauron’s defeat an age ago. Aragorn, (Viggo Mortensen), heir to the throne of Gondor, travels with Frodo but soon finds his path diverging, leading to his destiny to unite the lands of men against the Dark Lord.
To call the films “epic” does them a disservice, as there are ordinary epics and then there is The Lord of the Rings. Incredibly detailed sets evoking the equally-detailed descriptions of topography and architecture Tolkien wrote of fill the screen, each new location a distinct entity with its own history drawn from the source material. Armies of extras outfitted in hand-crafted mail, each with personal details that show what rank its bearer has in their society or what part of the world they hail from, wage war on crowded battlefields. Every dramatic and scenic location in New Zealand seems to have been scouted to play the part of Middle-Earth, and having real locations rather than fanciful computer creations for the backgrounds pays off, lending yet another level of realism and credibility to the films. The variance in design for just one of the races is more than the majority of fantasy epics can manage, and with at least four major societies depicted the amount of detail on the screen at any given time is phenomenal. Every part of the world has its own personality and its own culture – even Saruman’s elite Uruk-Hai soldiers, clad in crude blank mail and armed with mass-produced blades, carry an alien look of being manufactured with them. The staggering amount of work to bring the films from page to screen is apparent in every frame; the trilogy almost deserves all the credit it gets just for that effort alone.
But alongside the fantasy setting that will be the defining fantasy setting for films for decades to come there is an amazing story being told, one of sacrifice and brotherhood and the will to do good in the face of impossible evil. The characters lament that war and dark times are descending on Middle-Earth, but not in a way that speaks of preventing the specific causes of these wars, rather just accepting that dark times occur as a matter of consequence, making it applicable to a wide range of real-life circumstances, not just those that resemble the Great War in some way. What seems like a simple good-versus-evil scenario is filled with complexities, showing the ways the coming war affects all peoples from the ancient and nearly immortal beings to the simple commoners who desire only a life of peace, and that in such darkness lies the capability for great heroism, not just from kings and warriors but also from the kinds of people about whom songs are not written and stories not told. The theme that the least of us may have a large role to play is a recurring one: not just in Frodo’s acceptance of the burden of the One Ring, but also in his friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), instrumental in defeating Saruman, in Eowyn (Miranda Otto), forbidden from riding with the men of Rohan but who slays Sauron’s fearsome champion, the Witch-King of Angmar, in single combat, in Gollum (Andy Serkis), the twisted creature who possessed the Ring through much of its absence and who is the eventual (and accidental) cause of its destruction, and most of all in Samwise (Sean Astin), Frodo’s faithful companion and protector who accompanies him every step of the way into Mordor.
These films are not flawless. I’m sure that every person who has read the books has their own little list of things they would have liked changed. But that does not take away the fact that the films as they are are an example of the impossible being made possible, and as a singular unedited entity they place Tolkien’s world on the screen in both look and tone, a monumental feat untouchable in terms of size and scope by any other multi-film tale, and I would willingly give up my minor dream edits to keep the harrowing journey from detailed written setting to fully-realised film world as intact as it is. I couldn’t give The Lord of the Rings anything but the highest grade; just as Tolkien’s name is synonymous with written fantasy, so too should Peter Jackson’s be with cinematic fantasy.