Ricky Church celebrates the 15th anniversary of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy…
15 years ago today, audiences worldwide were introduced to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings. I had just started high school when The Fellowship of the Ring was getting ready to hit theaters and my only exposure at the time was the teaser trailer that announced all three films would be released annually during the holidays. I was intrigued and sought out the books before Fellowship’s release. Tolkien’s world quickly enthralled me and I wondered how Peter Jackson would bring Middle-earth to life.
By the time 2003 rolled around, only one film series had affected me as much as Lord of the Rings and that was Star Wars. Jackson had done an excellent job bringing Tolkien’s world to the big screen, adapting the novels that many thought could not be adapted properly. After all, each book is quite detailed in its imagery and features the characters sitting, talking and walking much of the time. On paper it doesn’t sound like the most exciting story to turn into film and is also one of the more common criticisms found among the mainstream audience, whether they read the books or saw the movies.
Jackson’s dedication to Lord of the Rings was very evident from the first film. From 1995 onward he had spent years trying to get the books to screen and was lucky when he got to film it as a trilogy. Previously, he was told to write the films as two movies and was later at risk of making it all one film, cutting out nearly all the good stuff when the project fell under Miramax. When he took the project over to New Line Cinema though, it was thankfully expanded to incorporate all of Jackson’s vision.
The look and feel of the films alone is great. I was surprised by just how much of the films effects are done practically, particularly the design of the Orcs. The make-up on the various Orcs throughout the trilogy is outstanding, giving them very real and frightening appearances. It is such a contrast to The Hobbit films where more emphasis was put on motion capture or computer generated technology to make the Orcs in those films. Even the make-up on the Elves and Hobbits, right down to their hairy feet, was great and stripped right out of the book.
On the subject of digital imagery though, Lord of the Rings really pushed the boundaries of CGI effects in films, particularly during epic battles sequences. WETA Digital did a number on these scenes, going into exquisite detail into the making of the opposing armies, often seamlessly turning 80 extras into an army of thousands, and of the various creatures like the Balrog, trolls or the Nazgul’s Fellbeast. Where they really broke ground though was in Andy Serkis’ Gollum, taking the motion capture concept from George Lucas’ Jar Jar Binks and expanding on it to its fullest potential. Even after 15 years, Gollum still looks incredible and set the groundwork for other great motion capture performances, such as Serkis’ Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes films.
The cast, however, is where the films really shine. Ian McKellen’s casting as the powerful wizard Gandalf was inspired, bringing his wisdom and power to life with ease. The four Hobbits were great as well, with the brotherly bonds between Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Wood and Sean Astin feeling quite real and emotional. That fact was actually intended by Jackson, who hoped the young actors would grow real bonds after spending so much time together. Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies and Sean Bean rounded out The Fellowship as Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Boromir respectively, giving each of their roles a level of seriousness and light-heartedness that really helped the films.
Even the supporting cast was great, from the late Christopher Lee’s masterful Saruman, Miranda Otto’s brave Eowyn and John Noble’s very memorable Denethor. It’s a mark on the film that even that actors who don’t have much screentime in the trilogy performs to the best of their ability for what is sometimes an extended cameo. I consider Andy Serkis’ performance to be one of the strongest in the films and am still upset he was denied even a nomination at the Academy Awards for his work as Gollum.
One aspect I was surprised by was just how many liberties Peter Jackson and his team took with the story. Many of the changes are still somewhat contentious to this day. Saruman’s death, for one, could have been handled a bit better (especially since it only appears in the Extended Edition), yet adding ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ would have added another hour to Return of the King which is already infamous for its multiple endings.
One change that I actually appreciate is Faramir coveting The Ring, a short storyline that brought viewers to the war in Gondor. This was mostly only heard about and not seen in the book until the big battle of Minas Tirith. Showing just how dire the situation was in Gondor emphasized how much of a losing battle they were fighting against Sauron and also gave Faramir a bit more depth. The scene in The Two Towers Extended Edition with Sean Bean’s cameo also greatly helps explain Faramir’s desire for The Ring. The same can be said for Aragorn’s journey from simple Ranger to King; in the book he actively works his way to become Gondor’s King while the films show he fights against his legacy, giving a bit more of an actual arc to the character in the films as opposed to the book.
On the note of the Extended Editions, The Lord of the Rings is one of the few film series that I feel actually deserves an extended cut. Many films nowadays just promote an ‘extended cut’ just to pad out some extra money on DVD or Blu-ray releases for a measly 10 – 15 minutes of extra film, but Jackson’s cuts actually enhance the characters, story and world in the films. While a few could have remained on the cutting room floor, many of the added scenes justify the extended runtime. A perfect example is the aforementioned scene with Faramir and Boromir, adding to his character’s journey and family complexity.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a groundbreaking achievement in film, showing just what the fantasy genre can offer the industry. The level of depth that went into all aspects of the films, from design, make-up, acting and especially Howard Shore’s memorable music, really shaped the trilogy into one of the best film franchises made. I would argue that the trilogy, specifically Return of the King, is Peter Jackson’s best work for delivering such an epic and emotionally satisfying cinematic adventure.