Lord of the Rings – 20 Years Later

There’s something about the 1999-2001 timeframe where an explosion of ideas simply came to fruition. I’ll lay that cause, of all places, with Toy Story. That movie affirmed that CGI was here to stay and could be used as a tremendous storytelling tool (and also the end of Harryhausen). Frankly ushered in a new age of storytelling.

One of those films is Lord of the Rings (or series I guess). Fellowship of the Rings released in 2001, way back when I was still college. I had read the books multiple times while growing up, I think it was a sort of rite of passage for any geek. And the think about the books is that while they are highly descriptive, they also have a lot of room for interpretation. So to the cinema I headed with a bunch of geek school friends (a programmer class). I was not prepared for what was to happen.

There was always going to be some debate as to the construct of the films. While the first is linear, the last 2 are multiple storylines that swap between. And there are quite a few sub-storylines that take place. Removal of Tom Bombadil was somewhat expected, as he was always a sore thumb. Arwen taking more space was a welcome change. To take such complex and dense material, and yet remain faithful was practically unheard of at the time. The last attempt at faithful book adaptation was Dune, and that really did not work.

And, in my mind, the most important aspect of this film is that is was intended to be a series from the start and filmed all 3 back to back. The concept of a trilogy wasn’t new… I mean we did have Star Wars 20 years earlier. And yet, it wasn’t a trilogy in the concept where there are clear beginnings and endings to the films. You could, and if you have the bladder power should, watch all 3 films back to back to back. The success of this film series (and Harry Potter for youth) opened the door for a default trilogy story-telling mechanism.

The story opts not to start calmly, but in the middle of a massive battle. It’s hard to explain the impact this scene had… having that many extras hadn’t been done since the Ben-Hur days, and this threw even more on the plat. To have it all happen in lock step, then have Sauron come around swinging that mace… I still get raised hairs thinking about it. It sets the stage as to how epic the journey will be, and the quality of the effects throughout.

The film them slows down a tad, what with the Hobbits being generally slow folk, and then introduces the Nazgul who are rightfully dreadful. The whole effects while the ring is worn is jarring, doing a much better job than the book to explain the evilness of the effect. The battle with the Watcher and then the troll battle in Moria continually amped up the anxiety and adrenaline, with periods of quiet offsetting the chaos. It isn’t a film of non-stop action, it’s a film of ups and downs, reflecting the reality of a long journey. And then…

The Balrog and the pass. The slow reveal. The sound. In a movie theatre you could imagine the heat coming off the massive flaming demon. ‘You shall not pass!’ was meme worthy before memes existed. The fall of Gandalf and the mourning that followed are where most other films would have ended. The group barely got through and had to sacrifice the strongest member to do so.

The voyage to Galadriel is powerful yet seemingly too quick. The epic score and setting for the fall of Boromir (which technically was in the 2nd book) did an amazing job with marking how powerful the evil forces actually could be. Instead of whispers in the dark, they were out and about in the day.

It’s a rare event for a film to have two effective gut punches. 2 leads die, the party is split, and there’s less hope of success than at the start, all generally seen as ‘bad endings’. And then we get Enya.

I recall leaving the cinema and being in a sort of daze as to what I had just seen. I’d seen the Matrix a few years before and remember being sort of euphoric for the insanity of that film, but LotR was like having taken a rollercoaster, while listening to a heavy metal album, and being in a pie eating contest. I left the larger doors with my group, then just sat down on the curb nearby, trying to collect my thoughts. We had all read the book, so we knew what to expect… and yet we still came out surprised with how they put those ideas to image. You can read about the Balrog, you can look at the earlier images (Sargeras in WoW looks like early Balrogs), but they don’t do justice to what was on screen. I’m still amazed as to what WETA was able to accomplish 20 years ago.

I picked up the normal version, and then the extended version for home. I watch it every year. I read the books every other. There are subtleties to the films that really stand out when you get the context of the books – in particular the relationship between Gimli and Legolas. I’m still amazed by the scenery – and at some point will need to take a trip to NZ to fully appreciate it all.

Back to the original point. You can draw a line pre- and post- Matrix/LotR/Harry Potter. It started a new age of film making, of storytelling, of video game tie-ins (2 MMOs!) It was an impressive time, and remains an enjoyable experience to this day.

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