or: how one delivers on a cinematic promise...
by Dean McIntosh
A writer for The Sunday Times once wrote that "The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, and those who are going to read them". Indeed, when the first volume of this epic, entitled The Fellowship Of The Ring, was first published in 1954, there were some critics who placed it higher than such classic epics as John Milton's Paradise Lost. For many years, however, the novels were branded "unfilmable" due to the difficulties in simulating such environments as Mordor and Rivendell, not to mention the logistic problems of making characters appear three to four feet taller than one another. Nonetheless, an attempt was made in 1978 by Ralph Bashki, but the problems in that adaptation were not so much logistic as they were based on a lack of respect for the source material. Putting this aside, however, New Zealand's current favourite son, Peter Jackson, must have seen this adaptation and decided that somehow, somewhere, he would do the saga the justice that it deserved. He has succeeded more than admirably in that endeavour. For the benefit of those who have yet to see the film or read the books, I will give a small synopsis of the story to bring them up to speed.
As the title suggests, The Lord Of The Rings concerns itself with Rings of power, as well as the people they were forged by and for. A total of nineteen Rings were forged by a dark lord named Sauron (Sala Baker): three for the Elves, seven for the Dwarves, and nine for the kings of Men. However, unbeknownst to all of them, Sauron forged an extra Ring that would bind the others to his power and enable him to enslave all the free peoples of Middle Earth. An alliance between Men and Elves battled with Sauron and his minions, resulting in the heir apparent to the kingdom of Men, Isildur (Harry Sinclair), cutting the one Ring from Sauron's hand. Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the king of the Elves, led Isildur into Mount Doom and urged him to throw the Ring into the flames where it was forged. Isildur fell to temptation, however, and decided to take the Ring for his own use. He did not, however, count on being ambushed, whereupon the Ring fell into a river and was picked up by a creature who answers to the name of Gollum (Andy Serkis). Bilbo Baggins (Sir Ian Holm) took the Ring from Gollum during the adventures that comprise The Hobbit, all the while with Sauron rebuilding his dark kingdom in Mordor.
The action in The Fellowship Of The Ring concerns itself with the discovery that the One Ring which Sauron forged in the flames of Mount Doom, and the Ring that Bilbo happened upon in his adventures, are one and the same. After the Ring is given to Bilbo's nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood), he and three other Hobbits set off towards Bree, where they are befriended by a Ranger called Strider (Viggo Mortinsen). From there, after being pursued by the Nazgūl and almost killed, Frodo is taken to Rivendell, the realm of Elrond. There, the decision is made that the Ring must be taken to Mordor and cast into the fires of Mount Doom, the same action that Isildur previously failed in. Allying with Frodo in this task are the three Hobbits that accompanied him to Rivendell: Pippin (Billy Boyd), Sam (Sean Astin), and Merry (Dominic Monaghan). Joining them in the quest are two men, Boromir (Sean Bean), and Strider, who reveals himself to actually be Aragorn, the rightful heir to the kingdom of Men. Finally, Frodo is aided in his quest by a Dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), an Elven archer named Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and of course his old friend, the Wizard named Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen). With this Fellowship of Nine, the task is set for them to get the Ring to Mordor and destroy it by any means necessary.
The box office is a highly competitive market, and a film has to really offer something new or special in order to dominate it. So what, exactly, does The Fellowship Of The Ring offer that its competitors do not? In order to understand the answer to this question, it is necessary for this writer to talk about his own early experiences with the novels. After reading both The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings at the grand old age of seven years, I often pictured in my mind what films based upon these novels would look like. Obviously, unlike such efforts as Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone (or Harry Pooter And The Philosophising Stoners, as I have taken to calling it for those who understand what the English slang word "poot" actually means), The Lord Of The Rings respects the intelligence of its audience. Regardless of whether the viewer is seven years old or seventy years old, they will be all the richer for having seen or read it.
There is a school of thought in film criticism at the moment that attacks anything that makes extensive use of Computer Generated Imagery, and I do tend to agree that there are films that abuse this device (The Matrix being one example that springs to mind). However, what is one to do when they must simulate an environment that does not exist, and probably never existed? Contrary to the reports of certain writers, the CGI in this film is completely seamless, with the environments perfectly integrated into the action. Indeed, I have never seen CGI used so well for the purposes of furthering movie illusions, which in this case is critical to the impact of the story. Considering that The Lord Of The Rings was considered "unfilmable" until a few years ago, the one thing I have learned from viewing the first episode in the trilogy is that with time and persistence, nothing is truly impossible.
Of course, special effects and seamless integration of them into the final film mean nothing without some truly inspiring performances by the principal actors. Unlike certain other films that are heavily reliant upon special effects, The Fellowship Of The Ring has this in abundance. The characters of the novels, particularly Elrond, come to life in a way that truly defies the limitations of the medium. Some of the performances are so surprising that they should definitely open up new opportunities for the actors, especially those who play the four Hobbits. Everywhere in the film, from the simplest of special effects to the astonishing score music, or from the actors' performances to the elaborate battle sequences, it is clear that The Lord Of The Rings has transcended the cynical exercise to make money and become a labour of love for its makers.
After approximately 15,000 votes, The Fellowship Of The Ring has ascended to the very top of the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 films, no small feat in a climate that is often hostile to modern films for few discernable reasons. In my never-too-humble opinion, and many others for that matter, at least one of the three Lord Of The Rings films should remain there. It is clear from the outset that Peter Jackson is a fan of the novels by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and that he treated every frame in every second of the film with respect. Naturally, the same respect would be expected of the distributor who has the rights to market this film in Australia on DVD-Video. This brings me to describe the things I would like to see on the DVD-Video that is eventually released onto the Australian market.
Dual-disc formatting and identical specifications to the Region
1 version, please
I cannot possibly stress this enough: a three hour film by default deserves to have as much disc space devoted to it as is humanly possible, and past experience has shown that multiple-disc formatting is the best way to achieve this. If I want to watch the theatrical trailer or any of the other special features, I would prefer that they do not detract from the most important aspect of the presentation: the film itself. As Michael D has said, it is all about the movie. I also feel that Australian fans of the film have the right to be treated with the same amount of respect as the American fans. We both speak the same language and Australia has noticeably more adult-respecting censorship laws, so logic dictates that we have the right to expect the same kind of presentation. Considering that New Zealand also basically receives identical product to what we receive in Australia, and that a significant portion of the film was shot on their shores, they have a very big right to expect to be treated with the same respect as the American market.
Commentary tracks and isolated scores, please
It's not every day that a filmmaker of any sort, be he an actor, a producer, a writer, or a director, gets involved with a masterpiece of this magnitude, so it goes without saying that I would be very interested to hear comments about the results from director Peter Jackson and some of the cast or crew. Composer Howard Shore has leapt into the same kind of elite class as the great John Williams on the basis of his efforts in this film. Whether he remains there in the future or drops back into delivering scores for more mediocre films like certain other composers remains to be seen, but I would also like to hear the score music in all of its glory, with some comments during the quieter moments. I want to be educated about the musical stylings of the score, the instrumental techniques that were used, and just what the hell the choirs are chanting about. Above all else, however, I want the commentary and/or isolated score soundtracks to be kept interesting.
DTS soundtracks, or special soundtrack formats, please
The soundtrack for The Fellowship Of The Ring is a thing of unparallelled sonic beauty, with effects that truly seem out of this world. The extra fidelity that DTS or Dolby Digital EX formatting offers is the least that this film deserves, and if a 1509 kilobit per second DTS soundtrack will just barely fit, then I want to have it. If this is not entirely possible due to space limitations, then a 754 kilobit per second DTS soundtrack or a 448 kilobit per second Dolby Digital EX soundtrack would be the preferred option. Sound is more than half of the experience in any film, and The Lord Of The Rings is confirmation of this. I would also prefer that, should space requirements restrict the highest bitrate of soundtrack to 448 kilobit Dolby Digital, that my soundtrack not be optimised for downconversion into other formats. This is a film that deserves to have the specifications of its storage format pushed to the absolute limit.
All of the Theatrical Trailers and publicity featurettes should
be included, please
The first Teaser Trailer for The Fellowship Of The Ring was downloaded approximately 1.6 million times within a single day of being posted on the Internet. As powerful a medium for mass communication as the Internet is, it does not compare with the quality that the DVD-Video medium offers for such extras as these. This is to say nothing of the fact that two making-of features, themselves spanning nearly three hours in length, have already been made. I want to see all of the trailers and the publicity featurettes in the best possible quality that can currently be offered in the home. DVD-Video is the only storage format that can do this, so I want the complete advertising campaign included for my viewing pleasure.
Featurettes about the special effects, please
One of the most oft-repeated questions about The Fellowship Of The Ring so far is how one makes an actor who stands just under six feet tall (Sir Ian McKellen) appear to be the same height as an actor who is nearly six and a half feet tall (Christopher Lee). This is to say nothing of how impressive the realism factor in making the Hobbits and Dwarves appear two to three feet shorter than the Elves and Men has been. I want a featurette that educates me on the subject of how these illusions were accomplished and maintained, preferably presented in such a concise, clear manner that even the most non-technical among us can understand it.
Comments by surviving members of the Tolkien family, please
The greatest test of any novel-to-film adaptation is whether the man who wrote the novel approves of it, and while commentary on this subject by J.R.R. Tolkien himself is not possible, I am sure that his remaining relatives, particularly his son Christopher, would have plenty to say on the subject. Whether such comments are presented as a commentary track or as a featurette like the comments by Sylvester Stallone that were included with the Special Edition Rocky DVD is something that can be left to those who put the disc(s) together, but the important point is that such comments will be of great interest to fans of both the novels and the film.
Package the film properly, please
Numerous two-disc sets have been released for films that demand or deserve them, and most of them have one thing in common: the packaging is truly horrible. So far, only the packaging used by Fox Home Entertainment for The Phantom Menace or Braveheart has truly made the grade in terms of durability, so I want The Fellowship Of The Ring to be packaged in a similar manner. Using cardboard gatefold cases or two button cases glued together is not on - this is a film I want to be able to watch again and again, which means I want packaging that will last as long as I do, and packaging that does not have the potential to damage the discs. I want this film to be packaged in a dual transparent Amaray or a slip cover containing two transparent Amarays, please. It is the least I deserve considering that I would use the discs to show family or friends why I own a DVD-Video player.
DVD-Video viewers are by nature a discriminating mob, and with very good reason: panning and scanning films such as The Fellowship Of The Ring, or presenting it with less than the best possible sound, is a crime against its makers. It is yet another film that those of us who have jumped into the DVD-Video age can use as an excuse to condescend to those who have not, and it is mandatory that the film be presented in a manner that reflects this. Very few films are placed at the centre of such intrigue, and almost none deliver on their promises so faithfully: it is a film that deserves to be preserved in a time capsule as an exhibition of human achievement.
There is no doubt that The Fellowship Of The Ring also promises to be the greatest experience one can imagine in the realm of home theatre. The same will doubtlessly be said of the next two films, each of which are scheduled for release on Boxing Day 2002 and 2003, so it is quite an exciting time to be alive. The legend has truly come to life, and if it is treated with the respect it deserves when it comes time to present it in home theatre, it will remain so for years to come. Seldom does such a powerful opportunity to present a story in such a great manner arise, and I eagerly await the chance to report that the opportunity has been taken.
© Dean McIntosh
7th June 2002