Most articles about films that changed the scene start with ‘back in whatever year the film was released, things were different’, which would be absolutely true about Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Not only was this the return of epic cinema, but everything about the film was new, with ground-breaking CGI and practical effects. But this was a fantasy genre film, the kind of story that would be saved for a small release or in worst case straight to video. The fantasy genre had not been looked upon favourably by Hollywood but there was a planned trilogy of films, shot back-to-back over a year and half, several years in the making, that would change cinema forever: The Fellowship of the Ring.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been named one the most influential film series in various polls. The three films together changed the course of epic filmmaking and earned many award nominations and wins. However, this all started with The Fellowship of the Ring, the beginning of a gigantic journey that starts where post fantasies begin, with a legend, the rise and fall of evil and the chance that said evil lingers on despite their assumed demise. But these legendary characters and mythical succession of events are already over in the first 10 minutes of the film. What sets this story apart from others before and after it is that there is no ‘chosen one’, there is no prophecy to fulfil. Unless you talk about how Aragon must accept his destiny (slightly different), as he’s the heir to a throne he doesn’t particularly want.
The fantasy genre has always been seen as a niche theme in storytelling, whether this was in film, TV, novels and even music. If you enjoyed the fantasy genre you were made to feel guilty for it as it had a reputation, a strangely negative one in the ‘mainstream’ media. But the adaptation of Tolkien’s classic literature changed the course of how a general audience viewed the genre and even embraced the power of the ring. With the release of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, there was new lease of life and a greater understanding of how this theme wasn’t just mythical creatures, swords and magic but actual in-depth characters arcs told on a wide platform of imagination.
One of the major factors of the success of The Fellowship of the Ring and the following films was the use of ground-breaking CGI that had not been utilised before. Combining this with practical effects and an army of prop and costume makers, hair and make-up artists and a mountain of prosthetics, the film was not just about the story; the creators at WETA workshop brought characters and locations to life. At the height of CGI and pushing the boundaries of what was possible, there were plenty of films being released that relied heavily on the computer graphics being believable and impressive at the same time. But WETA digital was able to create armies of elves, orcs and the landmarks of Middle Earth mixed with the miniatures blended in for some of the iconic scenes in the film.
There had been a back lash on the over use of CGI in films such as The Phantom Menace and how the Star Wars saga had tried too hard and, in some fans’ eyes, failed to capture the essence of the original films. The Lord of the Rings managed expertly to use both. The prosthetics used to make all the hobbits’ feet and the orc features and skin were just but a few elements that added texture to this fantastical world. Director Peter Jackson has so often praised the artists of WETA for their work on all the films. The art and technical aspects of the film was also recognised at several awards including the Oscars where the film, alone, was nominated in thirteen categories winning four; Best Cinematography, Makeup, Original Score and Visual Effects. Of course, The Return of the King went on to be the one and only true fantasy film to win Best Picture, but really this was a win for the entire trilogy. Without the beginning there would have been no journey continued, no final showdown at the gates of Mordor or on Mount Doom. The Fellowship of the Ring was the film to open the audience’s eyes and those of the Academy Awards, letting fantasy through and broadening the horizon of film and what we consider a blockbuster.
The legacy that The Fellowship of the Ring left behind was that fantasy films can be turned into a cinematic masterpiece, in the right hands. The fact that Peter Jackson had been working on bringing The Lord of the Rings to the big screen for years before New Line cinema came on board is that this story, these films, were a passion project on a huge scale. If there isn’t a passion for the original source material and drive to get things right, this can’t be mirrored in the finished film. Other adaptations of well-known and beloved books have over the years tried to replicate the success that The Fellowship of the Ring brought. With The Golden Compass released in 2007, there was a hope to bring Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials to life but with an old name change, questionable casting and major changes to the story, the film was not successful at the box office nor was it critically praised. The film lacked magic that it had on the page. Of course, this trilogy did go on to be adapted for TV instead achieving the critical acclaim on the small screen.
Other fantasy-themed film series didn’t make it past the first instalment either such as Eragon, which faired quite well at the box office but was panned by critics and fans. More recently, Mortal Engines, a steampunk fantasy based on a series of award-winning books by Phillip Reeve, didn’t get past the first film hurdle, despite being backed by the dream team of Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. This film also suffered major changes from book to screen. Disney’s Chronicles of Narnia may have been close to creating this rare magic, adapting the beloved childrens’ series, managing to bring three out of the seven to the big screen but then ultimately deciding to give up. None of these films had the inspirational and creative care that they deserved.
The Fellowship of the Ring may have opened doors to the possibilities of other adaptations and original films of this genre but these films are not guaranteed the same success. With a rare and special kind of mix of passion and sheer determination to make Tolkien’s Middle Earth real, this trilogy was able to capture the imagination of not only the book purists, but created generations of fans as the film is watched and celebrated over and over.