The first film in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released 20 years ago today. Based on a large tome by English fantasy author JRR Tolkien, called the father of the fantasy genre, kicked off one of the biggest pop culture sensations in history.
It is no exaggeration to say that these movies changed the entertainment industry forever.
All in all, the trilogy grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide. But the most astonishing statistic remains its haul at the Oscars. The three films together won an incredible 17 trophies, with the concluding film, The Return of the King, clinching 11 on its own (it remains tied with Titanic and Ben-Hur for most Oscars, and LOTR has the most Oscars for any film franchise).
The trilogy may have Jackson’s name stamped upon it, but the films were a result of thousands of actors, writers, VFX artists, stuntmen and women, production designers, extras, and other members of the crew working tirelessly for years towards one goal.
With a great script, memorable characters played by a stellar cast, direction, soundtrack, and set-pieces that still inspire awe, the Lord of the Rings trilogy has still lost none of its appeal, and every fantasy film and TV show since, including Jackson’s prequel Middle-earth trilogy The Hobbit, has been judged by its standards and found wanting.
The Lord of the Rings’ plot has become an archetype for the fantasy genre. It goes roughly goes like this: a farm boy (or a seemingly powerless person) becomes entangled in a quest to defeat the Dark Lord and in the end, he does so thanks to the skills he gains after being mentored by a wizard and/or a warrior. If not defeated, the Dark Lord will either destroy the world or enslave it. So, the stakes are as high as can be. There is a clearly delineated black-and-white morality here.
Frodo Baggins is one of the hobbits — furry-footed, diminutive creatures living in the bucolic Shire, a sleepy, idyllic place which Tolkien modelled on the English countryside. Frodo is given the responsibility of the One Ring, a MacGuffin that is a character in itself, by his uncle who also leaves his entire wealth to him.
He is visited by Gandalf, a gruff wizard and an old friend to Bilbo (the story of that friendship is told in The Hobbit), who says he should destroy the One Ring, for it holds the spirit of the Dark Lord Sauron. While Sauron was vanquished when wise elves and mortal men came together in a rare alliance to defeat him some 3000 years ago, he won’t perish for good until the One Ring is destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged.
While the story centred around a globe-spanning conflict, the real lure of the trilogy was its characters. Tolkien’s writings were influenced by his experience in the First World War, particularly the Battle of the Somme. The book and thus the films carried the theme of fellowship and determination.
Despite being essentially an account of a giant good vs evil war involving multiple epic battles between thousands of combatants, LOTR took the time to develop its characters, craft, believable relationships, and give nearly all of them a definite arc. Jackson, and his fellow writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens further developed the themes of undying friendships, overcoming temptation, nearly impossible odds, and the perils of too much power.
The themes are illustrated by this iconic exchange between Frodo and Sam, the two main characters of the trilogy.
As they drown in despair over the task they have been burdened with, Sam says, “It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.”
Frodo asks: “What are we holding on to, Sam?”
Sam replies, “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
The films combined to tell an emotion-heavy tale of the eternal struggle against evil. But there was a significant departure. It was not some intrepid, brawny warrior who destroyed the One Ring and defeated Sauron. It was a duo of diminutive hobbits Frodo and Sam, with their limited physical strength, basic combat skills but incredible mental strength, who proved to be the saviour of Free peoples of Middle-earth.
“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” as the elf-queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) prophetically tells him.
LOTR featured the most stunning live-action fantasy imagery ever seen on the screen. It helped that New Zealand, perhaps the most beautiful place on the earth, was where the filming took place. The battle scenes were mounted on an absolutely monumental scale. Battle of Helm’s Deep and Battle of the Pelennor Fields are two sequences that have still not been topped. Avengers: Endgame’s climactic battle came close, but even with its sky-high budget, it could not quite replicate that experience.
The best moment in the trilogy comes in the second act of The Return of the King. The Witch-King of Angmar is advancing towards a fallen Gandalf to finish him. A horn sounds to the east. The Witch-King turns to look, and even in that expressionless face, one can sense fear. It is the horn of Rohan’s King Theoden and Eomer’s Rohirrim, the horse lords from Rohan, and disguised as a man, Éowyn and the hobbit Merry with her. The colour scheme, the music, the light, the effects, everything is just right. It’s a cinematic moment most filmmakers can only dream of.