Op-ed: Why The Lord of the Rings movies matter 20 years later

Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in Peter Jackson’s 2001 film ‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ (New Line Cinema)

A disembodied melody punctured by sharp whispers; the resounding voice of Lady Galadriel demands your attention to the darkened screen. The commencement of arguably the best adapted fantasy series ever has begun — that is, 20 years ago.

Sunday, Dec. 19 marks the 20th anniversary of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of the beloved trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

After rewatching the series last winter, it’s clear to me that the Lord of the Rings films have stood the test of time. Paired with a stellar script and the delicate combination of digital and practical effects, Jackson earned the approval of Tolkien fans and won the hearts of audiences worldwide as Middle Earth was revived once more.

Frodo drops the ring as the Fellowship attempts to cross the Misty Mountains. These scenes were filmed in the mountain ranges outside of Queenstown, New Zealand, called The Remarkables. — ‘Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ still

Two decades is approaching an eternity in terms of technology and visual effects. What can be accomplished on a computer for movies nowadays is incredible — but Jackson has proved decade after literal decade that practical effects work. They work and seldom look outdated when coupled with a bit of digital editing. Hiring artists to draw and construct sets automatically makes a fantastical film feel real, a foundation necessary when building the film version of Middle Earth.

Jackson hired several artists for the project, including conceptual designer/set decorator Alan Lee and conceptual designer John Howe, who scripted Tolkien’s world through drawing. They sketched everything from the Shire to Mordor and back again. This provided a visionary textbook to reference when building sets and costumes. When it came to constructing sets like Minas Tirith, Minas Morgul, Helm’s Deep and more, Jackson utilized miniature, handmade scale models as part of the filming process.

Often called “the miniature effect,” miniatures come in handy when a set is far too Goliath-esque for one crew to construct. Imagine a group of people being tasked with building the almost-impenetrable monster that is Helm’s Deep — impossible. However, a scaled-down set and clever cinematography can give the viewer a full display of the set without its true size being shown. The miniature effect has been used by filmmakers generations before Jackson, with French director Georges Méliès pioneering the technique in his 1902 cinematic masterpiece, Le Voyage dans la Lune.

Filmmaking technology evolved in the latter half of the 20th century with computer-generated imagery (CGI) pushing out long-used effects techniques like miniatures. Why build a set or attempt a stunt when CGI can do it faster and cheaper? Because Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films prove technology degrades faster than hand-made art. Watching movies entirely coated in CGI from 10 years ago are the opposite of pleasing to the eye, but when directors make use of both computer technology and the mind of an artist, their visionary worlds stand for an age.

What has also stood for an age is The Fellowship of the Ring’s screenplay. Like every good book-to-movie adaptation, screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson stuck to the source material while catering to a divided audience: those who know Tolkien’s work and those who don’t.

Rivendell, brought to glorious life through a combination of miniature models and CGI in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’

I first watched The Fellowship without reading the book and could understand — though not to the fullest extent — the diverse and ancient world displayed in front of me. I didn’t recognize it as a 12-year-old, but now I realize what I and so many others bore witness to was the written act of hard worldbuilding.

This form of storytelling shows all it can about its world while moving the plot along, engrossing the reader/viewer into its history and its characters’ histories. Essentially, this fellowship of writers did what all good writers do: they made their work look flawless.

From the screenplay itself I could deduce that Tolkien’s characters have personalities as deep and dark as the Mines of Moria or as lighthearted as the Shire. Every line not only clued me into the character’s personality but hustled the story along in a way far more riveting than the first third of Tolkien’s book. (Many Tolkien fans have qualms with the deleting of Tom Bombadil, but for storytelling’s sake, it was necessary).

Of course, it is the actors who mold the lines to their character, illuminating them on the screen. Oh the sentences I could write about each character — specifically how Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen, and Sam, played by Sean Astin, are the best and brightest of the Fellowship.

The Fellowship of the Ring turns 20 in a time where uncertainty’s grip remains tight, and darkness, though we’ve grown used to it, continues its uneasy spread.

My winter rewatch was in hopes of escaping nearly all aspects of my life. It was there I realized that this artistic masterpiece transports viewers into a realm of beautiful storytelling while leaving them enlightened even after the Fellowship’s dissolution.

We don’t get to choose what time we’re born into, as Gandalf wisely observes; “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

The Fellowship of the Ring assembles in the first ‘Lord of the Rings’ film in Jackson’s trilogy. While the Fellowship dissolves by the end of the movie, the actors have remained friends since the trilogy’s marathon production in the late ’90s. The series ultimately won 475 film awards, including 17 Oscars. Viggo Mortenson (Aragorn) was the most nominated actor in the ensemble.

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