Monday, February 22, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #5

"Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it."
- voice of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett)

#5 - Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Why I liked it

What's not to like?

OK, let me be more precise.

I did try, when I was in high school, to read through JRR Tolkien's trilogy -- it seemed something of a geek rite of passage, and it was mentioned as an inspiration to those who put together Dungeons & Dragons, a game to which I was devoted in those days even when I had no one to play it with.

When I tried to get through the first book in the trilogy, though, I found it very slow going. So slow that I gave up about a third of the way through. Sure, I recognized elves and halflings, things I'd first encountered through D&D, not Tolkien directly, but those things weren't breathtaking. And yeah, there was ancient Elvish history and such, but everybody who's ever tried to write a campaign world has ancient Elvish history, and I didn't see that Tolkien's (at least as far as I'd read) was markedly better than any number of his professional and even amateur imitators in world-building that I'd encountered in my travels through D&D campaign settings.

The thing that should have tipped me off, oddly, was "The Princess Bride".

By the time the film version of "The Princess Bride" came out in 1987, I'd learned to avoid things that my fantasy-obsessed friends thought as wonderful, based largely on my experience with Fellowship. I skipped seeing Princess Bride in a movie theater, waiting until it came out on VCR tape (we didn't yet have DVDs in those days).

Once I'd seen the movie once, I realized what a mistake I'd made in dismissing it. It's become one of my favorite movies of all time, and I never pass up an opportunity to see it if I have any ability to do so.

But if anything, the book was even better than the movie.

The great conceit of the book was that William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for Princess Bride, was only transcribing the words of a Florinese writer named S. Morgenstern, who'd penned a story that Goldman's father, an immigrant and poor English speaker, read to him during a long stretch of illness. Interspersed with sections of Morgenstern's story were snippets, outtakes if you will, of bits of Goldman's own memories of his childhood, his attempts to turn on his son to the book as he was originally turned on by his father (though not, significantly, by reading the book to him).

It's that last point that turned out to be the most significant. Turns out that what Goldman's father was reading wasn't the book, per se, but a variant of his that Goldman, in his own book, called the 'good parts' version -- a version focusing on the main plot of the princess bride and her perils, and avoiding the side trips into political discussions and dissertations on historical fashion, etcetera.

It didn't hit me at all, until this movie came out, that Goldman's comment was a satirical dig, not at the fictional S. Morgenstern, but at Tolkien.

Seeing the movie, a movie that captivated me for over two hours, compelled me to go out and get the book again, just to be sure my adolescent memories of boredom weren't some kind of youthful hallucination. They weren't -- but what Goldman (and Jackson, et al) had taught me was that, if I found something that didn't seem to relate specifically to the plot at hand, I could probably skip it, then come back later if it seemed relevant to understanding some plot point. I very rarely backtracked, and realized only later that some entire sections that looked like plot (such as the whole section featuring Tom Bombadil) could have been skipped without harm.

With all that said, though, the main reason that Fellowship appeals to me is in its hero.

Those of my D&D-playing friends who weren't much into Tolkien growing up tended more toward fantasy that featured uber-competent heroes: Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, etcetera. A story might begin with its hero in a fairly weak and impotent state, but that would only be until the hero understood the power he was growing into; one day, he'd be the most powerful being in his world, as was his right.

Turns out that most fantasies following this sort of trope bored the undistilled piss out of me. (One of the very few exceptions was the Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist.) Turns out the fantasy that I like best is that where your normal, run-of-the-mill person (with perhaps one or two not-quite run-of-the-mill attributes) ends up saving the world, at least in part because they aren't the uber-competent super-warrior that can do anything or win any fight. While Fellowship featured a few of those kinds of characters (specifically the hyper-competent Aragorn and the fanboy-fetish-object Legolas), the odd thing about Fellowship, and the rest of the series (which I greedily devoured before the second movie was even released), was that, while these characters had their own adventures and successes, none of them could have accomplished what Frodo accompished, and without that latter accomplishment, everything else done by the hyper-competent heroes would have been for naught.

Now that's the kind of story that gets my engine running.

With all that said, though, one thing I didn't get at the time the movie first came out (and one reason I think so many critics have since backtracked on the nice things they said about it at the start of the decade) is the supposed echoes/parallels with September 11: men of the west duelling with an ancient and implacable evil from the east, intent on overthrowing the world and leading everyone to a time of utter darkness. I've never seen the alleged War on Terror as being of that sort of Manichean scale (perhaps that comes from being on a bus heading to a plasma center on 9/11, trying to fend off starvation for another week), and now that it's obvious that the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11 weren't real-life analogues for the once-human Nazgul, servants of ultimate evil, but were more accurately just guys who got lucky while attempting something of tremendous audacity, everybody who once thought that the story of Frodo and Gandalf was somehow a reminder of What We Faced in this New Era of Terror now realized that what they said was, if not hilariously misaligned, at least hyperbolically overblown. It's no wonder so many critics have performed a volte-face with respect to this film.

As for me, who never thought Fellowship was anything but a marvelous adventure well-told, I can go on thinking that it's one of the best movies I've seen in the past nine years, and even of all time.

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