December 19th marked the 20th Anniversary of Fellowship of the Ring, one of the cornerstone events of my life, and the lives of countless fantasy nerds the world over. Fans across the world have been marking the occasion with watch parties, and various and sundry other events.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was a seminal occurrence, an eruption of fantasy into the public sphere like I had never seen before. This was 2001, well before nerd culture was the dominating force it is today. Sure, there had been The Matrix, and Phantom Menace brought Star Wars back into people’s minds, but those were only the beginning. Lord of the Rings was the breaking of the dam.
With LotR, there was finally fantasy shit that everybody loved. Not just pubescent boys, but teens, adults, and bona fide girls like Lord of the Rings. My first girlfriend and I bonded for the first time over those movies. Jackson’s visually stunning spin on Tolkein’s engrossing epic finally blew the doors open, and made it an epic for everyone.
What follows here is a memoir of sorts, a set of memories from my personal unexpected journey through the LotR trilogy, starting with the moment I first decided to read the books, and ending with an enjoyably emotional trip to see Return of the King. Popping in throughout the voyage, other writers–from MMH and beyond–weigh in with their own thoughts on what made Lord of the Rings so special.
I could have collected pieces like this forever, but decided to cut the total off at nine. Somehow, that number just seemed right…
1. My Own Personal Hobbit-Hole: The AP Art Room
It’s warm in the AP Art room. My high school offers a multitude of Advanced Placement classes, among them Fine Art. I can barely draw a stick figure, so I’m not in it, but about 97% of my friend group is, so I have been granted honorary access.
It’s a welcome development, too, because the AP Art room is great, full of comfy places to sit, warm lighting, funky pieces by my friends and students long graduated, and a CD player on which we can play whatever we want.
This place is my retreat—beating the hell out of the cold, austere school library— the place I go to read Lord of the Rings.
Recently, I had learned that JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books would be turned into a film series. I was mildly intrigued. I’d taken a crack at reading The Hobbit when I was around 15, but found it too childish for my liking. However, I was increasingly hearing from my fantasy-obsessed acquaintances that Lord of the Rings was aimed at more adult audiences.
My interest started to grow even further when I found out who would be directing it.
“Peter Jackson,” my friend Arthur told me.
“The guy who made Dead Alive?” I asked, not believing. “There is no way in hell they gave that guy a movie so important.”
“They did. What’s more, they’re making it as a full trilogy, not cramming it all into one film. And they’re making all three movies at once.”
“No, that’s… that’s how you should do it. Hollywood would never do it that way.”
“I heard they’re going line by line through the books to write the screenplay.”
“Dear god.” My interest was downright curiosity at this point. However, I’m also one of those people who can’t see a movie based on a book without reading it first. I picked up a copy of Fellowship of the Ring and started it a few nights later.
To say I got hooked does not do the word “hooked” justice. I was obsessed. I fell into the book, into Middle Earth. It wouldn’t be long before I’d be trying to learn Elvish—but that’s another memory. Suffice to say, I really liked it.
Which brings me back to that snug Fall day in the AP Art room, sitting on a bean bag chair during a free period, and glancing up at Barney and Mark screaming at each other over some petty nonsense. Truly, the best of times.
I look at my watch, and then back down at Fellowship. I have ten minutes left in this free period, and only a few chapters left to go. I think of my schedule: next class is AP Spanish, then remedial Art.
I settle back into my beanbag. Those classes would keep for one day. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to follow Frodo and Aragorn on the way to Mordor.
2. Guest Piece, Sasha: One For Us
The Fellowship of the Ring isn’t a movie to me. (Though my god, is it one hell of a movie.) The Fellowship, and the trilogy at large, are a culture. Lord of the Rings is saying, “but Sam, we’ve been here before!” when you take a wrong turn. It’s humming the Shire theme when your friend says they love you. The films represent hope and possibility in dark times. They’re about friendship and community.
For people—mainly men—of a certain age and disposition, Lord of the Rings is the standard. In a world where we evaluate art relative to other art, LoTR is the controlled study. Those like me ask ourselves, is this latest cinematic wizard stronger than Gandalf? Are the main themes in X score better than Shore’s melodic masterpiece?
This testimony is for us. This isn’t a “convince you to like LoTR piece.” This isn’t a “let’s objectively assess LoTR’s place in the pantheon of film or fantasy.” This one is for the people with One Ring inscribed socks. This one is for anyone who lights up at the words “Extended Edition marathon.”
Lord of the Rings is my generation’s Star Wars. It was an iconic, epic trilogy that was ours. In 2001, I was 13 years old. For a kid raised on Magic the Gathering and Redwall books, I felt like the world was listening. Like it was our time. One of the best parts of youth is the ownership and permanence you feel about the things you love. Lord of the Rings was everything to us. It’s in this same way The Strokes, Kanye, Bron, and Kobe will always be “our guys.”
My generation cannot claim a lot of “best of all time” pedigree when it comes to music, movies, and hoops. But we have Lord of the Rings. And the truth is, that’s all I need.
3. The Trek to Fellowship
It’s Friday. Not just any Friday, but a half day at school. Not just any half day, either, but a half day Friday before the start of winter vacation. These circumstances alone would have had me excited for class to end, but an even greater factor is driving my excitement all the way up to a frenzy by mid-morning.
In my pocket are four tickets to Fellowship of the Ring.
They’d been nearly impossible to get–the movie had been out for two days and was selling out theaters all over the place. The only place I could buy advance tickets online–still a novelty at the time–was a theater I’d never been to before, over in Brookline, for a 1:30pm showtime. That gave us an hour after school let out to get there.
It would be fine, though. I had printed out directions from Mapquest.
Class finally ended and I flew to the parking lot. My beloved car, a dilapidated beige Ford Escort named Senor Coche, was the meeting spot. Mark, Barney and our Canadian friend Jermaine crammed themselves in, and we were off.
The drive should have been easy, but it wasn’t. For those who have never driven around Boston and its environs: it’s hard, even if you’re local. Especially if you’ve never been to a place before and don’t know where you’re going. Especially if it’s winter and the streets are icy and covered with snow. Especially if you’re in a time crunch and anxious as hell about seeing the movie event of your life. And especially if your three friends, who should have been helping you, are instead spending the entire drive hot boxing your fucking car and distracting you with their idiot laughter and commentary.
Somehow, I managed to get us there with a few minutes to spare. Of course, a few minutes to spare meant that we needed to trudge out into the swamp behind the theater and continue to blaze, because why not, right? It’s not like we had places to be. It’s not like our tickets were general admission, with unassigned seats.
Finally, we got inside the theater, and my nervousness dissolved into disappointment. It was small. It was a teeny little box of a thing. Why on Earth was LORD OF THE RINGS being shown on such an itty bitty screen?
Still, it wasn’t all bad. The place was nearly empty. Besides the four of us, there was only one other person in the theater. Somehow, despite being sold out literally everywhere else, this showing only consisted of us, and a solitary older gentleman sitting a few rows back.
At least, that was the case until the previews started. Halfway through the trailers, the man stood up, walked out of the theater, and never came back. God only knows what his problem was–maybe he was offended by how we smelled. Whatever the reason, the result was that, smallish screen or no, we had the entire theater to ourselves.
I will tell you this much: If you can see Fellowship of the Ring for the first time all alone in a movie theater with three of your best friends, after the last day of school before a long vacation, high as a kite, that is the way.
4. That Part During the Chase Scene When Arwen Gets Hit in the Face by a Branch
My friend Jacen loved Lord of the Rings as much as I did, and that was saying a lot. We were driving around in his car, headed who-remembers-where, on a lazy, sunny Saturday. We were likely both high on devil’s lettuce—this was, after all, the early 2000s. It was popular back then.
As we drove, Howard Shore’s soundtrack for Fellowship came up on his car stereo. It was the track where Arwen flees on horseback with Frodo as the Ringwraiths pursue her towards Rivendell.
In perfect synchronicity, without a word being spoken, we both launched into singing. It’s not a song with lyrics, so we just sang the tune, at the top of our lungs, as *epically* as we could.
The golden moment occurred when, again, in perfect harmony, we both added the sound effect of the tree branch striking Arwen in the face, leaving a slicing cut on her cheek. It’s not part of the music, but both of us nailed the exact moment where it happens in the film—unsurprising, as we’d both probably seen it eight times at that point.
Nailing the sound effect together was enough to cause us both to dissolve into laughter. After all, we were both pretty high.
A few weeks later, I was packing up to head off to college, and Jacen came over to say goodbye. As we spoke, he handed me a gift. It was a book, The Languages of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth: A Complete Guide. If you’re a Tolkein nerd, there’s no better resource. You can learn every Elvish dialect from that thing, from Sindarin to Noldorin.
It’s a rare and wonderful thing having a friend who appreciates just how big of a nerd you truly are.
5. Guest Piece, Will: Rewind to Middle-Earth
Twenty years. Reminding myself of the exact dates of these things it’s impossible not to reflect on the fact that Fellowship was released just a couple weeks after my twentieth birthday, making it a current halfway marker of my entire lived experience. Given I’ve just doubled that tender age I’ll stop short of indulging a full-on midlife crisis, but suffice it to say the memories of experiences, friends, and films of that time are feeling increasingly, well… precious.
I’m an old school movie nerd. At the time, I was a video store clerk. In a retrospectively quaint era technologically (although not quite as archaically charming as a shire in Middle Earth), esoteric movie knowledge wasn’t available on a pocket supercomputer. You could browse through the endless video shelves – Cult, Asian Action, Noir, etc. and eventually seek advice from my counter jockey colleagues and me, who would wield our encyclopedic knowledge and expert opinions with all the superiority appropriate for a minimum wage kid saving up laundromat quarters.
Among our cohort of videogeek intelligentsia, the Peter Jackson LOTR trilogy had been celebrated since the early stages of pre-production. The latest movie news was constantly discussed during our shifts, after late nights on dial-up modems gathering the latest speculative updates from IMDB or whatever fan message board we could find. The indie/cult auteur of such masterpieces as Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles was given a massive budget and creative control to bring his passion project to the world. Along with the forthcoming Sam Raimi Spider-Man, it was emblematic of vicarious victory. A big budget, studio sanctioned verification of a filmmaker who did it all right.
And the movie? Yeah, it’s great! Not sure I have much insight into the actual film that isn’t better expressed elsewhere. Hobbits have never been super “for me.” I listened appreciatively as my friends excitedly recounted easter eggs and specific references to the novels after multiple viewings, but I never got that deep. More paramount in my memory is what a mammoth benchmark this was for many who share my capacity for love and obsessiveness of art and culture. That is to me, a fellowship to be cherished for a lifetime.
6. Hold Me
I’m with Jacen again, among others. We’re at opening night for The Two Towers. It’s winter break at college, and there’s a big group of us all together, reunited after our first full term, but Jacen and I are the true superfans. We’ve been regaling everyone with backstory and lore all night. We’re pretty certain everyone really appreciates how much we’re helping them understand how much certain scenes relate back to The Silmarillion.
The lights go down, and I reflect on how happy I am, surrounded by friends and on the cusp of seeing a huge blockbuster film I know I’m going to enjoy the hell out of. In a fit of contentment, I reach to my left and clasp Jacen’s hand. He doesn’t pull back—in fact, he grips it tight in a “Hell yeah, bro” moment of total solidarity.
A few moments later, every one of us that came to the movie together is holding hands.
About a minute in, Jacen shakes my hand off. “Cool moment, but I think that’s enough,” he whispers.
I nod. Fair enough.
I turn toward the screen and have the time of my life.
7. Show Us
“I’ve got Two Towers.”
I couldn’t understand what this guy was saying, because Two Towers was still in theaters. How could he have it? What was he talking about?
Maybe I should back up.
I was in my freshman dorm at college, and just back from winter break. The Two Towers had just come out, and all anyone— especially me—could talk about was how awesome it was. A group of us were sitting on the beds in my room when the nerdy kid who lived next door poked his head in and made the above comment.
“What do you mean, ‘you’ve got it’?”
Nerdy kid—I would come to learn later that his name was Jeff—answered, “I have a rip of it on my computer. My sound set up is pretty good, too. If you don’t mind a watermark popping up every few minutes, I’ve got the whole movie to watch whenever you want.”
I was incredulous. At the same time, it seemed like a pretty sweet deal. This was, after all, more than a decade before streaming services. Being able to just watch a movie on a computer, particularly one that was still out in theaters, particularly Two freakin’ Towers, was a hell of an opportunity.
My mind was made up when I looked over at the cute girl from down the floor, who also really liked Lord of the Rings. She looked interested.
Jeff led us to his dorm, which, despite being next door to mine, I’d never seen. It looked, for all intents and purposes, like Neo’s place in Matrix 1. Computer equipment was everywhere. The shades were drawn. Speakers and subwoofers big enough to sit on protruded from every corner. And dominating the room was a gigantic monitor. In short, the perfect college movie-screening venue.
Jeff booted up his monstrosity of a PC, and started the film, and holy hell, he had Two Towers on his computer. It wasn’t even low-quality; it was like watching a DVD.
“Hang on a sec,” he said, as he fiddled with some knobs, “Let me show you a scene with some good sound.”
He cut forward to Helm’s Deep, as the orcs pounded their spears on the ground. Jeff slowly turned up the volume, until it felt like the subwoofer I was sitting on was about to blow my clothes off.
“We get it!” I shouted.
“How do you have this?” I asked. “See the watermark?” He replied.” As he spoke, writing faded in at the bottom of the screen, like closed captions, only larger.
For the Consideration of the Academy.
After a few seconds, it faded away. “It repeats every few minutes,” Jeff said. “This is a rip from a DVD given to the Academy for awards purposes. Someone leaked it, and it wound up on the internet. So long as you don’t mind the watermark, you have the whole movie.”
We did not mind the watermark.
Three hours later, we were shuffling out, and I asked Jeff if he could do what he did for Lord of the Rings for any other movies.“Depends,” he quipped, “What did you have in mind?”
Less than a year later we were living together.
8. Guest Piece, Nate: Who Needs Friends When You Have a Fellowship
If I’m being honest, I was always more of a Wheel of Time kid. There was something stately to the Lord of The Rings trilogy that kept me ever so slightly at bay in my younger years, even as I dove headlong into Dragon Reborn prophecy and wolfbrother obsession.
Even so, in 2001 Fellowship was the most brilliant big-screen representation of fantasy storytelling I could have hoped for. It captured the scale and scope of a world so much bigger than my comprehension without sacrificing the specificity of each new location it visited. It delivered the emotional stakes of a confrontation with something so much bigger than yourself while keeping those emotions grounded and human (or Hobbit). It had a cool guy who shot a bow and arrow into a troll’s head. It was perfect.
In the years since Fellowship (and in large part as a consequence of its success), adaptations of the stories that were closest to my heart have become easier and easier to find (including this year’s wonderful Wheel of Time series), and I’m grateful for the chance to revisit them. But few, if any, have come close to that magical synthesis of Fellowship, and it’s hard to imagine many ever will.
9. Return of the King Syndrome (aka Hold Me 2)
Lord of the Rings took its last bow (and then another, and another, and another…) and you better believe I was there opening night to see it. My strongest memory of Return of the King, however, is from my second trip to the theater.
In the years since our poorly-planned jaunt to Fellowship, Jermaine had returned to his native Canada, to study art at Concordia. In December of 2003, however, he was back in the States visiting his parents. Needing an excuse to justify a return to the theater, and wanting to enjoy the vicarious thrill of Jermaine’s own first viewing of the movie, I invited him to a showing.
I can’t tell you much from that particular trip to the movies. Heck, I can barely remember what I ate this morning, let alone what happened nearly twenty years ago. There is, however, one thing I recall with crystal clarity.
Perhaps more than any other film, Return of the King suffers from a touch of Return of the King Syndrome, e.g. the repetitive tacking on of endless endings. I didn’t mind it at the time. Now that I’m old and have bladder control issues, it’s a problem. Still, back then I was young, and I loved every second of it.
So did Jermaine, and what I remember most is the two of us, gripped in each other’s arms, crying our eyes out for the entire end of the movie. All of them, all of the endings. We cried for half an hour. We even cried partway into the credits. Not just a weepy tear escaping to streak down our cheeks, either. Loud, hearty sobbing. We straight up bawled in each other’s arms. We liked Gandalf so much.
We knew we were making a scene, but we didn’t care. Lord of the Rings was coming to an end, and that was sad. Also, the movie was just so, so good. It ended so perfectly (yes, every time). We cried for the ending of things. We cried for its quality. We cried because it had been such a good ride.
The only other thing I remember from that trip was the guy in front of us. This older dude kept glancing back periodically, like he couldn’t believe we were getting so emotional. We just ignored him. God only knows what his problem was–Wait, was it the same guy?!
The Lord of the Rings debuted on December 19, 2001. It is survived by its eponymous books, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit, both book and best-forgotten movie trilogy.