DVD review: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition)

I do not own a DVD player. Given that The Fellowship of the Ring was the best movie experience I have had since The Empire Strikes Back, I was not about to let that detail stop me from acquiring it. Given that DVDs of most films contain multiple versions such as the �director�s cut� in addition to the theatrical release, many reviewers and fans dismissed FOTR: Extended Edition as a marketing gimmick. In fact, for any other movie, it would have been. But not for Lord of the Rings[1].

In fact, director Peter Jackson shies away from the term �director�s cut�, insisting that the theatrical version is one and the same (after all, the director should take ultimate responsibility for the final product). Jackson calls the Extended version �an alternate version of the film� � since it is targeted at a different audience:

...rather than simply inserting deleted scenes, Jackson aproached this Extended Edition as if he were creating a whole new version of the film. He and the editor, John Gilbert, carefully evaluated material to be integrated into the film, and then worked to bring each scene up to the same polish as the rest of the feature - visual effects were completed, dialouge was recorded, and sound effects were created. To make sure all of the scenes flowed, Howard Shore composed and recorded new score with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The results is a seamless integration of the new material into the film, giving the Extended Edition an integrity of its own. This Extended version is for the fans, who have read and re-read the books, who have revered them and been inspired by them. The theatrical version is not even present on the Extended version, to underscore the point that this is a different movie than what you saw in the theaters.

This is not to say that the DVD of the theatrical version is not true to the book, or any less worthy of Tolkien�s vision. In one of the interviews on disc 3, Jackson discusses the editorial difficulties in translating from novel to screenplay, from screenplay to raw footage, and finally from footage to final product. For the theatrical release, the main rationale for cutting/keeping scenes was to make the movie �Frodo-centric� � each scene had to move the central plot of Frodo as Ring Bearer forward[2]. The result is a tightly woven film despite its nearly 3-hour running time.

So what then, exactly, is the Extended Edition? For starters, it is longer - MUCH longer - over 30 minutes of new footage and music, bringing the total to over 200 minutes. The new scenes are (to borrow Jackson�s own analogy) additional layers over the core, adding richness and depth to Middle Earth and the characters. Important but slow scenes such as Galadriel�s gift-giving in Lothlorien[3] are restored, which will only be referred to in the theatrical sequels via flashback or dialogue. A scene where the Hobbits observe Elves leaving Middle Earth is included, which emphasizes the poignancy that suffuses the ending of the age of the Elves. No matter who wins the war of the Ring, Middle Earth will be changed forever. Relationships between characters are fleshed out in more detail, including the Hobbits cavorting in a tavern in the Shire, and additional exploration of Aragorn and Arwen�s relationship, hinting at the tragic sacrifice they have to make to be together. �Beauty shot� footage of the varied landscapes and architecture in Middle Earth are included, such as a leisurely tour in the Shire, emphasizing its idyllic nature. And trivial but favorite scenes such as the Midgewater Marshes are included solely to delight fans looking for the narrative landmarks that they desire as proof of authenticity and faithfulness.

The extra material adds orders of magnitude more complexity to the sub-Creation that is Middle Earth, but at the expense of momentum. It is designed to resonate strongly with fans, but would be mostly extraneous from the perspective of the average moviegoer. That said, anyone who was entranced enough by Middle Earth to almost wish it truly was the lost history of a long-vanished age of our own world[4], will find this Extended version well worth the expense.

The additional 30 minutes of footage would not normally require an extra disc, but the Extended version has a much higher quality digital signal than would be possible with including all the feature footage on one disc. There are multiple digital sound channels, including DTS and 5.1. With a HDTV, a progressive scan DVD player, and a Dolby sound setup, this DVD would be immersive to the point of disorientation.

But there is much, much more to this edition.

Discs 1 and 2 also contain four feature-length commentarie by the cast, director and writers, and production and design teams. Consider that this amounts to 12 hours of comentary - there is so much information that trying to summarize it for a review is essentially impossible. They lend a real sense of intimacy to the movie that carries over to normal viewing, like extra layers of appreciation and understanding in your mind.

Discs 3 and 4 are packed with supplemental information that give a true sense of just how epic was the conception and making of this film (actually, three). There are storyboards, animatics, stills, interactive maps, and photo galleries. But even better are the documentaries, which are numerous, lengthy and detailed. Some are devoted to production issues like scale (just how did they make those Hobbits so small?) and use of �bigatures� (enormous miniature-scale sets like Rivendell and Orthanc). But the most engaging ones are the ones devoted to the cast.

The shining star of these is on Disc 4, titled �The Fellowship of the Cast� and which really gave a feel for just how close-knit the cast became over the course of 18 months of filming in New Zealand. It�s captivating to hear Sean Astin describe how life imitated art, in that he would up being caretaker of Elijah Wood (who was prone to locking himself out of his apartment). Elijah Wood impishly describes Viggo Mortenson as �slightly mental� and recreates Ian McKellan�s roar of protest at the loud music that he would play in their shared trailer. Liv Tyler wistfully notes her homesickness, how she bummed rides off Orlando Bloom because she was scared to drive on the wrong side of the road, and makes innocent references to �dad�. Ian McKellan is ever the professional, with praise for Hugo Weaving (Elrond) and Ian Holm (Bilbo) as veteran brothers of the stage, and noting that he had always underestimated Christopher Lee because of the �quality of most of his work� � with a twinkle in his eye. And Dominic Monaghan�s impersonation of John Rhys-Davies ordering a feast of lobster, grouse and wild boar is tear-wiping hilarious. The interviews in this segment, and the accompanying documentary titled �A Day in the Life of a Hobbit� which traces the four from early morning putting on the feet, all the way to the late night and taking off the feet, are as engrossing as the movie itself.

Middle Earth was conceived in the trenches of World War I, and was intended by Tolkien to be a replacement mythology for England. He vehemently rejected the idea that it was allegorical, which if true would have severely limited its scope. The universal themes of the book - which made it so timeless - are masterfully translated to film by Jackson, who was so fcused on preserving Tolkien's vision that the words "A Peter Jackson film" do not even appear in the opening credits. This is Tolkien's world, and Jackson proudly says that it is Tolkien's film. What this DVD does is bring that world home. But there is a world as rich as Middle Earth glimpsed on this DVD � a world that Peter Jackson deserves ultimate accolades for bringing into existence. That world is the adventure and epic saga of making this film itself. It will always exist on film, even though the sets are long gone. It deserves a place on my shelf, and if you love The Lord of the Rings, it deserves a place on yours.

[1] The marketing gimmick for FOTR is actually the Super Happy Deluxe Mega Fun Collector�s Edition. For the extra money you get a 5th DVD disc containing a documentary special about the geology of New Zealand, and a pair of Argonath bookends. I cannot in conscience recommend this to anyone, not even die-hard fans such as myself, except perhaps for those with far too much disposable income, or similarly disposable priorities.
UPDATE: I was mistaken. My old friend Chris points out that there are good reasons for buying the MegaFunDeluxe version:
I purchased the "Super Happy Deluxe Mega Fun Collector�s Edition" mainly for the 3 exclusive LotR TCG Cards (which you can sell if you want), but the bookends are really cool as well. The National Geographic DVD is still in its original shrinkwrap.

I've deliberately weaned myself from trading card collectibles, but I certainly can see the appeal.
[2] Of course there were some scenes that simply had to be left in for continuity to the sequels, despite being tangentially if at all related to Frodo, such as the scenes between Gandalf and Saruman, and the Arwen-Aragorn love story.
[3] I�m not even going to make an attempt at proper spelling with diacritical marks of Eldarin or Sindarin!
[4] The difference between Tolkien and the typical �fantasy� fiction with dragons, elves, and wizards, is that Middle Earth is designed to be a mythology, not fantasy. The difference is subtle, and crucial.

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