The movies are also great, but their virtues are different. Some things are strong in both, and of necessity -- world building and pacing make the movies, but they have to be done in very different ways.
Rather than an extended essay, here are the things I think make the films great:
This isn't even, and sometimes is just bad (Liv Tyler as Arwen) or indifferently directed (Frodo gets a pained look on his face shortly after they leave Rivendell, and doesn't take it off for the next 7 hours of screen time). But the great performances hold the movie together.
In particular, Viggo Mortenson, Kate Blanchette and Ian McKellen make 3 of the least-fleshed out 'good guys' from the books downright fascinating through their strong performances. Their best scenes allow them to remain enigmatic, yet their wry grins bring enough warmth to the roles that they don't really need any apparent inner conflict to make them interesting. Ian McKellen's Gandalf is stern, sometimes otherworldly, and yet endearingly avuncular. Mortenson's Aragorn is a badass with just enough swagger to offset his rather humble demeanor. Kate Blanchette as Galadrial may be the best image of a Tolkien elf I've ever seen -- proud, sad, yet quick to laugh. All of these performances manage to convey characters that are thinking about the great questions facing the whole world and yet still care about the 4'9" gentlehobbit in front of them.
On a different not, Sean Bean makes Boromir into a wonderfully ambivalent and compelling character, bringing to the surface character traits that Tolkien mentions briefly, hints at, or discusses only after Boromir is dead. We see his pride, his genuine warmth towards the hobbits, and the growth of his regard for Aragorn, which culminates in him acknowledging Aragorn as his king at the end of the first movie. What could easily have been a simple arc showing the corrupting power of the ring becomes a memorable portrait of a man trying to juggle responsibilities that are both too many and too grave for him to handle.
2. Judicious use of special effects.
At the time Lord of the Rings was praised for its excellent use of CGI, particularly Gollum. And the special effects are remarkable, even 10 years later. But what makes them so is not the up-to-dateness of the computer wizardry, but the very careful way CGI is used.
The fact of the matter is that CGI does not look real. It didn't 10 years ago and it doesn't now. In the early 2000's there were clear examples of its failings -- The Phantom Menace was lifeless partly because CGI was substituted for damn near everything real.
Jackson seems to have learned this lesson and so uses CGI carefully. This is done in a couple of ways.
- In crowd shots, CGI creatures are used only for the background, not the foreground.
- If they are in the foreground, CGI creatures are generally in motion.
- Models are used for terrain whenever possible, and then populated by CGI creatures.
- The one CGI creature that is in the 'foreground' is Gollum, and a lot of care is taken to position him in ways that keep him from looking fake -- he's in front of or behind the hobbits a lot, and in daylight shots he moves around a lot, and a lot of care was put into minimizing the CGI fakeness.
- Great Sound design -- the sound editing is incredibly good, and everything onscreen, CGI, human or puppet makes sounds that make them seem weighty and substantial -- this is particularly visible in the cave troll scene, when the troll crushes the scenery and rumbles the floor with every step. The makes the CGI creatures seem more 'real' and less like cartoons, since they sound like real things.
Meanwhile, my own tale has grown in the telling, and I'll have the save the rest of this for a future post.