I know The Lord of the Rings intimately -- writing a thesis on a book does that for you. I also live in New Zealand, so have been subject to hype lasting years regarding Peter Jackson's film version.
I'd seen trailers, and stills from the movie, and was disturbed by the fact that certainly the hobbits seemed to me to be way too young. Even so, I wanted to see the film because I was eager to see how it would translate to the screen.
This next paragraph will probably alienate all those who truly believe that Tolkien's trilogy is the best thing in the history of literature, but nonetheless, it must be said. I wanted to see the story with the turgid prose excised. I wanted to see the characters made flesh, because the book never succeeded in doing that for me, I wanted the adventure, without the fluff.
I got it -- somewhat to my surprise.
I'll look first at what was missing or added. Most of the missing scenes are from the early part of the book -- the hobbits' final feast with Farmer Maggot, the scene where they acquire the pony, Bill, the encounter with Tom Bombadil. Of these, the loss of Tom Bombadil has been most discussed and many people have lamented the decision, but I applaud it. Why? Because there is no way the part could be included without being a comic turn, and Bombadil's depth couldn't ever be captured on screen without the benefit of the book's omnipotent narrator giving us clues. Also missing is the scene in which Galadriel presents her gifts to the members of the fellowship. This to me is a more serious lack, since it foreshadows much of what is to come, and makes Gimli, the anti-elf dwarf, considerably more sympathetic towards the elven race.
Several scenes were added: a prologue to give the back-story, a battle between Gandalf and Saruman, the leader of the Istari order who has given his allegiance to the dark lord Sauron, and several scenes involving the elf Arwen, daughter of Elrond Half-Elven. I felt that these scenes added immeasurably to the film, the first, because it would have been impossible to fully understand the movie without it if one hadn't read the book, the second because it was great drama, pure and simple.(If I found it a little reminiscent of the battle between the two sorceresses Bavmorda and Finn-Razel in the last epic adventure movie filmed here, Willow, I must be forgiven: my daughter was addicted to that as a toddler). The build-up of Arwen's character was the item that gave me most concern before I saw the movie, but in fact it overcomes two of the biggest issues I had with the book -- the total unreality of the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen, and the lack of decent female characters for huge chunks of the action.
The performances were, in general, very good. Ian McKellen as Gandalf brought a humour to the character that was totally lacking in the books, without losing the sense of power and mystery; the only place this masterful portrait went wrong for me was when he recited "One ring to rule them all..." I'd have liked that to be more sonorous. Christopher Lee, as Saruman played evil with no overstatement, and Viggo Mortensen was appropriately mysterious and brooding as Aragorn. Liv Tyler's portrayal of Arwen was the biggest surprise to me; it had a delicacy and fragility I hadn't encountered in any of her roles before. Elrond, as played by Hugo Weaving has been described as wooden; I disagree. The character is ancient, distant and dignified, and if there is little humanity in Weaving's portrayal, that's because there is little in Elrond. Sean Bean's Boromir is more sympathetic here than in the books, because he is allowed to unbend a little, and at no point is the tortured nobility of the character compromised. Newcomer Orlando Bloom is a suitably swoon-worthy Legolas for younger girls, and John Rhys-Davies makes a solid Gimli. Ian Holm is a positive delight in the cameo part of Bilbo Baggins. As Frodo and Sam, Elijah Wood and Sean Astin capture the relationship, although this film is not the one where their skills are fully called on, The Two Towers will prove them in their roles much more. Less good, in my opinion are Billy Boyd as Pippin and Dominic Monaghan as Merry. These two are played too much for laughs, and Merry's dignity never comes through. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel too is excessively awesome, losing the elf-queen's lighter side. The elves, overall, are shown as a humourless bunch.
The effects, by NZ company Weta Productions, are spectacular. The almost seamless merging of real locations with digital scenery is amazingly well done: Rivendell, in particular, is marvellous, and the battle scenes are breathtaking. The Nazgul are terrifying, the orcs elfin enough to show their derivation, but still frightening, the Uruk-Hai, the eye of Sauron and the Balrog, perfect. Frodo's removal into a nighmarish world of evil whenever he uses the One Ring is extremely effective, too. My only criticism here is that in occasional places I found there was just too much; Lothlorien, specifically, felt overdone to me.
The score is never intrusive; it supports the action admirably.
I leave the best till last. Peter Jackson's triumph in this movie comes from love. He clearly loves the source material, and he is equally besotted with the scenery of New Zealand. These two passions are evident in every word and every shot, and visually the film is stunning for the whole 178 minutes. The scenery is as big a star of The Fellowship of the Ring as any of the actors, and this is right and proper. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a world as much as he wrote the people and events on it, and Peter Jackson has given as much attention to his recreation of that world as he has to plot or performance.
I was expecting to be disappointed by this movie, it says a lot for it that I wasn't.
P.S. However, if I ever get my hands on the group behind me who carried on a running commentary throughout, I plan to flay them alive, and boil them in harsh words.