There will be three basic reactions to the first of the annual installments based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed Middle Earth trilogy. Some viewers, devoted to the books, will doubtlessly complain about streamlining and excisions. Others–especially those unfamiliar with the source material and unsympathetic to the genre–will feel that, at just two minutes short of three hours, it’s protracted and–no doubt–confusing. But most–both aficionados who aren’t overly protective and uninitiated viewers who approach the picture with an open mind–will, I suspect, find it an ample, sumptuous entertainment–long but never dull, filled with incident but surprisingly clear, and even at some points quite affecting (even if tears do roll down cheeks a bit too often near the close). Compared to other heavily-hyped projects of recent years, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” is triumphantly successful.

The driving force behind the picture’s excellence is obvious. Peter Jackson–whose earlier work consists of one breathtakingly brilliant tale of adolescent madness (1994’s “Heavenly Creatures”) and a splendidly crafted but shambling ghost story (1996’s “The Frighteners”), as well as some bizarre earlier genre flicks, all marked by a decidedly oddball point of view–here demonstrates not only a passionate commitment of Tolkien’s world but a cinematic vision of his own (as well as the technical skill to realize it). The direction of movies like this too often degenerates into a mechanical, almost military arrangement of resources, but though the resources enlisted here are legion, Jackson devotes as much attention to the soul of the project as he does to its appearance. “Fellowship” is often astonishingly beautiful to look at–the New Zealand vistas are simply magnificent, Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography lush and the production design quite fabulous, from the rustic simplicity of the hobbits’ shire to the lush structures of the elfin kingdom and the underground caverns of the dwarfs’ realm. The effects are almost always top- notch, too: the various beasts, for example, are splendidly visualized–evidence of the affection that Jackson obviously has for the stop-motion classics of Ray Harryhausen. (The only flaw in this department is the obvious insertion of individuals of small stature, shot from the rear, in long shots involving hobbits and dwarfs, replacing the actors playing them in closeup. The early, quite elaborate scenes involving Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, are, curiously enough, cleverly accomplished via computer technology and free of the problem.) But all the attention to these pictorial matters hasn’t been allowed to overwhelm the emotional core of the narrative. The characters in Tolkien’s story may be a weirdly assorted group–hobbits, elves, dwarfs, wizards and other assorted creatures, as well as your run-of-the-mill humans–but those that at center stage in this installment are brought to life with surprising success. The most notable of them are the elderly magician Gandalf, portrayed by Ian McKellen with a combination of gravity and humor that rivals that which Alec Guinness brought to Obi-Wan in “Star Wars”; Frodo, the courageous hobbit, played with disarming charm by Elijah Wood; and Aragorn, the handsome, swashbuckling knight given real presence by Viggo Mortensen (in a role that should go far to make him a star). Holm keeps the whimsy within check as Bilbo, and Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd are personable as Frodo’s hobbit companions, even if their periodic slapstick intrusions seem a trifle precious. The other members of the titular fellowship are less notable, but Sean Bean makes an appropriately virile Boromir, Orlando Bloom an ethereal Legolas, and John Rhys-Davies a properly gruff Gimli. The distaff side of things is much less central, but Liv Tyler looks lovely as elfin princess Arwen; Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, is pretty much wasted as the sorceress Galadriel. The forces of evil are well represented by that veteran of cinematic malevolence, the redoubtable Christopher Lee, who gives the wicked wizard Saruman a smoothly elegant sense of menace. (The battle between him and Gandalf, unhappily, isn’t particularly well staged.)

As to the narrative in which all these figures–and many others–are engaged, it’s true that Tolkien’s tale–about the quest to destroy a ring endowed with the power of ultimate evil– is extremely complicated and episodic (as well as very derivative of Wagner’s “Ring,” though happily absent the grandiose pretension and repetitive music), and it doesn’t build so much as chug along from one confrontation to another; but episodic epics have been around since Homer’s day. Jackson and his scripters, happily, keep things clear, even if doing so entails the inclusion of a ream of exposition at the very front that will probably exhaust some viewers before the actors even reach the stage; and the director moves from event to event with considerable agility (and some enthralling camera moves), never allowing things to bog down for long. (To be sure, Frodo comes perilously close to death rather too frequently–at times he seems like the hero of a 1940s Saturday afternoon serial–but that’s the result of faithfully transferring to the screen a tale which unfolds far more leisurely on the page. Jackson’s control of the battle sequences, moreover, is marginally less assured than it is in the quieter moments.) Still, overall the picture has a smooth, pleasant rhythm–a credit to the editing of John Gilbert as well as the canny writing and direction–and even at 178 minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome. Notice should also be given to Howard Shore’s expert score, which, with its Celtic strains, nicely supports the action on screen without attempting–as is so often the case–to upstage it.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” may not entirely please the more fanatical devotees of Tolkien’s book, who will object to the slightest deviation from the original, but most readers should find little to complain of in Jackson’s skilled cinematic realization. Even more importantly, the clarity and craftsmanship of his version will make the material accessible to a far wider audience than the original could ever attract. The greatest compliment one can pay to the film is that at its end, the viewer will look forward to the coming two installments, much the same way most of us felt when what became the first episode of “Star Wars” movie ended in 1977. In this case, fortunately, it won’t be necessary to wait quite so long as we did for Lucas’ sequels; Jackson shot all three pictures simultaneously, and the remaining two will appear at twelve-month intervals. If they prove anywhere near as fine as this initial installment, they’ll be cinematic Christmas gifts audiences will be eager to unwrap in 2002 and 2003.