This is the printer-friendly layout. Click here to find the online format.
The long-awaited first part of Peter Jackson’s film, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, is not what I expected, but I was not disappointed. Peter Jackson, the director, said that the films were mere entertainment, but Tolkien had called his book a philological game. Both film and book are serious almost beyond endurance; both artists have poured their deepest concerns into their art, and both have been—beyond their imagination—taken up into the currents of history.
The film is darker than the book. There are few moments of bright sunlight in the film; instead we see firelight, torchlight, twilight, night. The mood is more somber. In part this is a result of transforming a narrative into a play. A play focuses upon action, and the action of the play is a tragedy. Limited time forces the loss of the pastoral, the whimsical, and the comic, the incongruities that relieved the darkness of the book. What is left is a story of terror and war, a story that was also at the heart of Tolkien’s life and work.
Reviewers have criticized the greater violence and lesser lyricism of the film. They are correct; the film is darker and more serious than the book. Death is ever-present. Arwen is willing to renounce her immortality to share but one lifetime with Aragorn. Death is a lesser threat to the fellowship than the Ring is, because the Ring inevitably corrupts not only anyone who uses it, but anyone who is around it.
The Ring is actively malevolent; it radiates evil and threatens every good. The evil of the Ring is as palpable as the evil in Macbeth, which deceives in order to destroy. Aragorn fears his own tragic flaw, the attraction to the Ring he inherited from Isildur, who brought disaster upon the world when, against the advice of Elrond, he refused to destroy the Ring. Aragorn passes the test when he folds Frodo’s hand over the Ring. Boromir fails his test. Even Galadriel is shaken by her temptation to take the Ring. The best among elves and men are endangered by the very existence of the Ring, which can bring about nothing but evil.
The release of the film after the September 11 attack has not been much commented on; the wound is still too painful. The attack on the towers had supernatural elements, as if balrogs and dragons had been set loose in New York. Many felt the whole attack to be demon-infested and saw the face of Satan in the billowing smoke. Air became unbreathable; pedestrians were transformed into ashen wraiths, and the ashes were the bodies of their friends. The name of the second part of The Lord of the Rings is The Two Towers.
After the totally unexpected and astonishing success of the book The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had a sense that he was spared in the First World War and led into his academic career to prepare him to write this book, which changed even as he wrote it. He described the ultimate meaning of his name, Tolkien, as Messenger. He is like Ransom in Perelandra, Ranulf’s son, whose name was transformed through centuries of linguistic change so that it would be Ransom, because the Voice said, “My name too is Ransom.”
The actors found the making of the film to be like a military campaign. It was 15 months of hard, outdoor work. They trained for it by weightlifting and swordplay; they slogged packs over mountains. They formed a bond like that of soldiers on a campaign. They also had a sense that they were involved in something beyond the intentions of the director. Sean Astin (Sam Gamgee) felt this:
I can’t think of a more appropriate series than The Lord of the Rings to speak to the issues of the day. It’s about little vulnerable creatures whose way of life is under siege, and I think all human beings on this planet are facing this kind of test, and so to be able to hearken back to an ideal age where there’s clean air and good tilled earth and people laughing and singing and rallying together to preserve the sanctity of that kind of life has a real place in popular culture and a real place in the world. As the globe is preparing for a war that’s being billed by our leaders as this epic fight of good against evil, I for one am grateful and honored and so proud of the fact that we made these movies in what, for me, is the nick of time.
What can it mean? Does Providence work through artists, leading Englishmen into war and philology, New Zealanders into horror-film making and special effects, so that a book and film may give strength and comfort to hearts in times of great trial, to awaken us to the terror and beauty of life? Many rings of power are at loose in the world, seducing even the best to evil, but other forces are also at work, and we can draw strength by realizing that the battle is not lost, that we do not oppose evil only with our own puny powers, but we have allies who want us to become heroes and fight, who are at our side, strengthening, encouraging, and leading us.