Trilogy Ends With The Movie That Rules Them All
Published: December 18, 2003
My wife says my laptop is my “ppreciousssss.” She also says that about “The Lord of the Rings.” But it wasn’t always so.
Almost four years ago, as I sat in the theater waiting to see some long-forgotten movie, I saw the first movie trailer for “The Lord of the Rings.” As the trailer ended and flashed the now familiar chiseled gold title rendering, a number of my fellow moviegoers cheered. I didn’t know why.
What I did know was that “The Lord of the Rings” was just another book on high school book report lists. I figured that it somehow fit into the “classic” category. I wasn’t anxious to see another classic—by anyone’s definition—retold, revised and twisted by some studio, producer or director with an agenda.
The following year I took notice when a number of Catholic journalists and writers, whom I admired for their apologetic and theological skill, began to write about the first movie in the Rings trilogy, “The Fellowship of the Ring.” And far from being skeptical, as I was, about the movie’s value, they were actually excited. No, giddy is probably a better word. From them I began to learn about J.R.R. Tolkien and rings of power, Frodo and the Shire, elves and ents, wizards and dwarves, and how thoroughly Catholic it all was.
On the surface, you might not see anything Catholic at all in “The Lord of the Rings.” But Catholic it is.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings” over a period of 14 years ending in 1949. The trilogy wasn’t an immediate hit, and he was derided by more than one of his contemporaries for penning so much fantastical gibberish. But in a world reeling from a world war and the cultural revolution of the decades that followed, Frodo and his tale of innocence, woe and triumph has resonated with millions of readers. “Frodo lives!” appeared in graffiti on subway walls, couples read the whole set aloud to each other, and parents read the story to their children at bedtime—for the whole year. Most people who have read it probably did so before I was born.
As a Web developer and programmer, I’m involved with a number of online communities whose primary focus is computers, programming and other fascinating subjects that geeks love. And one of those subjects is “The Lord of the Rings.”
The same young and tech savvy g33k5 (geeks) and h4ck3r5 (hackers) who talk of their music and movie collections in terms of gigabytes also long to live in a world permeated by a Catholic world view—Tolkien’s fantasy world—the world in “The Lord of the Rings.” Just don’t tell them it’d be a fundamentally Catholic world. Tolkien said it best when he wrote that “The Lord of the Rings” is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision.” He famously detested allegory and vehemently denied that his work was any such beast. So how can he call it “fundamentally [...] Catholic” in the same proverbial breath? This is where the Catholic Tolkien fan tends to get giddy.
Having never read the trilogy before, I decided to read the books before seeing the story on the big screen.
Like many first-timers, I began with “The Hobbit,” which isn’t part of the Rings trilogy, strictly speaking. Tolkien wrote it as a children’s story and as such, it doesn’t have the depth and grittiness of “The Lord of the Rings,” but it does set the stage with the finding of the Ring of Power. The story takes place about 50 years before “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Indeed, the first movie begins with the departure of the hero of “The Hobbit,” Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holms).
As I delved into the world of hobbits and wizards, I was immediately struck by how manifestly sacramental Tolkien’s world is. In our real world, the Catholic sacraments are outward physical signs of a spiritual reality. We pour water, and we are adopted into the family of God. The priest absolves us, and God cleans our soul. We eat what looks like bread, and God feeds us with His very flesh. These are spiritual realities but realities nonetheless. In Tolkien’s world, the spiritual and physical realities are one and the same.
The most obvious example is the creature Gollum (acted and voiced by Andy Serkis), whose wretched voice and emaciated figure dominate the screen in “The Two Towers.” Gollum was at one time very much like a hobbit. Over the centuries, as his soul became more and more enslaved by the evil of the Ring of Power, that evil became manifest in his physical character and appearance as it does in his soul. The result is an emaciated and disfigured creature reduced to crawling on all fours like a beast.
Another example is the Monarch King of Rohan, Théoden (Bernard Hill). Through the cunning words of his evil servant Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) poisons the mind of the king who is overcome by darkness and despair. The result is a decrepit and blind old man barely able to speak. In one of the more striking moments in “The Two Towers,” we see Gandalf the White (Ian McKellen) perform an exorcism of sorts on the king, and we watch his physical transformation into a strong commanding leader as the evil possession leaves the king.
Tolkien paints an emotional and psychological picture of various characters and cultures related to sin, evil and corruption. Men, for example, strive for power and are therefore preeminently vulnerable to being corrupted by the power of the ring, despite all good intentions. Hobbits, on the other hand, are simple-minded and content in striving for the simple pleasures of creation—grass under their feet, gardening, food and ale, and the company of friends and family. So while men are easily corrupted, and even driven mad simply by the desire for the ring as was Boromir (Sean Bean), the hobbits seem little affected by the presence of the ring compared to others.
In Catholic parlance we call this difference shown by the hobbits formation—of character, will and conscience. By the grace of God, we work using the tools the Catholic Church gives us, particularly in the sacraments and in the prayer life of the Church. We work to overcome those personality traits and weaknesses that hinder us in avoiding evil, so that we actually live the life we profess every Sunday. In doing so we form our character, so we are who we say we are. We work to overcome concupiscence, our natural inclination toward evil (courtesy of Adam and Eve). In doing so we form our will, so that doing God’s will becomes easier to choose. And finally, we work to learn the faith of the Church, both in reading and education and in dialogue with our Lord in prayer. In doing so we form our conscience and we learn to discern good from evil, which is the first step in choosing good and in living a life of character and holiness.
To put it simply, we work to become less like men and more like hobbits, like little children (Matthew18:3).
The signs of Christian symbolism in “The Lord of the Rings” would fill a book, and indeed, many people have done so. Bradley Birzer writes in his recent book, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth,” that God remains off-stage but is “contained within the very fiber of the story.” Here are a few fibers:
—The three roles of Christ are seen in Frodo (Elijah Wood) as the Priest who offers himself as a sacrifice to destroy the ring (i.e. sin and evil), the wizard Gandalf as the Prophet who serves as the teacher and guide, and particularly as advisor to Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson) the future King and leader for a new world set free of the tyranny of the ring.
—The wise elf, Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), is seen as a figure of the Virgin Mary, who bestows grace upon the fellowship.
—Tolkien points out that the journey of the fellowship to destroy the ring begins on December 25, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, He who would destroy evil, and ends with the destruction of the ring on March 25, the day that is traditionally noted as the day of the crucifixion, wherein Jesus destroys death.
—The elven lembas bread that mysteriously sustains Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) on their journey can be viewed as the figure of the Eucharist.
—The great virtues of mercy and hope are the bedrock of the story. Mercy in how the wrathful hand of Sam is consistently stayed by the merciful Frodo. Gandalf teaches mercy to Frodo, who laments that Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the chance: “Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them?” Sam is constantly hanging on the hope that “there’s good in this world and it’s worth fighting for.”
From this mindset, now consider Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of the trilogy. It’s not hard to understand the anticipation on the part of Tolkien’s Catholic readers.
Originally developed as two movies for Miramax Films, Jackson and his team reworked the scripts for New Line Cinema as three movies. In a cinematic first, New Line gave Jackson, a relatively unheard of director from New Zealand, an equally unheard of $300 million to shoot all three movies at the same time over an 18-month period.
They could have spent three times that amount and still be laughing all the way to the bank.
While the “bean counters” are eager for the release of “The Return of the King” on Dec. 17, the first two films, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001) and “The Two Towers” (2002) have together grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide. Yes, that’s billion with a ‘B.’ When all’s said and done, the tally is very likely to reach $3 billion.
How did Peter Jackson do? Did Jackson and New Line gut the story of its Catholic soul?
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Far from it.
As I watched “The Return of the King,” the word that kept coming to my mind during the battle at Minas Tirth was “magnificent.” Stunningly magnificent, in fact. Not because the effects are so great or the creatures are so huge but because you see the encroaching enemy through the same eyes as the people of Middle Earth, and stunned by the prospects, you simply have no idea what to say as you stare with your mouth wide open.
Which brings me to the second word: “breathtaking.” And I mean the “I can’t breathe” kind of breathtaking.
The movie begins with a flashback to a long distant past in which we see how Gollum comes to possess the ring. The theater pounds with the slowing heartbeat of his brother as his brother’s life fades under his grip, and the scene ends with perhaps the most chilling pronunciation of the word “precious” ever recorded.
A series of battle sequences dwarf the Battle of Helms Deep, and Lady Éowyn (Miranda Otto), the niece of King Théoden, finally sees battle and provides one of the most triumphant and rousing scenes of the movie.
Through all the despair and death, this film depicted much more of a stream of hope throughout the story than the previous two movies. It kept you pumped up and thinking, “We CAN win!”
Jackson seems to have given a few nods to the populace: the banter between Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) is still there, Legolas’ stunt abilities reach new heights (which is sure to please the younger ladies), and Aragorn doesn’t shower much (which, I am told, is sure to please the remaining ladies).
If I were to single out any performance, it would have to be Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener and companion. I didn’t like him as Sam in the first two movies and thought his performance was a bit clumsy. After seeing him in “The Return of the King,” I must admit that his performance is nothing short of fantastic.
At a few points in the film the effects are obvious, and as occurred with the first two installments, I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Jackson corrected them for the DVD releases. This shouldn’t be viewed as a distraction, but rather, as a testament to just how good the rest of the films’ shooting and effects really are. You might also take issue with a few plot changes Jackson makes, particularly with the ending pages of the book—the hobbits’ return to the Shire is completely different than that in the book—but to tell it like the book would have required adding an extra 30 minutes in an already long (3 hours,12 minutes) movie. The plot reductions could be a complaint if this movie weren’t so great.
In the end, is “The Return of the King” the movie to rule them all? Yes.
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