As the Academy Awards approach with their accustomed hoopla and hype, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King appears poised to win Best Picture and a host of other secondary awards, including possibly that of Best Director, Peter Jackson. This will be a mixed blessing for those of us who love the subtleties of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. We may as well resign ourselves to the fact that from now on there will be two types of enthusiasts. There will be the Peter Jackson devotees and there will be the true believers, the die-hard Tolkienians. This review is for the true believers.
To give the three-part movie its due, there is certainly much to wonder at. To begin with, some of the casting was inspired. Jackson must be congratulating himself a thousand times over for his decision to fire his first Aragorn and call in the much older Viggo Mortensen, an actor with gravitas. Ian McKellan as Gandalf and Sean Astin as Sam are as close to perfection as one could hope for, and Orlando Bloom as Legolas not only causes preteen hearts to flutter but really conveys something of the mysterious spiritual otherness of the Elves.
Some of the scenes have been justly praised. When the flying mounts of the Nazgûl swoop down on the Pelennor and scoop up men and horses with the ease of hawks snatching rabbits, the movie compares favorably with Tolkien's fabled ability to evoke horror. Jackson is certainly very good at this sort of thing; the fire-bomb assault on the walls of Minas Tirith is splendid both in detail and in ferocity; One of the best touches is the Hammer of the Underworld, the fiery battering-ram of the besieging hordes, accompanied by a terrifying chant of "Grond! Grond!" The reforging of the-Sword-that-was-broken has a mythic, even Wagnerian power. The lighting of the fires on the beacon hills is thrilling. The amazing half-computerized Gollum character has been widely admired.
However, from the perspective of thoughtful Tolkien-readers, this final installment must be accounted the least satisfactory of the three, and unfortunately its disappointments reflect back on the theological mishandling of the previous two. Jackson has made some choices in the third movie that seem almost perverse. These departures are already causing devoted Tolkienians to question whether, in the last analysis, the director really understood the spirit of the work at all.
Losing Gollum's soul
Jackson has completely undone the scene that Tolkien describes as the most tragic in the book. The fact that the director has moved it forward from The Two Towers to The Return of the King is not the problem. In the book, Gollum comes upon Sam and Frodo asleep in the Pass of Cirith Ungol. Frodo's head is in Sam's lap, the servant protectively shielding him with his hands. "Peace was in both their faces." Something in this sight of loving companionship touches the remnant of humanity that remains in Gollum's soul. This is the moment when Gollum and Sméagol are having an "interior debate" about whether or not to deliver up the hobbits to the dreadful Thing lurking ahead in the tunnel. Gollum reaches out, hesitantly, with a trembling hand, to stroke Frodo's knee, saying, "Nice master!"
But Sam is instantly awake. Vehemently and mercilessly he rejects Gollum, calling him "villain." Sam means to be protecting Frodo, but his lack of insight and his roughness have the opposite effect. Tolkien writes, "The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall." This is the point, more than any other, when the reader will cry silently or aloud, "No!" One could hardly miss the significance of the opportunity and Sam's utter failure to seize it, yet Jackson seems to have missed it.
The loss of this scene is incalculable. In its place Jackson's writers have invented a bit of business where Gollum steals the lembas and arranges to have Frodo blame Sam for the theft. This shifts our attention to Sam's hurt feelings, rather than the true center, which is the tragic implosion of Sméagol's nascent love for Frodo. We are robbed of an opportunity to understand that Gollum is still recognizably human and capable of love. More important still, the crucial tension between mercy shown toward Gollum—such a central theme in the book—and what Gollum actually "deserves" is altogether lost. Since the center of the Christian gospel is God's mercy toward the undeserving, those who value Tolkien's implicit Christian message will feel bereft.
Retreat of the king
Jackson has omitted many key scenes that show Aragorn's kingly qualities. There is no suggestion of the King's tireless healing of the sick and wounded; these are passages where Tolkien has inserted an unusual number of biblical hints evoking the example of Christ. We are deprived of any examples of Aragorn's Solomonic wisdom, as for instance in the honorable discharge given to the young conscripted soldiers who panic at the sight of Mordor, and in the reassignment of Beregond in a way that punishes him and yet rewards him also. We do not learn of Aragorn's perilous confrontation with Sauron in the palantír, so we do not know the full story of his self-sacrificing courage. Nor do we see Aragorn in counsel with Gandalf and the other leaders of the Free Peoples after the battle of the Pelennor, so we have little sense of him as a leader among leaders. None of these omissions would be serious alone, but taken together they add up to a significant reduction of Aragorn's majesty.
The most serious of all Jackson's alterations, however, occurs at the climax, the all-important dénouement that, for Tolkien, was the key to the entire structure (he called it the "eucatastrophe"). Jackson's decision to have Frodo become, in a sense, the master of his own fate, more than anything else, has convinced many Tolkienians that Jackson does not understand the underlying themes of the book.
Speaking theologically, the remarkable and paradoxical thing about Tolkien's achievement is that he has so much to say about God without saying anything about God. All through the book there is this pervasive sense of a greater Mind, a greater Author, directing the events and working through human agents for a larger purpose than any of them can divine. Tolkien accomplishes this largely through syntax, frequently using the passive form of verbs ("Frodo was meant to have the Ring," "time was given" to Aragorn), and through veiled references to "some other power," "some other will". This would have been very difficult to convey in a movie, but the deliberate decision of the director to demystify the dénouement at the Cracks of Doom has derailed Tolkien's entire theological project. Not least among the disappointments here is that the care lavished upon the creation of the cinematic Gollum ultimately goes for nothing (nothing theological, at any rate) because we never see the awakening of his love for Frodo, and the mercy shown to him never finds its transcendent place in Jackson's version of the plot.
"Worse than Mordor"
Others besides this reviewer have already observed that the omission of "The Scouring of the Shire" does violence to Tolkien's conception. In the book, when the hobbits return to Hobbiton and to Bag End, they find so much destruction that Sam weeps and says, "This is worse than Mordor … it comes home to you." In the movie, however, the Shire to which the hobbits return is the same exaggerated Astroturf green as it was in the beginning Thus we are deprived of Tolkien's great insight that no one is innocent, that we must be ever-mindful of the way that evil seeks to bore its way into our own homes and our own hearts.
It can't be emphasized too strongly that Tolkien did not believe in a neat division of Good from Evil. He frequently put the word "good" into quotation marks in his letters, to make the point that evil can insinuate itself into the hearts of the "good" very readily. Our age needs desperately to hear what Frodo says when he spares Saruman's life: "He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I still would spare him, in the hope that he may find it" And what Saruman says to him: "You are wise and cruel, halfling … you have robbed my revenge of sweetness". Saruman's response to Frodo's mercy well illustrates Paul's teaching in Romans 12: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves … if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head."
"Did Frodo die?"
Finally, I lament Jackson's ending at the Grey Havens. Frodo more or less walks out the front door and finds the ship waiting. There is no autumnal meeting of the hobbits with the Elves in the woodland—Elrond and Galadriel with the Rings of Power, and the other High Kindred—and no long glimmering procession on horseback across the Tower Hills to the Firth of Lune where we feel a piercing sense of loss because all the Elves are leaving for ever. We do not feel the stab of pain that Sam receives when he sees that Frodo is really going, and we are not given any sense of the bitterness of Frodo's sacrifice ("the Shire has been saved, but not for me").
None of this is present in Jackson's ending. Audiences are given few clues about what it all means. All around me at the movie people were saying, "Where are they going?" "Did Frodo die?" Few would have understood that Arwen gave him her place on the ship. My companions at the movie (none of whom had read the book) thought the ending of the film was sentimental and soppy, whereas in the book the departure at the Havens causes us to feel an inconsolable sadness. At the same time Tolkien also shows (with no bed-jumping, for heaven's sake!) how the bond between the three remaining hobbits is cemented even more strongly on the return to the Shire, a crucial factor for the future of Middle-earth. The movie's Sam returns to his wife and child(ren) as in the book, but we have no sense of how he will become Mayor of the Shire and spend his whole life in service to the inhabitants. This is important, because the book does not have a fairy-tale ending. We know that real work and real struggle lie ahead.
I have chosen these problems because they seem to me to be most central to the theological plan of the book—its ever-present subtext. There are a number of other losses, some of them genuinely inexplicable—why no Dawnless Day? Why no Houses of Healing? Why are we deprived of all the Eucharistic imagery, especially in the Rangers' retreat in Ithilien? Looking at all three parts of the movie from the perspective of the last, the reason seems obvious; when Jackson was deciding what to leave in and what to take out, he chose to concentrate on big battles and oversimplified characters. In the end, the movie lacks soul.
Tolkien gives us a mighty story about a powerful unseen God whose way of working in the world is through his chosen agents, particularly those who were considered of little account by those who prided themselves on being great. He shows us how mercy and compassion shown to the undeserving is turned by God to serve his purpose. He reveals the insidiousness of evil as it seeks to corrupt the good in each of us. And he does it all while thrilling us by creating a world of gorgeous detail and barbaric splendor, heroic deeds and unforgettable characters, rich texture and unexcelled archaic glamour.
I'm hoping for many more people who will now set the movie aside and read the book. I'm hoping there will be many who will read it with an eye toward what it reveals about the One who lies behind all the action and watches over our planet with infinite tenderness and earthquaking power. The sacrifices made by many of the leading characters thus find their place in the long history glimpsed by Frodo in the Mirror of Galadriel—the story of God's redemption of his creation from the power of Sin and Death.
Fleming Rutledge is the author of the forthcoming The Battle for Middle-earth (Eerdmans). Active in parish ministry for more than 22 years, she is now an evangelist, speaker, and author of Help My Unbelief, The Bible and The New York Times, and The Undoing of Death.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other CT reviews of the film include:
Doing Tolkien Justice | The Christian virtues of humility and sacrifice filter through a tarnished triumph. (Dec. 17, 2003)
The Lure of the Obvious in Peter Jackson's The Return of the King | The film adaptations of a 1,200 page novel required making significant changes to the story. But at what cost? (Dec. 17, 2003)
CTMovies has a special section on The Return of the King.
CT reviewer Jeffrey Overstreet wondered if The Lord of the Rings would finally rule at the Oscars.