J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series (including, of course, The Hobbit, which is the trilogy’s prequel) is the granddaddy of all fantasy-adventure fiction. Although they didn’t achieve the immediate runaway success of their most recent literary heir, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, The Lord of the Rings titles have been perennial best sellers since their initial publication, and have been beloved by young readers and adults alike.
Apparently someone at Warner Bros. saw a connection here, as well as an opportunity to cash in, and so this holiday season marks the release of the first features of both the HP and LOTR film franchises. And yet, for all their generic and narrative similarities, the two films and fiction series are most interesting in their differences, and in their influences on popular culture. The Potter terrain should be pretty familiar by now. (If you need a refresher, check out my review of the film and John Nettles’ essay on the craze published here a few weeks back.) What is perhaps less familiar is the cultural history of The Lord of the Rings, the political uses to which the books have been put, and how Jackson’s film version might reconnect the series to contemporary social and political debates.
Tolkien’s series has had a rather remarkable — and shifting — cultural impact. During the freewheeling 1960s, the books were cult favorites of flower children across America. Something about the mythic dimensions and fantasy other-worldliness of the series appealed to a subculture of youth disillusioned by the reality of state-sanctioned oppression and their own stymied attempts to effect social and political transformation. At the same time, as noted by literary scholars like Norman F. Cantor, the books have distinct authoritarian overtones and, after the publication of The Hobbit in 1938, were praised by various fascist youth groups throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century in the West. The books are all pageantry and spectacle after all, and nothing got the fascists hyped like a good military parade. And last year, Christianity Today, magazine and arbiter of all things “good” and Christian in the world, declared that the LOTR books were number four on their list of the 100 most important (for Christianity) “Books of the Century” — C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was number one. This last designation speaks to the series’ central theme: in the eternal struggle of good versus evil, good ultimately triumphs.
This struggle has been given added urgency in our post-9/11 world. Since the terrorist attacks, cultural commentators throughout the U.S. have been crowing about the return of simple moral and ethical values, of clear distinctions between “good” and “evil.” President Bush II proclaims Osama bin Laden “the Evil one,” and the hottest toys this holiday season are those reflecting such easy distinctions; G.I. Joe is back, and both HP and LOTR merchandise is flying off the shelves. And yet, the LOTR books actually complicate such black and white determinations. While the story and moral are pretty clear-cut — Frodo and company must battle the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron — the fact that this fight has been taken as emblematic of their own by hippies, fascists, and Christians, suggests that definitions of “good” and “evil” are somewhat malleable.
Whether their goal is revolutionary, totalitarian, or redemptive, it seems all readers can find in Frodo’s journeys a parable of their own social, political, and religious conflicts. Ironically, while the philosophical and moral abstractions of Tolkien’s books are largely responsible for their varying and long-lived success, it is the film version’s simplifying of the story that accounts for its own. Screenwriter Frances Walsh does an admirable job adapting The Lord of the Rings for film, cutting many plot events while retaining a great deal of narrative complexity, and produces a much easier to follow film than that made of Rowling’s similarly complex (narratively, if not philosophically) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
This isn’t to say The Fellowship of the Ring doesn’t have its share of problems, the most apparent being its over-reliance on special effects and CGI animation. Granted, the visual scope is pretty impressive, but there are only so many Orc armies swarming over plains you can take in at one sitting — and it’s a long sitting, as the film clocks in at a full three hours. At other times, the f/x wizardry outright fails, as in the often-clunky renderings of size differences among the various races. Hobbits, in case you are unaware, are “Halflings,” and rather than cast short-statured actors or child actors in the roles of Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin), and their Hobbit pals, Jackson manipulates perspective and camera angles, and sometimes layers images to give a sense of Frodo’s shortness compared to his human and elf companions. This layering can be so awkward, it’s as if you can see a little blue-screen aura around Frodo.
Translating popular fiction into film (or any fiction for that matter) is often a dicey affair at best. This is perhaps even more so for fantasy fiction, which depends on readers’ imaginations to construct its world, without the help of “real world” referents. The potential failure of this film to capture the imagination is perhaps clearest in the character of Galadriel, played here by the usually excellent Cate Blanchett. In the book, Galadriel is a mysterious, alluring, and generous Elven noble, Lady of the magical forest of Lothlorien. In the film, Galadriel comes across as an inscrutable and shrieking mystic. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to figure out from this representation of Galadriel, or any of the Elves in the film, just what has captivated readers for so long about the sylvan race. Even less obvious from the film is how the Elves have come to be so central to Middle-Earth fans’ imaginings of an idealized social order, characterized by social equality, wisdom, and grace.
Despite these and other shortcomings, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is an ambitious and generally enjoyable film, especially for those who might desire a little more narrative coherence and depth than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has to offer. In the end, what is potentially most urgent about the film is how it reflects the tenor of our time, and in particular the resurgence, after September 11th, of social, political and religious debates over the “nature” of “good” and “evil.”