Click here 5 stars
Going in harm's way
for the greater good
The "Lord of the Rings" films ring bells of hope and humanity
in a way we can only trust honors Tolkien's original vision

By John Orr
February 2004

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An estimated 100,000,000 people have read "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy; I am grateful to not yet be among them. Otherwise I might have suffered the fate of my friend Buzzie, who loves the books but hates what filmmaker Peter Jackson has made of them.

Buzzie saw the first in Jackson's stunning trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings," detested and denounced it, and refuses to see "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

I understand Buzzie's position. He has his own vision of the meaning of J.R.R. Tolkien's ambitious work, and it doesn't fit with what Jackson has wrought. I've been in that position: If Milos Forman had wandered within my reach right after I saw his perversion of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," we might never have had "Amadeus," which is one of my favorite films.

We've all seen fans of a novel hate the film. I loved Jonathan Demme's film of "The Silence of the Lamb," but many fans of Thomas Harris' novel told me the movie wasn't nearly as good as the book. Just as I was disappointed by Phillip Noyce's childish film of "The Bone Collector," from the thrilling novel by Jeffery Deaver.

Maybe the only time most readers have agreed that the movie was actually as good or even better than the book was when Frances Ford Coppola made a masterpiece film from Mario Puzo's less-than-great novel "The Godfather."

So, I am happy to not have formed my own vision of "The Lord of the Rings" books, because I am free to accept Jackson's vision and enjoy it. And enjoy it I do: I love all three films, and applaud Jackson's masteful work, which will go down in history as being among the greatest and most meaningful adventure films ever made.

A film must stand on its own merits, regardless of the book or other source from which its inspiration sprang. Yet, based on what I have read of Tolkien himself and his inspirations for his trilogy, I believe Jackson may well have done justice to Tolkien's core ideas: That all of earth has to fear from industrialization and bad leadership, and that good things survive because of the willingness of heroes to sacrifice themselves for those good things.

"I wish the ring had never come to me," says Frodo in the movie. "I wish none of this had happened."

"So do all who live to see such times," Gandalf responds. "But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil."

That is a key to this series. That good men — and hobbits and elves and dwarves — rise to the challenge of battling evil.

In the book "Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth," biographer John Garth writes that Tolkien's tale of hobbits, men, dwarves and elves allied against the forces of evil in mighty battles was grounded in Tolkien's own harsh experiences in World War I.

Tolkien went to the Great War as a junior officer — 20 percent of such officers did not survive the war at all. Almost all of his friends from school who went to the war died in it. Tolkien himself survived the Battle of the Somme, then was hospitalized with trench fever, which probably saved his life.

He was well aware of that war's foolish, brutal waste.

In the third of Jackson's films, "The Return of the King," when Denethor (John Noble), steward of Gondor, sends out his own son, Faramir (David Wenham), on an obviously fatal mission, to retake Osgiliath, it immediately brings to mind the foolish British attack at Gallipoli, in which 300,000 British troops, including a large number of New Zealand and Australian volunteers, became casualties.

Yet Faramir takes the bad order, and goes to fight the unwinnable battle — as have millions of soldiers since the battle of Gallipoli.

And through the three films it is easy to see Tolkien's concern with the age of industrialization, as Saruman aligns himself with evil and destroys the natural in his factory of war, just as industrialists of the real world destroy nature with factories, groundwater poisoning and destruction of forests.

As we watch Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir, Gandalf, Merry and Pippin undertake their heroic odyssey in an attempt to save what is good in the world, we can thank Tolkien for the poesy of his vision in a world that has grown even uglier in industrialization since he first wrote his books.

These films, like the books that inspired them, I'm sure — besides being entertaining — are a call to us all to be brave and to do the best we can against the forces of evil.

Our hats are off in heartfelt appreciation of Peter Jackson and his entire huge team that made these magnificent films.

Update: July 2004

I finally found time to read Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and find the experience did not lessen my admiration of the movies at all.

Jackson lopped off a number of adventures and characters for the sake of making movies that would not last for 800 hours, but the only excision that bothered me was the very end of the book, when Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin return to the Shire.

But I can imagine reasons for Jackson not including that ending — he had so much to wrap up that some critics have already dunned him for what they called multiple endings. Not multiple endings; just the sewing up of many skeins of plot.

And his return of the four to the Shire may be looked on as something more modern; when soldiers return from war these days, to Britain or the United States, their friends and neighbors who stayed home often have no idea what they'd been through. Their welcome-homes have often been as modest as the way Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin were more or less ignored in the pub.

In Tolkien's book, the injury of war have indeed been felt in the Shire, and for the four heroes, their homecoming does not let them put down their swords too soon.

There is talk of another ending in the extended version of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," and perhaps we can see that fascinating tale brought to life when that DVD appears toward the end of 2004.