By Wood, Ralph C.
The Christian Century , Vol. 119, No. 1
THE FIRST OF THREE annual film installments of J. R. R. Tolkien's 1,500-page epic The Lord of the Rings, directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson, has many fine qualities. The New Zealand scenery evokes the fantastically real world of Tolkien's Middle-earth, and the tunnelly hobbit-homes are finely rendered. The special effects--whether in the brilliance of Gandalf's magical fireworks or the hideousness of the fiend called the Balrog--are also well done. Jackson gives riveting attention to the actors' faces, especially the discerning eyes of the wizard Gandalf. The film's pacing nicely echoes the undulating movement of the book, as it moves from chilling confrontations with orcs and trolls and ringwraiths to episodes of tranquil splendor in the elven reams of Rivendell and Lorien. These latter places have a late Victorian loveliness about them, while the scenes of horror might have been borrowed from Hieronymus Bosch.
In times like these, it is remarkable that the two blockbuster films of the season--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring--contain neither nudity nor profanity nor sex scenes. But Fellowship is a wholesome movie not because it avoids these, but because it is whole. The Company of Nine Walkers charged with the task of destroying the one ruling Ring of power are not one-dimensional figures but embodiments of virtues: courage and trust, love and loyalty, friendship and resolute will. Both characters and viewers are made to feel the corrupting lure of the Ring. Knowing well that its power will ruin them, hobbits and wizards and men are nonetheless tempted to wield that power. The deeds of the wicked are depicted in arresting and memorable ways--especially the underground metal-works for manufacturing monstrous weapons of war. After September 11, the movie also serves as a salutary reminder that war is not an antiseptic affair of bombs dropped from on high, but that the battle against evil is dirty and dangerous and unending.
Yet in making iniquity obvious and uncomplicated, the film departs from Tolkien's heroic fantasy in lamentable ways. Consider Saruman, Gandalf's fellow wizard. In the movie he is utterly sinister, while in the book he is an almost tragic instance of good gone wrong, a figure who wants to make an alliance with the demonic Sauron for the sake of a benevolent despotism. The film does show the warrior Boromir to be genuinely conflicted about wanting to use the Ring, but it fails to clarify the nature of his quandary. Tolkien, by contrast, reveals that the Ring corrupts virtues far more than it preys on vices. Boromir's stouthearted willingness to die in defense of his assaulted people tempts him to employ the Ring against the evil Sauron. His bravery is the source of his undoing, even as the wizard Gandalf is threatened by his compassion, and the elven-queen Galadriel by her beauty. Such subtleties and profundities are largely absent from the film. …