As I pondered the artistic license that Peter Jackson had granted himself in one of the most important scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring, I realized that a film adaptation of a literary work should not be expected to follow the literal letter of the original but should seek faithfully to encapsulate and project its true and essential spirit.
It is probably at least ten years since I last saw The Lord of the Rings movies. I own all three of the special extended DVD editions of the films, but they sit on the shelf in their virgin state, unopened and untouched, gathering dust. The reason is that I share my home with my children, which means that I can’t watch anything that I don’t want them to see, or at least that I don’t want them to see yet. My daughter is eleven, with a very visual imagination. An early 1970s episode of Doctor Who gave her nightmares. Clearly she is not ready to be affronted with orcs, the Uruk-hai, black riders, and cave trolls.
Considering my protracted exile from Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth (as distinct from Tolkien’s of which I am a regular inhabitant), I was delighted when a friend suggested that we have a movie night at his house on three consecutive Tuesdays to watch all three of Mr. Jackson’s films. Last night we watched The Fellowship of the Ring in all its full extended glory. For almost four hours, including “pause” time for visits to the bathroom or to the refrigerator for ale replenishment, we basked in the splendor of the first part of Jackson’s magnum opus. Memories of my earlier viewings of the film flashed back to me but my long period of exile meant that it was all once more remarkably fresh.
After the back story is recounted, showing how the One Ring was forged and became Isildur’s Bane, we find ourselves in the Shire and feeling very much at home. Mr. Jackson really captures the true spirit of Tolkien’s idyllic depiction of the agrarian simple life, captivating us and thereby releasing us, albeit all too briefly, from our own captivity in a “real” world which resembles the reckless wantonness of Isengard. The beauty, and the power and the glory, of Tolkien’s Shire is rooted in the way that it feels like home even though we have never been there. Perhaps it rekindles childhood memories of uncluttered and untroubled innocence; perhaps it touches those primal and primeval parts of us that still long for the lost Eden; perhaps it prefigures that other home to which we’re all called, the desire for which animates every healthy soul. Whatever the reason, Tolkien’s Shire presents us with an icon of idyllic community, which is inspirational and aspirational, and which Peter Jackson revivifies magnificently. It is indeed so much alive that we feel that we are less alive when we leave it, either with Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin on their journey into the dark, or when we return to our workaday lives.
But leave it we must (alas!) as we follow the hobbits to Bree, skipping past Tom Bombadil, whom Mr. Jackson chooses to excise from the story, exercising poetic license and his producer’s prerogative. Although Tom Bombadil plays a crucial part in Tolkien’s book, which is discussed in my own book Frodo’s Journey in a chapter entitled “The Enigma of Tom Bombadil,” I don’t have a major problem with Mr. Jackson’s decision to leave him out of the movie.[*] The multifarious characters and multi-layered plots with which good authors construct their fictional works is not as easy to accomplish in the medium of film. Compromises are demanded because they are necessary. For this reason, I can sympathize with Mr. Jackson’s decision to drop not only Bombadil (and therefore the equally delightful Goldberry) but also Glorfindel, whose small but significant part in Tolkien’s book is taken in the film by Arwen, thereby magnifying the role of Aragorn’s love interest and accentuating the female presence within the movies, both of which enhance the quality of the film, as a film.
Perhaps I am mellowing with age, or finding it easier to separate the literary purist from the movie critic in my engagement with Peter Jackson’s film, but I found myself much more tolerant of those aspects of the film which had irritated my literary sensibilities when I had first watched it. I recall my discomfort with the way that Mr. Jackson had turned Aragorn into a confused and conflicted modern man, unwilling or unable to accept and embrace the duties and responsibilities of his calling. I remember accusing Mr. Jackson of conflating James Dean and Jesus Christ in his characterization of Aragorn. On this more recent viewing, I saw less of James Dean and more of Christ, especially in the close-up shots in which Viggo Mortensen looks uncannily like Max von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told or Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ or, indeed, like the naturalistic romanticized portraits of Christ in pious and particularly Protestant art. Similarly, Mr. Jackson is unabashed in his iconographic depiction of Galadriel as a Marian figure, her grotesque and monstrous transfiguration when tempted by the Ring notwithstanding. Our last view of her, as the Fellowship departs Lothlórien, is reminiscent of classic images of Our Lady of Fatima or Our Lady of Lourdes.
The film version of The Fellowship of the Ring culminates with the death of Boromir, differing from Tolkien’s book in which Boromir’s death comes at the beginning of The Two Towers. It’s a scene that has great sacramental significance in Tolkien’s original work, the final exchange of words between Boromir and Aragorn reflecting the formal aspects of the sacrament of penance, in which the repentant sinner must have contrition for the sins he has committed, confessing them, and making satisfaction in terms of an act of penance. Boromir’s final words contain all three of these prerequisites for a good and holy confession: “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo [confession]. I am sorry [contrition]. I have paid [satisfaction].” Aragorn’s role is that of the priest, acting in persona Christi, who forgives the sin and bestows “peace” upon the penitent. Mr. Jackson deviates radically from Tolkien in this scene, replacing the sacramental “confession” with Boromir’s fraternal “confession” that he would have followed Aragorn, proclaiming him to be “my brother, my captain, my king.” Thus the allusive allegorical confession to God in Tolkien’s original story is replaced with an explicit literal confession in Jackson’s adaptation, expressive of Boromir’s final reconciliation with the man (and king) whom he had wronged. The effect lacks the nuanced subtlety and the depth of theological applicability of Tolkien’s original, but it has great power nonetheless in terms of its cathartic effect upon the viewer. Had Mr. Jackson chosen merely to reiterate Tolkien’s words, it is very unlikely that the literary subtlety of the original text would have been grasped by the viewer, the allegorical significance being lost in the fast-paced medium of film, weakening the scene and depriving it of the catharsis that Mr. Jackson’s reworking of it provides. As I pondered the artistic license that Mr. Jackson had granted himself in this most important of scenes from Tolkien’s book, I realized that a film adaptation of a literary work should not be expected to follow the literal letter of the original but should seek faithfully to encapsulate and project its true and essential spirit because, and to co-opt the words of St. Paul, “the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.”
This essay is the first in a series on Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The second can be read here.
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* See Pearce, Joseph. Frodo’s Journey. Charlotte: Saint Benedict Press, 2015.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a still from The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), and has been slightly modified for color.