The National Catholic Review
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Armies mass for battle in Peter Jackson’s film of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

What follows should come with a warning label for a goodly number of longtime readers. Isn’t it time for us Catholics to turn up the lights and take a second look at that brand of mid-century Anglo-Catholicism from both sides of the papal divide that dominated our undergraduate days and perhaps created an unhealthy sense of Christianity for us new-century remnant band? How easily that outlook slid from serious, to ponderous, to pompous, to tedious to simply wrong.

Caught in our own web of cultural inferiority complexes, woven with heavy strands of Anglophilia, we’ve been perhaps overly timid about criticizing our presumed spiritual and cultural betters. Erant gigantes: there were giants in those days. Or were there? Well, yes, but as brilliant authors or as theologians? We’ve had T. S. Eliot, the quintessential English poet from St. Louis, offering the paperback mysticism of East Coker, Evelyn Waugh with his withering but universal satire waiting for a sign, Graham Greene’s searching for redemption in a world more noted for malice than goodness and the Oxford dons C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, so dissatisfied with their contemporary world that they preferred to create alternate universes populated with creatures more to their liking than real people.

Talented without question, but what a dyspeptic lot to construct an idealized world of Christianity embodied in musty chapels, Latin incantations, candles reflecting on soot-covered walls and stale incense clinging to the rafters, nostalgia that borders on corrosive medievalism. As the church in America struggled to grow out of its own adulation of what one U.S. writer, James J. Walsh (1865-1942), called The ThirteenthGreatest of Centuries (1907), we continued to read with reverence our English cousins, who might possibly have upgraded our greatest century to the 19th, but certainly not to the 20th. Fortunately for them, and probably for us, all of them, with the exception of Greene, left this messy human arena before the Second Vatican Council worked most of its mischief. Imagine the take any one of them would have done on liturgies with guitars, handshakes or woman ministers.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie, provides a perfect comeuppance for J. R. R. Tolkien and his commonroom cronies. It is a loud and vulgar comic book. The first volume of a trilogy that reputedly cost $300 million, this monumental epic by the New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson provides fair warning of the subsequent installments to be released into the next two Christmas-season markets.

To avoid any misunderstanding, a few distinctions may be helpful. My negative reaction scarcely stems from the filmmakers’ determination to de-Christianize the story to avoid offending any potential market segment, since the Christianity of the original holds little attraction for me in the first place. The director, Peter Jackson, and his co-writers, Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, can select whatever elements they want from a novel to make their film work. Any film critic who knows the difference between a sprocket hole and a product tie-in understands that. Nor do I fall back on that inept and misguided critical cliché, It’s not as good as the book. (Of course not. It’s a movie. Would anyone say the painting is not as good as the ballet?) It’s been a few decades since I looked at the book. I have no mountain of youthful nostalgia to surmount.

One can, however, set aside the theological, historical and literary baggage and try to look at the film in itself. At least in theory, that is possible, and that is what I will attempt here.

Getting a 1,200-page novel moving on the screen takes a great deal of voice-over narration. Before, during and after the opening credits, off-screen voices explain about rings here, rings there, dwarfs, elves, hobbits, wars, devastation and centuries until at last it boils the mass down to the one super-ring. This takes a long 15 minutes, but since the adventure will last fully three hours, the initial investment is reasonable. Reasonable, but confusing and dull.

At last the camera settles into The Shire, a land populated by hobbits, who might be described as leprechauns with big hairy feet rather than little pointy green shoes. This observation should not be construed as merely an un-P.C. attack on the wee folk. Some of my relatives are reputedly descended from leprechauns. It is, however, an indication of a fundamental problem with the conception of the film. The hobbits are live actors wearing extraordinary costumes, like self-propelled special effects demonstrations, right down to their hairy latex feet. What’s the problem? Movie actors, and to some extent stage actors as well, have always dressed as monsters or aliens or elves.

In this film, however, the live actors inhabit a world of fields and mountains, caves and chasms largely generated by very good and very expensive computer technology. This places us in a universe that neither commands the full assent to fantasy that an animated feature might, nor in a realm of living persons who invite us to share their human struggles. By contrast, a fairy story in a book faces no such dilemma. Writers devise creatures and their settings that exist only in the imagination of the individual reader. Filmmakers are not so lucky. They have to do the creating themselves, by putting light and color up on the screen and then bringing their viewers into this world they have devised with their wonderful technologies. If they can’t get the viewer into the screen, the film doesn’t work. I stayed firmly planted in my seat.

Comic books as a rule have little interest in building characters. Elijah Wood, as the hobbit hero Frodo Baggins, seems to be a fine young actor, but his round face, large eyes and tiny nose, redesigned with fairy makeup, give him the look more of an animated figure than a living person. In that netherworld between the human and the cartoon, he generates little depth in his character. Does anyone really care what motivates him, or what happens to him as he goes about his work of saving the universe? Similarly, as midway betwixt flesh and fantasy, two very fine veteran actors, Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit elder, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf, the good wizard, forge few bonds of sympathy with their audience. Their eventual passing from the scene provokes a shrug rather than a tear.

The filmmakers clearly find character and plot less compelling than action, which is after all the heart of videogames and comic books. The characters and the plot outline merely provide a plausible bridge to move the reader or viewer from one action sequence to the next. And good grief, what action! Armies of monster orcs, drooling slime, slash and hack their adversaries to pieces. Severed heads and limbs bounce gaily across the screen. The sound level loosened several fillings from my teeth. Moments of quiet allow us to prepare for the next onslaught of hideous monsters, refugees all from a Japanese comic book. Any lunatic who suggests that this mayhem is a delightful fairy story for childreneven those who loved the bookshould receive the Wicked Witch of the West Medallion for Demonic Parenting.

The ending of the first installment of any trilogy has to leave a few loose ends to pick up in the next episode. Soap operas and those old Saturday matinee serials refined the technique into a predictable art form. Fellowship, however, simply unravels. The band of warriors goes off on a seemingly peripheral rescue mission, while Frodo continues the central quest with an entirely new strategy. After all these breathless battles, this new phase of the journey promises to be quite dull, even if one can remember the importance of accomplishing whatever it is Frodo wants to accomplish. Fellowship doesn’t end; it only stops to catch its breath.

This may be a minority opinion. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring will probably receive several Academy Award nominations. It’s the kind of important movie that Academy members love. Even though it’s not my cup of hobbit ale, to say the least, I would agree that it deserves recognition for its cinematography, design, special effects and sound recording. After all, this is the age of postmodern filmmaking, with the triumph of form over content, the exaltation of the magnificently wrapped empty box.

Perhaps, somewhere in the cloudy realms of the afterlife, Eliot, Waugh, Lewis, Greene and of course Tolkien will one day invite me into the faculty room for sherry, when we can all sit together and harrumph about all things modern. What would they have to say about this movie? It would be fun to listen and take notes.

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College.

Comments

Jim Condit Jr. | 7/31/2008 - 12:58am
Based on his review of the Fellowship of the Ring, Richard A. Blake, S.J. has absorbed the "spirit of Vatican II", it is quite clear. Thus, he misses so many parallels to our current world at the beginning of the 21st century. The battle of Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf, and Aragorn -- are the battles of all Catholics trying to be faithful to the Faith of the last 2000 years, and of all people who realize, to quote Sam's great speech at the end of the 2nd Part of the Trilogy, (Two Towers): " . . . that there is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for." Those who are, however well intentioned, going off in a disoriented direction, like all Catholics imbued with "the spirit of Vatican II", will often not like the Lord of the Rings. They do not identify with the seemingly near-hopeless-at-times uphill struggle of Frodo against overwhelming odds, but, like Saruman, they have abandoned the sense of the Faith that they (or their parents) once held to tragically join the "winning side" in what seems to them the inevitable outcome (i.e., the disoriented modernism condemned by Pope St. Pius X in 1907, now occupying the vast majority of Catholic institutions and parishes throughout the world). In fact, the best thinkers, in my judgement, realize that we are now in the "Eclipse of the Church" predicted by Our Lady of Lasallette in 1846, and that the Church and the world will return to the pre-Vatican II Faith held by J.R. Tolkien, together with the appearance of a Great Monarch in Europe, paralleling very closely the end of the Return of the King. I would heartily recommend to Richard A. Blake, S.J. -- the three essays on the website www.October1958.com -- and the book, "Catholic Prophecy" by Yves Dupont (1971), -- as well as the essay "Pope Leo's Vision of the 100 years of Satan's increased power, and the Triumpn of the Immaculate Heart of Mary" (searchable on Google -- an 18 page follow up to Dupont's book written in 2007. After reading and digesting these things, one can hope that Richard Blake, S.J., would have a better appreciation of the movie trilogy of the Lord of the Rings. Jim Condit Jr.
Nancy Perich Daly | 1/26/2007 - 2:06pm
J. R. R. Tolkien didn’t expect that everyone would like The Lord of the Rings. As he pointed out in its foreword, he disliked many of his critics’ works. But fairness and truth must make me refute the description of Tolkien given by Richard A. Blake, S.J., and the motivations Father Blake attributes to him for writing The Lord of the Rings (2/11).

Tolkien was never a medievalist. He was a great philologist, who began young inventing languages for elves, dwarves, orcs and humans long before he met C. S. Lewis. Nor did he write to escape his surroundings. The overarching theme of his great multi-volume epic (The Lord of the Rings is the conclusion) is the destructive force of greed and lust for power. These evils corrupt across the spectrum, from gods and demigods to men, elves, dwarves and nature itself. Incidentally, much of The Lord of the Rings was written during World War II, when to an Englishman a conquering totalitarian power must have seemed more than fictional.

I am usually squeamish about monsters, but in The Fellowship of the Ring, I found the scariest parts were kindly Bilbo’s morphing into a monster upon seeing the ring and the orcs’ brutal destruction of the trees of Isengard. The ring and the obsession that it evokes tempt everyone stronger than Frodo. Some, like Boromir and Saruman, yield; others, like Gandalf, Galadriel and Aragorn, successfully resist. Only reluctant Frodo can carry the ring to its doom, because only he hates and fears it enough to bear it safely, though at great personal cost. I thought the movie made this point clearly.

Phyllis L. Townley | 1/26/2007 - 1:54pm
Of course Richard A. Blake, S.J., is entitled to his opinions, and I found his review, “Fellowship of the Wrong” (2/11) provocative if only because it dissents from the hyperbolic praise lavished on the movie by critics and viewers alike. However, here are a few random observations from what I hope is a neutral position, without such preconceptions as Blake’s characterization of mid-century Anglo-Catholics as a “dyspeptic lot.” A bit of cultural bias, perhaps? Fine.

Certainly the film was concerned with action rather than plot, and I for one closed my eyes tightly several times rather than be forced to endure the gory violence. Sadly, the “mission” to which the fellowship is committed is lost in an overwhelming display of special effects. Tolkien wrote for our imaginations, allowing us to create an inner reality. As Blake noted, filmmakers have no choice but to construct a world that will engage our senses, if not always our intelligence. In the process, I do agree, much was confusing in the film, although I did find the characters appealing despite a predictable lack of depth. I did care what happened to them.

So how would we measure “success” from a detached perspective? For those who have never read The Lord of the Rings, I suppose the film is a marvel of technological achievement, and that might be enough to satisfy entertainment seekers. But the interesting thing to me is how the movie seems to resonate somehow on a deeper level, encouraging several people I know to tackle the trilogy in print, and others to reread the work after decades when it was no longer fashionable. This “special effect” owes nothing to the genius of the filmmakers.

May I suggest that The Lord of the Rings has a message for us now despite Tolkien’s disclaimer that he wrote it for pleasure and not as an allegory illustrating the cosmic struggle? Yet in the conflict between good and evil, the importance of each individual choice, the uses (and abuses) of power, the victory of the humble and weak over the strong and proud, fidelity to the truth and the willingness to die for it to the point of ultimate sacrifice, trusting “all will be well,” as Julian of Norwich says—the work speaks to our condition now as never before, whether or not we believe the original had a deliberate Christian intent. I am sure the debate will continue about the merits of the film, and no doubt it will be judged according to the usual lowest common denominator standard of Hollywood productions—box office appeal and superficial “importance.” That is out of our control. But I may hope that others will be inspired to read the book. Good storytelling has for ages touched the spirit in ways beyond sermonizing facts and arid argument.

When Frodo indignantly exclaims that the evil gollum, who causes so much havoc and suffering, deserves death, Gandalf replies: “Deserves death? I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death, and also some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice. Even the wise cannot see all ends.”

Food for thought today?

Julia Dugger | 1/26/2007 - 1:47pm
There is a great deal in literature that enlarges upon the heroic themes in The Lord of the Rings (so much so that Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Journey is sometimes used as a guideline for writers today). Sept. 11 brought home that we are living in an age, like any age, when answering a call to heroism is vital. To say, as Richard A. Blake, S.J., did (2/11), that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (and the movie makers, by extension) were “so dissatisfied with their contemporary world that they preferred to create alternate universes populated with creatures more to their liking than real people” misses the point.

In 1955, I was a 12-year-old living in Tarzana, Calif. I read with delight The Fellowship of the Ring and was so moved by it that I wrote to Professor Tolkien. I described the book as showing “another world but yet our own.” I feel that this still holds true.

Gary Young, C.R. | 1/26/2007 - 1:34pm
All right, which orc straddled Richard Blake’s oatmeal? Is this the Richard Blake, S.J., of objective criticism? He goes after hobbits with a howitzer (2/11)! And not only hobbits. He lines up a motley arrangement of Anglo writers as though they were the Taliban. And what is this thing about eviscerating Christianity? J. R. R. Tolkien presents an archetype with great panoply. A good story. He’s not a catechist. He explains his intentions and his craft very well, by the way, in the collection of his letters published by Houghton Mifflin. His idea “eucatastrophe” and the explanation of its dynamic is included in that engrossing paperback.

Likewise it seems that Tolkien readers have to defend their tastes as well as their maturity! Most of us enjoyed the movie, I suppose, because we wanted to compare our imaginations to Peter Jackson’s. Some of Blake’s criticism has credence but the tone of it is amazing in its vitriol. No literature should be immune from evaluation or even from lampoon. Nevertheless, I do not see the value in Blake’s essay. One might be led to argue with his leprechaun ancestry and substitute grinch forebears.

j peter carey, sj | 2/13/2002 - 6:13pm
Blake's review of Lord of the Rings has the super critical flavor and smell of some of Cardinal Ratzinger's broadsides. In an effort to see and understand "the signs of the times" should we not ask ourselves why so many men and women of all ages and backgrounds love and enjoy the film, while recognizing its flaws? Is it a "great movie"? Perhaps not, but then so many judged by the critics as great are boring as the devil. Shakespeare's plays were enjoyable and fun long before they became great or classics.

Is "Richard Blake" perhaps a pen name for George W Bush?

j peter carey, sj | 2/13/2002 - 6:13pm
Blake's review of Lord of the Rings has the super critical flavor and smell of some of Cardinal Ratzinger's broadsides. In an effort to see and understand "the signs of the times" should we not ask ourselves why so many men and women of all ages and backgrounds love and enjoy the film, while recognizing its flaws? Is it a "great movie"? Perhaps not, but then so many judged by the critics as great are boring as the devil. Shakespeare's plays were enjoyable and fun long before they became great or classics.

Is "Richard Blake" perhaps a pen name for George W Bush?

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