Because movie-adaptations of books become new works of art in their own right, they cannot be measured too strictly against their originals. Even so, we must ask whether a film retains the spirit if not the letter. The first two Peter Jackson film-renderings of The Lord of the Rings missed the moral and religious depths of Tolkien's epic fantasy, but still managed to capture the excitement of the plot and the grandeur of the scene. Yet the second movie began a trend that Jackson has unfortunately retained in the third—an obsession with outward violence. His version of The Return of the King converts the awful subtlety and complexity of evil into something so obvious as to be unserious.

This ethical and artistic failure becomes most evident in the third movie's depiction of Gollum, the wretched hobbit who, having possessed the Ruling Ring for five hundred years, has been virtually devoured by it. In The Two Towers Jackson revealed Gollum to be a conflicted soul even in his consuming greed. And here he powerfully depicts Gollum's original Cain-like murder in seizing the Ring. But Jackson soon removes our sympathy with the conflicted Gollum—and thus our complicity in his crimes—by turning him into a pathetically comic and merely devious figure. Jackson even allows Gollum to create a bizarre alienation between the utterly loyal servant Sam Gamgee and his heroic master Frodo Baggins. But instead of being emotionally wrought with concern that these two dearest of friends should suddenly be divided, I found myself sniggering at this outrageous violation of Tolkien's great book.

So is Denethor the steward of Gondor turned into a caricature of himself, a snarling and drooling oaf rather than a noble pessimist who has good cause for lamenting the loss of past glories that will never return. Tolkien clearly intends Denethor to be a man of our own time in his forlorn despair over the decline of his culture. Yet Jackson robs Denethor even of the logic of his death—his suicidal refusal to accept half-measures and partial triumphs. Instead, Gandalf's horse knocks Denethor onto the pyre he has built for his son Faramir! Set aflame by its fires, the maddened steward hurtles off a cliff. A scene that Tolkien intended to disclose the horror of hopelessness becomes yet another unintentionally comic display of flamboyant technical effects.

At the end of his arduous Quest, Frodo comes at last to cast the Ring back into the melting volcanic fires whence it was originally forged. Tolkien reveals that, even this most heroic of hobbits is finally overwhelmed by the coercive power evil. In his utmost act of resistance against the Dark Lord, Frodo is made into a virtual puppet of Sauron—defiantly refusing to destroy the Ring, thrusting it onto his own finger instead. After Gollum manages to seize the invisible Frodo and to bite the Ring from his hand, he then topples into the molten lava while dancing his jig of false joy. Thus does evil finally destroy itself, Tolkien teaches, while ruining much good in the process.

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Rather than giving us this tragically defeated Frodo, Jackson transforms him into a thumping soap opera success. When Jackson's Frodo spies Gollum dancing victoriously with the Ring, he wrestles the wretched creature to the ground, until finally they tumble over the volcanic brink. But of course Frodo clings valiantly to a ledge as Gollum plummets into the river of fire. Nothing of Tolkien's profound sense of providence remains, nothing of his conviction that it was first Bilbo's and then Frodo's forgiveness of Gollum which enabled the final victory over evil. "But for [Gollum]," Frodo somberly confesses in the novel but not in the movie, "I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him!" The all-permeating presence of pity—the mercy that refuses eager condemnation—is the religious leit-motif of Tolkien's book. Yet it is totally absent from this final Lord of the Rings film.

Throughout the movie, Jackson portrays evil as ugly and monstrous, never as subtle and alluring. Tolkien's novel demonstrates, by contrast, that our virtues tempt us even more than our vices. This is the subtle attraction of evil, not the obvious blandishments of ordinary sins. Gandalf's pity, Galadriel's beauty, Boromir's bravery, Saruman's desire for order—these are the good things which, if linked with absolute coercive power, become utterly evil, as in Saruman's case. Yet here we neither see nor hear anything of Saruman, the once-exalted wizard who has utterly ruined himself by seeking alliance with Sauron.

Neither are we shown the terrible social and political price that evil exacts. In the absence of the Company during their year-long Quest, Tolkien reveals that the Shire has been invaded and inveigled by Saruman and his henchmen. They have turned it into a grim industrialized and bureaucratized state devoid of all joy and delight. "This is worse than Mordor!" Sam Gamgee confesses in an exceedingly dark declaration. Refusing such moral and spiritual realism, Jackson has the eight remaining Walkers return to a Shire just as pristine and idyllic as they had left it.

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Jackson's The Return of the King does manage to convey the majesty and solemnity of Aragorn's crowning as the true King of Gondor, but then film immediately undercuts the dignity of the event by having Aragorn give his future queen, the elven-maiden Arwen, a prolonged Hollywood kiss. Yet the battle scenes are magnificent. The winged Nazgûl with their deafening shrieks are truly terrorizing, and the giant oliphaunts—with their deadly swaggering tusks and their huge wooden towers manned by dozens of archers—remain fearsome even in their fall. Jackson also succeeds in having Aragorn resuscitate the Sleeping Dead, who are then able to atone for their earlier betrayals by fighting valiantly against the forces of Sauron. Yet these digitally-realized triumphs are examples of what Aristotle called spectacle—an excitation of the visual senses that should enhance moral and religious insight, not obliterate it.

Yet Jackson is to be praised for the wrenching melancholy of the otherwise playful Pippin as he is made to sing a Shire song in strange and dreadful land. Jackson also catches the bitter-sweet quality of the novel's end, where Tolkien shows that true victories over evil are won not for the sake of the valiant but for the little people—the unheralded and the defenseless. So drastically have the hobbits been altered by their grueling Quest that Sam and Merry and Pippin will never be able to resume the care-free lives that they once lived. Jackson also captures the poignancy of Gandalf and Frodo's final parting for Valinor, the elven-realm where they will find peace and rest from their long labors.

The lesson to be learned from this seriously-flawed adaptation of The Return of the King is that the movies—like the Frank Peretti novels and the Left Behind books—often tempt us with their quick and obvious solutions to evils that require great subtlety to discern and even greater patience to remedy. The Lord of the Rings abjures such deadly allurements by its very length, some 1200 pages. The reading of it requires a disciplined act of devotion and discrimination. So do all of the other good things in life, although this movie, alas, does not.

Related Elsewhere

Film Forum reviewer Jeffrey Overstreet also has a review.

CT compiled the best Tolkien and Middle Earth sites on the net.

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CT articles on Tolkien include:

J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legend-and Truth-to modern readers. (Aug. 29, 2003)
Space, Time, and the 'New Hobbit' | C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discuss science fiction. (Aug. 29, 2003)
Saint J. R. R. the Evangelist | Tolkien wanted his Lord of the Rings to echo the "Lord of Lords"—but do we have ears to hear? (March 14, 2003)
9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective (Sept. 13, 2002)
Why The Lord of the Rings Is Dangerous | The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth talk about the Christian life in Faerie. (Dec. 18, 2002)
Does The Lord of the Rings Teach Salvation By Works? | The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth talk about whether Tolkien was too ignorant of evil and other subjects. (Dec. 19, 2002)
Hobbits Aren't Fence-Sitters | The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth discuss why Tolkien hated modernity and thinking about evil—and whether he was right to do so. (Dec. 20, 2002)
Lord of the Megaplex | The onscreen Fellowship of the Ring launches a new wave of Tolkienmania. (Nov. 12, 2001)
Soul Wars, Episode Two | The second Lord of the Rings film raises the spiritual stakes. (Dec. 18, 2002)
Fantasylands | How to tell an orc from an ewok. (Dec. 19, 2001)