Powerful Rings

Culture | Movie version of Tolkien's book speaks to today's culture

Issue: "Fighting words," Jan. 12, 2002

A movie can be faithful to the book in two ways.

One is to cram every detail from the novel onto the screen. Since a book like The Fellowship of the Ring can take weeks to read, while human physiology makes it almost impossible to sit through a movie for more than a few hours, this is nearly impossible with some movies. The other way for a movie to be faithful to its source is to convey the same meaning.

The movie version of the first installment of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings actually emphasizes what many readers of the trilogy skim over, lost as they are in the wonder and excitement of the story, namely, the overwhelming evil of the ring. Forged by the demonic Sauron, the Dark Lord, the ring accidentally found by the naïve hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who uses it for parlor tricks, is the One Ring of Power.

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Because the ring is demonic, it must not be used-even for a good end, even to defeat Sauron. As the elf queen Galadriel explains, though she yearns to possess the ring, if she were to use it, the hideous Dark Lord would be replaced by a beautiful Dark Queen, but the results would be much the same.

As an evocative symbol for sin, the ring tempts the characters in both the book and the movie. It becomes an addiction, an obsession, and-like real sin-a corrosive cancer that eats away every part of its wielder's life, until he wastes away to a spiritual shadow.

The ring makes a potent symbol in the context of our current age of moral relativism. Today we have great power, but, lacking all but the most simplistic moral awareness, we are oblivious to the dangers of what we are playing with.

For example, one real-life ring of power we are now wielding is genetic engineering. Being able to manipulate the processes of life itself is a power of Sauron-like proportions. We can clone embryos and take their stem cells to generate whatever we want.

But should we wear this ring? We can do so much good with it, we are told. We can cure Hodgkin's disease. We can eliminate genetic defects. We can design our children to our own specifications. Surely this new power we have is precious. But more surely it will make us less than human, turning us into empty shrouds of lust and self-aggrandizement, something resembling Tolkien's Ring Wraiths.

Those who believe that stem-cell research is justified because it can lead to so much good would do well to read Lord of the Rings-or at least see the movie. (Actually, the movie alludes to the current controversy, in a way the book does not. The once-good Saruman, having given in to the temptation of the ring, turns his realm into a biological-industrial complex, uprooting all the trees and other natural living things, to manufacture a new and improved breed of monster, a hybrid of orc and human, emerging out of slime cocoons.)

Another challenge in going from book to movie is that, while a book can go into the characters' minds and hearts, film is a purely visual medium. How is it possible to show things that, by their nature, are unseen, such as spiritual struggles and moral truth? Again, director Peter Jackson pulls it off, by having those tempted by the ring-even lovable Bilbo-turn into, just for a moment, monsters, to show what they could become.

What about the rest of the movie? It features strong performances, especially Gandalf by Ian McKellen and Boromir by Sean Bean (one of those fine British actors who lights up the screen on BBC historical dramas, then comes to Hollywood to seek his fortune only to end up doing commercials and bit villain parts-unless he lands a movie part like this that allows him to showcase his talent). The elves have an appropriately otherworldly look about them, especially Arwen (Liv Tyler) and the luminous Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the visual rendition of Middle Earth is stunning.

Yes, the movie leaves out parts of the book or presents them out of order. Yes, the film draws too much on the conventions of action movies and even horror movies. (Parents, see it for yourself before taking the little ones. There is no bad language-indeed, there is only good language, elevated and eloquent without a trace of ironic self-mockery, but there are some very scary scenes.)

Though the movie goes on for nearly three hours-twice the length of a typical Hollywood movie-the narration moves so quickly that one wishes it would linger for awhile. Yes, it has some very dark images, but recognizing the difference between darkness and light is exactly what our culture needs.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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