SURROUNDED BY TOWERING palms, the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles sits just blocks from Beverly Hills' famous Rodeo Drive, shopping Mecca for the rich and famous (or those who think they are or who hope to be). Within a short walk is the large building that houses Larry Flynt Publishing, headquarters of Hustler magazine; Mr. Flynt's elegant black Rolls Royce is frequently parked in front of the hotel during the lunch hour, just as it was on a sun-soaked afternoon earlier this month.
A guest at this posh, quintessentially California hotel shouldn't be surprised to find himself rubbing shoulders with actor Robert Duvall in the dimly lit, tastefully appointed lobby bar or brushing against rapper LL Cool J at the concierge desk. The Beverly Hills Four Seasons is perhaps one of the last places on earth one would expect to find a doorway into a fantasy world of another sort: J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.
And yet this turned out recently to be the case, as WORLD sat down with the creative forces (both in front of the camera and behind it) responsible for this month's The Return of the King, the final installment in director Peter Jackson's film trilogy of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings tales.
The film, which arrives in theaters on Dec. 17, is the crowning triumph of a series that seems to have only improved with each installment. It is epic not just in the scale of its battles, in the scope of its story, or in the sheer magnitude of its sets, but also in its tightly knit narrative that includes moments of startling intimacy.
Director Jackson, writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, and gutsy producers at New Line who gave this mammoth project a green light deserve credit for committing this beloved tale to film in such a powerful, and ultimately faithful, manner. But in talking to Mr. Jackson and others involved in the project, it's clear that these films say more about the strength of the source material-the power of Tolkien's myth-than anything else. Nearly half a century after the books were first published, the history of Middle Earth still has the ability to capture imaginations, and, perhaps more significantly, communicate fundamental Christian truths.
That Tolkien's faith (he was a committed Roman Catholic) deeply influenced his writing is without question. The author himself said that The Lord of the Rings "is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." Many of the writers, actors, and other creative talent behind the films don't seem to accept or understand this worldview; yet it consistently made its way into the trilogy.
Whatever the personal convictions of the film's collaborators, not only will audiences find here virtues like valor, fealty, honor, and self-sacrifice, but also Tolkien's more explicitly Christian concepts of absolute truth, good and evil, and the sure hand of Providence.
The striking thing about sitting in a cramped hotel room at the Four Seasons with the filmmakers and a dozen other members of the press was that such topics were even on the table. Tolkien's ideas were questioned, misunderstood, and distorted-but they were discussed with both respect and lively interest.
The fragmented process of filmmaking often keeps those involved, especially the actors, from being fully engaged in the larger story. But nearly everyone involved in this project was invested in Tolkien's myth. "I think in playing a hobbit, I was at the very center of his ideology and his perspective of what was good and what was wrong with the world," Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo, told WORLD. "I think those themes that are very important in the story to Tolkien ... became very important to me. I think I agreed with them before, but I think even more so after."
By all accounts, the tone of the production was set at the top. Special-effects designer Richard Taylor noted that it was his job "to pursue [Peter Jackson's] vision over and above Tolkien's vision," but from the start, Mr. Jackson was committed to preserving the essence of Tolkien's vision.
"We made a real decision at the beginning that we weren't going to introduce any new themes of our own into The Lord of the Rings," he said. "We were just going to make a film based upon what clearly Tolkien was passionate about." Both Mr. Jackson and other cast members referred to the paperback copies of the trilogy used during filming as their "bible."
But the filmmakers' didn't always seem to agree with the themes in the "bible" that they were faithfully translating. Mr. Jackson himself isn't sure that he buys all of Tolkien's ideas. "I don't know whether evil exists," he said. "You see stuff happening around the world, and you believe it truly does ... I think evil exists within people. I don't know whether it exists as a force outside of humanity."
Writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh made similar comments on the DVD commentary track for the second film in the series, The Two Towers, addressing the question of what these films were really "about." "It's about our need to feel that there are universal values of good. Whether or not that's true in the real world, who can say?" suggested Ms. Walsh.
When asked to expand on these ideas further, she told WORLD, "I think that stories do offer the comfort that we live in a moral universe, whether or not [we actually do]-as I said, who can say?-because the world here seems to be quite an amoral place and not founded on a great sort of underlying decency. Sometimes you have to question that." Not quite what Tolkien would say, but perhaps not too far off either: Ms. Walsh's doubts about humanity's goodness could begin to sound an awful lot like an awareness of original sin.
Some of the actors involved were a little less clear on Tolkien's key themes. Tolkien's concern for the stewardship of creation in the tales-which some take to be equivalent to modern environmentalism-was a recurring topic of discussion; many of the actors seemed to most easily identify with this aspect of Tolkien's work. When asked specifically about how he was influenced by Tolkien's worldview, Billy Boyd, who plays the hobbit Pippin, answered, "I think mainly, especially in his environmental messages that he was trying to follow through, that's what we definitely agree with."
Other actors brought more of their own presuppositions to the project. Answering a similar question, Ian McKellan, the renowned British actor who plays Gandalf, observed, "I would note that Hobbiton is a community without a church. There is no pope; there is no archbishop; there is no set of beliefs, no credo. I think what is appealing to human beings is to look inside yourself and look to your friends. Everybody brings their strengths."
On the other hand, John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli the dwarf, seemed to reveal a deeper understanding of at least some of Tolkien's themes. He related the Middle Earth myth to the rise of Islam in the modern world: "I think that Tolkien says that some generations will be challenged and if they do not rise to meet that challenge they will lose their civilization. That does have a real resonance with me.... What is unconscionable is that too many of your fellow journalists do not understand how precarious Western civilization is.... The abolition of slavery comes from Western democracy. True Democracy comes from our Greco-Judeo-Christian-Western experience. If we lose these things, then this is a catastrophe for the world.
"And if it just means replacement of one genetic stock with another genetic stock, I don't think that matters too much. But if it involves the replacement of Western civilization with different cultural values then it's something we really ought to discuss because ... I am for dead white male culture! If Tolkien's got a message, it's that sometimes you've got to stand up and fight for what you believe in."
One could argue that Tolkien's myth puts his ideas at a safe enough distance from real life as to be palatable to those who don't share his faith. The orderliness and hope found in his concept of providence, for instance, can prompt a sort of wistful admiration.
Ms. Walsh acknowledged that Tolkien "took from his own profound Christian beliefs" and that the filmmakers "attempted, as much as you can in film, [to] base them in the story. Certainly the values in them give you a sense of hope that [life] isn't chaos, and it isn't up a tree, and isn't without a point in the end. I love storytelling for those reasons; because so many things fall away as we charge forward in this new century-there's so much cynicism and such a lack of ritual and a kind of bleak belief system governing things. I like stories for that, because they still offer it."
Tolkien's myth is a forceful answer to such yearning. C.S. Lewis, Tolkien's great friend and admirer, spoke of a "baptized imagination" as one important step in his journey toward Christianity, allowing him to begin to accept the potential for truth in the One Myth.
Tolkien, through his books and now through these films, has given the postmodern world a profoundly Christian vision. It's a powerful picture, even if that world doesn't always have the proper terms to describe it.