The Achievement of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings

Note: This article refers to important, even climactic plot points in The Lord of the Rings, both as regards Tolkien’s original story and Jackson’s films.

This essay, which was written for Catholic World Report magazine, is partly based on reviews and essays that have previously appeared at Decent Films and in the National Catholic Register.

Peter Jackson’s cinematic tour de force adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is not quite over — there remains the November 2004 release of the expanded edition of The Return of the King, which may be as much as an hour or more longer than the current cinematic version — but the story has been told to the end; the trilogy is finished, if not quite complete.

At last we are in a position to take stock of Jackson and company’s achievement as a whole — to recognize what the films do and don’t accomplish, to what extent they succeed in their own right, and to what extent they succeed as adaptations of Tolkien’s great epic myth, particularly with respect to the echoes of Tolkien’s Catholic faith in the story.

A historic achievement

From a cinematic perspective, it would be hard to overstate the historic significance of the filmmakers’ achievement. As Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was the first great science fiction film and Ford’s Stagecoach was perhaps the first great Western, The Lord of the Rings is the first great cinematic achievement of its kind — a genre that might be described as epic Western mythopoeia, but is often popularly (if imprecisely) called "fantasy" or "swords and sorcery."

Not that all previous stabs at the genre have been bad, exactly. Boorman’s Excalibur is an interesting synthesis of Arthurian lore, if also rather a mess. And The Princess Bride is a fine film, but it’s as much a satire of the genre as a legitimate entry, as Don Quixote is a satire of real medieval chivalric literature. Satire is incomplete without a serious counterpoint; Don Quixote just needs Malory’s Morte Arthur. The Lord of the Rings is this film genre’s Morte Arthur, the serious epic masterpiece it’s has been waiting for. It’s the Citizen Kane of its kind.

Beyond that, the scope of this accomplishment is staggering in its own right. It’s been noted that this is the first time three films have been shot back to back — but these are not films of ordinary scope. Each has been larger and grander than the previous one: It’s almost hard to remember, now, how only a year ago the siege of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers seemed arguably the most spectacular siege sequence ever filmed — so completely has it been surpassed by the siege of Minas Tirith and the battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King. In fact, The Return of the King may without exaggeration be considered the most awesome spectacle ever committed to film.

Honoring in the breach

But are the films faithful to their source material? Any yes-or-no answer would be misleading. Perhaps the best answer would be to say that Jackson’s films are both much more than a faithful adaptation, and also inevitably less.

They are less because some aspects of Tolkien’s work have been lost — partly through sheer time-limit constraints, partly through the cracks of transposition between one medium and another, and partly through the filmmakers’ choices, well-advised and otherwise. But they are also more, in that they are dramatically and imaginatively compelling films that honor Tolkien’s imagination and achievement in a way that no literal visualization could.

Is there such a thing as too much fidelity? Consider the recent film The Gospel of John, a word-for-word visualization of the fourth gospel that neither adds, omits, rearranges, or conflates a syllable of dialogue or narration. Well mounted and honorably executed, the film offers viewers the opportunity to experience the text of John’s gospel in a new way. Yet despite significant merits, the film does lack the sort of dramatic shape we expect from a narrative film. What works literarily on the printed page doesn’t always work dramatically when acted out exactly as written.

In a word, omissions, additions, rearrangements, and conflations of one’s source material can make good dramatic sense. And if we can allow and indeed welcome artistic license with the Word of God itself, a fortiori we can be even more open to potentially more daring liberties with merely human literature.

That’s not to say that anything goes, of course. A particular reworking can variously honor or subvert the spirit of the original, either through the adapter’s skill or clumsiness, or because of his attitude toward the original, whether of respect, indifference, or contempt.

Struggling with Tolkien’s religious vision

Of particular importance to fans of Tolkien who are Christians is the extent to which the books’ echoes of Catholic belief did or didn’t carry over to the films. This was an issue of which Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Wash and Philippa Boyens were aware; and, though not themselves Christians, they have professed their desire to be true to Tolkien’s themes and avoid injecting their own perspective into the stories.

This past December, speaking to a group of Christian journalists at a The Return of the King press junket, Jackson acknowledged the story’s religious underpinnings, commenting, "I’m not a Catholic, so I didn’t put any of that personally into the film on my behalf, but I certainly am aware that there were certain [religious] things that Tolkien was thinking of… 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. We were just going to make a film based upon what clearly Tolkien was passionate about."

Going a step further, Fran Walsh expressed appreciation for the imaginative appeal of Tolkien’s ideals, at the same time admitting that she wasn’t sure they applied in the real world. "I think [these] stories do offer us comfort that we live in a moral universe, whether or not that is [true]… who can say… The values in them, they give you a sense of hope, that it isn’t chaos, that it isn’t arbitrary, that it isn’t without a point. I love storytelling for those reasons. So many things fall away as we kind of charge forward into this new century. There’s so much cynicism and such a lack of ritual and a belief system to govern anything. I like stories for that because they still offer it."

As an example of the films honoring Tolkien’s religious themes, Jackson and others specifically pointed to Gandalf’s stirringly poetic affirmation of life after death: "No, the journey doesn’t end here. There’s another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back and it will change to silver glass. And then you see it — white shores, and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise." The language is Tolkien’s, taken from The Return of the King, and reflects the author’s use of the language of myth and poetry to resonate with truths of faith without becoming explicitly allegorical.

Gandalf as Christ figure

Other echoes of Christian belief are so integral to the story that even if the filmmakers had wanted to avoid them, they could hardly have done so without doing violence to the narrative. Even so, the filmmakers’ express openness to these themes was undoubtedly a positive factor — indeed, in some instances the films actually go beyond the text of the books by introducing evocative elements that resonate with and reinforce the story’s existing religious themes.

One obvious example of an apparently deliberate appropriation by the filmmakers of the Christian resonances of the books is the death and return of Gandalf, who like Christ does battle with the powers of hell to save his friends, sacrificing himself and descending into the nether regions before being triumphantly reborn in greater power and glory as Gandalf the White.

Gandalf’s self-sacrifice and descent into the nether world is the dramatic center and major set piece of the first film. The Balrog itself is as hellish as Jackson’s conceptual artists and the Weta effects people could make it: a thing of smoke and flame straight from the book. In a nice extra-textual gloss, as Gandalf falls into the abyss we see his arms extended cruciform on either side.

With Gandalf’s return in The Two Towers, the Christological echoes are even more distinct. Shining like a painting of the risen Christ, or like the ascended Jesus appearing to St. Paul on the Damascus road, Gandalf the White appears to his followers, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, who like the disciples are at first unable to recognize him. In fact, like Mary Magdalene, they initially suppose him to be someone else. Then, when they do recognize him, Legolas, overcome with joy and awe, drops to his knees.

Other religious themes

The Christological story-arcs of Frodo and Aragorn are also in evidence in the films. Together, these three heroes each suggest in a way the three aspects of Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. Gandalf is the prophet, revealing hidden knowledge, working wonders, teaching others the way. Frodo, walking his via dolorosa to Mount Doom bearing a burden of great evil on behalf of the world, is the priest. And of course Aragorn is the hidden king who finally comes into his glory; as is suggested in the third film’s climactic coronation scene by the notably Christlike appearance of the character with his beard finally grown in.

One can also find in the films echoes of purgatorial sufferings and the harrowing of hell (Aragorn and the Paths of the Dead), divine providence (Gandalf’s comment, adapted from the book, that Bilbo and Frodo were "meant" to have the Ring by the design of some other power than that of evil), and the primacy of good and derivative nature of evil (e.g., Saruman’s statement that the evil orcs are derived from elves, just as demons are fallen angels).

Not all of the books’ religious themes have been preserved. The Marian resonances of the Elf-queen Galadriel were significantly dampened by the first film’s strangely aloof, even ominous presentation of the character, along with the neglect of the dwarf Gimli’s lifelong devotion to Galadriel. Frodo and Sam still eat elvish lembas or waybread, but there is little hint of the quasi-eucharistic character the food has in the books (beyond the point that Gollum, who is unworthy, cannot eat it).

On the other hand, at times the religious resonances in the films actually go beyond the books — an instance of intercessory prayer for the dead (Legolas’s untranslated Elvish prayer for fallen comrades to "find peace after death"), a liturgical gesture that "almost looks like a pre-Christian sign of the cross" as Joseph Pearce described it, an intercessory prayer for "grace" to be transferred from the petitioner to another.

Tolkien’s vision, Jackson’s vision

As important as the story’s religious resonances are, The Lord of the Rings is also a great work of imaginative vision and mythopoeic creativity, much beloved not only for what it means but for what it is. Those who love the books will find also in the films much to love — much that is straight out of the books, that the filmmakers have realized in a way that is simply, satisfyingly right.

Among these are such images as the bucolic vistas of Hobbiton in the Shire and the hellish thing of smoke and flame that goes by the name of Balrog, such performances as Ian McKellen’s effortlessly authoritative Gandalf and Sean Astin’s heartfelt Samwise Gamgee, and such scenes as the crucial moment when Frodo makes a fateful choice at the Cracks of Doom or the arrival of the airborne rescue mission that snatches two lives from the jaws of death.

At the same time, it’s fair to say that the films are as much Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings as Tolkien’s. The director’s fingerprints are everywhere, for good and ill — and there’s some of both.

One important aspect of Jackson’s influence upon the story has to do with the director’s flair for the hyperdramatic — the extravagant cinematic gesture, the breathless thrill of excitement. Jackson’s instinct is always to ramp up the tension wherever possible to the nth degree — never to use ten orcs if a thousand will do, nor to let a character die a sudden death if it can instead become a big action set piece.

Sometimes the result of this preference is simply spectacularly exciting moviemaking. For example, the Mines of Moria scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, a crucial but comparatively restrained sequence in Tolkien, has become in Jackson’s version what Jeffrey Overstreet of called "the greatest thirty minutes of action adventure ever filmed."

Other times, the films go beyond mere thrilling adventure to a brilliantly heightened reimagining of the essence of Tolkien’s work, in essence reinventing what Tolkien wrote in the film’s own cinematic idiom.

The rousing of Théoden

One stunning example of such reinvention occurs in The Two Towers during Gandalf’s rousing of King Théoden of Rohan, who had fallen under the insidious influence of Wormtongue, a servant of the evil wizard Saruman.

As written by Tolkien, the rousing of Théoden plays as a portentous awakening from a kind of bewitched, drowsy suggestiveness not unlike hypnosis. But as reinvented by Jackson’s film, the scene becomes a jaw-dropping exorcism, with Gandalf striving directly with Saruman himself, leagues distant, who speaks through Théoden’s mouth and then finds himself physically thrown back in his tower by Gandalf’s might.

It’s not what Tolkien wrote, but I can’t help thinking that Tolkien himself would be impressed by the gloss on his tale.

Yet immediately after this the film missteps — and this misstep is indicative of one of the more unfortunate tendencies running through the trilogy. The possessed Théoden appears as an unnaturally wizened and atrophied old graybeard, but the moment he is freed from Saruman’s influence, he rises from his throne a distinguished-looking but visibly much younger man.

This physical transformation, coupled with some unfortunate screenwriting choices, saps much of the poignancy and valor from Théoden’s subsequent actions. Even a line of Gandalf’s that comes straight from the book — "Your fingers would remember their old strength better if they grasped the hilt of your sword" — no longer carries the same weight, for Théoden’s vigor has obviously already come back to him, not by heroic effort on his part but by magical fiat.

The net effect is that, rather than a heroic picture of an aged leader nobly pressing his frail flesh beyond the limits of its strength in the service of his people (think of John Paul II today), we have instead a picture of a middle-aged warlord who doesn’t immediately impress us with his nobility at all.

This change is symptomatic of an unfortunate tendency throughout the trilogy of diminishing the nobility and heroism of supporting characters. Presumably the root of this impulse in a wish to enhance the virtues of the main characters, yet it seems an unfortunate means to that end. It would have been nice if Jackson and company had trusted the audience to admire Aragorn even if Théoden also were a strong and heroic leader.

Revisiting the Paths of the Dead

A similar blend of brilliant imagination and moral diminution of a supporting character can be seen in the reworking of another key scene: Aragorn walking the Paths of the Dead to confront the spirits of long-dead oathbreakers who owe allegiance to the heir of Gondor in The Return of the King.

As Tolkien wrote the scene, the Dead immediately recognize who Aragorn is, and are drawn to him in order to pay their debt to the house of Gondor and find peace. But Jackson found a striking cinematic metaphor to represent the link between Aragorn’s claim over the Dead and his final acceptance of the sovereignty of Gondor.

What Jackson did was to postpone till the third film a key event from The Fellowship of the Ring that Tolkien described in a single line: the reforging of Narsil, the broken sword of Isildur, ancient scion of Gondor. This "sword of kings" represents Aragorn’s heritage, and only when it is reforged and he takes it up again does Aragorn finally claim the throne of Gondor — and only then can he command the spirits of the Dead.

Thus, in Jackson’s retelling, the Dead seek to strike Aragorn down — but find that where Gimli’s and Legolas’s weapons pass harmlessly through their spectral bodies, the sword in Aragorn’s hand is able to stave off their attack, while Aragorn himself can physically accost them. This quasi-sacramental use of the ancient sword, and the objective power that its acceptance confers upon Aragorn, fittingly honors the spirit of the event as Tolkien described it.

Yet once again this invention is tied to the diminished nobility of a supporting character — in this case the Elf-lord Elrond, who reforges the sword. Although it makes good dramatic sense to postpone this event till the third film, the filmmakers err by giving Elrond a contrived ulterior motive for doing so above and beyond the need to save Middle-earth (which Elrond is leaving): Arwen, Elrond’s daughter and Aragorn’s beloved, is mysteriously dying, as if by a sympathetic magic that binds her fate to that of Middle-earth — and unless the struggle against Sauron is successful she will perish.

Thus, it is not just to save Middle-earth, but for the sake of his daughter, that Elrond reforges the sword, brings it to Aragorn, and urges him to dare the Paths of the Dead. Once again, the filmmakers seem unwilling to portray a supporting character behaving in too noble or heroic a fashion; he must be given an ulterior motive.

Other supporting characters whose virtue, wisdom, or nobility suffers in translation include Faramir (who no longer immediately rejects the lure of the Ring, first kidnapping Frodo and Sam on a side trip to Osgiliath), the Ents (who can no longer be allowed to themselves reach the conclusion that they must stand against Saruman, but must instead be led about by Pippin and Merry in order to grasp the truth) and Denethor, steward of Gondor (a tragically twisted character even in Tolkien who nevertheless had a streak of dignity and nobility lacking here).

Revisiting Mount Doom

One of the riskiest and potentially most controversial changes takes place at the very climax of the story, where Frodo finally stands at the Cracks of Doom, ready to destroy the Ring. At that moment, Frodo finally succumbs to the Ring’s power, making the fateful decision to keep the Ring for himself — whereupon Gollum leaps on him, struggles with him, and winds up biting off Frodo’s finger and the Ring with it.

So far the film has followed Tolkien to the letter. But then comes the departure: Where Tolkien had Gollum simply lose his balance and topple into the fires below, destroying both himself and the Ring, the film has the wounded Frodo rise and continue to struggle with Gollum, and both characters topple over the edge — though of course Frodo manages to catch hold of an outcropping of rock and is rescued by Sam.

Why did Jackson do this, and what is the net impact on the meaning of the scene? For Tolkien, the point was that we mortals are too frail and fallible to achieve redemption ourselves — that we eventually succumb to temptation, and are consequently dependent upon divine aid, here embodied in the providence that turned Gollum’s evil intent for good, sparing Frodo the consequences of his actions and destroying the Ring. This grace comes to Frodo as a reward not only for his faithfulness to this point, but also for his long mercy to Gollum, whom he repeatedly refused to kill even when he had reason and opportunity to do so. Had Frodo ended Gollum’s life, he would ultimately have shared in Gollum’s fate.

This point about human fallibility seemed to be lost on many of those involved in the production of the films. At The Return of the King press junket — to the bemusement of some of the Christian journalists in attendance — a number of the filmmakers spoke optimistically about what they saw as Tolkien’s message of the human potential for good, hoping in humanity, looking to ourselves and within ourselves, and so on.

"Some other power was at work"

But not all. Co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens commented perceptively on this point, "One of the things Tolkien understood, because he was a [Christian] humanist, is that we all fail, and we have the ability within us to fail. Faith requires us to believe in a higher power. Gandalf, very early on in the book says, ‘The Ring came to Bilbo and in that moment something else was at work.’ Not the [Ring’s] designer, the maker, this evil power, but some other power was at work. So it’s whether you believe in that or not, whether you choose to believe in that or not.

"Frodo dragged himself to that point [at Mt. Doom], and failed. And another power intervened." Referring to the end of Frodo’s life in Middle-earth, Boyens went on, "And he ultimately surrenders to that power at the end of this movie, which is one of the most beautiful moments in this movie."

So what motivated the change? In part, surely, it was simply another example of Jackson’s hyperdramatic tendencies. But Jackson commented that it was also partly worry that some viewers would "judge Frodo badly" for first deciding to keep the Ring and then lying passively by while Gollum accidentally destroyed it. (Indeed, Tolkien himself received outraged letters from readers who felt that Frodo should have been executed as a traitor rather than honored as a hero.) Jackson admitted that his and his fellow filmmakers "tried to have our cake and eat it too" by allowing viewers to judge for themselves whether Frodo’s final intent was to recover the Ring for himself — or to complete his mission and destroy the Ring.

Needless to say, the latter interpretation would be significantly at odds with Tolkien’s point about Frodo’s final failure. However, Jackson also confessed that Frodo actor Elijah Wood’s own take on the scene was that Frodo does want the Ring for himself — which would preserve the essential meaning. And of course the point about Frodo’s mercy to Gollum being instrumental in his salvation is still there, and was indeed noted by several of the filmmakers, including Jackson and Wood.

After seeing The Return of the King, I reread an article I had written earlier in which I characterized Tolkien’s climax this way: "two central characters struggling with evil both succumb, yet in the conflict of their evil wills not evil but good is served." That description still applies to the scene as Jackson filmed it. The essential meaning remains intact.


The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is an extraordinary cinematic tribute to a great work of Catholic imagination. While not equaling the religious vision of the books, the films honor that vision in a way that Christian viewers can appreciate, and that for non-Christian postmoderns may represent a rare encounter with an unironic vision of good and evil, a moral vision of evil as derivative of good and of the ever-present human susceptibility to temptation. In the landscape of modern Hollywood, The Lord of the Rings is a rare beacon of light.

All Things Tolkien, Fantasy, Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings