Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series, Significant Films of the 2000s, of articles about the cultural significance of films that were released between 2000 and 2009.
When I first decided to write this analysis of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was excited. Then, I was overwhelmed. Where do you begin a discussion of one of the longest, biggest box office grossing, most beloved film series in the last decade?
Perhaps I should begin at the beginning. The Lord of the Rings trilogy began as a series of books by one of the most endearing fiction writers of the mid-twentieth century, J. R. R. Tolkein. I need not tell you the story; most people have seen the films. If you haven’t, you should. Don’t let the uber-nerds of the world scare you away from something that is truly momentous.
And momentous it is.
Whether discussing acting, writing, storytelling, cinematography, special effects, score, major advancements, or any aspect of film, The Lord of the Rings trilogy marks excellent in all categories. Perhaps I could discuss the details of a good story: themes, archetypes, character development, plot, conflict, rising action, climax, or resolution. Again, I could argue the films’ top marks on all these detailed features. However, instead of creating an article that lingers on the edges of being as long as the movies, I will restrict this article to three main discussions: the creative ethic, the major themes, and the documentary of the films.
The Creative Ethic
To begin, one of the things that struck me most about the films was the unrelenting commitment to creative excellence. You get the impression during viewing that this world, Middle Earth, really does exist somewhere. It exists in the vast sweeping landscapes of the film. But it also exists down to the gritty details of each person’s clothing and personal affects. From top to bottom, each element was imbued with a creative effort that went beyond the call of the standard film.
In watching the special features, you discover that this was the plan from day one. The director, the art directors, the writers, the actors, the artists, and illustrators had such a love of the books that they took their task of bringing it to the screen with the solidarity and gravity of a monk. You find that the leadership communicated their mammoth task so well that every person who had a hand in the film had their other hand on a copy of the books and their heart plunged down into the romance of Tolkein’s story. The result was a unified, comprehensive artistic study of each element of the story, visual and otherwise. Rarely does a fantasy film come so…complete.
If you temporarily ignore the fact that many fantasy books and films owe a great debt to Tolkien’s work, you can look at those other fantasies and still find them lacking in some respect. Compare The Lord of the Rings to the film Legend directed by Ridley Scott (one of my other favorite directors). Here you have an amazingly beautiful film. But unlike The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), it borrows its lore about goblins, elves, princesses, unicorns, and heroes almost directly from archetypes that are common to most fairy tales. While this is not a bad aspect in itself, it leaves it open to direct connection or association with other kinds of art. The characters of Jack and Lily are introduced, and we already know everything we need to about them. The filmmaker has no need to tell us that one is the hero and the other is the damsel in distress. After about three seconds, we get it. LOTR brings to the screen whole races that demand explanation. Elves and dwarves we may be familiar with, but what is a Hobbit? What are orcs? Who is this ultimate evil in the east? One of the most satisfying attributes of the LOTR films is that they give you the answer to those questions. The fantasy is so engaging that as I watch, I delight in the details. Just as with a long description of the scenery in one of Tolkien’s books, these investigative portions of each race add to the tone, the voice, and the storytelling of the film.
Each race comes with its own design ethic. The filmmakers read the books for details and then asked, “What would this culture be like? What would its architecture look like? What would its clothing look like? What is its history?” For ninety-nine percent of all other movies, we already have answers to these questions. The history is ours, the clothing, ours, the architecture, all ours.
In addition to the design questions, the LOTR filmmakers knew that every character is motivated by something—even the monsters. One example would be the creature The Watcher in the Water. Since Tolkein didn’t give explicit details of what the creature was like, the filmmakers saw it as an opportunity to shine. But they did not just run off and make what they wanted. They thought about the text and reasoned that everything in Middle Earth—especially the monsters—is somewhat unique to that place. It would have been much easier to create a big octopus or squid to attack the fellowship in the first film. Instead, they took those elements, expanded upon them, and created something that as far as I know, does not exist on real planet earth. And there it is! Through the miracle of movies and the creative ethic of the LOTR crew and the design team at WETA workshop, a truly terrifying, photo-realistic monster terrorized the screen and drew me in even further into the world of Middle Earth.
It seems a Herculean task to consider each character in as much depth as the creators of the film did, but they did it. They took each idea as far as it would go and with confidence hammered it into the eyes and imaginations of a whole world of people new to the fantasy genre while at the same time satisfying those of us already captured by the genre’s intrigue.
But the creative ethic was not restricted to mere efficiency or attention to detail. No, it truly was creative. Each challenge of bringing the books to life was met not with a handful of ideas but a relentless pursuit of those ideas until a great one was achieved.
We live in a culture that does not value this kind of thinking at all. We’d rather have whatever we want fast and cheap. Take furniture at Wal-Mart as an example. You could spend the money on the lumber, the tools, and the finishes and create a custom desk that is exactly the way you want it and will last a lifetime. Or you could settle and just buy something made cheaply from the big box store that will probably fall apart while you are trying to put it together. What do we value more? Cheap or careful? I would say that by and large, we value the cheap. However, great art that takes the artist countless hours still tickles our imagination. We look at something like the LOTR films and see the detail and come away with one of several conclusions: (1) Those people are complete nerds and have wasted their time, (2) Wow, I respect them for that, but I could never put myself into a project like that, or (3) How do I get a job doing that? I think those of us who put ourselves into our work already get it; everyone else is just trying to get by. My challenge to anyone reading this is: If you are going to do something, why settle, why not do it with excellence?” Look at the result. Worldwide fame, millions of dollars earned, and a work of art that will most likely be preserved beyond your lifetime and into the next. Why can’t our culture respond to all great art like that? Perhaps it is because there is so little art of this quality left in our mechanized, speed-driven culture.
The next major thing that makes The Lord of the Rings films significant is their themes. By theme I mean that overarching concept which we seem to pull from the film. It is not necessarily a moral of the story or some catch phrase. Many times they are more complex than that. The LOTR films use the themes from the books. That is to say, themes that are from last century and represent a worldview that has widely been abandoned. Still, they are themes, and therefore, large enough to be applicable to us.
People today get wiggly when you ask them to define evil. Many people just sit back and say, “Hey, that’s your thing. Do what you want to do, and I’ll keep my values over here.” It is a stance of moral relativism. I believe moral relativism to be self-refuting and therefore nonsense. Rather than attempt to argue that here, I will simply note that Tolkein would agree with me.
There is real, unmistakable evil in Middle Earth—and it should be fought to the last man. Why march across the world into fearful territories of the unknown? Because there is evil, and it must be stopped or all will suffer. Why stand and fight against insurmountable odds on the open field of battle where death is assured unless a miracle occurs? Because there is evil, and it must be stopped. Why align yourself and your future with an obsessed, schizophrenic creature of the deep facing the constant danger of someone’s own mind turning on themselves and then killing you? Simple. Because there is evil in the world, and it must be stopped.
And yet if you stated this as a real reason for going to real war today, people would not accept it. If we go to war in Afghanistan or Iraq or Palestine because it is full of terrorists (evil) and they must be stopped at all costs, people get all frumpy. They claim that this is not a reason to go to war and that it is not our business and that we should just make peace and let them be. They are missing the point of The Lord of the Rings books and of World War II. There is evil out there in the world putting the innocent in danger and killing without question—and it must be stopped. The theme is unmistakable and written by a man who served in the first World War and lived in Britain during the second; in other words, he should know.
Another theme that arises from the film that seems so foreign to our postmodern American culture is sacrifice. The film is ripe with it. And this is as it should be. The most powerful tales are always about sacrifice: Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. All these contain heroes. What makes them heroic is their willingness to lay down that which is most precious for the sake of someone they love. Sometimes it is an individual like Charles Darnay, or it is a group of people like Scotland. And who could forget the world’s most famous story of sacrifice, that of Jesus Christ? Being innocent, he willingly laid down his life to bring man back into fellowship with God. Is there a more powerful tale to be told than this?
The Lord of the Rings shows Frodo and Sam willing to travel into the land of the enemy with less and less hope of returning to protect what they love most, their friends and their land. I wonder if the average American resonated with this? Are we still patriots? Do we love our homes enough to fight impossible odds for the possibility that they may survive the coming onslaught? My guess would be that most would say, “That’s what the army is for.” And may I take a moment to edify those that do serve in our Armed Forces? You do what most won’t, and whatever your reasons for service may be, I hope that one is because you simply love this great land and that another is to protect our homes and families.
Sacrifice continues to show up again and again. Gandalf gives his life so his friends can escape the Balrog. Merry almost dies defending Eowen against the Witch King of Angmar. The Ents march to war to protect their home believing that they will never return. Faramir rides to certain death to earn his father’s favor. Pippin risks all to save Faramir from his father’s madness. Each one of these heroic characters was willing to give of themselves for a greater good.
A final theme that arises from these stories has to do with obsession. Since there is a perfume named after this and many people use the language carelessly, I will replace the word with one more relevant and precise, addiction. Gollum’s and Frodo’s relationship to the ring can be described in few other words.
Gollum’s relationship to the ring is only detrimental to himself and others. It causes him to spend the greater part of his life in exile and is the direct cause of his long life, unnatural appearance, and psychological misfortune. With the exception of the long life, could the parallels be any clearer? I live in Oklahoma, and crystal meth is a huge issue here. You can drive around town and see people that are literally wasting away. At twenty-five years old, they look like forty. Their teeth and hair are falling out. They are engaged in compulsive behaviors that are destroying their life and the lives of others. If they don’t change what they are doing, they will die and possibly kill someone they love. I cannot list the number of children and homes lost because a reckless adult was using meth. Gollum, it seems, is not such a fantasy character after all. He is my neighbor.
The films paint another version of the obsession issue though. Frodo has the terrible task of carrying the ring to its doom. Everyone he meets, except for Sam, seem drawn by the allure of the ring. The ring becomes more than just something they want. It becomes their drive. The parallels to our culture are straightforward. Some people are hell bent on getting a certain car, a specific house, or a particular kind of mate. It becomes their obsession. Our country is full of people stressing out, working two or more jobs, and tossing their children in the hands of complete strangers for forty hours a week, because they had to have a certain style of living. Suddenly they don’t control their money; their money controls them. Isn’t this what happens to Frodo? The ring starts out as an accessory, but by the end of the trilogy, he is willing to live with the darkness and pain it is inflicting, because he cannot bear to be parted from it. We should learn from this that there is no physical thing in this life that should demand our lives.
Having not begun to scratch the surface of the vast depth these films offer, it is time to move the discussion to the final topic of this article: the documentary. It may seem odd to include this, but this is one of the things that really impressed me about the films. While they were shooting three films at once, they were also shooting a fourth—the special features discs on the special edition. Here they explored the author himself, the filmmakers’ journey all the way from concept to screen, and the actors’ involvement in the entire process. No film to that date had done such in depth record keeping on film. They took the viewer behind all kinds of closed doors. It is almost as if a magician showed you how he did his trick, because he knew that the illusion was not nearly as impressive as the reality behind it.
This is a stroke of genius. First, the fans of the novels get the filmmakers’ reasoning for making the changes and diversions from the books that they did. I remember my friend being livid that they skipped the portion of The Fellowship of the Ring that describes Tom Bombadill. I agree that it was a lamentable loss, but after hearing Peter Jackson’s reasons—in humility to be found in few movie directors—I was won over. It simply didn’t move the plot forward.
Another thing that the documentary did was investigate all the creature effects as well as set building and background work. As an artist, I loved seeing the storyboards, the concept art, and the miniatures built to serve the film. But as a film appreciator, watching them combine multiple elements so smoothly was a treasure. I feel as though I appreciate the film more when I watch it. I look at an establishing shot like in Rivendell, and I see the matte paintings blended with miniatures, mixed with digital architecture and film of live actors shot on green screen, covered with a gorgeous color filter, and I think (mouth agape), wow. Before I saw the special features, I only thought, Hey, that’s Rivendell, pretty.
Perhaps the special features service only those who were already fans. So what? With millions of diehard fans across the planet, why not? If nothing else, it only causes those of us in love with the films to fall deeper in it. Kind of like when you are astounded by the perfect woman when you see her. You might think you’re in love. But then you get to know her and find out she really is perfect: nice, creative, humble, passionate, intelligent, and interested in you. That’s when you fall completely head over heels and you buy a ring you can’t afford and ask to marry the girl. I will draw no parallels between those kinds of rings and the one from the films; feel free to do so if you dare.
So after over three thousand words, more could be said, much more. I will leave you with this: These films are significant. They are significant to the history of cinema. They are significant to our culture. They are more than simple movies. They are not some pieces of pop-culture trivia to be memorized and used on game shows. They are true works of art to be appreciated like a Rembrandt or Mozart. So call into work, make some popcorn, and watch The Fellowship of the Ring. Then stretch, gird up your loins, make some bagel bites, and watch The Two Towers. Then rearrange the pillows, throw some chicken wings in the oven, and hold on to your hat for The Return of the King. And if you make it all the way through, take a deep breath, make out some certificates of proof, and hang them on your wall. Your friends will ask, but you’ll smile on the inside knowing you were part of something special.
Credits: All Images Copyright (c) New Line Cinema. All Rights Reserved.