Christian Living


Inside Middle Earth

CBN.com - All art in one way or another takes on the worldview of its creator. No matter how an author, painter, or director tries to deny the imposition of any overarching philosophy, the personal convictions of the creator will eventually find their way into the created. It's unavoidable. One cannot fully appreciate Star Wars, for example, without in some way acknowledging the mysticism embraced by George Lucas.

It was with this in mind that I entered the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel for one of the most sought-after press events in recent history--the preview and junket for the final film of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: The Return of the King.

If you've never participated in a press junket, let me set the surreal scene: At the studio's expense you are flown to L.A. or New York for two to three days; put up in the kind of hotel you haven't stayed in since your honeymoon; allotted a ridiculously large amount of money to feed yourself. All before watching a privately-screened movie, attending parties, and then interviewing the cast and crew about the film.

If you're like me, to all this you simply affect a casual air of indifference while inwardly screaming, "I can't believe I'm sitting across the table from Liv Tyler ... and I can't believe I just spent 50 dollars on a sandwich!"

So even though I have been known on occasion to condemn our culture of celebrity worship, I have to admit the glamour got to me. I was more than a little nervous to conduct face to face interviews with the famous names behind what could arguably be called the greatest film trilogy in movie history. And, like many ladies would in my position, I was feeling a bit weak-in-the-knees at the prospect of meeting the rugged, sword-wielding Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen for you Tolkien neophytes) in the flesh.

I needn't have worried. If I went there expecting special insight into how the players in the film realized J.R.R. Tolkien's worldview on screen, I was destined to be, for the most part, disappointed. Almost everyone involved in these films (with the exception of John Rhys-Davies) is either ignorant of or has an aversion to the underlying values intentionally woven into the popular stories.

J.R.R. Tolkien, as any cursory research could show, was unequivocal in his Christian faith and the fact that this faith was transmitted through his writing. He believed that by divorcing his stories from religious terminology, he could present religious truth in a way that would appeal to cynical modern audiences. It seems he was right.

Tolkien himself stated, The Lord of the Rings is "a thoroughly Christian work." So explicit was he on this point, he once said that the only criticism of the books that bothered him "were that they contained no religion."

Yet, "that they contain no religion" was exactly what most of the people involved in The Lord of the Rings films tried to tell me. Something close to desperation drifted palpably on the air as they clung to whatever trendy ideology they could to redirect Tolkien's unmistakable subtext.

Some claimed he intended to write a cautionary tale about the dangers of technological progress. Others demeaned his literary achievement by saying that it was simply an environmental manifesto, and still others that it was an anti-war statement. The screenwriter (and fans who've read even one of the books should find this one most laughable) even claimed that Tolkien was a "humanist" who was "passionately arguing for the goodness that resides in men."

But all astonished chuckling aside, what was most surprising was not the lengths the actors or director were willing to go in order to avoid acknowledging the transcendent truth contained in their story. What was most surprising was how the "Christian" press conspired to allow this, seemingly embarrassed to challenge Hollywood royalty on any statements, no matter how demonstrably incorrect they might be.

One interviewer in particular became noticeably uncomfortable whenever the conversation started to drift in a spiritual direction. She would quickly ask to "switch gears" to topics like who they'd like to work with in the future or how casting decisions were made.

Still fairly new at this game, I was not as aggressive as I should have been in redirecting the discussion. But my prayer is that in the future, those who represent the same God as Tolkien's (and I include myself in this group) will unashamedly address matters of faith in film. After all, if we don't take Christ seriously, how can we expect anyone else to?

Elijah Wood (Frodo) when asked how Tolkien's worldview affected his performance claimed to agree wholeheartedly with Tolkien. But his expansion on this statement showed he wasn't too clear what he was agreeing with:

"I certainly agree with [Tolkien]. I think in playing a hobbit, I was at the very center of his ideology, his perspective on what was good and what was wrong with the world. I believe he wrote hobbits as all that is good and pure in the world, and I sort of agree with his perspective that there are these good and pure things that are being threatened by Mordor. So in my estimation it's the modern world threatening all that is good and pure. ..."

Echoing the popular environmentalist view that man is God's blight on nature (rather than that nature, like man, is also fallen), Wood continued, "This especially felt true because I was working in New Zealand, a country that is so lightly populated and so pure in terms of its ecosystem. There are bits of nature there where there are no people at all. ... It gave us a really good respect of the Earth and the fact that it's being threatened. We had a better understanding on how the world needs to be saved and preserved."

Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) on the universal themes within The Lord of the Rings:

"It's not necessarily promoting one particular ideology, religion, or philosophy, but saying that if you accept that there are differences in the world and are prepared to embrace those differences, to approach the world in a positive, loving way, you may actually be able to change the nature of the human race. This story is an example of a group of people who triumph by following that aim."

John Rhys-Davies (Gimli) explained how the concept of sin plays out in Tolkien's story:

"The older I get the more certain I become in the existence of evil. I was musing the other day on an acquaintance of mine who was urging me to wear a ribbon to raise awareness for AIDS. Which was particularly interesting to me as he openly and publicly advocates a lifestyle which increases the risk of AIDS. And he seemed to have no sense of the irony of that. All I'm saying is that there aren't many diseases where a moral decision could actually end a plague. But we live in an entitlement age where we have no responsibility ... and there's certainly something sinful to me about that."

On Tolkien's themes as related to war:

"I believe Tolkien is saying that there are times when a generation may be challenged and if that generation does not rise to meet that challenge you could lose the entire civilization."

Follow up question: What is this generation's challenge?

"Well, the demographic of Europe is changing so rapidly, you realize that at the end of the century, if present trends continue, Britain will be an Islamic nation. And to me this is a catastrophe. I believe in Judeo, Greek, Christian, Western civilization. It has given us democracy. It has given us the equality of women. It has given us the abolition of slavery. And it has given us the right to true intellectual dissent. And if we lose that, the world is unutterably diminished.

"What will happen in the end, I think, is that we will again be polarized in the old and vicious ways. And I have to tell you that is why I am so behind what the Americans are trying to do in Iraq. It is an extraordinary thing. [Laughing] You're the most optimistic people in the whole (expletive) world. No one believed at the end of the Second World War that Germany or Japan could be democratized. And America did it. And what you're trying to do now in Iraq is say 'Look, we may be able to take a medieval-no, make that pre-medieval-culture and turn it into a thriving, Western democracy with a vested interest in life before death.'

"You can't really let the Orcs and the Uruk-Hai win now can you?"

Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) on the idea that Tolkien's story appeals to a Christian worldview:

"There are readers with different purposes, but I wouldn't say there's an appeal in this story to a catalogue of beliefs, or a set of rituals that must be observed in order to achieve what you want. It's not religious in that sense. I would say a sense of humanity is what's being appealed to. ... Gandalf isn't going around saving people's souls, for example. He's a commander on a battlefield."

On what Frodo's character represents:

"Frodo is every boy who's ever been sent off to a battlefield to die. ... Which is what Frodo does--he dies for us all. He's like the young boys fighting now in Iraq; it breaks your heart."

On universal values contained in The Lord of the Rings:

"I can't be the only one of my generation to think that here was some sort of parable of the real world politically and militarily. ... After all, Tolkien served in the First World War and wrote [the trilogy] during the Second. ... I don't think there are any Saurons around today, but in 1939, there was one. Sitting in the middle of Europe. A spider who wanted to control it, and the world joined together in a mighty coalition to defeat him."

And his favorite of the three films?

"Well, I'm more partial to Gandalf the Grey than Gandalf the White. So I'd have to say The Fellowship of the Ring. [Smiling] It's slightly more leisurely than the other two films."

Sean Astin (Samwise "Sam" Gamgee) responded to the question of a Christian worldview within The Lord of the Rings:

"Well, if you want a strong Christian reading, I'm sure it's there to be had. But I don't think that has to happen. I think that in a secular time, these movies can allow people of different faiths to experience the story without the imposition of that worldview. ...

"But somehow I don't have a commitment to any particular worldview that's strong enough to give me any clarity on that kind of analysis. It's interesting because as an actor that's part of pop-culture; I do have some unique relationship to the material, but there's so many people that have a clarity on this particular piece of literature that's way beyond mine. It's almost like I've had to abdicate my sense of ownership over the ideas [in the story] in order to be able to survive the process of playing it."

On the scene that affected him the most:

"The moment I cried at was when Aragorn kneels before the Hobbits. [Laughing] I mean there might as well have been a sign across the bottom of the screen, 'The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth.' To some degree it is the triumph of the meek. The simple, and the elegant."

On the brotherly love displayed between Frodo and Sam:

"We tend to be kind of afraid of it today, but there can be a very powerful love-friendship bond between males. Like when Sam says to Frodo, 'I can't carry [the burden] for you, but I can carry you.'"

Orlando Bloom (Legolas) on the universal themes he sees within the story:

"One of the great things about this story is that it's about a fellowship of strangers and mixed races coming together and putting aside all their differences. And there's the fact that they can be compassionate enough and have enough courage to overcome the fear that drives most people.
Its really just about having courage and wisdom and integrity."

Andy Serkis (Gollum) on playing Gollum:

"Gollum is the dark side of humanity. But I tried to look at him in a non-judgmental way, not as a sniveling, evil wretch. ... We can choose to demonize anyone with uncontrollable obsessions, but if we don't seek to understand them, we can never hope to grow as human beings."

Fran Walsh (Co-screenwriter) spoke about the fight of good versus evil in Tolkien's story:

"The fight [in The Lord of the Rings] is not about the type of feelings that drive blind patriotism or jingoism; it's not about a national, agenda-driven sense of right or wrong, rather it's about Tolkien's humanism. His story has become a part of the political jargon, and that's unfortunate. Because you don't trust these things when you're a humanist--this tub-thumping notion of what's good and what's evil."

Peter Jackson (Director) explained what he feels "the One Ring" symbolizes:

"Well it symbolizes the machine. It symbolizes the loss of free will really because Tolkien hated the way that the English countryside had been taken over by the Industrial Age in the mid-1800s. The Shire represents England before the Industrial Age. Tolkien despised the way that the machine started enslaving people. The ring robs you of free will; it's guiding and steering you, and I think that the Industrial Age really brought that upon society. Because it also offers people power."

Asked how much interest he had in fleshing out the Christian themes in the story, Jackson replied

"Not an ounce."

When pressed further to identify what the theme of the work was for him, Jackson gave the standard speech about not wanting to send a message. He then shrugged and commented, "I guess if it is about anything for me, it would be about environmentalism."

Philippa Boyens (Co-Screenwriter) on how Tolkien's myth relates to the modern world:

"One of the things Tolkien understood, because he was a [Christian] humanist," Boyens noted, "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."

Describing a climactic point in Tolkien's story and in the film, Boyens went on, "Frodo dragged himself to that point, and failed. And another power intervened." Then, referring to the end of Frodo's life in Middle-earth, she added, "And he ultimately surrenders to that power at the end of this movie, which is one of the most beautiful moments in [the film]."

Finally, a message Tolkien would be proud of.

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