This story [the life , death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ] begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality'. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. . . . To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath. . . . Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men-and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
"On Fairy-Stories" by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of The Rings: A Myth Translated to Film
By Melissa McHenry
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is beloved by many as simply a good story, and some may not realize that it is more than just an interesting tale; it is a modern myth cycle. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote something that compares in its completeness and complexity to many ancient myth cycles and folk tales, such as the Irish Tain bo Cualigne, the Welsh Mabinogion and immortal Beowulf. You get the feeling while reading Tolkien's Middle-Earth stories that he knew that imaginary landscape just as well as the original creators of the Tain knew ancient Ireland, and maybe better. Thus, when Peter Jackson decided to make the beloved The Lord of the Rings books into three live-action movies, he was faced with the daunting task of translating a complex, extensive mythology to the screen well enough to satisfy the thousands of critical-and sometimes fanatical-Tolkien fans. In my judgment, and I believe in the judgment of many other Tolkien fans, he has largely succeeded-although I have found some points to critique.
Critical analysis of this film translation of The Lord of the Rings will reveal that Peter Jackson's version of the tale is somewhat altered to fit modern entertainment standards. For example, the roles of women in the story have been widened, instead of waiting in the safety of Riverdell for Frodo and company to arrive, as she did in the books, the lady Arwen rides out alone to rescue Frodo. She gallops hard, faces nine evil, sinister bad guys, and-just to show she's as tough as any man-taunts them (who are trying to take Frodo from her) with the first line “if you want him, come and claim him!” I do not believe Tolkien would have approved of this situation; he makes a point in the third book that it is rather appalling for women to ride about and fight like men. Why? Because it is also rather appalling for men to have to ride about and fight, and the only reason they do, instead of the women, is that men are-generally-physically stronger, and therefore it is their place to protect their physically weaker loved ones. Society today seems to find it insulting when women are portrayed as physically unequal with men, and yet they go on about how equality has nothing to do with the physical being, but only the mind and the (figurative) heart. Tolkien, I'm sure would find this very silly, since he seems to understand that women are mentally and spiritually quite equal to men, and do not need to prove any sort of physical strength to be treated with respect and love.
Another example of the tailoring of The Lord of the Rings to fit a modern appetite is the increase in violence and the decrease of quieter scenes from the story used in the film. When the black riders chase the hobbits as they head for Bree, in the book, the hobbits find a couple nights of respite in the peace of the house of a strange, magical person called Tom Bombadil. In the movie there is no rest before Bree, and instead only a nightmarish chase through a gloomy wood and the climactic crossing of the Brandywine at night. Also, whereas there is no Tom Bombadil, an evil character has been added; a half-goblin, half-man who was dubbed Lurtz. He, of course, and thankfully, ends up getting killed by a good guy-but only after spending some screen time growling and crushing other goblins right in your face. Even the scene of Lurtz's demise is rather gruesome. First he gets stabbed in the leg and then one of his arms gets chopped off, following which he is stabbed right through the middle. To finish it all, his head gets lopped off (he really was looking for it). Nevertheless, I actually enjoyed all the sword fighting scenes and battles; so it's mostly the monstrous, greasy goblins-in-your-face scenes that I think the movie would have been better without. The film was, I believe, quite a bit darker and gloomier than the book.
But beside the few obvious departures from the books, I feel the translation of The Lord of the Rings by Peter Jackson to film is admirable. The moral value of the story hasn't been muddled. Bad guys are all obviously bad guys, good guys--though sometimes mysterious, and never really perfect--are all good guys. Whether a character is good or bad is decided by their actions rather than their race or bloodlines, and when someone hurts someone else they can still find redemption in acts of bravery and love. A noble idea maybe, some would say old fashioned or romantic, but noble nonetheless. And truthfully, isn't it the basic struggle between good and evil in peoples' lives which make a myth such a lasting thing? It is as though many varied myth cycles are all trying to mirror one great, Original Story, sometimes warping actual historical events in an attempt to fit them into the mold of that one great tale. The Lord of the Rings is no exception, however fantastical, and Peter Jackson has dealt wisely with this quality in Tolkien's myth-cycle-by leaving it as the vital core of the story. I would highly recommend going out and watching the forthcoming Lord of the Rings movies by Mr. Jackson; they are wonderful examples of a myth-cycle translated to the big screen.
Melissa A. McHenry, September 5, 2002
Ms. McHenry is an artist, a writer and plays the Irish Harp.