The Return of the Ring and Tolkien’s ‘Fundamentally Catholic’ Work

How faithful was Peter Jackson’s adaptation to the religious and Catholic aspects of the work?

‘Map of Middle-earth’
‘Map of Middle-earth’ (photo: Erman Gunes / Shutterstock)

It’s more than 20 years since Peter Jackson’s blockbusting three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings, was first released. Now it has returned for a three-day-run at movie theaters.

J. R. R. Tolkien was a lifelong and devout practicing Catholic who asserted that The Lord of the Rings was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” How faithful was Peter Jackson’s adaptation to the religious and Catholic aspects of the work?

Holly Ordway, author of Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography, published last year by Word on Fire, is effusive in affirming Jackson’s fidelity to the spirit of Tolkien’s original story. “I think that his Lord of the Rings trilogy, as seen in the Extended Editions (not the theatrical cuts) is indeed faithful to the overall ethos of Tolkien’s work,” she says. “It captures much of what is good, true, and beautiful in Tolkien’s vision, most especially in treating goodness, humility, and self-sacrifice as genuinely positive and attractive qualities.” 

Louis Markos, author of two Tolkien-related books, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis and Tolkien for Beginners, shares Ordway’s enthusiasm. “I think it was fully faithful to the spirit of the books and, with the exception of Faramir, to most of the characters,” he states.

An additional positive consequence of the phenomenal success of Jackson’s films, according to Markos, was its introduction of Tolkien’s book to a new generation of readers. “It has made Tolkien’s epic accessible and engaging for viewers of all ages and drawn people to the novel,” he says. Another positive outcome, in Markos’ judgment, is the way that “it has made courage and virtue attractive again to a jaded age.”

Joshua Hren, editor of Wiseblood Books and author of Middle-Earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy, is less effusive but shares Markos’ view that the films had led people to the book. Refraining from commenting on the merits or otherwise of the films, Hren is pleased that many people had read The Lord of the Rings who might not have done so had they not first seen the films. “I am grateful for the films in large part because they had the blessed ‘side effect’ of sending folks back to Tolkien’s books.”

A different and dissident perspective is offered by Romanian Tolkien scholar, Robert Lazu Kmita. The author of the novel The Island Without Seasons and coordinator of an encyclopedia about Tolkien’s world (in Romanian), Kmita acknowledges the success of the film cinematographically but questions its fidelity to Tolkien’s Catholic ethos. “In terms of the sets, costumes, the representation of the different races (except for the elves), the filming locations, and other such external aspects, the films are successful,” he concedes, but “in terms of capturing the spirit of Tolkien’s stories, they have failed.”

Asked to elaborate, Kmita, states that “there are many things that can be said here”: “Tolkien’s world, very concretely speaking, is the medieval Catholic world: hierarchical, royal, sacral, austere, with a strong emphasis on the traditional Christian virtues. Generally, all these aspects are greatly diminished and/or misrepresented through the transformation of the wonderful stories of Middle-Earth into a sort of ‘action movie.’”

Another problem that Kmita highlights is the way in which romantic or erotic love is portrayed in the films compared with the way in which they are treated by Tolkien. “Failing to understand the absence of carnal ‘passionate love’ in Tolkien’s stories,” Kmita says, “the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings included passionate kisses and incandescent embraces, especially in the portrayal of the love of Aragorn and Arwen.” Such deviations from the spirit of Tolkien’s work helped to explain why Tolkien’s son, Christopher, the chief custodian of his father’s literary legacy until his own recent death, had been such a vocal critic of the films. “The reservations expressed by Christopher Tolkien regarding the adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can hardly be dismissed,” says Kmita.

Returning to the topic of what he calls “Tolkien’s True Love,” the title of an article he wrote recently for The European Conservative, Kmita is insistent that “the values of Tolkien’s world are not those of contemporary moral relativism, but those of the traditional Christian conception of courtship and romantic loyalty, in which the intimate and delicate aspects of love are treated with discretion and respect that protects their nobility.”

Having given the case for the prosecution of Peter Jackson for desecrating The Lord of the Rings, let’s return to the case for the defense. 

Holly Ordway defends the film with an admirable diffidence and deference to Tolkien’s original work. She respects the fact that Peter Jackson did not seek to undermine the ethos of Tolkien’s epic with any overt agenda-driven agenda of his own. “There is no taint of irony, parody, or subversion here,” Ordway notes. “It’s authentically wholesome, in the proper use of that word as nourishing and satisfying.” She is also pleased that “Jackson exercises commendable restraint in not adding elements from his own vision to Tolkien’s world,” a view which would no doubt be disputed by Kmita and others of a similarly purist persuasion.

Ordway refers to the “many contributing elements to the films that help them to be faithful to the tone and style of the books, as well as to their moral core.” She singles out Howard Shore’s quasi-Wagnerian musical score, describing it as “superb” and having “the right ‘feel’ for the story, and the visuals, which are beautifully faithful.”

Weighing against these positive features of Jackson’s films are their defects. “To be sure, Jackson doesn’t fully understand all of Tolkien’s characters,” Ordway adds. “For instance, the film Denethor is disagreeable, almost a caricature, but in the book, he is a genuinely noble character who has gone wrong through despair: his demise is tragic precisely because of his potential greatness. However, on the whole, I feel that Jackson gets things right.”

Ordway contrasts the great job that she considers Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings with his downright dereliction of duty in his subsequent adaptation of The Hobbit. “Jackson’s Hobbit adaptations show no understanding or appreciation for the ethos and tone of the book, nor of its narrative structure and pacing,” Orway complains. “A much shorter book is bloated out into three films, and it’s made to be an action-adventure rather than the gentle and thoughtful story that Tolkien wrote.” She adds that characters like Radagast “are played for cheap laughs, in a way that’s not consonant with Tolkien’s own sense of humor” and, unlike in The Lord of the Rings films, “Jackson doesn’t restrain himself from altering the content, adding in new characters and material that jars with the story as Tolkien wrote it.” Her final judgment on The Hobbit adaptations, which are surely the result of Peter Jackson’s suffering from the dragon sickness when he was making it, is one in which she is no doubt in agreement with purists, such as Kmita. “It’s a film with Hobbit decor,” she states, “not a film of The Hobbit.”

As for the final judgment of these Tolkien experts on Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Joshua Hren appears to be non-committal and Robert Lazu Kmita gives a resolute thumbs-down. By contrast, Holly Ordway gives “an enthusiastic thumbs-up” and Louis Markos gives “a definite thumbs-up, for it brings Middle-earth to shimmering life in all its layers.” 

Having heard the views of the experts, we can now revisit the films and judge for ourselves.