Catholics Hope the Movie Lives Up to the Book

HOLLYWOOD — Move over Harry Potter; the hobbits are coming.

Scheduled for a Dec. 19 theatrical release, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring is the long-awaited first installment in the $190 million, special-effects-laden cinematic trilogy based on the books by Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien.

The motion picture will be followed up by the remaining two volumes in Tolkien's Middle Earth trilogy, with The Two Towers due in 2002 and Return of the King in 2003.

Many fans of the books, however, wonder how closely the film will hold to Tolkien's Catholic vision.

Originally published in 1954–1955, Tolkien's masterpiece follows the journeys of Frodo and The Fellowship of the Ring through Middle Earth, striving to keep the One Ring safe from Sauron, the Dark Lord. Tolkien, a noted British scholar of myth, wrote the trilogy in part to communicate to his readers the Christian understanding of a fallen Creation, where good struggles against evil and ultimately triumphs.

This is not the first time that an attempt has been made to bring the books to the screen. An animated version came out in the late 1970s. “It was a hideous parody of the Lord of the Rings that made no real effort to convey the story. Thankfully Tolkien, who died in 1973, was spared it,” said Catholic convert Joseph Pearce, author of Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration.

For some, the film seems a welcome alternative to Harry Potter, which has been criticized by some Catholics as promoting an unhealthy attachment to magic. To date, Philadelphia father Mark Steele has held off taking his 5- and 7-year old sons to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. “I set down that they could see it if we first see Lord of the Rings. The prerequisite for seeing Lord of the Rings is that we read all three books first. We are only three chapters away from finishing,” said Steele.

The film's director, longtime Tolkien fan Peter Jackson, has consistently said that the film will hold true to Tolkien's vision. It is his hope that the film will introduce the stories to many who have never read the books.

An early review of the film, by Ronald Epstein, described the film as faithful to the book, but also cautioned that it is a very dark film. It brings a variety of Tolkien's menacing creatures to life on-screen — armies of the evil Orcs, the fearsome Balrog, and the Ringwraiths, dark riders who are neither dead nor alive who pursue the fellowship in a never-ending hunt. Epstein described the film as a “visual milestone.”

“Fans who read the original books are going to be enthralled with its faithfulness to the book,” predicted Epstein. “Lord of the Rings has accomplished what many thought was impossible — to bring a live-action film to the screen that accurately portrays the books as written. It is a definitive and accurate recreation of the story.”

Still, others wonder if that's so. Steele admitted that he has some concerns. “In the film, Arwen [a female elf character] is shown on horseback with Frodo fleeing from the Black Riders. In the book she was not at the Fords challenging the Black Riders.”

Steele is also concerned about the possible change in focus. “Burger King has toys coming out that you hook up to a central ring and they light up. The Ring of Power was evil, not just some morally neutral power that one could turn to good or evil, but something of its very nature that would corrupt the good in anyone who would attempt to use it, or even desire to use it.”

Added Steele, “It will also lose a lot of its Catholicity. Although I had probably read the trilogy five times before becoming a Catholic three years ago, I never realized how ‘Catholic’ the books are until reading it with my sons. That imagery is bound to go away because it won't transfer from print to film.”

Tolkien biographer Pearce had similar concerns.

“Initially, my view of the film was a mixture of hope and fear, which is probably true of everyone who loves the books,” said Pearce, who is currently writer-in-residence at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Although Pearce has not yet seen the film, he responded negatively to some of the reports about its contents. “As I understand it, they have dropped the character of Tom Bombadil,” said Pearce. “Bombadil is both childish and profound and the producers probably wondered how they could recreate him on screen.”

And like Steele, Pearce was concerned about the portrayal of Arwen. He questioned the film's emphasis on the romance between Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen, and Arwen, played by actress Liv Tyler.

“The film seems to have played up the romance, which was at all times chaste in the book. If this is true, it will destroy the credibility of the film for me,” said Pearce. “In addition, the film appears to have given Arwen a crypto-feminist role, particularly at the battle of Helm's Deep, which would be a perverse tampering with the book.”

However, since seeing the film's trailers and a promotional book on the movie, Pearce said that he now has more hope than fear. “You can identify all of the characters from the still shots,” said Pearce. “That has to be a good sign.”

Pearce did say that he had no objection to the judicious use of poetic license. “One example where the film has used justifiable poetic license is when the Fellowship is traveling through the mines of Moria Gate. At one point a hobbit drops a stone down a well to see how far it will go. He sees a skeleton, almost turned to dust, and when he touches it, the whole skeleton falls down the well. To me that seemed perfectly justified because there probably were skeletons there,” said Pearce.

Speaking in Tongues

One way that the film has tried to stay true to Tolkien is through the use of the languages Tolkien created for different characters. Most of elf Arwen's dialogue, for example, is done in an ancient spoken elven language that is subtitled throughout the film.

“These languages were created by Tolkien. I think probably the most difficult thing for us is to really adhere to his work, [even] when people are disappointed, as they are likely to be by some of the sounds and the pronunciations that they will hear, because they have only heard them in their heads when they have read the books,” said the film's dialogue and language coach, Andrew Jack. “At least we were able to produce something which is authentic and true to Tolkien's work.”

“The film is very much impressionistic. It can only give an impression,” added Pearce.

“It cannot give all the detail. We can hope that the film is true to the tone of the epic — bringing out the metaphysics of good and evil present in the book. We can expect that from the film. If it does not, then it will be a failure. The movie cannot re-create literature, it can only be true to the spirit.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.