Filmmakers Say They Contemplated the Faith of Lord of the Rings

Jackson and his collaborators recently took some time at a press event to contemplate the project that has occupied the last five years of their lives — as well as the cultural, moral and spiritual significance of the books that inspired it.
by Steven D. Greydanus Registe | Source:
LOS ANGELES — Search for evidence on the DVD commentaries and other materials that accompany Peter Jackson’s epic film production of The Lord of the Rings. You will be hard pressed to find an acknowledgment that the work comes from a Catholic writer.

Yet Tolkien said the fact that he was “a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories) and in fact a Roman Catholic” was the most important and “really significant” element in his work. He called The Lord of the Rings “fundamentally religious and Catholic.”

Jackson and his collaborators recently took some time at a press event to contemplate the project that has occupied the last five years of their lives — as well as the cultural, moral and spiritual significance of the books that inspired it.

For some of the filmmakers, engaging the moral universe of Tolkien’s world over an extended period of time seems to have been a challenging experience.

“I think that stories [like Tolkien’s] do offer us comfort that we live in a moral universe, whether or not that is” true, said Francis Walsh, one of the team’s three screenwriters. “Who can say? The world seems to be a very amoral place, governed by something arbitrary, and not founded on a great sort of sense of decency.”

While not sharing Tolkien’s beliefs, Walsh acknowledged the appeal of the moral vision embodied in stories such as his.

“Certainly, Tolkien’s faith informs the third book most of all,” Walsh said. “The values in them — they give you a sense of hope, that it isn’t chaos, that it isn’t arbitrary, that it isn’t without a point. I love storytelling for those reasons. So many things fall away as we kind of charge forward into this new century. There’s so much cynicism and such a lack of ritual and a belief system to govern anything. I like stories for that because they still offer it.”

Some of the actors also come from a very different worldview from Tolkien’s. How did that affect their portrayal of his characters?

“Tolkien was a Catholic, and I am not,” reflected actor Ian McKellen, who plays the wizard Gandalf. “But Tolkien and I both lived through the second World War, and he was writing this during the war, and I was sleeping under a metal shelter in the north of England waiting for the bombs to fall. So there was a Sauron around. And although he doesn’t think of it as an allegory for the second World War, how could he not be affected? Because his boy, his Frodo, was fighting in the north of France.”

“Whenever I had to think, ‘What is Sauron?’” McKellen added, “I would think of Hitler. He’s the great evil force of our time and certainly of Tolkien’s. So I always think of Frodo as the representative of all those kids who have given their lives. They’re still doing it; they’re doing it now. … Those are the connections I’ve got with Tolkien.”

Walsh noted the importance of Tolkien’s belief in immortality.

“Even those who leave us too soon or who are lost in war or who die young — and Frodo certainly represents all of those — they go to another place, they don’t just fall into nothingness,” Walsh said. “[Tolkien] took that from his own war experience and from his own profound Christian beliefs. Those ideas are in the book, and we attempted to put them in the film.”

Hope and Pain

If Walsh saw Tolkien’s Christian hope as central to his story, co-screenwriter Phillippa Boyens emphasized the Christian idea of the fallibility of human nature.

“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.”

In order to underscore her point, she referred to a key plot point. (Warning: If you don’t know how the story ends, you might want to skip the last paragraph.)

“Frodo dragged himself to that point and failed. And another power intervened,” Boyens said. Then, referring to the end of Frodo’s life in Middle Earth, Boyen added, “He ultimately surrenders to that power at the end of this movie, which is one of the most beautiful moments in the movie.”

Steven Greydanus reported this story from Los Angeles. He is a film critic for the National Catholic Register. His website is

Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register, Dec. 14-20, 2003. All rights reserved.

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