A Potion too Strong?: Challenges in Translating the Religious Significance of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to Film

[The following essay was originally published in Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 1(1):4-4 August 2002)]

Vampires, they say, have no reflection in a mirror. Could it be that, in a similar way, the fairies of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are unable to reflect from the silver screen? New Line Cinema and director Peter Jackson help us answer this question. With the financing, thoughtfulness and technical effects of this trilogy, we have perhaps the best case study in which to see if it is possible for film to convey the religious significance (or apologetic power) of secondary worlds like Middle-earth. We will examine three essential elements of Tolkien’s story–archetypal characters, eucatastrophe and myth-creation–and then determine whether Jackson translates these to film.

The Difficulty 

The difficulty at hand is distinct from the snobbish contention that books are always better than movies. To be sure, when books are adapted to film, commercialism often forces out details and alters plots, but the addition of visual and aural elements to a narrative can also be effective. The list of novel-based films that boast Best Picture Oscars includes Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List, Silence of the Lambs, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Gone with the Wind. These stories were more influential upon the American psyche as movies than as novels. Further, The Lord of the Rings films are already drawing new readers to the original Tolkien texts, in search of minute details and background. Indeed, sales of Tolkien’s books have continued to soar since New Line Cinema first announced their production of the films.

Likewise, our investigation must not be confused with Tolkien purists’ obsessive insistence that all details of the screenplay correspond to the original. Jackson asserts that he presents an interpretation (1) of the film that remains as close as possible to Tolkien’s novel. The one liberty he takes–adding material concerning the character Arwyn–is meant to enhance the narrative’s religious themes. Jackson explains that, "To be able to show the essence of our story, which is the love of an immortal for a mortal man, we have had to create more material for Arwyn."(2) This alteration, he adds, is legitimate since it makes use of Tolkien’s own appendix. Incidentally, Liv Tyler’s portrayal of Arwen is compelling, especially in the "non-canonical," but strongly religious scenes, such as when she prays for grace to pass from her to the wounded Frodo, or when she calls upon a supernatural flood to stop pursuing Ringwraiths.

We can let filmmakers and litterateurs debate whether a novel can get through Hollywood without playing the harlot. Our question is: Does the religious significance of Tolkien’s masterpiece survive the translation from text to celluloid? For those who hope such cinematic translation is possible, the challenge is daunting, in light of the grim fact that Tolkien would have abhorred any dramatic adaptation of his books. He writes:

Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy. Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted. Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited. Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy. (3)

Moreover, while one might argue that the digital effects possible today can overcome the drawbacks of drama, Tolkien would not have been so satisfied. Rather, he would see sophisticated effects as part of the problem:

Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic: the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand. (4)

In other words, a director might be trying his hand at the wrong kind of magic when he pays attention to visual effects. The key problem here is that Tolkien believes fairy stories (or Faërie) express truth, not delusions, and do this in a special, literary manner. The true magic is the enchantment of a reader’s imagination. Cinematic magic does all the work for the audience, bypassing the imagination. Moreover, the images presented by a film can even drive out the pictures painted by the imagination, which would be at odds with Tolkien’s original purpose.

Tolkien’s Purpose 

Criticism since deconstructionism has made it difficult to investigate a writer’s original intent. Fortunately, however, Tolkien made his purpose explicit: he wanted to convey the "philosophical and mythical implications" of a story without "detracting from the surface ‘adventure.’"(5) In other words, he deliberately intended to achieve the religious significance common to all "true" fairy-tales. This significance pertains especially to those in the postmodern world who seek to defend their faith from a subjective approach rather than the objective approach common to such theologians as Thomas Aquinas.

Tolkien explains that fairy-tales deal with a kind of Magic. But this is where mistakes often creep in. It is not a playful, silly magic. It is certainly not special-effects showmanship. It is something solemn. And it has an end greater than itself: "The satisfaction of certain primordial desires."(6) These subconscious desires bubble up to the conscious surface of a culture through literature, in the form of archetypes.

Tolkien’s world is a land where archetypes of the collective unconscious roam freely.(7) To better understand religious importance of archetypes, consider Carl Gustav Jung’s understanding of dreams. Jung argued that dreams are attempts on the part of the unconscious self to break through to the conscious mind. In particular, dreams "puncture rationalism" and "break the ice of intellectual resistance."(8) In a similar fashion, the archetypes of Tolkien’s stories assault a rationalistic mind, i.e., one that refuses to consider the supernatural. Like dreams, stories can awaken an otherwise unreligious person to religious possibilities. Montgomery explicitly draws this connection in relation to Tolkien and his literary circle: "As a dream while asleep can touch the depths of our being, could not the literature of wakefulness shower with light and supreme power the landscape of religious concern, and provide the subjective attestation of Christian truth for which men long?"(9)

Just as Tolkien believed his stories could arouse primitive religious archetypes, and open up a new world to rationalists, he believed his stories could create in unsuspecting readers a spark of profound joy. This joy, which he says is essential to all true fairy stories, he calls eucatastrophe (literally, the good catastrophe). It is "a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth."(10) For Tolkien, this underlying reality is the Christian Gospel. He explains that, in this secondary world of fictional joy, "we see in a brief vision that the answer may be … a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real [primary] world."(11) The connection between fiction and the biblical history of Jesus is one of longing and fulfillment:

The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. … There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.(12)

The non-religious may chide Tolkien for getting so caught up in his fantasy world that his judgment is clouded concerning "real world" facts. But make no mistake: Tolkien contends that the Great Eucatastrophe is true in the primary world.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any especially beautiful fairy-story were found to be "primarily" true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. … The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But 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.13

Now, if we properly understand eucatastrophe and archetype for Tolkien, we will also understand that neither can be achieved without the creation of myth. For, without this secondary world, we care little about the characters who allegedly live there. Without the secondary world, we fail to find a sense of joy when the eucatastrophic "turn" in the fairy story is supposed to take place. "Myth," says one scholar, "arouses desire for escape into a higher reality, generates a recovery of appreciation for the world we know, and entices with the ultimate consolation of a just, eternal reward."14

Because secondary world-creation is the ostensible purpose of cinema, and in this way is congruous with Tolkien’s purpose, let us first consider whether archetypal characters and eucatastrophe survive Jackson’s translation. After this, we will consider whether Jackson’s secondary world is strong enough to make up for any deficiencies in translating archetypal characters or eucatastrophe.

Archetypal Characters On Film 

According to the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Sacraments (doctrines affirmed by Tolkien), God uses matter–even humble forms of matter–to convey His sublime mysteries. To argue that religious archetypes cannot work on film simply because the medium employs earthly instruments betrays a Gnostic disdain for matter. No, if film is unable to convey the archetypes of Tolkien’s saga, it is not because matter gets in the way as matter.

Poor special effects may detract from archetypes by ending the "willing suspension of disbelief." But far worse is an over-reliance upon special effects, something Tolkien would call "bogus magic." Peter Jackson’s decision to make The Lord of the Rings look very much like a historical epic, rather than a cliché-filled fantasy film is prudent in this regard. So is his decision to make Gandalf’s powers subtle rather than spectacular. This is consistent with Tolkien’s literary approach, as described by one scholar: "In fantasy literature, the world is not simply left behind for pleasing visions of wonder. … The promise of Faërie for Tolkien is a return to the world from which we have become estranged."(15) By restraining his use of visual effects, Jackson leaves at least some room for imagination, for providence behind images, for Magic behind actions.

Directly representing an archetype is fatal, according to Tolkien. Doing so is exactly what he calls "a potion too strong."(16) When The Lord of The Rings–in print–asks you to imagine a cave-demon like the Balrog, your unconscious mind calls upon an archetype, perhaps one you have neglected for too long. However, when The Lord of the Rings–on film–depicts the Balrog, it does not ask you to recall that archetype, it provides an image for you. Here, the cinematic image may obscure the archetype Tolkien intended you to see and, hence, nullify the most essential element of his narrative.

Thus, the paradox, when attempting to translate literary archetypes to film, is this: The extent to which a film directly depicts an archetypal character is the extent to which the archetype is obscured. Conversely, the extent to which a film understates an archetypal character is the extent to which the archetype is preserved. Granting this, even if we share Tolkien’s apprehensions regarding drama, Jackson succeeds in conveying archetypes (though to a diminished degree when compared to the book) by presenting his fantastical characters behind a veil. Jackson’s relatively subdued approach is thus in accord with good fantasy writing, which treats, as one scholar describes it, a "longing for something which can only be glimpsed, but never found, in the story itself."(17) Make no mistake; many glimpses of magic are spectacular in Jackson’s film. Examples include the brief exhibitions of power by Gandalf and Lady Galadriel. According to our formula, these might go too far. Nevertheless, displays of spectacular magic do not saturate the film, allowing archetypes to survive the translation to some extent.

Eucatastrophe On Film 

A filmmaker can recreate literary eucatastrophe, provided audiences care about the characters and their fate. An effective example of cinematic eucatastrophe is the Coen brothers’ O’ Brother Where Art Thou? This film successfully depicts unanticipated grace. The protagonist, "a man of constant sorrows," constantly runs from the Law’s hounds and faces a barrage of trials, only to receive a legal pardon, evade the damning Law, and find salvation through a flood. Another example is the eucatastrophe of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (Lola rennt). In this film, a lover races against time and death for her beloved. After she offers a prayer of desperation, Grace accomplishes not only the reversal of death, but also a state of blessing that surpasses all previous expectations. Each of these films achieves eucatastrophe by using deus ex machina not as a cop-out, but as the story’s crux.


To convey eucatastrophe, The Lord of the Rings must have a bittersweet conclusion, something that cannot be accomplished until the third installment’s release. If successful, it will be sweet when characters find redemption and grace in the shadow of doom. It will be bitter, when the audience remembers that life does not work that way in the "real world." Life–they will say–ends like the film noir U-Turn, not like a fairy tale. Jackson must scandalize the audience by tricking them into believing, if only for a moment, that there is such a thing as divine rescue. As the audience sighs, "If only that were true!" they must confront a very tough theological question. How do things turn out? Are stories of grace and redemption merely fiction? Effective eucatastrophe gets adults to think like children on a kind father’s knee, hearing about elves and eternity. Later, they may laugh it off as unhealthy escapism and regret their momentary apostasy from nihilism, but at least they will have heard rumors of a Great Escape.

Although full eucatastrophe must wait until the final film of the trilogy, there is evidence Jackson will succeed at this level. Arwen’s rescue of Frodo gives us an indication of what is to come. This example of unexpected deliverance from evil is complete with tears and talk of grace and an elf reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. Most important is that the escape is not only from death, but also from a form of damnation. The poison killing Frodo, we are told, would also turn him into a hollow spirit or wraith, without the aid elvish medicine. Another brief but moving example of eucatastrophe is the scene in which Gandalf is rescued from imprisonment by a giant eagle. Scenes like these are striking even for those familiar with the books.

Thus, we affirm that Jackson is able to convey both archetype and eucatastrophe. While archetypal characters on film will always be inferior to archetypal characters on the printed page, eucatastrophe suffers from no such handicap. Especially for younger generations, film may pack more eucatastrophic punch. Nevertheless, the foundation of this whole edifice is myth-creation. Without this, the potential value of archetype and eucatastrophe is lost.

Cinematic Myth-Creation 

Most people born after the 1960s share a common mythology in the Star Wars episodes. While few can identify Perseus or Osiris, virtually no one is ignorant of Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker. These films are not always consistent, nor do they score the highest marks for dramatic achievement. Nevertheless, they successfully won over the Western imagination and created a modern myth. In doing this, they developed a secondary world. Had Jackson failed to captivate audiences where Lucas succeeded, he would only have profaned the sacred.(18) Jackson’s creation of a commercial winner will redeem any shortcomings in his conveyance of archetype or eucatastrophe. Let us see how this is so.

To begin, Jackson successfully facilitates escapism. "Escapist" was often hurled as an insult at Tolkien’s work. The author took this epithet as a compliment, citing a universal need to escape. He asks, "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?"(19) Tolkien identifies "prison" as human existence in the midst of death. Thus, stories provide hope for the "fugitive spirit" and point us to "the Great Escape: the Escape from Death."(20) Thus, for Tolkien, a good secondary world-creator is obliged to evoke the primitive desires of the fugitive spirit. The mythmaker must convey the whole story as true in a "secondary" sense.(21) The key phrase Tolkien used to describe a well-crafted fantasy story is the inner consistency of reality. When this consistent secondary world is presented in a commercially successful film, popular culture obtains a common myth and, hence, a fertile ground for cultivating other religious aspects of Tolkien’s work.

Several factors help Jackson succeed as a mythmaker. First and foremost, he is blessed with Tolkien’s ready-made world. This depth is difficult to achieve when a film’s story is developed "from scratch." Second, realizing the importance of characterization to Tolkien’s writing, Jackson cast appropriate actors. Had Ian McKellen been unable to represent Gandalf as simultaneously jovial and frightening, the archetypal significance would have diminished. Had Elija Wood been unable to relate Frodo’s sincerity, we would care little for his eucatastrophic rescue. Third, Jackson had the funding to complete all three films. Had this not been the case, "consistency" in the film would have been hindered greatly. Actors might have died or walked out on their contracts. Since the trilogy is complete, we can be sure that everything from casting to post-production will remain seamless.

Jackson’s ability to provide the "inner consistency of reality" for a wide audience is the key to his translation of Tolkien, since it offers an exciting possibility regarding archetypes. Indeed, myth-creation may be the only antidote for "a potion too strong." Consider once more the Star Wars saga. Because it has captured Western popular culture, it has taken on a life of its own. Ben Kenobi may have insufficiently represented an archetype on film. But characters like Ben Kenobi now live in the cultural imagination, evoking archetypes that may have been latent when the film premiered. By becoming part of a new myth, Ben Kenobi may have become Merlin and Gandalf, though he only resembled those wizards when Alec Guinness first played the part. Similarly, Jackson’s ability to create a popular secondary world will produce a cultural familiarity with the Tolkien myth. Archetypal characters will now merge with archetypes hidden in the collective unconscious. This, along with increased sales of the original books, is producing a situation in which Jackson’s films will do more to convey than to obscure Tolkien’s religious significance.

Conclusion 

In sum, Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings proves it is possible to translate Tolkien to film, but with varying degrees of effectiveness. Archetypal characters survive the process only if they are understated; even then, their power is diminished. Eucatastrophe is conveyed via film with relative ease, and for some audiences, its power may be augmented in that medium. Vital to all of this is Jackson’s ability to create a consistent secondary world. Once the myth conquers the culture’s imagination, the problem of weakened archetypes is overcome and eucatastrophic elements are immortalized. In terms of the original question, translating Tolkien to film may at first be "a potion to strong," but as its religious significance is diluted throughout the culture’s imagination, it becomes a salutary elixir.

NOTES:

(1) "You shouldn't think of these movies as being The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is, and always will be, a wonderful book–one of the greatest ever written. Any films will only ever be an interpretation of the book. In this case my interpretation." (Peter Jackson, in an interview August 30, 1998 with www.aint-it-cool-news.com.)

(2) Peter Jackson, in an interview on the official film website, www.lordoftherings.net.

(3) J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966), 49.

(4) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 51.

(5) Richard Purtill, "Myth and Story," in Harold Bloom ed., J.R.R. Tolkien, 151. As Purtill notes, Tolkien is referring to a work by C.S. Lewis, but also communicates his personal philosophy.

(6) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 13.

(7) See Timothy R. O’Neill, The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien and the Archetypes of Middle-earth (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980).

(8) From "On Syncronicity" in J. Cambell ed., The Portable Jung, 512. On Jungian theory and film, see James F. Iaccino, Jungian Reflections within the Cinema (Praeger: Westport, Conn., 1998).

(9) John Warwick Montgomery, "The Apologists of Eucatastrophe," in J.W. Montgomery ed., Myth Allegory and Gospel: An interpretation of J.R..R.. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams (Bethany: Minneapolis, 1974), 20-21.

(10) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 71.

(11) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 71.

(12) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories,"72.

(13) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 72.

(14) Rolland Hein, Christian Mythmakers (Cornerstone Press: Chicago,1998), 200.

(15) David Sandner, "‘Joy Beyond the Walls of the World:’ The Secondary World-Making of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis," in George Clark and Daniel Timmons eds., J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth (Greenwood Press: London, 2000), 137.

(16) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 52.

(17) Sandner, "Joy Beyond the Walls of the World," 134.

(18) By ‘profane’ I do not mean blasphemy. Rather, I refer to the distinction between the transcendent and the mundane in Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, Willard R. Trask trans. (Harcourt, New York: 1972).

(19) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 60.

(20) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 67.

(21) Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 37-38.


 

Jeffrey Mallinson