Monday, November 2, 2009

The Lord of the Rings and the “Funky” Side of Religion

Daniel Garcia-Prats

It is a written work that conveys religious truths and Christian teachings. It is also one of the most read books of all time and the films have grossed billions of dollars worldwide. Generally speaking, films that contain a large amount of religious themes are not associated with being extremely successful in Hollywood. However, The Lord of the Rings has done exactly that. J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson have successfully blended religion and the media into one of the most successful works of all times. The Lord of the Rings films and books have been successful because the story is able to relate to all people, no matter their interest in religion or the supernatural.
J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most popular and read books in the world and the movies directed by Peter Jackson grossed more than six billion dollars (Thill, 2009). This is not generally what you expect from a story that has very religious meaning and symbolism. Tolkien is quoted as saying that The Lord of the Rings is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" (Greydanus). Some people have even said compared the religious meaning of The Lord of the Rings with that of the Bible (Smith 2002). However, it seems that few people realize the Christian symbolism that is ingrained in the books as well as the films. It is much more obvious to see other religious and supernatural meaning in the books as well as the films.
The religious imagery in the books is widespread but there was danger when the movies were being made that some of this religion would be lost in Hollywood. The greatest challenge in making the movie would be “to transfer unchanged the original counterintuitive structure of Tolkien’s epic to the screen and still attract a mass audience” (Croft 2004). The epic tale is a story that Hollywood could easily adapt to the big screen but the ultimate meaning that Tolkien has injected into The Lord of the Rings is much more difficult to adapt. “Tolkien’s image of life, one might say, is a development of the traditional Christian image of humanity as a pilgrim, detached from the world, traveling to a distant destination that is the only true home. This is itself strong antipathetic to American cinema’s sentimental hominess” (Shippey 2003). With this in mind, it is easy to see that director Peter Jackson had a quite a big challenge in creating The Lord of the Rings films. Tolkien desired to portray the “philosophical and mythical implications” of a tale without “detaching from the surface ‘adventure’” (Mallinson 2002). Not only would Peter Jackson have to be true to the characters and the story, but also to the truth that Tolkien portrays though his epic tale.
It is obvious based on the success of the films that Peter Jackson was able to recreate the epic story for a Hollywood audience. However, did Peter Jackson capture Tolkien’s religious ideas and values in the films? The answer is a little bit complicated. Jackson did capture the religious aspect but not to the same extent as Tolkien had intended. There are very clear and obvious religious references that Peter Jackson included in the movie trilogy. “A closer analysis of Jackson’s film trilogy would no doubt reveal overtly religious themes in his version. Some of them are even recognizably Catholic, such as the moment of grace in the form of a vision of Galadriel that visits Frodo in Shelob’s lair while he seems to succumb to exhaustion and despair” (Garbowski 2004). In The Return of the King, Frodo carrying the Ring up to Mount Doom is symbolic of Jesus carrying the cross in order to destroy evil (Pearce 2003). Although the films and the books do differ, Jackson was able to include on some level the religious aspects that Tolkien had ingrained into his writings. It is important to look at what affect Jackson’s inclusion of Tolkien’s religious themes in the movie do for the religious interests of the movie audience.
In his article “The mediatization of religion: A theory of the media as agents of religious change,” Stig Hjarvard discusses how religion is increasingly being ingrained into popular media today. He conducted a poll where he asked respondents how certain stories, including The Lord of the Rings, affected their interest in religion and spirituality. In the poll, 35.2 percent of respondents said that The Lord of the Rings had increased their interests in magic and fantasy. Another 13.4 percent said that it had increased their interest in spiritual issues. Also, 7.2 percent said that The Lord of the Rings had increased their interest in religious issues (Hjarvard 2008). From the study, it becomes obvious that The Lord of the Rings has had a great impact on the religious and spiritual aspects of people’s lives. The movies and books have reached a very large audience which in turn means that many people have had their religious interests affected by The Lord of the Rings. It is important to understand why and how The Lord of the Rings has affected the religious interests of people from very diverse backgrounds, faiths, and beliefs.
In her article, “U.S. Adolescent Religious Identity, the Media, and the “Funky” Side of Religion,” Lynn Schofield Clark discusses how teens understand religious beliefs in terms of the media and the supernatural. She divides the teens into five different groups: traditionalists, intrigued teens, mystical teens, experimenters, and resisters (Clark 2002). One of the reasons Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings are so successful is because the books as well as the movies can relate to each of the groups of teens. “I found that for some teens, tales of the supernatural in the entertainment media are important context for how religion questions are approached and understood. Other teens, however, believe that the media and religion have little to do with one another and are in fact in conflict” (Clark 2002). Tolkien’s stories are able to play a part in how the teens can understand their religious beliefs, regardless of how tied or untied they are to traditional organized religion.
The first group that Clark discusses is the “traditionalists” which she describes as “those young people who were highly committed to their religious traditions and interested in separating religion from stories of entertainment media” (Clark 2002). The Lord of the Rings would be a film this group would seek out for two possible reasons. Those that are Christian and Catholic would find obvious interest in the films and their deeper Christian undertones and symbolism. However, it can also be attractive to those who are not Christian. “It has been seen that he [Tolkien] does make a clear distinction, as a Christian believer, between the good news of the Gospel, the greatest possible fairy story, and the lesser truths of other tales” (Zuck 1976). This distinction is what traditionalists agree with and can still be seen in the books as well as the movies. In her study, Clark talks to a young girl, Sara, who noted that she did not like certain television shows and movies because they contained “like bad language and stuff, and sex and stuff, all that stuff” (Clark 2002). Traditionalist teens like Sara are looking for stories with a good sense of morality. The Lord of the Rings, being a Christian work, has a sense of morality engrained into the story that any traditionalist can watch and appreciate.
Next Clark talked about “intrigued teens” which she said “also wished to affirm such a separation, but had more difficulty when they encountered stories in the entertainment media that seemed to have some reference to their religious traditions” (Clark 2002). The Lord of Rings films are ideal for this group of teens. The films help these teens separate the religion from the tale because religion itself is not practiced in the films. “There are no religious institutions in Middle-earth” (Stanton 2001). With no religion visible in the movies, the intrigued teens would not have to try to make the separation between religion and the media. In Clark’s study, a young woman, Elizabeth, makes a distinction between religious beliefs and what people believe in, such as ghosts, vampires, and other aspects of the supernatural (Clark 2002). Both of these aspects are evident in the movies and, although the two can blur together, they can also viewed as separate. This aspect of The Lord of the Rings movies makes it attractive to watch to those classified as intrigued teens.
Clark then looks at the “mystical teens” which “had marginal ties to traditional religion but a great deal of interest in the supernatural realm” (Clark 2002). For this group, The Lord of the Rings films can be of great interest in terms of the supernatural and beyond. “They prompt important philosophical questions such as those regarding the nature of good and evil, ways to live a happy life, the role of the supernatural events in human existence, and our responsibility to technology and the environment” (Jorgensen 2006). The mystical teens would be attracted to the deeper meanings in the supernatural events in The Lord of the Rings such as the resurrection of Gandalf in The Two Towers regardless of its obvious Christian undertones. However, with marginal ties to religion, the religious meaning would not deter them from going to watch The Lord of the Rings movies. The great thing about The Lord of the Rings is that the audience can enjoy the epic tale without seeing or understanding the religious meaning.
Clark refers to the next group as “experimenters” who “actively sought resources on the supernatural realm from the media” (Clark 2002). For this group of experimenters, The Lord of the Rings would be a very attractive film for them to seek out. The movie is full of the supernatural, from the magic of Gandalf and the One Ring, to the ghosts of the Army of the Dead and the Nazgul (Ring Wraiths or Black Riders). The experimenters would be drawn to The Lord of the Ring’s fantasy world, strange creatures, and its supernatural nature. Tolkien and Jackson use the supernatural to help convey other deeper religious meanings. It is essential to the epic tale and it is this aspect that the experimenters would be drawn to in The Lord of the Rings.
The last group is “the resisters” who “challenged organized religion while embracing unorthodox views of the supernatural” (Clark 2002). However, Tolkien’s Christian views would not prevent this group from seeing the films. “In so far as the reader associates these archetypes with religion and specifically with Christianity, to that extent The Lord of the Rings may appear to be a Christian work. But because these archetypes emerge in an elemental form and are extraordinarily free of localized and historical accretions, they are not the exclusive preserve either of religion generally or of Christianity particularly. Thus from a strictly literary point of view there is no need to regard The Lord of the Rings as a Christian work” (Thomson 1967). The same can be said about Peter Jackson’s films. The resisters would ignore the Christian undertones and interpret The Lord of the Rings as they see fit based on their own views of the supernatural. In Clark’s study she interviewed a young teen Eric, who had no religious affiliation, and was in a personal conflict with religion and the media. “On the one hand, he expressed great skepticism about organized religion and what it had to say about the supernatural realm in particular. On the other hand, he was very interested in considering the possibilities of what might be out there in the realm beyond” (Clark 2002). The Lord of the Rings films were able to do a good job to express the supernatural in a way that can include the religious meaning and yet still be separate from it. The two aspects (religion and the supernatural) can be used together but also can be appreciated and viewed separately which makes the films attractive for a resister like Eric.
Based on Lynn Schofield Clark’s study, it becomes evident why The Lord of the Rings books and movies are so successful. They are both ingrained with religion and the supernatural and it is these aspects of the film and books that make them appealing to all people with different backgrounds, faiths, and beliefs. “One of the great things in favor of Tolkien, in the opinion of many of his readers who have rejected formal religion, and they are in the millions, is that there is no religion in The Lord of the Rings, though, in fact, it is all Religion” (Boswell 1972). It is the brilliance of Tolkien to make a story that can be enjoyed because of its religious meanings, and not despite them.

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Croft, Janet. “The Cinematic Tolkien”. World Literature Today, Vol. 78, No. 2. May - Aug., 2004, p. 76. University of Oklahoma . 28 October 2009

Garbowski, Christopher. “Life as a Journey: The Spiritual Dimension in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings”. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Vol 6. Spring 2004. Web. 26 October 2009.

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Mallinson, Jeffrey. “A Potion too Strong?: Challenges in Translating the Religious Significance of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to Film”. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Vol 1. Spring 2002. Web. 26 October 2009.

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